RIP Arecibo Observatory
Science | The National Science Foundation decommissions a historic astronomic tool
by John Dawson
Posted 11/25/20, 03:58 pm
After nearly 60 years of service, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is pulling the plug on the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Following a series of equipment failures, NSF Director of Astronomical Sciences Ralph Gaume announced on Nov. 19 that the radio telescope was beyond repair and would be decommissioned. The retirement of the 1,000-foot dish marks the end of an era of radio astronomy that offered a clearer look at the planets of our solar system and the celestial bodies beyond.
On Aug. 10, a steel cable supporting one of Arecibo’s antennas broke free and ripped a roughly 100-foot gash into the spherical reflector below. As the NSF made plans to replace the cable, another attached to the same support tower snapped on Nov. 6, causing even more damage.
At the time, the facility’s director, Francisco Córdova of the University of Central Florida, said he hoped the structure could be repaired. “This is not good, but we remain committed to getting the facility back online,” he said. “It’s just too important of a tool for the advancement of science.” But engineering assessments revealed the entire facility might collapse uncontrolled, risking the lives of workers attempting to make repairs.
At the time it opened, the Arecibo telescope was the largest single-aperture telescope in the world. It held that title until 2016, when a 1,600-foot-wide Chinese telescope surpassed it. Scientists are already worried that losing Arecibo will leave them blind to near-Earth objects like passing asteroids.
Researchers using the telescope during its 67-year run made startling discoveries. In 1964, scientists determined the rotational period of slow-spinning Mercury (one rotation in just under 59 days). In 1982, a different team determined a fast-spinning pulsar star made 642 rotations per second.
The observatory, constructed atop a natural sinkhole with its antennas suspended independently above, even made its way into pop culture. The dish served as a location for the 1997 film Contact as well as an X-Files episode. And film director Martin Campbell used the observatory for the dramatic final fight sequence of the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye.