NSF Decides Arecibo Telescope Beyond Repair

NSF Decides Arecibo Telescope Beyond Repair

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today that it has decided the Arecibo radio telescope is beyond repair and will be decommissioned. Two of the cables that support the scientific equipment hovering above the giant dish nestled in the mountains of Puerto Rico have failed and NSF worries the entire structure is in danger of collapse. NASA scientists use the telescope and the agency said it respected NSF’s decision.

Situated on the northwest coast of the island, Arecibo is well known not only in scientific circles, but to the general public from movies like GoldenEye and Contact. Officially called the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), the almost 60-year old facility is owned by NSF and operated under contract by the University of Central Florida (UCF).

Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico. Credit: NIAC website.

On August 10, 2020, one of the supporting cables detached from its socket and fell onto the dish. As engineers were trying to discover the root cause of that failure and ordering replacements, a second one broke on November 7.

Damage to Arecibo Observatory following August 2020 cable failure. Credit: University of Central Florida

NSF stressed that the decision is based on concerns about worker safety if attempts are made to repair it and the agency is now just beginning the process of determining how to execute a controlled decommissioning that preserves other buildings on the site.

“Allow me to state as forcefully as I can that we are decommissioning the Observatory’s 305-meter telescope, not closing the Arecibo Observatory,” insisted Ralph Gaume, NSF’s astronomical sciences division director in a teleconference with reporters. He explained what they are up against.

“The telescope is currently at serious risk of an unexpected, uncontrolled collapse. According to engineering assessments, even attempts at stabilization or testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure. Engineers cannot tell us the safety margin of the structure, but they have advised NSF that the structure will collapse in the near future on its own.” — Ralph Gaume, NSF

Puerto Rico was pummeled by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and earthquakes in 2019-2020, but it is not known if they contributed to these problems.

NSF intends to work with “the Puerto Rican community, the science community, Congress, and all Arecibo Observatory stakeholders to chart a path forward” for the future of the Observatory without the telescope, including its STEM education function, Gaume promised.

NASA uses Arecibo to characterize, but not locate or track, asteroids.  It said today it respects NSF’s decision, and will use its Goldstone Observatory in California instead.

UCF won a 5-year $20.15 million contract to operate Arecibo in 2018.  Arecibo was operated by Cornell University from 1963-2011, then by SRI International and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) from 2011-2018.

In a statement provided to SpacePolicyOnline.com today, UCF President Alexander Cartwright expressed disappointment at the decision and vowed to join with other stakeholders in pursuing commitment and funding to “continue and build on Arecibo’s contributions to science.”

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has oversight over NSF.  The bipartisan leadership of the committee, Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK), said they were “saddened” by the decision, but appreciative of NSF’s focus on worker safety.  They also encouraged NSF to continue support for the Angel Ramos Foundation Science and Visitor Center there “as an active hub of STEM education and outreach.”

Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner who represents Puerto Rico in Congress, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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