tech-science

Iconic Arecibo Dish Suffers More Damage As Second Cable Breaks

Puerto Rico’s historic radio telescope was smashed by another broken cable that may be related to a similar accident in August.
November 11, 2020, 2:00pm
​Damage from the August cable malfunction at Arecibo. Image: UCF
Damage from the August cable malfunction at Arecibo. Image: UCF

The Arecibo Observatory, a beloved radio telescope in Puerto Rico, has suffered a second devastating blow in the span of a few months, after a cable snapped and crashed into the dish on Friday. The new damage follows—and is probably related to—another cable malfunction in August that tore a 100-foot gash in the dish.

“This is certainly not what we wanted to see, but the important thing is that no one got hurt,” said Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory, in a statement. “We have been thoughtful in our evaluation and prioritized safety in planning for repairs that were supposed to begin Tuesday. Now this.” 

Built in the 1960s, Arecibo is an iconic and recognizable facility that starred in the climax of the James Bond film GoldenEye, and also served as a setting in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact.  

Arecibo’s dish, which collects radio waves from space, extends over 1,000 feet across a sinkhole, making it the second largest single-aperture telescope in the world. A network of cables connect a 900-ton receiver platform, suspended nearly 500 feet above the dish, to three support towers located around the perimeter of the telescope. 

The hefty weight of the platform is usually supported by 12 main cables; it was one of these key supports that snapped at 7:39 pm local time on November 6. The earlier fallen cable was part of an auxiliary support system added in 1994, according to Science—it unexpectedly disconnected from its socket in the early morning of August 10. 

Because both cables were connected to the same tower, experts think that the latest break may have resulted from extra loads placed on the system by the first accident. 

“There is much uncertainty until we can stabilize the structure,” Cordova said. “It has our full attention. We are evaluating the situation with our experts and hope to have more to share soon.”

Arecibo is overseen by the US National Science Foundation and is operated by the University of Central Florida, Universidad Ana G. Méndez, and Yang Enterprises. It has played a central role in several scientific milestones, including the first direct images of an asteroid and the first detections of “exoplanets” that orbit other stars. It has been a historic hub for research into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). 

The cable failures are part of a string of woes for the observatory, which also suffered damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Given Arecibo’s cultural and scientific value, the astronomy community is eager to know if and when the facility will be repaired.

“This is not good, but we remain committed to getting the facility back online,” Cordova said. “It’s just too important of a tool for the advancement of science.”