This week the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – an iconic facility made famous through movies Contact and Gold eye – Had to stop observing the universe after a structural cable failed and punched a hole in the facility’s huge reflector shell. The observatory operators say the entire facility is mostly fine, but they are working to find out exactly what went wrong.
“Most of this primary reflector is in good shape, but we are really focused on making sure the platform has the structural stability it will need to operate in the near future,”
Early Monday morning one of the cables that could be used to attach a large metal platform above the observatory was disconnected. The end of the cable slipped out of one of its sockets and dropped the three-inch wide cable to the floor. The incident destroyed about 250 panels that make up the main reflector shell and created a 100-foot gap in the structure. The accident also slightly damaged the panels on the large Gregorian dome above the observatory, a white structure in the shape of a golf ball that houses reflectors that direct the facility’s sky observations.
Photos of the damage make it look particularly nasty, but Arecibo’s main reflector shell is made up of 40,000 panels, making the overall destruction very little. In the meantime, however, the observatory may not be fully utilized. Arecibo is usually in operation around the clock. According to Cordova, observations usually take place between 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. every day. UCF sent a message to all Arecibo users informing them that the observations have been suspended for at least two weeks. However, the team doesn’t know how long it will take to repair the damage – or how much it will cost.
“These cables are very special for this particular application,” said Cordova. “So they take a little time to manufacture, ship, and install.” They hope to have more information by the end of next week, he says. The Arecibo Observatory is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Currently, the operators of UCF are opening an investigation into the incident as they still don’t know why the cable broke. “This was certainly an unprecedented event,” said Cordova. “These cables are expected to last at least another 15 to 20 years.” The cable that broke was installed more than 20 years ago, Cordova noted when the Gregorian dome was added to the facility. Investigators are still trying to pinpoint the source of the failure. “We barely began this endeavor,” said Ray Lugo, director of the UCF’s Florida Space Institute and investigator, during the press conference. “We are currently focused on making sure we protect our people and the unique equipment and facilities we have here.”
Not only has Arecibo been featured in numerous films, but the observatory is also vital to numerous space observations, searching for exotic cosmic objects and events such as pulsars, radio wave bursts, and more. The court is also vital in the defense of the planets, helping NASA look for potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet. Arecibo also receives special attention for its involvement in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). As part of this project, the sky is scanned for potential radio transmissions from intelligent beings.
Arecibo has also weathered many storms in recent years – both figuratively and literally – and UCF is confident that this will only be a small delay. “We’re a pretty resilient bunch … I think we proved that after the impact of Hurricane Maria,” Cordova said. “We were tested again with some earthquakes and then tested again with this pandemic. Now it’s just a bump on the road.”