The Arecibo Observatory radio telescope suffered a catastrophic collapse on Tuesday, Dec. 1.
ROCHESTER, NY (WROC) — The second largest radio telescope in the world, Arecibo in Puerto Rico, has taken a major hit and will likely be decommissioned, meaning a huge step back for the entire astronomy community and science at large. Famously seen in movies like James Bond’s “Goldeneye”, “Species”, and “Contact”, the telescope has been used to find asteroids threatening collision and search for extraterrestrial life, among many other experiments. This is a conversation with RIT School of Physics and Science professor Michael Lam about his work with the telescope and what this loss means for the community.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THIS TELESCOPE?
“I’ve been an astronomer for many years. I started using the telescope back in 2013 as a grad student. I’ve been a radio astronomer since grad school, and I do work on dead start called pulsars. You observe them with these very large radio telescopes. That’s how I got my start in it and I’ve been observing since then until when the telescope shut down.”
WHAT MAKES THIS TELESCOPE SPECIAL?
“Right now it’s the second largest radio telescope in the world. It’s recently been surpassed in size, but still it’s an extremely sensitive instrument. It’s 305 meters across. You can take three football fields and stick them across the diameter of the dish. It’s been operational for 57 years, so it’s very old but still being upgraded. There’s still lots of new technology and development going on there, which makes the part of this whole situation sad.”
“It’s really great for observing really faint objects, it can see very distant objects in the universe. It’s just been part of an enormous number of fantastic observations that have led to nobel prizes and discoveries of new objects for decades and decades since it’s been around.”
“A couple months back, one of the cable supports snapped…There’s a little platform that sits above the dish, and that platform is held up by three towers… One of those cables ripped out of its socket and smashed into a dish. That was terrifying, but thankfully nobody was hurt. Some of the dish was damaged, but the dish is so big, that it’s a tiny hole compared to the size of the dish. “
“All the observations stopped because you have one of these cables snapping that’s holding up this platform. Just a couple of weeks ago because of extra stress on one of the other cables, it completely snapped in two. Now there’s a huge safety concern on how you could even possibly repair the telescope.”
“There were a couple of engineering reports that have been done. One of them said we don’t even know how you safely put somebody up there to help fix it without risk to their lives. There was another engineering report that said they think that they can do it, and at the moment the national science foundation has said well it’s too risky so we’re going to decommission the telescope. Now there have been a lot of petitions since last Thursday to save the telescope. What happens now is uncertain, but at the moment, the plan is to decommission the telescope.”
“They aren’t even sure if they can safely demolish the telescope at this point. They want to do some sort of controlled demolition but there’s always the risk that it could completely collapse tomorrow, and we just don’t know. That’s just how precarious the situation is.”
Lam says the damage, although it may have had to do with Hurricane Maria in 2017, it is likely that it stemmed from general wear and tear and the need for more funding for improvements.
TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE USING THIS DATA:
“My collaboration is called the nano-grav collaboration. We get hundreds of hours per year to observe the telescope… My project is a really long term one. It’s meant to last for decades and decades. You sit and stare at lots of different objects in the sky. These dead stars that are called pulsars. Every so often, every week or month, you try to make measurements of these objects. The objects themselves are these astrophysical tools that have been given to us. The universe has given us these things that we can use for other sciences.”
“The experiment we need relies on observing month after month, year after year, decade after decade, so having half of our sources, all of the sudden we lose the ability to observe them, that is pretty tough, so we’re trying to figure out what we can do. Can we move those sources to other telescopes? Yes, but those telescopes are less sensitive, Arecibo is so big… It’s going to take more time to observe these from other sources, but we don’t have that time for other telescopes. Arecibo was the best telescope for this kind of work. For me personally that is a big loss.”
“It was really good at observing extragalactic gas in the universe. Most of the Universe is made of hydrogen. It was really good at just mapping out all of these different galaxies; our own galaxy.”
“It has a radar system, so it can transmit radar so it can transmit our own planet, and asteroids and the vast majority of near-earth asteroid tracking, was done with Arecibo. If you want to figure out whether or not an asteroid was going to hit us, you went to Arecibo to go look at it. The loss of that system is to me is a very big danger for us.“
IS THE ASTRONOMY COMMUNITY MOURNING THIS LOSS?
“Yes, Absolutely. The community always feels bad when a mission ends, but we usually know when missions end… This one has his everybody especially hard because it’s so sudden that there’s all this money being poured in to making new instruments, to make it better, to improve it, to get more science out of it for the next decade. To all of a sudden say all of that is over in literally a snap, I think a lot of us are really struggling with that.”
Lam says the NSF has been supportive regardless of the administration and has taken a look at some of the engineering reports. He said the telescope may have seen too much damage.
“Even if there’s an infinite amount of money, it’s not clear that’s still safe. You don’t want to risk anybody’s life. NSF has made their decision. Whether or not they will reverse their decision because of lots of public outcry is another question. Even with the public outcry, it’s hard to know whether or not it’s even safe to go and repair it.”