Thursday, November 19, 2020

End of the Line for Arecibo's Iconic 1000-Foot Dish Antenna

In light of two cable failures over the course of several months, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has accepted engineering recommendations to decommission and disassemble the iconic 305-meter (1000-foot) radiotelescope that is the focal point of activity at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The engineering reports indicated that it would not be safe for workers to try to make repairs on the antenna and that even stress-testing remaining cables could result in their catastrophic failure. Other facilities at Arecibo were not affected by the damage to the main dish and will remain in operation, according to a National Science Foundation news release.

Radiotelescope instruments at Arecibo Observatory
(University of Central Florida photo)
 Opened in 1963, the Arecibo radiotelescope was originally dedicated to studying the ionosphere and was used to make many groundbreaking discoveries, including that of the first binary pulsar, which resulted in the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to Dr. Joe Taylor, K1JT, and Dr. Russell Hulse, ex-WB2LAV.

Angel Vazquez, WP3R, is Head of Telescope Operations at Arecibo. He wrote on the HamSCI reflector that today was "(i)ndeed a sad day for science. I've dedicated 43 years of my life to the AO. We live with memories and thanks to so many of you for being part of that history and living in those memories..."

The NSF news release did not give a specific timeline for the decommissioning and disassembly of the main antenna and appeared to leave the door open for building a new facility in the natural dish that accommodates the current telescope.

“Critical work remains to be done in the area of atmospheric sciences, planetary sciences, radio astronomy and radar astronomy,” said the president of the University of Central Florida (UCF), which manages the observatory for NSF, adding, “UCF stands ready to utilize its experience with the observatory to join other stakeholders in pursuing the kind of commitment and funding needed to continue and build on Arecibo’s contributions to science."