Arecibo radio telescope, pictured here in the spring of 2019.
Credit: University of Central Florida (UCF)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) made a tough, difficult decision to move forward on a “controlled decommissioning” of the iconic Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Recent photo taken via drone of the Arecibo Observatory after a main cable broke on November 6.
Credit: UCF

Two recent and unexpected cable failures and consultations with multiple engineering experts led to the verdict of demolishing the Big Dish.

Arecibo has pioneered a number of discoveries such as the 1974 detection of binary pulsars emitting gravitational waves. That research earned the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Asteroid 2014 HQ124 appears to be an elongated, irregular object that is at least 1,200 feet (370 meters) wide on its long axis.
Image credits:
Arecibo Observatory

Among other breakthrough research was the first confirmation in 1992 of planets orbiting a star other than the Sun. Also, Arecibo’s unique radar capabilities have helped NASA characterize potentially hazardous asteroids as part of its planetary defense efforts.

“Arecibo has great value to the planetary defense community. It provides accurate radar-derived images and other information on asteroids that might one day be a threat to our planet,” explains William Ailor, a Technical Fellow and planetary defense expert for The Aerospace Corporation.

Irreplaceable telescope

“It is sad to see the end of this world-renowned, irreplaceable telescope that has accomplished so much for planetary and radio astronomy during its 57 years of operation,” said Paula Szkody, President of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

“But it is heartening to know that NSF intends to maintain a strong relationship with the scientists and people in Puerto Rico by retaining LIDAR operations and by expanding the educational facilities there,” Szkody told Inside Outer Space.

Credit: NASA/Goddard

LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser. Arecibo LIDAR science research includes meteor composition studies, as well as long-term seasonal studies of the climatology of Earth’s mesopause (the upper boundary of the mesosphere is where the temperature of the atmosphere reaches its lowest point). The mesosphere is 22 miles (35 kilometers) thick.

Maxar collected new satellite imagery on November 17th of the damaged radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The National Science Foundation, owner of the telescope, announced yesterday (November 19th) that the telescope with its 305-meter wide dish will be torn down after two support cables broke in recent months and damaged the dish beyond repair.
Credit: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies.

Scientific legacy

The NSF decision to decommission Arecibo Observatory didn’t go unnoticed in the U.S. Congress.

Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) noted in a joint statement that, while they were saddened by the loss of the facility, they saluted the priority of keeping observatory staff and repair crews safe throughout the decommissioning process.

“We would like to thank the scientific community, the observatory staff, and the Puerto Rican community for their dedication to this observatory over the past six decades,” Johnson and Lucas stated.

“Arecibo will be remembered for an illustrious scientific legacy. Moving forward, we encourage the National Science Foundation to continue its support for the Angel Ramos Foundation Science and Visitor Center as an active hub of STEM education and outreach programming in Puerto Rico, and to explore opportunities to use the site for exciting new science in the future,” the lawmakers said.

Please see my new Scientific American story:

Arecibo Observatory to Close Its Giant Eye on the Sky – After suffering severe damage from broken cables that cannot be readily repaired, the observatory’s enormous radio telescope is now slated for “controlled decommissioning”

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