Arecibo Platform Collapses, What Comes Next?

Arecibo Platform Collapses, What Comes Next?

The science community awoke this morning to the stunning news that the 900-ton platform of instruments and other equipment hovering over the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico had collapsed. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the observatory, warned of exactly such a scenario two weeks ago in deciding to decommission rather than repair the telescope after structural damage this summer  No one was injured. The question now is whether to rebuild or move on.

Word of the platform’s collapse hit Twitter approximately one hour after it happened at 7:55 am Atlantic Standard Time (6:55 am EST).  Meteorologist Deborah Martorell was among the first to convey the sad news, sharing a photo she had just taken and tweeting in Spanish: “Friends is with deep regret to inform you that the platform of the Arecibo Observatory has just collapsed.”

NSF issued a statement later in the day and released a photo of the tangled remains of the platform lying on the decimated dish taken by the University of Central Florida (UCF), which manages the observatory under contract to NSF.

Damage to the Arecibo Observatory’s 305-meter dish. Credit: University of Central Florida.

Others tweeted images taken from aircraft showing the devastation.

All in contrast to the iconic images of the telescope familiar across the world since 1963 when it began operation.

Arecibo radio telescope.

Beloved by radio astronomers, the public also came to know Arecibo through movies like GoldenEye or Contact, the latter starring Jodie Foster.

NSF said it intends to authorize UCF to continue paying Arecibo staff and conduct other work at the site such as repairing a 12-meter telescope and a LIDAR facility also located there once safety can be assured.

The cascade of events began in August when one of the telescope’s support cables came out of its socket and fell onto the dish. UCF hired structural engineers to investigate the cause and develop a plan to repair it.  While that was underway, one of the main cables broke on November 6.

NSF decided the situation was too precarious to risk worker safety and announced a week later that the telescope would be decommissioned, not repaired. Some scientists argued it was not yet time to give up, but today’s events proved NSF made the correct decision.

The root cause of the August and November 6 failures has not been determined and the investigation into today’s collapse is just beginning.  NSF said it appears that the top section of all three of the telescope’s support towers broke off. “As the 900-ton instrument platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also dropped.”  One question will be whether the devastating Category 5 Hurricane Maria and a series of earthquakes that have pummeled the island in recent years contributed to the failures.

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan expressed relief today that no one was injured.  The agency took the engineers’ warnings “seriously and continued to emphasize the importance of safety for everyone involved.”  The area around the telescope was cleared of unauthorized personnel beginning November 6.

The question now is what to do next.  Panchanathan said the focus is “assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.”  NSF stressed after the November 6 cable failure that it was not decommissioning all of Arecibo, only the 305-meter radio telescope.  It vowed to maintain the other scientific facilities as well as a STEM learning center, although NSF said the latter “sustained significant damage from falling cables” in today’s collapse.

NASA is one of the many users of Arecibo and Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen was asked at a NASA advisory committee today if NASA would be involved in rebuilding it.  Zurbuchen deferred to NSF to answer any questions about the facility’s future, but pointed out that the key question is what scientific objectives need to be met with such a telescope.

NASA has been using Arecibo to characterize asteroids once their orbits are well known, but not to locate them.  Lindley Johnson, the head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, said at a different NASA advisory committee meeting yesterday, when some committee members still harbored hopes of repairing Arecibo, that NASA’s Goldstone, CA planetary radar facility is back in full operation and can fill the need.

Indeed, in 2006, NSF itself recommended closing Arecibo by 2011 unless other sources of funding could be found, but scientific and political pressure kept it open.

Scientific priorities in astronomy and astrophysics for both NASA and NSF are guided by Decadal Surveys conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine every 10 years (a decade).  One is underway right now and Zurbuchen suggested NSF will look to the results of that report before making any decisions.

In the Twitterverse, though, the sentiment is to rebuild, with some calling it an opportunity for the incoming Biden Administration to demonstrate its “Build Back Better” slogan.

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