A Broken Cable Has Wrecked One of Earth's Largest Radio Telescopes

The cable tore a 100-foot hole in the gargantuan dish in Puerto Rico, which was featured in Carl Sagan's novel 'Contact' and the James Bond film 'GoldenEye.'
August 11, 2020, 7:02pm
​Arecibo after Monday's accident. Image: University of Central Florida
Arecibo after Monday's accident. Image: University of Central Florida

The Arecibo Observatory, one of the largest single-aperture radio telescopes in the world, has suffered extensive damage after an auxiliary cable snapped and crashed through the telescope’s reflector dish.

The accident left a 100-foot hole in the observatory, which stretches 1,000 feet over a karst sinkhole in northern Puerto Rico. The cable broke at about 2:45 AM local time on Monday, but the cause of the failure remains unknown, according to the University of Central Florida, one of three institutions that operates Arecibo.

“We have a team of experts assessing the situation,” said Francisco Cordova, Arecibo’s director, in the UCF statement. “Our focus is assuring the safety of our staff, protecting the facilities and equipment, and restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible, so it can continue to assist scientists around the world.”

Arecibo was the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world for decades, but it was bumped into second place in 2016 by the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China. Some radio observatories, such as the Very Large Array in New Mexico, consist of vast networks of antennas that take up far more space than Arecibo or FAST, but the latter telescopes are the largest facilities in the world that collect light in a single big dish.

Arecibo also suffered damage during Hurricane Maria in 2017 when a line feed broke and damaged dozens of panels on the dish. Abel Méndez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, said the Monday accident “is the largest structural damage” since the hurricane.

“Our science observations, as many others, will be delayed,” Méndez said in an email, noting that his team had just finished observations of Barnard’s Star, one of the closest systems to the Sun.

“We still need to observe other stars, including some with potentially habitable planets, in the following months,” Méndez continued. “Our observations are not time critical, but others might be, [for example] nearby asteroids with close approaches soon.”

In addition to halting scientific observations at the telescope, the accident is sad news for anyone inspired by Arecibo’s status as a cultural icon and its pioneering role in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Arecibo is also a popular tourist destination in Puerto Rico that attracts nearly 100,000 visitors each year, according to its visitor center.

The observatory was written into the plot of Carl Sagan’s bestselling novel Contact, as well as its 1997 film adaptation. It has also served as the backdrop in the James Bond film GoldenEye, the X-Files episode “Little Green Men,” and the multiplayer map for the game Battlefield 4, among its many other popular depictions.

Méndez and his colleagues are continuing this long and storied tradition of SETI research at Arecibo. “The purpose of our observations is to determine the impact of red dwarfs stars on the habitability of their planets,” he said. “We will also soon start a technosignature detection program taking advantage of our past and future observations.”

Update: This article was updated with comments from Arecibo scientist Abel Méndez.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the Very Large Array was located in Chile, when it is in New Mexico. The article has been updated to reflect this.