Arecibo Telescope: From prominence to ruin

The Arecibo Observatory, an astronomical observatory, is located 16 km south of the city of Arecibo in Puerto Rico.

The massive Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico, famous for its stellar contributions to astronomy, collapsed in December, leaving the scientific community in a state of shock and anxiety. The collapse was also devastating for many Puerto Ricans, for whom the observatory was culturally significant. Let’s read in detail the role of the observer in world astronomy

The Arecibo Observatory, an astronomical observatory, is located 16 km south of the city of Arecibo in Puerto Rico. It was the site of the largest single-unit radio telescope in the world until FAST in China began observations in 2016.

The second largest single-antenna radio telescope in the world, Arecibo has withstood numerous hurricanes and earthquakes since it was first built in 1963. Even before its collapse, experts sounded the alarm about the state of the telescope and recommended a controlled demolition of the entire structure.

Massive structure

The Arecibo Observatory, built in the early 1960s, used a 305-meter (1,000-foot) spherical reflector made of perforated aluminum panels that focused incoming radio waves on mobile antenna structures positioned about 168 meters (550 feet) above the reflector’s surface.

The antenna structures could be moved in any direction, making it possible to track a celestial object in different regions of the sky. The observatory also had a 30-meter (100-foot) auxiliary telescope that served as a radio interferometer and a high-power transmission facility used to study the Earth’s atmosphere.

The cable broke

In August 2020, a cable holding the central platform broke and made a hole in the vessel. After a second cable broke in November 2020, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which owned the observatory, announced that the telescope was in danger of collapsing and that the cables could not be repaired safely. The NSF thus planned to decommission the observatory. On December 1, 2020, a few days after the NSF announcement, the cables broke and the central platform collapsed into the vessel.

The platform for major discoveries

Scientists using the Arecibo Observatory discovered the first extrasolar planets around the B1257 + 12 pulsar in 1992. The observatory also produced detailed radar maps of the surface of Venus and Mercury and found that Mercury rotated every 59 days instead. 88 days, so it doesn’t always look the same face to the Sun.

A NASA historian confirmed that Arecibo’s lunar radar maps were used to determine a landing point for the Apollo 11 mission, the first human landing on the moon.

American astronomers Russell Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, Jr. used Arecibo to discover the first binary pulsar. They showed that they lost energy through gravitational radiation at the rate predicted by the general relativity theory of the physicist Albert Einstein and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993 for their discovery.

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