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Historical Telescope Fights for Second Life

The Arecibo Telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, was another unexpected loss in 2020. In early August, a cable supporting a platform above the main reflector dish snapped, causing a 60-foot-long rift in the dish, rendering it inoperable. 

Owned by the United State’s National Science Foundation (NSF), Arecibo was used for radar astronomy and radio astronomy, as part of the Search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) program, and was used by NASA for near-earth object detection.

The telescope was completed in 1963 and remained the world’s largest single-aperture telescope until 2016, when China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) began operations. Funding for the telescope had been cut in recent years as newer technologies were likelier to receive financial support.

In addition to the cable break in August, a second break in November and third in December, on top of damage from numerous hurricanes and earthquakes, resulted in NSF opting to decommission the telescope instead of funding repairs.

However, former Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez Garced signed an executive order in late December as one of her final acts in office, “stating it was the formal policy of the commonwealth to rebuild the 305-meter radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory,” reported Jeff Foust for SpaceNews.

The order states that Puerto Rico wants to rebuild the telescope with a larger effective aperture and more powerful radar transmitter and assigned $8 million to start the project.

“The $8 million, though, is only a small down payment on the cost of rebuilding the telescope, with informal estimates in the astronomy community projecting it to cost several hundred million dollars,” said Foust.

Garced hoped for funding from a combination of state, federal, and private sources. However, any federal funding would require congressional approval.

So far, Congress has requested a report investigating the final damage to the telescope, when the 900-ton instrument platform hit the dish.

Assessments of the site are still in progress, with an NSF spokesperson Robert Margetta telling Space.com, “The foundation has not yet determined a cost estimate nor timeline to address the damage and clear debris,” reports Doris Elin Urritia.

NSF has stated that the observatory isn’t closing, but what will happen to the telescope and surrounding site is yet to be determined.

“NSF said it is also looking for ways to restore operations with the observatory's other instruments as soon as possible, including the 12-meter telescope and LIDAR atmospheric-sensing facilities,” says Urritia.

The telescope has produced a number of scientific findings, including detailed radar maps of the surface of Venus and Mercury and discovering that Mercury rotated every 59 days instead of 88 days, states Brittanica.com. Two scientists using Arecibo discovered the first binary pulsar, resulting in a Nobel Prize for physics. It also holds a place in pop culture history, as a featured element in both GoldenEye and Contact.

Though the future for the Arecibo Telescope is unclear, its impact on aerospace will never be forgotten.

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