On November 16th, 1974, a coded radio message was broadcast from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The message contained information on mathematics, humanity, the Solar System, DNA, and the Observatory itself. The destination for this message was Messier 13 (NGC 6205 or “The Great Hercules Cluster”), a globular star cluster located about 25,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Hercules.
Observational astronomy is dependent on its data, and therefore also dependent on the instruments that collect that data. So when one of those instruments fails it is a blow to the profession as a whole. The collapse of the Arecibo Telescope last year after it was damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 permanently deprived the radio astronomy world of one of its primary observational tools. Now a team at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) hopes to upgrade an existing telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to replace the failed Puerto Rican one and provide even more precise images of near Earth objects in the radio spectrum.
Early this morning, the 900-ton instrument platform suspended above the Arecibo Observatory collapsed and crashed down on the iconic telescope’s giant dish. The collapse occurred at about 7:55 a.m. local time, officially ending any possible hopes of refurbishing the famous observatory in Puerto Rico.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.