The Arecibo Observatory to Be Decommissioned

The Arecibo observatory, until recently the largest radio telescope in the world, will be decommissioned because of recent damage.

A cable broke in the spring and caused damage at the edge of a platform. A second cable broke earlier this month, causing large tears in the platform.

Engineers have determined that it will not be possible to repair the damage safely. The National Science Foundation concluded that decommissioning the telescope is the only option. Engineers’ reports explain that attempts to stabilize the telescope would be likely to result in the loss of human life, and that the dish is likely to collapse spontaneously in the near future.

Built in 1963, the observatory has been an important part of several branches of scientific study. Arecibo sent radio waves to determine the shape and size of astroids coming near the earth. It was used to map the surfaces of Venus and Mercury. The telescope has also been involved in the study of black holes. It was used to discover the first exoplanets.

In 1974,a radio message was sent out from Arecibo in hopes of communicating with other sentient beings elsewhere in the solar system. This is one of the best known projects from Arecibo.

In 1993, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to a pair of scientists who used the observatory to  monitor a binary pulsar, providing measurable evidence of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Further work in this area has been underway at Arecibo.

Importance to the community

The observatory was damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017, but its heliport was an important part of  rescue operations. Supplies were brought in and distributed through the observatory.

Arecibo has also made its name in popular culture, showing up in movies like Contact and the James Bond film ˆGoldenEye.

Arecibo is extremely important to the global community of scientists. After the announcement that Arecibo will be closed permanently, a social media campaign centered on #WhatAreciboMeansToMe is giving the scientific community — as well as tourists, students, people who got married at Arecibo, and more — a chance to say goodbye.

Many participants are expressing hopes for the future of Arecibo.

The National Science Foundation is working to find other ways to use the facility. Residential commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon made a statement on the decommissioning, saying, “It is with great sadness that we all received the news about the radio telescope today. In Puerto Rico, we think of the radio telescope as a great source of pride, a world-class scientific asset treasured by the entire scientific community. I recognize that the decision to put the life and safety of workers first is the right thing to do, but it is critical  for engineers and experts to work together to preserve the remaining capabilities and focus on delimiting how this important facility can return to its former glory and continue to serve its original purpose.”

“The Arecibo Telescope is irreplaceable,” said a statement from two major US radio-astronomy organizations, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. “While some instruments of the NRAO and GBO can perform some of the Arecibo Telescope’s functions, none will be a total replacement for its capabilities.”

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