Friday, December 4, 2020

Arecibo: End of an Era for a Ham-Connected Radiotelescope

This QSL card from Arecibo's Head of Telescope
Operations, Angel Vazquez, WP3R, shows
the telescope prior to its collapse.
The December 1 collapse of the instrument platform at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico reverberated in the ham community as well as the astronomy/radioastronomy world. Officials had hoped to be able to safely disassemble the 900-ton telescope suspended 400 feet above the observatory's 1000-foot dish after determining in November that repairs would be impossible after two cable breaks over the past several months. 

These two photos from the University of Central Florida, which manages the Arecibo Observatory for the National Science Foundation, shows some of the damage that resulted from the collapse.



One of the observatory's ham radio connections is Head of Telescope Operations Angel Vazquez, WP3R. He explained what happened on the morning of December 1 in a video posted on Twitter by Wilbert Andrés Ruperto at <>.

Head of Telescope Operations Angel Vazquez, WP3R, explains what happened when the instrument platform collapsed in a Twitter interview by Wilbert Andrés Ruperto. See the video at  <>.


WP3R also posted the following on the HamSCI reflector on December 2:

 Thanks for the outpouring of comments on a very sad day for all of us here at the Arecibo Observatory and for our radio amateur and scientist colleagues around the world. Indeed, a radio science icon is no more.

 At around 7:55am yesterday, December 1st, 2020, the platform collapsed due to the extra stress on the existing cables because of the main cable failure in November and the auxiliary cable break back in August. Strands were starting to pop all weekend long and it was just a matter of time. It came off the easternmost tower (T4) and took about 15 seconds at most. The azimuth arm that housed the dome came off the track, fell to the dish a little north of center and the triangle was pulled by the other existing cables to the northwest part of the dish. The tops of the towers did break as well. This was a 900-ton platform so the dome was smashed like an eggshell.

We still have a 12M dish that will be used for radio astronomy and a Lidar lab as well as an optical lab with photometers. The site by no means is closed and it wasn't the intent of NSF (National Science Foundation) to close the facility. They did want us to stabilize the platform so it could be lowered safely and (cause) no harm to any of the employees. No one was hurt during the collapse. We are looking into rebuild possibilities.

My best to all and stay safe!.

Vy 73, Angel, WP3R


Angel also provided a link to a dramatic two-part video of the collapse of the instrument platform. A view from a security camera is first, followed by footage from a drone that was inspecting the cables as they began to snap. The video is at <>.


The National Science Foundation provided additional information in a December 1 news release:

The investigation into the platform’s fall is ongoing. Initial findings indicate that the top section of all three of the 305-meter telescope’s support towers broke off. As the 900-ton instrument platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also dropped.

Preliminary assessments indicate the observatory’s learning center sustained significant damage from falling cables.

Engineers arrived on-site today. Working with the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory, NSF expects to have environmental assessment workers on-site as early as tomorrow. Workers at the observatory will take appropriate safety precautions as a full assessment of the site’s safety is underway.


History and Another Ham Connection

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. Taylor is best known in the ham community today as the primary developer of WSPR (Weak Signal Propagation Reporter) and the WSJT suite of digital communications software, including FT8 and other variations.

Looking to Arecibo's future, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said, "Our focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico."

The National Science Foundation news release continued:

NSF intends to continue to authorize UCF to pay Arecibo staff and take actions to continue research work at the observatory, such as repairing the 12-meter telescope used for radio astronomy research and the roof of the LIDAR facility, a valuable geospace research tool. These repairs were funded through supplemental congressional appropriations aimed at addressing damage from Hurricane Maria.

Once safety on site is established, other work at the observatory will be carried out as conditions permit.