Arecibo’s Damage is so Serious and Dangerous, They’re Just Going to Scrap the Observatory Entirely

This past summer, the Arecibo Observatory suffered major damage when an auxiliary cable that supports the platform above the telescope broke and struck the reflector dish. Immediately thereafter, technicians with the observatory and the University of Central Florida (UCF) began working to stabilize the structure and assess the damage. Unfortunately, about two weeks ago (on Nov. 6th), a second cable broke causing even more damage.

Following a thorough review, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that the observatory cannot be stabilized without risking the lives of construction workers and staff at the facility. As such, after 57 years of faithful service and countless contributions to multiple fields of astronomy, the NSF has decided to commence plans for decommissioning the Arecibo Observatory.

Continue reading “Arecibo’s Damage is so Serious and Dangerous, They’re Just Going to Scrap the Observatory Entirely”

A Second Cable has Failed at Arecibo, Causing Even More Damage to the Radio Observatory

Another main cable that supports the Arecibo Observatory broke last week, falling onto the reflector dish and causing more damage. This is the second time a cable has snapped on the iconic radio observatory in just three months.

The new damage is an unfortunate and devastating setback for the observatory, just as repairs from the first accident were about to begin.

Continue reading “A Second Cable has Failed at Arecibo, Causing Even More Damage to the Radio Observatory”

An Update on the Damage to the Arecibo Observatory

On Aug. 10th, a little over a month ago, the iconic Arecibo Observatory suffered serious damage when an auxiliary cable broke and struck the reflector dish. This cable struck the observatory’s Gregorian Dome on its way down and twisted an access platform before landing on the reflecting dish itself. The impact created a gash over 30 meters (100 feet) in length and forced the observatory to shut down until repairs could be made.

Since then, teams have been busy working to stabilize the structure and determine the cause. These teams are made up of technicians from the observatory and the University of Central Florida (UCF), which manages the facility for the National Science Foundation (NSF). For the past few weeks, they have been meeting with experts from various fields and laying the groundwork for an investigation and a rigorous repair schedule.

Continue reading “An Update on the Damage to the Arecibo Observatory”

A Broken Cable Smashed Part of the Arecibo Observatory

The Arecibo Observatory is an iconic institution. Located in Puerto Rico, this National Science Foundation (NSF) observatory was the largest radio telescope in the world between 1963 and 2016. While that honor now goes to the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China, Arecibo will forever be recognized for its contributions to everything from radio astronomy to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Unfortunately, the Arecibo Observatory suffered serious damage when on Monday, Aug. 10th, an auxiliary cable that supports the platform suspended above the telescope reflector dish broke. The cable struck the Gregorian Dome (which sits on the underside of the platform) before landing on the reflector dish, which created a gash over 30 meters (100 feet) in length and forced the observatory to temporarily shut down operations.

Continue reading “A Broken Cable Smashed Part of the Arecibo Observatory”

Astronomy Cast Ep. 459: Arecibo Observatory

The iconic Arecibo Radio Observatory has been a mainstay in science and science fiction. This Puerto Rico-based radio telescope was already in an uncertain level of funding. But now with the damage from Hurricane Maria, it might be shut down forever.

We usually record Astronomy Cast every Friday at 1:30 pm PDT / 4:30 pm EDT/ 20:30 PM UTC (8:30 GMT). You can watch us live on AstronomyCast.com, or the AstronomyCast YouTube page.

Visit the Astronomy Cast Page to subscribe to the audio podcast!

If you would like to support Astronomy Cast, please visit our page at Patreon here – https://www.patreon.com/astronomycast. We greatly appreciate your support!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

Strange Radio Signals Detected from a Nearby Star

Astronomers have been listening to radio waves from space for decades. In addition to being a proven means of studying stars, galaxies, quasars and other celestial objects, radio astronomy is one of the main ways in which scientists have searched for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI). And while nothing definitive has been found to date, there have been a number of incidents that have raised hopes of finding an “alien signal”.

In the most recent case, scientists from the Arecido Observatory recently announced the detection of a strange radio signal coming from Ross 128 – a red dwarf star system located just 11 light-years from Earth. As always, this has fueled speculation that the signal could be evidence of an extra-terrestrial civilization, while the scientific community has urged the public not to get their hopes up.

The discovery was part of a campaign being conducted by Abel Méndez – the director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) in Peurto Rico – and Jorge Zuluaga of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences at the University of Antioquia, Colombia. Inspired by the recent discoveries around Proxima Centauri and TRAPPIST-1, the GJ 436 campaign relied on data from Arecibo Observatory to look for signs of exoplanets around nearby red dwarf stars.

Arecibo Observatory, the world’s biggest single dish radio telescope, was and is still being used to image comet 45P/H-M-P. Courtesy of the NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

In the course of looking at data from stars systems like Gliese 436, Ross 128, Wolf 359, HD 95735, BD +202465, V* RY Sex, and K2-18 – which was gathered between April and May of 2017 – they noticed something rather interesting. Basically, the data indicated that an unexplained radio signal was coming from Ross 128. As Dr. Abel Mendez described in a blog post on the PHL website: 

“Two weeks after these observations, we realized that there were some very peculiar signals in the 10-minute dynamic spectrum that we obtained from Ross 128 (GJ 447), observed May 12 at 8:53 PM AST (2017/05/13 00:53:55 UTC). The signals consisted of broadband quasi-periodic non-polarized pulses with very strong dispersion-like features. We believe that the signals are not local radio frequency interferences (RFI) since they are unique to Ross 128 and observations of other stars immediately before and after did not show anything similar.”

After first noticing this signal on Saturday, May 13th at 8:53 p.m., scientists from the Arecibo Observatory and astronomers from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute teamed up to conduct a follow-up study of the star. This was performed on Sunday, July 16th, using SETI’s Allen Telescope Array and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory‘s (NRAO) Green Bank Telescope.

They also conducted observations of Barnard’s star on that same day to see if they could note similar behavior coming from this star system. This was done in collaboration with the Red Dots project, a European Southern Observatory (ESO) campaign that is also committed to finding exoplanets around red dwarf stars. This program is the successor to the ESO’s Pale Red Dot campaign, which was responsible for discovering Proxima b last summer.

Images of the star systems examined by the GJ 436 Campaign. Credit: PHL/Abel Méndez 

As of Monday night (July 17th), Méndez updated his PHL blog post to announced that with the help of SETI Berkeley with the Green Bank Telescope, that they had successfully observed Ross 128 for the second time. The data from these observatories is currently being collected and processed, and the results are expected to be announced by the end of the week.

In the meantime, scientists have come up with several possible explanations for what might be causing the signal. As Méndez indicated, there are three major possibilities that he and his colleagues are considering:

“[T]hey could be (1) emissions from Ross 128 similar to Type II solar flares, (2) emissions from another object in the field of view of Ross 128, or just (3) burst from a high orbit satellite since low orbit satellites are quick to move out of the field of view. The signals are probably too dim for other radio telescopes in the world and FAST is currently under calibration.”

Unfortunately, each of these possibilities have their own drawbacks. In the case of a Type II solar flare, these are known to occur at much lower frequencies, and the dispersion of this signal appears to be inconsistent with this kind of activity. In the case of it possibly coming from another object, no objects (planets or satellites) have been detected within Ross 128’s field of view to date, thus making this unlikely as well.

The stars currently being examined as part of the GJ 436 campaign. Credit: PHL/Abel Méndez

Hence, the team has something of a mystery on their hands, and hopes that further observations will allow them to place further constrains on what the cause of the signal could be. “[W]e might clarify soon the nature of its radio emissions, but there are no guarantees,” wrote Méndez. “Results from our observations will be presented later that week. I have a Piña Colada ready to celebrate if the signals result to be astronomical in nature.”

And just to be fair, Méndez also addressed the possibility that the signal could be artificial in nature – i.e. evidence of an alien civilization. “In case you are wondering,” he wrote, “the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations.” Sorry, alien-hunters. Like the rest of us, you’ll just have to wait and see what can be made of this signal.

Further Reading: AFP, PHL

What If We Do Find Aliens?


Time to talk about my favorite topic: aliens.

We’ve covered the Fermi Paradox many times over several articles on Universe Today. This is the idea that the Universe is huge, and old, and the ingredients of life are everywhere. Life could and should have have appeared many times across the galaxy, but it’s really strange that we haven’t found any evidence for them yet.

Continue reading “What If We Do Find Aliens?”

Fast Radio Bursts On Repeat – Aliens, Or A Rotating Neutron Star?

Very recently, a team of scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) achieved an historic first by being able to pinpoint the source of fast radio bursts (FRBs). With the help of observatories around the world, they determined that these radio signals originated in an elliptical galaxy 6 billion light years from Earth. But as it turns out, this feat has been followed by yet another historic first.

In all previous cases where FRBs were detected, they appeared to be one-off events, lasting for mere milliseconds. However, after running the data from a recent FRB through a supercomputer, a team of scientists at McGill University in Montreal have determined that in this instance, the signal was repeating in nature. This finding has some serious implications for the astronomical community, and is also considered by some to be proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

FRBs have puzzled astronomers since they were first detected in 2007. This event, known as the Lorimer Burst, lasted a mere five milliseconds and appeared to be coming from a location near the Large Magellanic Cloud, billions of light years away. Since that time, a total of 16 FRBs have been detected. And in all but this one case, the duration was extremely short and was not followed up by any additional bursts.

The NSF's Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Credit: NAIC
The NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Credit: NAIC

Because of their short duration and one-off nature, many scientists have reasoned that FRBs must be the result of cataclysmic events – such as a star going supernova or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. However, after sifting through data obtained by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, a team of students from McGill University – led by PhD student Paul Scholz – determined that an FRB detected in 2012 did not conform to this pattern.

In an article published in Nature, Scholz and his associates describe how this particular signal – FRB 121102 – was followed by several bursts with properties that were consistent with the original signal. Running the data which was gathered in May and June through a supercomputer at the McGill High Performance Computing Center, they determined that FRB 121102 had emitted a total of 10 new bursts after its initial detection.

This would seem to indicate that FRBs have more than just one cause, which presents some rather interesting possibilities. As Paul Scholz told Universe Today via email:

“All previous Fast Radio Bursts have only been one-time events, so a lot of explanations for them have involved a cataclysmic event that destroys the source of the bursts, such as a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. Our discovery of repeating bursts from FRB 121102 shows that the source cannot have been destroyed and it must have been due to a phenomenon that can repeat, such as bright pulses from a rotating neutron star.”

The Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis
The Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

Another possibility which is making the rounds is that this signal is not natural in origin. Since their discovery, FRBs and other “transient signals” – i.e. seemingly random and temporary signals – from the Universe have been the subject of speculation. As would be expected, there have been some who have suggested that they might be the long sought-after proof that extra-terrestrial civilizations exist.

For example, in 1967, after receiving a strange reading from a radio array in a Cambridge field, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her team considered the possibility that what they were seeing was an alien message. This would later be shown to be incorrect – it was, in fact, the first discovery of a pulsar. However, the possibility these signals are alien in origin has remained fixed in the public (and scientific) imagination.

This has certainly been the case since the discovery of FRBs. In an article published by New Scientists in April of 2015 – titled “Cosmic Radio Plays An Alien Tune” – writer and astrophysicist Sarah Scoles explores the possibility of whether or not the strange regularity of some FRBs that appeared to be coming from within the Milky Way could be seen as evidence of alien intelligence.

However, the likelihood that these signals are being sent by extra-terrestrials is quite low. For one, FRBs are not an effective way to send a message. As Dr. Maura McLaughlin of West Virginia University – who was part of the first FRB discovery –  has explained, it takes a lot of energy to make a signal that spreads across lots of frequencies (which is a distinguishing feature of FRBs).

Scientists have been exploring the possibility that radio bursts
For decades, scientists have been exploring the possibility that radio bursts are signals from alien civilizations. Credit: AdamBurn/DeviantArt

And if these bursts came from outside of our galaxy, which certainly seems to be the case, they would have to be incredibly energetic to get this far. As Dr. McLaughlin explained to Universe Today via email:

“The total amount of power required to produce just one FRB pulse is as much as the Sun produces in a month! Although we might expect extraterrestrial civilizations to send short-duration signals, sending a signal over the very wide radio bandwidths over which FRBs are detected would require an improbably immense amount of energy. We expect that extraterrestrial civilizations would transmit over a very narrow range of radio frequencies, much like a radio station on Earth. 

But regardless of whether these signals are natural or extra-terrestrial in origin, they do present some rather exciting possibilities for astronomical research and our knowledge of the Universe. Moving forward, Scholz and his team hope to identify the galaxy where the radio bursts originated, and plans to use test out some recently-developed techniques in the process.

“Next we would like to localize the source of the bursts to identify the galaxy that they are coming from,” he said. “This will let us know about the environment around the source. To do this, we need to use radio interferometry to get a precise enough sky location. But, to do this we need to detect a burst while we are looking at the source with such a radio telescope array. Since the source is not always bursting we will have to wait until we get a detection of a burst while we are looking with radio interferometry. So, if we’re patient, eventually we should be able to pinpoint the galaxy that the bursts are coming from.”

In the end, we may find that rapid burst radio waves are a more common occurrence than we thought. In all likelihood, they are being regularly emitted by rare and powerful stellar objects, ones which we’ve only begun to notice. As for the other possibility? Well, we’re not saying it’s aliens, but we’re quite sure others will be!

Credit: History.com/memegenerator.com
Credit: History.com/memegenerator.com

Further Reading: McGill University

Into The Black? Maybe Radio Bursts Are From Outside The Galaxy After All, Study Says

Where are these radio bursts coming from? Astronomers have heard these signals from the sky several times, but always with the same telescope (Parkes Observatory in Australia). There was debate about whether these were coming from inside or outside the galaxy, or even from Earth itself (given only the one observatory was detecting them.)

A new study with a different telescope, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, concludes that the bursts are from outside the galaxy. This is the first time one of these bursts have been found in the northern hemisphere of the sky.

“Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin,” stated Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics researcher at McGill University who participated in the research. “The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy – a really exciting prospect.”

Fast radio bursts are a flurry of radio waves that last a few thousandths of a second, and at any given minute there are only seven of these in the sky on average, according to the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. Their cause is unknown. They could be anything from black holes, to neutron stars coming together, to the magnetic field of pulsars (a type of neutron star) flaring up — or something else.

Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Credit: NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF
Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Credit: NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

The pulse was found Nov. 2, 2012 in the constellation Auriga. Astronomers believe it is from quite far away from measuring its plasma dispersion, or the slowdown of radio waves as they crash into interstellar electrons. This particular source had triple the maximum dispersion than what would be found inside the galaxy, astronomers stated.

“The brightness and duration of this event, and the inferred rate at which these bursts occur, are all consistent with the properties of the bursts previously detected by the Parkes telescope in Australia,” stated Laura Spitler, who led the research. (She was at Cornell University when the study began, but is now at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany.)

But other research has been back-and-forth on whether these are actually extragalactic bursts. One 2013 paper supposed it could be colliding neutron stars from far away, while another said it could instead be nearby stars flaring up.

The research was published in the Astrophysical Journal and is also available in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: McGill University and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy

New Arecibo Radar Images Show Comet Responsible for Camelopardalids is an Icy, Cratered Mini World

When Comet 209P/LINEAR — the comet that brought us the Camelopardalids meteor shower last weekend – was first discovered in February of 2004, astronomers initially thought it was an asteroid. However, subsequent images of the objects showed it had a tail, and so it was reclassified as a comet. Now, new images taken by the Arecibo Observatory planetary radar system reveal Comet 209P/LINEAR has complex surface features that will require more analysis to fully interpret. This mini world seems to be filled with ridges and cliffs along with its icy surface.

“This is the highest resolution radar image we have obtained of a comet nucleus,” said Dr. Ellen Howell from the Universities Space Research Association, who led the observations of the comet at Arecibo, located in Puerto Rico.

The Arecibo Observatory is taking advantage of the approaching close pass of Earth by Comet 209P/LINEAR, taking these new radar images which confirm this comet to be about 2.4 by 3 km kilometers (1.5 x 1.8 miles) in size and elongated in shape. Earlier optical observations suggested this size range, but now these radar observations are the first direct measurement of the nucleus dimensions.

Radar images of Comet 209P/LINEAR taken from May 23 through May 27, 2014. The Earth is at the bottom of these images: the “side view” is a result of the radar imaging method. Several features are visible on the comet, perhaps ridges or cliffs. This is only the fifth comet nucleus imaged by Arecibo in the last 16 years, and the most detailed. Resolution in the vertical direction is 7.5 meters (25 feet) per pixel.  Image credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/Ellen Howell
Radar images of Comet 209P/LINEAR taken from May 23 through May 27, 2014. The Earth is at the bottom of these images: the “side view” is a result of the radar imaging method. Several features are visible on the comet, perhaps ridges or cliffs. This is only the fifth comet nucleus imaged by Arecibo in the last 16 years, and the most detailed. Resolution in the vertical direction is 7.5 meters (25 feet) per pixel. Image credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/Ellen Howell

Comets very rarely come this close to Earth, but don’t worry: Comet 209P/LINEAR is not coming close enough to cause any problems or concerns.

“Comet 209P/LINEAR has no chance of hitting Earth,” said data analyst Alessondra Springmann from Arecibo. “It comes no closer than 8.3 million kilometers (5.2 million miles) to Earth, safely passing our planet.”

But this relatively close pass makes this an extraordinary opportunity to get images of the surface. As Dr. Howell noted, these observations of are some of the most detailed. Just six comet nuclei have been imaged by spacecraft, and a wide variety of surface features and structures have been observed on these icy objects.

“We are being cautious,” Howell told Universe Today. “Radar images are not regular “spatial” images, and one can easily be misled by treating them as a regular picture. But proper analysis will take weeks or months, not minutes. What these radar images show is certainly not ordinary, but we don’t really have anything to compare to. The image looks different than asteroids we have imaged, but I don’t know what is due to surface feature differences and what might be scattering differences by the surface material.”

Comets have a central nucleus made of ice, dust, and rocks, and a coma of dust and gas. Two tails, one made of ions and one of dust, form in the direction pointing away from the sun.

Other comets seen by Arecibo radar include 103P/Hartley 2 and 8P/Tuttle, and 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3.

Radar images of Comet 209P/LINEAR taken from May 23 through May 27, 2014. The Earth is at the bottom of these images: the “side view” is a result of the radar imaging method. Several features are visible on the comet, perhaps ridges or cliffs. This is only the fifth comet nucleus imaged by Arecibo in the last 16 years, and the most detailed. Resolution in the vertical direction is 7.5 meters (25 feet) per pixel.  Image credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/Ellen Howell
Radar images of Comet 209P/LINEAR taken from May 23 through May 27, 2014. The Earth is at the bottom of these images: the “side view” is a result of the radar imaging method. Several features are visible on the comet, perhaps ridges or cliffs. This is only the fifth comet nucleus imaged by Arecibo in the last 16 years, and the most detailed. Resolution in the vertical direction is 7.5 meters (25 feet) per pixel. Image credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/Ellen Howell

Unlike long period comets Hale-Bopp and the late Comet ISON that swing around the Sun once every few thousand years or few million years, Comet 209P/LINEAR visits our neighborhood frequently, coming ‘round every 5.09 years. However, it will not be close enough to Earth again for radar imaging any time in the next 100 years.

With a rotation period of approximately 11 hours as determined by Carl Hergenrother at the University of Arizona using the 1.8 meter VATT telescope, this comet is one of the many Jupiter family comets, which orbit the Sun twice for every time Jupiter orbits once.

It was discovered by the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) automated sky survey.

The Arecibo Observatory, located in Puerto Rico, is home to the world’s largest and most sensitive single-dish radio telescope at 305 meters (1000feet) across. This facility dedicates hundreds of hours a year of its telescope time to improving our knowledge of near-Earth asteroids and comets.

Dr. Howell specializes in studying comets and asteroids using radar, as well as passive radio and infrared spectroscopy techniques to determine the surface and coma properties of small solar system bodies. She was assisted in these observations of Comet 209P/LINEAR by Michael Nolan, Patrick Taylor, Alessondra Springmann, Linda Ford, and Luisa Zambrano.

Arecibo Observatory, and the complementary Goldstone Solar System Radar in California run by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, are both observing comet 209P/LINEAR during its pass by Earth in May. These radar facilities are unique among telescopes on Earth for their ability to resolve features on comets and asteroids, while most optical telescopes on the ground would see these cosmic neighbors simply as unresolved points of light.

For more images and information on Comet 209P/LINEAR, see the Arecibo Observatory’s planetary radar page.

The Arecibo Observatory is operated by SRI International under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, and in alliance with the Sistema Universitario Ana G. Méndez-Universidad Metropolitana and the Universities Space Research Association. The Arecibo Planetary Radar program is supported by NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation program.