#Arecibo Radio Telescope to be Decommissioned

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Nighttime view of the Arecibo Radio Telescope’s transceiver array, located above the 305-meter spherical dish

Update: Emergency Action Petition to the WhiteHouse to evaluate and stabilize the Arecibo radio telescope

In an unexpected blow to the worldwide Astronomical community, the National Science Foundation announced on Thursday (11/19) that they would soon begin decommissioning the iconic radio telescope, the heart of the Arecibo Radio Observatory. The telescope was made famous in Contact, the 1997 Hollywood feature length production staring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, a film based on the novel of the same name by visionary astronomer Carl Sagan. The foundation’s director, Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, with a background as a computer scientist and Academic Administrator, announced that the NSF would halt all repairs and begin the process of decommissioning citing conditions, in his own words, as “unsafe for humans“.

Representation of the message beamed to Messier-13 by the Arecibo radio telescope. Color information was not included in the original transmission and was added later for effect. Image rendition credit: Arne Nordmann

It should be pointed out that in the almost 60 years that the 305-meter telescope has been operating, two major upgrades have been performed, upgrades that were arguably more demanding than the repairs required now to maintain functionality. When one considers these upgrades, the first in 1974 and the second in 1997, the suggestion that the conditions are “unsafe for humans” is patently absurd.

To celebrate and commemorate the first of these upgrades, a 450 Kw (kilowatt) signal was beamed at a frequency of 2.4 Ghz towards the core of the great globular star cluster M-13 in Hercules, 25,000 Light years distant on 16 November 1974. The message contained basic information about humanity, our biology, our location in the galaxy and our home planet. The transmission, with a duration of 3 minutes, was meant more as a demonstration of human technical prowess rather than a real attempt to begin a conversation with extraterrestrials.

Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan is not a physical scientist like, for example, former NASA Administrator Dr. Mike Griffin who, with the help of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), pushed for -and successfully restored the Space Shuttle’s fifth and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. If they wanted to -if there was a scientific will to do it, they would find a way to repair Arecibo. That there were two major upgrades to the telescope is testimony to this. If the dismantling can be delayed until after January when the new administration takes office, there is a possibility that the decommissioning could be halted and the telescope restored to operational functionality.

For anyone who has a social media account and would like to take an active role in this regard, I’ve posted a Twitter poll. More contact info for the NSF can be found here

For additional information regarding the aforementioned upgrades, a comprehensive study of the telescope’s structural support, entitled “DYNAMICS OF THE ARECIBO RADIO TELESCOPE“, was conducted as part of a Master’s Degree Thesis.

The NSF news release follows:

Following a review of engineering assessments that found damage to the Arecibo Observatory cannot be stabilized without risk to construction workers and staff at the facility, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) will begin plans to decommission the 305-meter (1,000 foot) telescope, which for 57 years has served as a world-class resource for radio astronomy, planetary, solar system and geospace research.

The decision comes after NSF evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support. Furthermore, several assessments stated that any attempts at repairs could put workers in potentially life-threatening danger. Even in the event of repairs going forward, engineers found that the structure would likely present long-term stability issues.

‘NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate,’ said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. ‘For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like. While this is a profound change, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain that strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.’

Engineers have been examining the Arecibo Observatory 305-meter telescope since August, when one of its support cables detached. NSF authorized the University of Central Florida, which manages Arecibo, to take all reasonable steps and use available funds to address the situation while ensuring safety remained the highest priority. UCF acted quickly, and the evaluation process was following its expected timeline, considering the age of the facility, the complexity of the design and the potential risk to workers.

The engineering teams had designed and were ready to implement emergency structural stabilization of the auxiliary cable system. While the observatory was arranging for delivery of two replacement auxiliary cables, as well as two temporary cables, a main cable broke on the same tower Nov. 6. Based on the stresses on the second broken cable – which should have been well within its ability to function without breaking – engineers concluded that the remaining cables are likely weaker than originally projected.

‘Leadership at Arecibo Observatory and UCF did a commendable job addressing this situation, acting quickly and pursuing every possible option to save this incredible instrument,’ said Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences. ‘Until these assessments came in, our question was not if the observatory should be repaired but how. But in the end, a preponderance of data showed that we simply could not do this safely. And that is a line we cannot cross.’

The scope of NSF’s decommissioning plan would focus only on the 305-meter telescope and is intended to safely preserve other parts of the observatory that could be damaged or destroyed in the event of an unplanned, catastrophic collapse. The plan aims to retain as much as possible of the remaining infrastructure of Arecibo Observatory, so that it remains available for future research and educational missions.

The decommissioning process involves developing a technical execution plan and ensuring compliance with a series of legal, environmental, safety and cultural requirements over the coming weeks. NSF has authorized a high-resolution photographic survey using drones, and is considering options for forensic evaluation of the broken cable – if such action could be done safely – to see if any new evidence could inform the ongoing plans. This work has already begun and will continue throughout the decommissioning planning. Equipment and other materials will be temporarily moved to buildings outside the danger zone. When all necessary preparations have been made, the telescope would be subject to a controlled disassembly.

After the telescope decommissioning, NSF would intend to restore operations at assets such as the Arecibo Observatory LIDAR facility – a valuable geospace research tool – as well as at the visitor center and offsite Culebra facility, which analyzes cloud cover and precipitation data. NSF would also seek to explore possibilities for expanding the educational capacities of the learning center. Safety precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in place as appropriate.

Some Arecibo operations involving the analysis and cataloging of archived data collected by the telescope would continue. UCF secured enhanced cloud storage and analytics capabilities in 2019 through an agreement with Microsoft, and the observatory is working to migrate on-site data to servers outside of the affected area.

Areas of the observatory that could be affected by an uncontrolled collapse have been evacuated since the November cable break and will remain closed to unauthorized personnel during the decommissioning. NSF and UCF will work to minimize risk in the area in the event of an unexpected collapse. NSF has prioritized a swift, thorough process with the intent of avoiding such an event.

In reading this self-congratulatory news release, they seemed to have lost sight of what really matters in science. The NSF director is playing more of an accountant’s role rather than a physical scientist who understands the scientific payoff the way visionaries like Carl Sagan did.

That they have to dismantle the telescope, citing major safety concerns, is a red herring and brings to mind the attitude of Dr. Mike Griffin, former NASA Administrator, humble physicist and world-class academician who pushed for the Hubble Space Telescope’s final servicing mission to be re-added to Space Shuttle Atlantis mission docket (STS-125) May 11–24, 2009. Griffin reminded everyone that all discovery is fraught with risks, something the STS-125 crew understood well and were happy to accept. The “risks” cited by NSF Director Panchanathan pale compared to the risks of SS Atlantis’ crew as they rode a controlled explosion such that Hubble could continue its legacy of discovery.

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