Arecibo: NSF to Decommission Infamous Telescope

Following two catastrophic cable breaks in recent months, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced decommissioning the infamous radio telescope, Arecibo.

As Science Magazine reported, one of its cables fell loose from its socking, creating a 100 feet hole in the reflector dish. Another one occurred earlier this month, which tore a new hole in the dish and damaged nearby loose cables. 

"There is a serious risk of an unexpected and uncontrolled collapse," director of NSF's astronomy division Ralph Gaume said. 

"A controlled decommissioning allows us to preserve valuable assets that the observatory has."


Confident of the community's resilience, Gaume announced that the remaining studies would be halted to other NFS facilities. He also denied that the announcement has anything to do with the observatory's current lackluster financial situation. 

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Loose Cables at Arecibo

The 57-year-old observatory in Puerto Rico's life is a survivor of countless hurricanes and earthquakes, including Hurricane Maria in 2017. Although it's unclear whether they contribute to the cables' failures, it's worth noting that Arecibo is aging.

After the cable broke on November 7, the University of Florida, as one of the observatory's operators, called the consortium to assess the situation. The platform would collapse if the remaining cables were forced to perform below their design capacity. 

Sean Jones, assistant director of the directorate at NSF, said on Thursday (11/19) that the independent agency does not want to risk work crews and staff's lives and safety, hence the decision. 

"NSF has decided to begin the process of planning for a controlled decommissioning," he said as told to the Guardian

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End of an Era

Since its completion in 1963, the radio telescope Arecibo Observatory has witnessed many brilliant discoveries. 

Astronomer Gordon Pettengill is one of the first few people to make his mark at the iconic landmark when he and his team determined Mercury's rotation. Contrary to popular's belief at that time, the period was not 88 days, but only 59.

In 1974, the team attempted to make a potential communication with the extraterrestrial life through an interstellar radio message called 'the Arecibo Message.' It carried necessary information about Earth and humans, consisting of numeric and atomic numbers, the DNA formulas, a graphic figure of a human, and the Solar System.

It also detected the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 1999 and helped NASA obtain the first asteroid dirt sample.

Besides, Arecibo holds a special place in pop culture and movies. Arecibo is also the setting of James Bond's 1995 blockbuster action film GoldenEye, sci-fi horror Species, and drama Contact in the 1990s. 

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