Remembering the parabola of the Arecibo observatory, two years after its collapse

Remembering the parabola of the Arecibo observatory, two years after its collapse

An aerial photo of the destroyed radio dish.

An aerial photo of the destroyed radio dish.

The dish destroys the day it collapses.

It happened in less than 10 seconds, two years ago today: Arecibo Observatory’s 300-meter radio dish collapsed, eliminating one of the most renowned sources of radio observations. in the world.

During its 57 years of operation in northern Puerto Rico, the radio telescope has discovered new exoplanets, made radar maps of other worlds in our solar system, observed fast radio bursts and supported the hunt for intelligent life in the world. beyond the Earth.

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Recently, Arecibo data was used in NASA’s daring (and successful!) DART mission, which saw a small spacecraft smash into an asteroid, altering its trajectory. Its data also supported the OSIRIS-REx mission, in which a spacecraft grabbed a rock sample from a distant asteroid.

In the weeks before the collapse on December 1, 2020, the cables suspending the observatory’s 900-ton platform above the dish had failed. A dramatic video shows the moment of critical failure. Audio captured the screams and moans of the massive structure as it tore through the air and fell, crashing through the flat 450 feet below.

The destruction of the site was not a complete surprise. A few weeks before the collapse, two support cables fell on the dish, damaging it. There was still hope that the structure could be stabilized, but then the Nation Science Foundation announced that the dish would be demolished. But before that happened, the structure collapsed on its own.

“I’m still very sad about the loss of Arecibo. It was a great research facility for pulsar work — and many other things — and it’s basically impossible to replace for American researchers,” he said. Scott Ransom, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, said in an email to Gizmodo.Ransom’s job is to time flashes from pulsars, or rapidly rotating stellar remnants, to understand large-scale phenomena like the ripple of gravitational waves. This research involves radio wave data collected by Arecibo.

The collapse “was, however, an even greater loss for the island of Puerto Rico,” Ransom added. “A world-class facility in their backyard that has inspired so many Puerto Ricans that they can also do frontline scientific research.”

But last October, a new course was charted for the Arecibo facility. The National Science Foundation said the site of the destroyed telescope would become an education center, slated to open in 2023. The NSF is inviting proposals for the education center but has not announced any plans to set it up. more active scientific infrastructures on the site.

The telescope dish in November 2021.

The telescope dish in November 2021.

The telescope dish in September 2021.

“On the one hand, I of course think that having additional STEM education opportunities will only be a positive development, and so I support initiatives like this,” said Dom Pesce, astrophysicist at the Black Hole. Harvard University initiative, in an email to Gizmodo. “On the other hand, the proposed installation seems to me to be a pale substitute for what was lost at Arecibo, and it does little to fill the scientific hole left by the loss of the large dish.”

“The Arecibo Telescope was a cultural icon and an inspiration to many young scientists,” Pesce added. “Without an investment in new science infrastructure to replace it – which the NSF solicitation appears to explicitly rule out – then I can only imagine that the new educational institution will inevitably suffer the very tangible difference between being able to say, ‘ come here and watch all the cool science we do!” versus “come here and watch all the cool science we used to do!”

The NSF solicitation (which can be read here) calls for $5 million in funding and proposals will be accepted through February 2023. The document does not detail any funding support for Arecibo’s other science operations, namely its lidar installation and its still very intact 36-foot radio telescope. But the radio astronomy community has been stripped of its crown jewel.

“However, the site is still geared towards science, so hopefully in the future it will be used for that again,” Ransom added. “One possibility would be for multiple parabolas for the ngVLA, assuming it will be built.”

What happens to Arecibo – even what this planned education center will look like – remains unclear. Radio astronomy is worse off because of the dish’s unfortunate end, although the decades of data collected there will continue to serve as a scientific resource for years to come.

More: Arecibo Observatory’s Greatest Triumphs

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