The National Science Foundation said Thursday it will decommission the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, after 57 years in which the famous radio telescope has helped scientists study deep space.
Two cables inside one of the telescope’s support towers have failed since August, putting the telescope at significant risk of catastrophic failure and uncontrolled collapse, NSF said in a statement.
After inspection, engineers found the main cable snapped at about “60% of what should have been its minimum breaking strength during a period of calm weather” as well as new wire breaks of main cables and “significant slippage at several sockets holding the remaining auxiliary cables,” which were added in the 1990s.
In evaluating how to repair the telescope, engineers determined that undertaking repairs would be unsafe given the chance of another cable failing.
After the telescope is decommissioned, NSF said it will continue operations at the visitor center, cloud cover and precipitation data analysis at the offsite Culebra facility and geospace research at the Arecibo Observatory LIDAR facility.
“NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a statement. “For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like.”
The Arecibo Observatory comprises a 1,000-foot dish built into the ground that reflects radio waves to a 900-ton instrument suspended above it by cables. The telescope has helped “transform our understanding of the ionosphere, showing us how density, composition and other factors interact to shape this critical region where Earth’s atmosphere meets space,” said Michael Wiltberger, head of NSF’s Geospace Section, in a statement. It’s also been used by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), an organization of scientists looking for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The Arecibo Observatory was featured in the 1995 James Bond film “Goldeneye” and the 1997 movie “Contact.”