Arecibo Observatory to be decomissioned
November 19, 2020 10:21 AM   Subscribe

The National Science Foundation has announced that Arecibo Observatory will be decommissioned. The 305 m (1000 ft) diameter radio telescope, located in Puerto Rico, was damaged by Hurricane Maria. In August of 2020, a support cable snapped, cutting a gash through the dish. Then, on November 7, a second cable snapped, raising the danger of a possible cascading failure. Having found no way to repair the telescope without endangering workers, the NSF will decommission the telescope, concluding with a controlled disassembly.

Arecibo -- the sole facility of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) -- is perhaps most well known to non-scientists as the site of the climactic battle of the James Bond film "Goldeneye." Yet it has also taken a leading role in the search for extraterrestrial life, notably by sending the Arecibo Message (previously). And, perhaps Arecibo's largest contribution to the popular consciousness is as the source of the iconic album cover to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.

Scientifically, Arecibo's 54 years of operation have been fruitful for the astronomical community. Highlights include measuring the rotation period of Mercury (correcting the value to 59 days from a previous assumption of 88 days), confirming the existence of neutron stars (by measuring pulsar spins -- which needs some followup), discovering binary pulsars (which won the Nobel prize), discovering the first millisecond pulsars, and a wealth of direct mapping of asteroids that pass near Earth.


And, of course, as a facility in Puerto Rico, Arecibo suffers from a lack of representation in the US government (previously).
posted by miguelcervantes (59 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am just heartbroken by this.
posted by vibrotronica at 10:31 AM on November 19 [24 favorites]


Amazing what political negligence can accomplish!
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 10:32 AM on November 19 [3 favorites]


Astronomers are currently using the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe to talk about their connections to the observatory. Highlights include weddings, stories from Puerto Ricans about how the observatory inspired them to do science, and further context about the Observatory's role in PR.
posted by miguelcervantes at 10:32 AM on November 19 [12 favorites]


An incoming administration could choose to take this opportunity to build on the existing platform of science and expertise in the region and commit to a follow on project of similar magnitude.
posted by bonehead at 10:51 AM on November 19 [11 favorites]


.
posted by TedW at 10:56 AM on November 19 [4 favorites]


I can't say I blame the NSF for not wanting to risk people's lives repairing Arecibo, but it's sad to read this news and realize that I'll never have the chance to see it in person. I was in the process of writing up a post myself, so here are a few more links:

For almost its entire operational life, Arecibo was the largest single radio telescope dish on the planet; that record was finally broken in 2016 when China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope was brought online. FAST has almost 3 times as much surface area for collecting signals, and a significantly wider field of view, but it lacks the megawatt-scale transmitters that allowed Arecibo to survey planets and asteroids in great detail.

Arecibo's best-known pop culture appearance was probably in Goldeneye, but it also served as one of the filming locations for Contact, and it was featured on Reading Rainbow in 1986.

The Arecibo message was the inspiration for an art exhibit titled The Great Silence, featuring a story of the same name by renowned sci-fi author Ted Chiang. It's all the more poignant now that the telescope is being decommissioned.
posted by teraflop at 11:02 AM on November 19 [17 favorites]


Learned about Arecibo mumble years ago watching 3-2-1 Contact on PBS. Team Trini!
posted by hearthpig at 11:06 AM on November 19 [15 favorites]


I just missed seeing it when I was in Puerto Rico a few years ago. Sad that I won’t get to!
posted by sixswitch at 11:09 AM on November 19 [1 favorite]


Astronomers of MeFi: Is it likely that a new telescope will be built at the site? Is that a desirable thing?
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:12 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


Ach, so much for making another trip to replace my photochromic Arecibo coffee mug that I bought when I visited a few years back. But yeah, I guess I'm not surprised - after the second cable failed, it went from a tricky engineering problem to a hazard.
posted by Kyol at 11:14 AM on November 19




.
posted by riverlife at 11:27 AM on November 19


· )
posted by NMcCoy at 11:33 AM on November 19 [3 favorites]


.
posted by badbobbycase at 11:37 AM on November 19


This is profoundly upsetting to me.
posted by Alensin at 11:43 AM on November 19 [4 favorites]


I'm so sad to hear about this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:45 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


I wanted to see it someday.
posted by mhoye at 11:53 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]


It was an incredible sight, even from the visitor center. I just loved the whole experience of driving up twisty roads (straight down the middle, unless a car was coming from the opposite direction), turning off your cell phone, walking up the path, watching the movie, and then walking out to take in its majesty. We saw it several years ago, and decided to see it again last year, a decision I now feel good about. I loved that the volcanic geography and equatorial location of Puerto Rico made it the ideal sight, and there was a tremendous amount of pride on the island, even though it was obviously wrapped up in colonialism. Even the movie! They had several scientists speaking in English with subtitles, all Anglo except for one Boricua. The visitor center was seemingly host to every Puerto Rican schoolchild every year, I'm sure they were sick of it.
posted by wnissen at 11:55 AM on November 19 [4 favorites]




China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope ... lacks the megawatt-scale transmitters that allowed Arecibo to survey ... asteroids in great detail.
Can anyone say how much Arecibo's decommissioning will affect measuring asteroid Apophonis's next approach in 2029? Given that it's likelyhood of hitting in 2068 have [recently] been updated from "really really really not likely" to "really really not likely,".
posted by ecco at 12:06 PM on November 19


are you happy now all of you people who were like team giant meteor ftw 2020 hmmmmm.?
posted by lalochezia at 12:31 PM on November 19 [4 favorites]


Waiting for Phil Perrilat to update his major events page.

Is it likely that a new telescope will be built at the site?

Given declining NSF support for Arecibo, and the major engineering work that would be required, the odds of a Green Bank style replacement seem pretty slim.

Note that the decommissioning plans are for the telescope itself, not the observatory as a whole. While that's a huge thing (that they're still figuring out how to accomplish), things like the LIDAR installation and the Remote Optical Facility should continue.
posted by zamboni at 12:35 PM on November 19 [3 favorites]


And, perhaps Arecibo's largest contribution to the popular consciousness is as the source of the iconic album cover to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.

(Previously: 1, 2.)
posted by zamboni at 12:47 PM on November 19 [2 favorites]


.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:19 PM on November 19


a controlled disassembly

I'm familiar with this term in biochemistry, but hadn't heard it applied to engineering.
posted by fairmettle at 1:24 PM on November 19


Ach, so much for making another trip to replace my photochromic Arecibo coffee mug that I bought when I visited a few years back.

Note that the AO Shop is still ostensibly open, although I suspect their shipping may be delayed notice is an understatement.
posted by zamboni at 1:25 PM on November 19


So sad.
posted by Splunge at 1:38 PM on November 19


.
posted by acb at 1:41 PM on November 19


Here dies my teenage dream of a real-life round of slappers only.

.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:03 PM on November 19 [5 favorites]


Will be said if it truly ends up not being replaced.....always wanted to see it.

Wonder what replacement cost would actually be? (assuming a modern like for like is put in).
posted by inflatablekiwi at 2:03 PM on November 19 [1 favorite]


.
posted by ckape at 2:12 PM on November 19 [1 favorite]


FAST construction cost US$180 million (and $289 million to the people living around the area that were displaced). That's in China in 2011 dollars 4-500 million is probably a pretty good ball park figure. FAST is much larger and more complicated than Arecibo but of course US construction costs are going to be more.

Perspective: $500 million is 3.2% of Space Force's annual budget.

A rebuild of Arecibo would probably be worth it if we took impactor mitigation seriously. It's ability to do radar astronomy is going to be missed.
posted by Mitheral at 2:39 PM on November 19 [11 favorites]


.
posted by pt68 at 2:44 PM on November 19 [1 favorite]


Wow, what a real kick in the balls.
posted by wierdo at 2:46 PM on November 19 [2 favorites]


2020 sucks. Very sad...
posted by UhOhChongo! at 2:55 PM on November 19 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Tabitha Someday at 3:08 PM on November 19 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the math Mitheral.

*starts doing some numbers* So if approx a half of all republicans believe in QAnon and we can start a rumor that Arecibo is our last line of defense against the lizard people invasion, and China with FAST is the only one with this defense now, it would be how much per patriot to replace? - hey I think we can do this!
posted by inflatablekiwi at 3:10 PM on November 19 [8 favorites]


I was just there last year. Photos
posted by COD at 3:13 PM on November 19 [6 favorites]


.
posted by Annabelle74 at 4:21 PM on November 19


.
posted by kathrynm at 5:11 PM on November 19


  |   .   |
 /|\_____/|\
posted by automatronic at 6:49 PM on November 19 [11 favorites]


It was also featured in The X-Files

...as well also in that MeFi favorite, the 1996 novel The Sparrow.
posted by Rash at 7:04 PM on November 19


A certain subset of gamers have been freaking out about the events that lead to this.

The game Battlefield 4 features a large radio telescope, clearly modelled on Arecibo, as a location for multiplayer battles.

BF4 is well known for its extensively destructible scenery, and the key feature of this particular map is that if you break two of the cables surrounding the dish, this happens.

The game, released in 2013, is set in... 2020.
posted by automatronic at 7:13 PM on November 19 [2 favorites]


.
posted by zekesonxx at 7:19 PM on November 19


Where is Space Karen when we need him? I mean come on Elon stop whining about Covid and take credit for one of your engineers clever fixes for this problem with a tweet.
posted by interogative mood at 7:25 PM on November 19 [4 favorites]


.
posted by bryon at 8:47 PM on November 19


Upon further thought, I'd be interested to know how they can possibly demolish it without a similar risk to life as fixing it. Even if they use explosives to drop the towers someone still has to get close enough to be in danger if it has a catastrophic failure to plant the charges.

Maybe the thought is that the demolition contractors will spend less time in the danger zone than would be required to string a new cable?
posted by wierdo at 9:46 PM on November 19


reality vs. horizon zero down
posted by kliuless at 9:59 PM on November 19


CQ? This is W9GFO, come back?

.
posted by ikahime at 10:46 PM on November 19 [4 favorites]


I am just heartbroken by this.

As am I.
posted by y2karl at 5:09 AM on November 20


A haunting lyric from Assemblage 23 - Document:

Too late, we have lost the dawn
The signal's loud and clear, but the transmitter's gone

.
posted by notoriety public at 5:56 AM on November 20 [3 favorites]


I always wanted to see this icon.

How gutting.
posted by doctornemo at 7:41 AM on November 20


2020, shitty to the very end
posted by gottabefunky at 8:52 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]


I failed to go to the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers meeting there a decade or so ago. Alas. SARA has its annual meeting in June at the NRAO in Green Bank, West Virginia. I went there in 2004 and got to use the old 40 foot dish to observe a quasar (I love it when people ask me what's the biggest telescope I've used). SARA has occasional meetings in other places; I have been up in the 40 meter dish at Owens Valley.
posted by neuron at 9:00 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]


Upon further thought, I'd be interested to know how they can possibly demolish it without a similar risk to life as fixing it. Even if they use explosives to drop the towers someone still has to get close enough to be in danger if it has a catastrophic failure to plant the charges.

The engineering reports are linked in the NSF press release.

Thornton Thomasetti:
Given the likelihood of additional cable failure, unless redundancy can be added to the structure at Tower 4 (by connecting more cables to the platform from Tower 4), it is unsafe to work on the platform or around the towers unless hazards are mitigated. However, mitigation cannot be practically achieved without working for long periods in these locations. There are no means within engineering certainty to provide an estimate of the factor of safety other than significantly reducing tension in these 3-inch-diameter original cables. We have modeled and studied several options, and it is unlikely any of these methods will yield sufficient reductions without placing crews in jeopardy.
WSP:
All options initially considered to reduce the weight on the platform or to install cables to stabilize the
structure would require having personnel on the platform and the towers. After the recent failure, WSP
does not recommend allowing personnel on the platform or the towers, or anywhere in their immediate
physical vicinity in case of potential sudden structural failure.
Wiss, Janney, Elstner (the most optimistic of the three):
Demonstrating adequate capacity for a given task may increase the risk of structural collapse (e.g., by
temporarily increasing the load on critical elements). Of course, any such demonstration would be done
without personnel in threatened positions. In short, risks during occupied times can be kept reasonably
low by performing higher risk demonstrations while the structure is not occupied. Since the alternative to
repair is demolition of the facility, the risk of possibly collapsing the unoccupied structure during an
attempt to save it may be acceptable. Of course, if the requisite capacity cannot be successfully
demonstrated at any time, risks to occupants would be excessive and repair efforts would cease, leaving
demolition as the only option
Coming up with a safe controlled demolition plan will be its own challenge, but it will be a shorter process than testing and reinforcing the existing structure.
posted by zamboni at 12:08 PM on November 20 [1 favorite]


This is really too bad: there are plenty of cable-suspended structures older than this, so hopefully they figure out how the cable got so weak. It's going to be quite a sight when they bring it down, though. Presumably they'll be cutting cables with shaped charges, but I'm not sure if they'll just cut the stay cables and let the towers fall or if they'll try to place charges via drone to cut the platform cables. There's no hurry to figure it out, since the whole site is off limits.
posted by netowl at 7:32 PM on November 20


.....
posted by Gadgetenvy at 7:50 PM on November 20


I wonder if after demolishing it they would consider building a new one? I assume that technology has advanced enough since it was originally built in the early 1960's that a much better observatory could be built now, and a big public woks project like that would be an economic boost for Puerto Rico, which could probably use one. I'm sure the "government should only spend money on defense and enforcing contracts!" crowd would balk at it, but otherwise it seems like a good deal for all involved.
posted by TedW at 6:48 AM on November 21 [2 favorites]


TedW: big public woks project

#embracethetypo
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:24 AM on November 21 [6 favorites]


« Older Mission Control's Big Display   |   Call them in, with love Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.