Repairing The Arecibo Telescope Is About More Than Money

Natasha Ramirez

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For 57 years, the Arecibo Observatory was not simply a breathtaking view to behold nestled in the Puerto Rican jungles, it was a scientific marvel. It tracked dangerous space objects, discovered the existence of exoplanets, studied cosmic radio signals, and taught scientists and the entire world about the wonders the cosmos held.

Only two weeks after the National Science Foundation (NSF) decommissioned the Arecibo telescope due to its old age and deteriorating structure, the wire ropes that held the 900 ton platform above the 305 meter dish, broke. The entire structure came hurtling down onto the already broken dish, marking the end to the iconic and historic Puerto Rican structure.

The Arecibo telescope holds a special place in the hearts of scientists and science enthusiasts across the globe, but that’s not the only reason why we’re mourning the loss. The telescope, while dilapidated, still holds tremendous value to the scientific community. For a structure that holds extreme scientific, economic, and culture significance, why did the NSF decommission the telescope instead of saving it?

The Telescope’s Engineering Shortfallings

Looking at the telescope only from a financial standpoint, decommissioning the telescope makes sense. The telescope and observatory had many mechanical and engineering issues well before last week’s final collapse. In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and the observatory hard, with the telescope suffering extreme damage. A 2014 earthquake with a 6.4 magnitude also added to its structural damage.

Adding to the mounting list of engineering issues are the wire rope cables that hold the telescope together and support the platform above the dish. While steel wire rope’s helix-woven structure helps it hold massive amounts of weight (around 647,000 pounds for those used on Arecibo), the cables had broken a number of times while in commission. And even though many of the cables on and surrounding the platform and dish were visibly fraying, the NSF and the University of Central Florida, the observatory’s lead contractor, said that the telescope’s maintenance and inspections were current.

There were several major cable failures that cascaded into the telescope’s final collapse on December 1. On August 10, a cable popped out of its socket and ripped a massive hole in the iconic dish. Then again on November 6, another of the main 9-centimeter-thick wire rope cables broke. For the NSF, that was the last straw. On November 19, they announced the telescope would be decommissioned.

Former Arecibo Director Rober Kerr said in regards to the observatory’s decommissioning that there has been a lot of finger pointing and suggestions that managers hadn’t kept up with maintenance to the almost 60 year old facility. He also mentioned that adding instruments in 1994 that the structure was not designed for, added extra stress to the cables.

Why Arecibo Should Be Saved

There’s no way around it: the damages to the Arecibo telescope are severe. But many are still holding out hope that the observatory can be saved, at least in part. NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a recent statement that their focus for the telescope is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.” What restoring operations will look like, is still wildly up in the air.

There are a few different approaches to restoring a national icon like the Arecibo telescope. According to the U.S. National Parks Service, there are four approaches to the treatment of historic properties such as the observatory: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. Whether the NSF decides on a full restoration or one of the other approaches depends on what they find after assessing the telescope’s damages. Other factors the NSF may look at include historical significance, its physical condition, and its proposed use. Whatever the NSF decides, making sure this structure is at least partially saved is a must for both the Puerto Rican community and the scientific community at large.

In reality, the Arecibo telescope will most likely not be brought back into a fully-operational observatory. Still, Puerto Rican locals, scientists, and space lovers everywhere are in agreement that we shouldn’t simply leave it for the jungle to reclaim. Whether restoration means turning the observatory into a tourist attraction, a semi-operational scientific facility, or something else that would help boost the Puerto Rican economy, it’s clear the Arecibo telescope structure still holds extreme cultural and scientific value even in death.

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Natasha is a writer, reader, and dog-lover. Her work has carried her from the bustle of New York at Inc. Magazine to the Santa Fe deserts at Outside Magazine. Natasha currently works as a copywriter, guest blogger, and freelance journalist. When she's not at her keyboard, Natasha loves spending her time outdoors hiking, rock climbing, and scuba diving.

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