Arecibo Observatory, home of the second largest radio telescope in the world, was badly damaged in 2017 when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Federal funding for the facility has been cut severely since then, and now a cable holding up the telescope has snapped, damaging the telescope and forcing Arecibo to close.
The radio telescope at Arecibo does not just observe, as most telescopes do. It is able to transmit radio waves as well. This means that Arecibo can send out signals in case anyone out in the universe is listening, which it does. It also means that Arecibo is able to track asteroids and make sure they are not heading toward a collision with the earth.
The observatory has done this work for more than half a century. It’s an important element of defense against objects in space.
Arecibo is also an important player in research. It was with the help of Arecibo’s telescope that the ice caps of mercury were discovered, the surface of Venus was mapped, and the first binary pulsar was discovered.
Arecibo’s telescope is held by chains. One of the chains snapped last month, and the telescope’s reflector dish sustained a 100-foot-long gash. Two hundred and fifty of the reflector panels were damaged, as were several supporting cables.
Other damage is being investigated. No one was hurt in the event, and the leadership of the facility has announced that human safety continues to be a high priority. Accordingly, the facility has been shut down until repairs can be completed.
The cause of the cable’s slip is not known. The cable had been under a great deal of tension, so it had stored energy that caused it to make wild movements which caused further damage.
“We’ll find a way to repair this particular issue and continue to move forward,” Arecibo Observatory Director Francisco Cordova told CBS News. “We’ve overcome a lot in our 50-year history, from Hurricane Maria to very recent rash of earthquakes to now this. So we’re a pretty resilient bunch down here and we’re going to figure out a way to continue to move forward, doing exciting science for the world.”
Arecibo received a $12.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2018, with support from Congress. It also received a $19 million NASA grant last year.
However, the National Science Foundation has been talking about reducing Arecibo’s resources in favor of building new facilities. These threats are not new. In the past, the scientific community has stepped up to defend Arecibo.