The US National Science Foundation (NSF) on Thursday announced that it would close down the Arecibo Observatory, a massive radio telescope in Puerto Rico, ending 57 years of astronomical discoveries after suffering two destructive mishaps in the past few months.
Operations at the observatory, one of the largest in the world, were halted in August when one of its supportive cables slipped loose from its socket, falling and gashing a 30m hole in its reflector dish.
Another cable broke earlier this month, tearing a new hole in the dish and damaging nearby cables, as engineers scrambled to devise a plan to preserve the crippled structure.
“NSF has concluded that this recent damage ... cannot be addressed without risking the lives and safety of work crews and staff,” the foundation’s assistant director Sean Jones said.
“NSF has decided to begin the process of planning for a controlled decommissioning of the 305 meter telescope,” Jones said.
Engineers have not yet determined the cause of the initial cable’s failure, a foundation spokesperson said.
The observatory’s vast reflector dish and a 900-tonne structure hanging nearly 140m above it, nestled in a humid forest, had been used by scientists and astronomers around the world to analyze distant planets, find potentially hazardous asteroids and hunt for signatures of extraterrestrial life.
In 1999, he telescope was instrumental in detecting the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, laying the groundwork for NASA to send a robotic probe there to collect and eventually return its first sample of an asteroid.
An engineering firm hired by the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory for the NSF under a five-year US$20 million agreement, last week concluded in a report “that if an additional main cable fails, a catastrophic collapse of the entire structure will soon follow.”
Citing safety concerns, the firm ruled out efforts to repair the observatory and recommended a controlled demolition.
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