Arecibo radio telescope’s massive instrument platform has collapsed

The immense instrument platform and the large collection of cables that supported it, all of which are now gone.

The immense instrument platform and the large collection of cables that supported it, all of which are now gone.

On Monday night, the enormous instrument platform that hung over the Arecibo radio telescope’s big dish collapsed due to the failure of the remaining cables supporting it. The risk of this sort of failure was the key motivation behind the National Science Foundation’s recent decision to shut down the observatory, as the potential for collapse made any attempt to repair the battered scope too dangerous for the people who would do the repairs.

Right now, details are sparse. The NSF has confirmed the collapse and says it will provide more information once it’s confirmed. A Twitter account from a user from Puerto Rico shared an image that shows the support towers that used to hold the cables that suspended the instrument platform over the dish, now with nothing but empty space between them.

The immense weight of the platform undoubtedly caused significant damage to the disk below. The huge metal cables that had supported it would likely have spread the damage well beyond where the platform landed. It’s safe to say that there is very little left of the instrument that’s in any shape to repair.

It’s precisely this sort of catastrophic event that motivated the NSF to shut down the instrument, a decision made less than two weeks ago. The separate failures of two cables earlier in the year suggested that the support system was in a fragile state, and the risks of another cable snapping in the vicinity of any human inspectors made even evaluating the strength of the remaining cables unacceptably risky. It’s difficult to describe the danger posed by the sudden release of tension in a metal cable that’s well over a hundred meters long and several centimeters thick.

With inspection considered too risky, repair and refurbishment were completely out of the question. The NSF took a lot of criticism from fans of the telescope in response to its decision, but the collapse both justifies the original decision and obviates the possibility of any alternatives, as more recent images indicate that portions of the support towers came down as well.

The resistance the NSF faced was understandable. The instrument played an important role in scientific history and was still being used when funding was available, as it provided some capabilities that were difficult to replicate elsewhere. It also played a role as the most important scientific facility in Puerto Rico, drawing scientists from elsewhere who engaged with the local research community and helped inspire students on the island to go into science. And beyond all that, it was iconic—until recently, there was nothing else like it, which made it a feature in popular culture and extended its draw well beyond the island where it was located.

Lots of its fans were sad to contemplate its end and held out hope that some other future could be possible for it. With yesterday’s collapse, the focus will have to shift to whether there’s a way to use its site for something that appropriately honors its legacy.

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