American radio telescope essential to astronomy threatens to collapse

The cables jump one after the other over the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, raising fears of the worst for this instrument on which the work of hundreds of astronomers depends. On November 6, one of the main stay cables supporting a 900-ton platform broke, collapsing 150 meters below on the 300-meter-diameter “cup” that collects radio waves from space. This accident follows that of August 10, when the fall of an auxiliary cable had punctured the receiver over about thirty meters.

Only a handful of cables now hold the platform, and each of them “Supports more weight than before, which increases the risk of a new rupture which would probably lead to the collapse of the whole structure”, according to the University of Central Florida (UCF), who manages the site. According to the UCF, it was a cable end that was involved in the first accident. It was sent for review to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

According to university officials, signs of fragility have already been noted on the remaining cables and the structure is under surveillance thanks to drones and cameras. “There is a lot of uncertainty until we are able to stabilize the structure”, warned Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory, in a press release.

Workers repaint the structure above the radio telescope in 2007.

New shrouds are expected in the coming weeks. The observatory, quoted by the American news agency Associated Press (AP), assesses the damage at more than 12 million dollars (10.1 million euros). To repair, he discounted funds from the National Science Foundation, the US federal agency that owns the instrument, whose spokesman Rob Margetta said a decision on funding for the work would likely involve the US Congress and discussions with all stakeholders.

In its fifty-seven years of existence, the radio telescope has known its share of storms and earthquakes. Repairs following the passage of storm Maria in 2017 were also in progress when the first cable broke.

A crucial observatory for the study of pulsars

These misadventures hit hard the research of some 250 scientists who use the instrument, shut down since the first incident. Among them, Edgard Rivera-Valentin, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. According to AP, he planned to use the radio telescope to study the Red Planet in September. “Mars will no longer be so close to Earth, while being observable from Arecibo, before 2067, he calculated. The next time we can reach this level of radar data, I will no longer be there. “

The observatory is particularly considered crucial for the study of pulsars, these stars which, by emitting a very regular radio signal, can be used to detect the passage of gravitational waves. “It is over fifty years old but remains a very important instrument, Alex Wolszczan, astronomer and professor at Pennsylvania State University, told AP. Losing him would deal a major blow to what is, in my opinion, very important research. “

Read also: The well-kept secret of gravitational waves

Built in a natural depression in 1963, in the midst of the Cold War, Arecibo’s radio telescope was initially used to detect Soviet satellites or even missiles, recalls National Geographic, thanks to the disturbances induced by these devices in the atmosphere.

In scientific terms, the tool has an impressive record. A year after its inauguration, it established the period of rotation of Mercury. Ten years later, he made possible the first indirect observation of gravitational waves, earning researcher Joe Taylor the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993. It is also to him that we owe the first detections of exoplanets at the beginning of the 1990s, and it was used to monitor asteroids circulating near the Earth.

It was for a long time the largest instrument in the world of this type, before being dethroned, in 2016, by the Sky Eye, in southwest China (500 meters in diameter). The general public knows him especially thanks to his appearances in several films including Goldeneye (1995), the 17e James Bond adventure in the cinema. It is also an important tourist site, which welcomes 90,000 visitors each year.

The World with AP

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