Monday morning, a cable car hanging through the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico broke off and left a 100-foot-long crack in the disc of the iconic radio telescope. The 3-inch-diameter cable also caused damage to the panels of the Gregorian dome that were suspended hundreds of feet above the plate and contained the telescope receivers. It is not clear what caused the cable to break or when radio astronomers using the telescope could continue their research.
“This is an extra cable that supports the weight of the platform and we are,” said Zenaida Kotala, assistant vice president for strategic initiatives at the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory. is in the process of evaluating why it broke. . “We are working with engineers to define the repair strategy. Our goal is to get the facility operational as soon as possible to do it safely ”.
Astronomers have been using the Arecibo radio telescope to study the universe since 1963. For most of its existence, the observatory was the largest telescope in the world. (It was only recently overtaken by China’s FAST radio telescope.) Its 1,000-foot-tall radio disc was built into a natural depression in the surrounding hills and acted as an ear. The giant hears weak radio signals from galaxies that are far away.
“By getting bigger, it’s simply being sensitive,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the nonprofit SETI Institute, a leading research organization in finding extraterrestrial intelligence. than. “Just as a larger optical telescope can see fainter objects, a larger radio telescope can see more fuzzy objects.”
The Arecibo radio telescope has been used for a variety of scientific experiments and is central to a number of the first times that have changed our understanding of the universe. In 1994, astronomers studying a single star with Arecibo found the first evidence of a planet orbiting another star. Arecibo also discovered the first millisecond pulsar, a form of rapidly rotating star used as an astrophysical clock in hunting gravitational waves and for the first time repeating the Fast Radio Burst, a short pulse of radiation. high energy that new scientists are beginning to understand.
The history of the Arecibo telescope is also tied to the history of SETI. Planetary astronomer Frank Drake, who carried out the first radio-wave SETI search the same year that began building Arecibo, served as the observatory director for many years. In 1976, he and Carl Sagan used a telescope to transmit the world’s first interstellar message to a star system 12,000 light years away. It’s a brief visual message that describes who we are, our DNA, and even the Arecibo food itself. Since then, Arecibo’s SETI operations have mainly focused on listening to ET. (Although in 2009, artist Joe Davis effectively plugged his iPhone into the disc and used it to transmit second interstellar messages.)
“We are deeply saddened by the news about Arecibo,” said Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center. “Arecibo is a unique SETI property and we look forward to it back in scientific activity.” For many years, Siemion and his colleagues at Berkeley have been collecting radio data from Arecibo for SETI @ Home, a distributed computing project that allows anyone with an internet connection to help with search. smart aliens. Earlier this year, the SETI @ Home project stopped collecting new data from Arecibo and other radio telescopes so that researchers could focus on analyzing the data they gathered.