Even though the National Science Foundation announced last year that it would not rebuild or replace the iconic Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico — which collapsed in 2020 – a glimmer of hope remained among supporters that the remaining astronomy infrastructure would be utilized in some way.
Instead, the NSF announced this week they have chosen four institutions to transition the site from its historic hub of astronomical research to a STEM educational outreach center, with a seeming focus on biology. A biomedical laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York along with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the University of the Sacred Heart, both in San Juan will oversee the new education center.
The Arecibo Telescope was an amazing tool for astronomers. Built in the early 1960s, it had a 1,000-foot-wide dish and was capable of both receiving and transmitting radio signals. It did radar mapping of near-Earth asteroids, Venus, and the Moon, discovered water at the polar regions of Mercury, searched for alien civilizations, and even send a radio message from Earth to a globular cluster 25,000 light years away. So when it collapsed in 2020, many astronomers wondered if it could be rebuilt.
Even from beyond the grave, Arecibo is still contributing to new discoveries. Back in October, researchers released a “treasure trove of data” from what was then the world’s most powerful radio telescope on the radar signatures of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs). Not only will these observations help defend the planet if any of those asteroids happen to be hazardous, but they can also help the burgeoning asteroid mining industry scan for targets.
The National Science Foundation announced last week that it won’t rebuild or replace the iconic Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which collapsed in 2020. Instead, the NSF says they have solicited calls for proposals to build a multidisciplinary educational center at the site.
Additionally, the plans do not appear to allow for any future science or observing from the other facilities at the Arecibo site, as the NSF said they will not provide any “operational support for current scientific infrastructure, such as the 12-meter radio telescope or Lidar facility,” also on location.
The announcement has been met with disappointment and disbelief.
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.