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Home / Science / The investigation begins on the damage at one of the world’s most iconic observatories

The investigation begins on the damage at one of the world’s most iconic observatories



This week, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – an iconic facility made famous by movies like Contact and Yellow eyes – had to stop observing the Universe after a structural cable failed, punching a hole in the facility’s giant reflector disc. Observatory operators say the overall facilities are mostly fine, but they’re working to figure out exactly what happened.

Francisco Cordova, observatory director at Central Florida University, said: “Most of the main reflectors are in good condition, but our focus is on ensuring that the foundation has structural stability. required to operate in the near future. say during a press call.

Damage when visible from below disc.
Photo: UCF

Early Monday morning, one of the cables that helped hold a large metal platform in place on the observatory was detached. The end of the cable slipped out of one of its sockets, causing the three-inch-wide cord to fall to the ground. The incident destroyed about 250 panels including the main reflex disc, creating a 100-foot void in the structure. The crash also slightly damaged panels on the large Gregorian dome above the observatory, a white golf ball-shaped structure containing reflectors that help guide the facility’s sky views.

Photographs of the damage make it seem particularly annoying, but Arecibo’s main reflector consists of 40,000 panels – making the overall destruction very small. However, the observatory cannot operate at full capacity during the waiting time. Typically, Arecibo operates 24/7, with observation activities typically taking place between 3 p.m. and 7 a.m. every day, according to Cordova. UCF has sent a notice to all Arecibo’s users, informing them that the observations have been paused for a period of 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.

Damaged footage.
Photo: UCF

“These cables are very customized for this particular application,” Cordova said. “So you know, they take a little while to fabricate, transport and install them.” They hope to have more information by the end of next week, he said. Arecibo Observatory is funded through the National Science Foundation.

Currently, operators at UCF are opening an investigation into the incident, as they still don’t know why the cable was broken. “This is certainly an unprecedented event,” Cordova said. “These cables are expected to last for at least another 15, 20 years.” Cordova notes that the broken cable was installed more than 20 years ago, when the Gregorian dome was added to the facility. Investigators are still trying to determine the source of the incident. Ray Lugo, UCF’s Florida Space Institute director and head of investigation oversee the investigation, said during the press conference: “We’re just getting started with this effort. “Our focus at the moment is to make sure we protect the people and the unique equipment and facilities we have here.”

Arecibo is not only featured in many films, but this observatory is also important for many deep space observations, used to find strange cosmic objects and events such as pulsars and explosions. of radio waves, etc. This dish is also instrumental to protect the planet, helping NASA search for dangerous asteroids near Earth that could pose a threat to our planet. Arecibo has also received special attention for its extraterrestrial Intelligence Search (SETI) involvement. As part of that project, it scans the sky for potential radio transmissions from intelligent organisms.

Arecibo has also weathered a lot of storms – figuratively and literally – over the past few years, and UCF is confident this will be just a small delay. “We are a pretty resilient group … I think we proved it after the effects of Hurricane Maria,” Cordova said. “We were tested again with some earthquakes and then tested again with this pandemic and now, it’s just another bump on the way.”


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