It’s a sad day in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which for 57 years has been the go-to radio telescope for SETI research, has been deemed too dangerous to fix as the result of a second cable break and subsequent damage and will be demolished. While it’s hard to believe we’re shedding a tear for a telescope, especially in these COVID times, this one was special to many scientists, astronomers and ET believers.
“NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate. 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.”
National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan delivered the sad news in a press release. The 305-meter (1,000-foot) telescope with a 900-ton instrument platform hanging 450 feet above it, is managed for the NSF by the University of Central Florida (UCF). It was initially damaged on August 10, 2020, when an auxiliary cable mysteriously slipped from its socket on a tower(the telescope has survived hurricanes and earthquakes without damager or shutdown) and swung into the dish, causing a 100-foot-gash.
Arecibo Observatory’s telescope consists of a radio dish 1,000 feet (305 meters) wide in diameter with a 900-ton instrument platform hanging 450 feet above. The platform is suspended by cables connected to three towers. Engineers were brought in to assess the damage and cost of repairs, which were expected to be in the millions. While it was expected to consume NSF’s entire available budget, repairs were being planned … until November 3, when a main cable to the same tower snapped.
“Although it saddens us to make this recommendation, we believe the structure should be demolished in a controlled way as soon as pragmatically possible.”
Focus immediately shifted from repair planning back to damage assessment, but this time engineers from Thornton Tomasetti saw no way safely put the Arecibo Observatory back online to resume the search for alien intelligence. In fact, it banned all personnel from the platforms and towers. An independent engineering firm and the Army Corps of Engineers were brought in and recommended the controlled demolition begin ASAP due to the imminent danger of an uncontrolled collapse of the entire observatory caused by more stress on the remaining cables.
“Critical work remains to be done in the area of atmospheric sciences, planetary sciences, radio astronomy and radar astronomy. UCF stands ready to utilize its experience with the observatory to join other stakeholders in pursuing the kind of commitment and funding needed to continue and build on Arecibo’s contributions to science.”
UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright tried to put a positive spin on the Arecibo obituary, pointing out that its legacy will live on in the experienced SETI scientists and researchers it has produced. That’s somewhat comforting, unless you’re one of the many people who believed we were on the brink of extraterrestrial contact and see this as a major setback … and a possible conspiracy by those who wish to prevent its disclosure.
Descansa en paz, Arecibo.