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Arecibo Telescope: End of an Icon

The reduced funding and natural disasters that led to a final catastrophe.

By Saelanna Tue 23 Feb, 2021 5:30 PM
2020 was a tough year for the entire world due to the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it was also tragic for other reasons. On 1st December 2020, the Arecibo Telescope was undergoing routine observations of the cables supporting the instrument platform when they suffered a catastrophic failure. The platform fell approximately 450 feet onto the dish causing irreparable damage to the 57-year-old telescope. Thankfully, no one was injured during the collapse that was captured on film by the drones being used to check on the cables.

Construction of the telescope in a sinkhole in the middle of the Puerto Rican jungle began in mid-1960 in response to efforts to develop anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences by the United States. Arecibo%20CAfter it became operational in 1963, it was the largest single-aperture telescope (at 305m) until it was surpassed by the Chinese-built Five-hundred metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in July 2016.

When not looking for nuclear missiles or Soviet radar installations, the telescope was put to good use in the scientific field of astronomy. It discovered that Mercury rotates once every 59 days and not 88 as was previously thought; this meant that it was not tidally locked to the Sun as the Moon is tidally locked to Earth. It also made the first radar observation of a comet, discovered the first extrasolar planets, and provided the first evidence for the existence of neutron stars.

Arecibo’s ability to transmit as well as receive data from the universe was put to good use in 1974. The Arecibo Message, the most powerful broadcast to ever be deliberately beamed into space, was transmitted to a star cluster in the constellation of Hercules. The message contained binary-encoded information about Earth and humanity. Designed by astronomer Frank Drake, with help from Carl Sagan, it was sent more as a demonstration of our technological advancement rather than a serious attempt to communicate with ET. Arecibo%20B

The facility made appearances in popular culture; it was in both the film and the game adaptation of Goldeneye, the book and the movie Contact and an episode of the X-Files (Little Green Men). While the radio telescope the player must destroy in the Battlefield-4 map Rogue Transmission is said to be in China, the telescope depicted on the screen is undeniably the dish at Arecibo.

Arecibo was also the source of the data supplied to the (now defunct) SETI@home project, an internet-based computing project where home computer users installed software that would analyse data received both from the Arecibo Telescope and the Green Bank Observatory while their device was idle. The purpose behind this was to search for evidence of alien civilisations in signals received from space. However, SETI@home stopped sending data packages to users on 31st March 2020; in its 20-year history the project detected precisely zero signals that may have originated from an extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Even before the final collapse in December, time has not been kind to Arecibo; ongoing funding reductions, its location in the tropics and its sheer scale made it increasingly vulnerable to damage from natural events. On 21st September 2017 one of the feed lines was brought down by Hurricane Maria, damaging the surface of the dish. In August and November 2020 more damage was caused by further cable failures. All of this meant the decision was taken to decommission the facility. The final catastrophic failure in December happened while final preparations were being made for the decommissioning process.

The scientific baton will be taken up by other telescopes around the world, including the aforementioned FAST in China and the worldwide initiative known as the Square Kilometre Array. It was, nonetheless, a sad event to see this icon of 20th century science end in the way it did, in pieces on the floor of the Puerto Rican jungle.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

WRITTEN BY: Saelanna
Wed 24 Feb, 2021 12:37 PM
Now that I see the pictures of it, I recognize it from a hundred different places,
Wed 24 Feb, 2021 2:57 PM
This is unfortunate I hope they can find a way to compensate for the loss.