Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico suffers serious damage after cable breaks


We have no words. 11, 2020

The iconic Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has gone dark, at least for a little while.

One of the telescope’s supporting cables snapped early Monday morning (Aug. 10), ripping a 100-foot-long (30 meters) gash in the giant radio dish, according to the University of Central Florida (UCF). The observatory has been shut down while engineers assess the damage and formulate a fix.

“We have a team of experts assessing the situation,” Arecibo director Francisco Cordova said in a UCF Today statement. “Our focus is assuring the safety of our staff, protecting the facilities and equipment and restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible, so it can continue to assist scientists around the world.”

Related: The Arecibo Observatory: A giant radio telescope in photos

The 1,000-foot-wide (300 m) Arecibo got up and running in 1963. It was the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope until 2016, when China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope claimed the mantle.

Arecibo has done a wide variety of work during its long life, from tracking and imaging near-Earth asteroids to listening for possible signals from advanced alien civilizations. And its communication attempts have not all been one-way: In 1974, scientists used the observatory to beam the pictorial “Arecibo Message” toward M13, a globular cluster that lies 25,000 light-years from Earth.

The observatory’s fame extends beyond the astronomical community. The climactic scenes of the 1995 James Bond movie “Goldeneye” were filmed there, and Arecibo played a prominent role in the 1997 science fiction film “Contact,” based on the book by Carl Sagan.

Related: The 10 biggest telescopes on Earth

Although the photographer in me prefers the perspective of the photo already making the rounds on Twitter, here’s a far-less-catastrophic-looking telephoto shot, courtesy of Phil Perillat, of the damage sustained by @NAICobservatory due to the cable failure Monday. 12, 2020

Arecibo has bounced back from damage before. For example, Hurricane Maria knocked the observatory offline when it slammed into Puerto Rico with devastating force in September 2017. But Arecibo’s lights came back on just a few months later, in December. 

Arecibo is a U.S. National Science Foundation facility. The observatory is managed by UCF, in collaboration with the Universidad Ana G. Méndez and Yang Enterprises Inc.

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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