Because one of the largest radio telescopes in the world is destroyed

Because one of the largest radio telescopes in the world is destroyed

The space observatory of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, has had a gap of 30 meters since Monday: a tie has broken, for reasons that are still unclear, and scientific activities, research of extraterrestrial life and monitoring of the asteroids

The damaged part of the Arecibo radio telescope (photo: University of Central Florida) On an unexpected night of clear sky, however, a few days after the passage of the tropical storm Isaias, a large cable of the radio telescope of Arecibo suddenly gave in. We are on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, 15 kilometers southwest of the city of Arecibo, and the accident occurred on the night between Sunday 9 and Monday 10 August, when in Italy it was already 8:45 am.

The image of devastation, spread by the plant managers, explains more than a thousand words. The engineers on the spot explained that an auxiliary cable with a diameter of more than 7 centimeters broke, which caused a long series of damage in the fall. The most eye-catching - and the last from a chronological point of view - is a gash about 30 meters long in the reflecting dish located at the base of the plant. But there is more: the cable also hit the Gregorian dome that overlooks the structure on the ground and serves to orient spatial observations, damaging at least 6 of the panels that compose it, and also caused it to twist on itself the same metal walkway used by technicians to access the dome.

An image of the repertoire of the radio telescope of Arecibo (photo: Stephanie Maze/Getty Images)

All the scientific research that you stop

The many stakeholders, who manage the observatory (the university of central Florida, the university Ana G. Méndez, the u.s. government agency the National Science Foundation, Yang Enterprises, the Cornell and, indirectly, Nasa) have notified of the interruption, the total assets of the system up to that will not be restored to the security conditions and will not be reactivated, the basic features of the observation space. For the moment is not announced a date for the possible reopening, but certainly for the full restoration of functionality will need a lot of time : the repairs following the damage caused in 2017 by the passage of hurricane Maria, for example, are still in progress.

The radio telescope, which searches the space since 1963, picking up radio waves, it had been for a long time the largest in the world , with a diameter of the manifold reflective main (305 meters then passed from the telescope to the Fast in 2016), and it was still used for scientific experiments are very different among them. For example, he was involved in research on gravitational waves , but, above all, until last week he played the role of a sentinel in the monitoring of space objects and potentially dangerous for the Earth, such as asteroids . Finally, it was part of different projects of space exploration (including the search for exoplanets), and, through the project Seti@Home, was for decades to listen to possible radio signals from other intelligent forms of life in the universe.

assumptions about the causes of the accident

For the moment, there are no certainties about what has caused the breakage of the cable. An act of arson does not seem to be among the assumptions most likely to occur, while you are making assessments on the possible indirect effects of the bad weather .

A track held in high esteem is the one of the above-mentioned tropical storm Isaias, which, while not having to compromise the activity of the radio telescope during its passage (forcing only to a lockdown of a few hours), might have placed under stress the system of tie cables. In the past few days had managed the monitoring of the asteroid in 2020 the NK1 receptor , which has just made a close flyby to the Earth, and has a probability of about 70 thousand of impacting our Planet between the 2086 and 2101, and after a further passage in 2043.

in general, however, the finger is currently being pointed to the poor maintenance that is reserved to the radio telescope in recent years, especially with regard to the structural part. In spite of the various perturbations that have had to endure, and an earthquake which hit the island last winter, it seems that all works of restoration and repair are processed with a particular slowness, between bureaucratic and economic constraints. Which according to some may be the origin of the failure, even if only surveys can establish it with certainty. At the time, to hold suspended at height of 150 metres and the platform is triangular, 900 tons, with the dome gregorian remaining 17 cables , between the main and the auxiliary.

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