Arecibo Observatory: a year after the collapse of the telescope, an icon receives continuous cleaning and a new documentary

A year after the collapse of an iconic radio telescope hidden in a natural sinkhole, scientists and Puerto Ricans are still reeling from the loss of a decades-old observatory.

The Arecibo Observatory radio telescope was instantly recognizable, thanks to its 305-meter-wide dish, a trio of towering towers and a delicate network of cables and a platform that held scientific instruments above the dish.

But in late 2020, first one cable failed, then a second. In mid-November, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the site, decided that the telescope was too unstable to be repaired, but before the agency could demolish it, gravity did the job. On December 1, 2020, the platform fell and passed through the delicate plate.

Related: Scientists Want To Build A Very Different New Arecibo Telescope To Replace The Fallen Icon

The collapse left Arecibo’s dedicated scientific community reeling and wondering what would come next for the site. A year later, that is still unknown. The NSF has prioritized the cleanup of the site over making important decisions about the future of the facility, even as scientists begin to dream up ambitious ideas to carry on the legacy of the iconic telescope.

A special telescope

The radio telescope began making observations in 1963 and was unique in that it was a valuable tool for three different scientific fields: studying Earth’s atmosphere, detecting radio light from the universe around us (including possible signals from intelligent aliens. ) and use an active radar system. to study the solar system, particularly near-Earth asteroids. Over the decades, the telescope also became an icon of Puerto Rico, as well as a movie star thanks to appearances on “GoldenEye” and “Contact.”

Now, the telescope stars in a new film: “The Greatest Dream”, a documentary about the origins, legacy and loss of Arecibo. The film opens in special screenings in Puerto Rico this week and is scheduled to begin showing beyond the island next year.

“The creation of the film reflects the Puerto Rican spirit and demonstrates the magnitude of the contributions that this facility and its people have made to the scientific community,” said the director of the Arecibo Observatory, Francisco Córdova, in a statement released by the University of Central Florida, which administers the Arecibo Observatory.

A trailer available on YouTube offers a glimpse of the documentary.

“I have no words to explain what an honor it was to tell the story of the Arecibo Observatory,” producer and director Andrew Hernández said in the statement. “I dedicate this film to the great dreamers who choose to believe that they can bring positive change to this world by inspiring others.”

An under-the-plate view of the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope after the site collapse. (Image credit: Michelle Negron, National Science Foundation)

Continuous cleaning

Meanwhile, in a report released Nov. 17, the NSF provides the first update on the site’s status since the summer.

“The emergency cleanup team has completed most of the emergency cleanup and repairs,” NSF officials wrote in the report. “Next steps include completing repairs in damaged concrete areas, removing work vehicles and equipment from the site, and storing recovered items.”

In recent months, teams at the site have worked on tasks including planting vegetation to hold the soil in place, testing groundwater, identifying and removing hydraulic oil-contaminated soil, and removing two large pieces of concrete that broke. one of the three support towers.

Related: These Photos of the Arecibo Observatory Telescope Collapse Are Simply Heartbreaking

In addition, teams have removed some 38,000 metal panels covering more than a third of the plate’s surface, which had been damaged during the collapse and cleaning. Teams also installed a temporary hurricane-proof roof at the observatory’s learning center and repaired minor damage to the roof of the visitor center and observation deck.

(A March estimate suggests that the cleanup process could cost NSF $ 50 million.)

An investigation into the causes of the collapse is also continuing, according to an NSF spokesperson, although “to date, no obvious flaws have been identified at a single point.”

Thanks to Arecibo’s decades-long legacy, NSF must also evaluate how to manage the site with a view to history. Though no details are offered, the report notes that NSF and UCF met with the Puerto Rico State Historic Preservation Office and the Historic Preservation Advisory Council in June and are scheduled to do so again this fall.

The report also notes that in 2021, the NSF established a separate Salvage Survey Committee, which included experts familiar with the site and which evaluated objects of “potential scientific, cultural or historical value to be preserved for possible display on the site. or in other places. museums, “according to the report. The committee’s work resulted in a report submitted to the NSF in September that is not yet available online.

What’s Next for Science on the Site is relegated to a corner of the last page of the November 17 update, where NSF highlights the series of workshops it conducted this summer with members of the Arecibo scientific community to start talking. about the opportunities that the Arecibo Observatory can offer. in the future.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@ or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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