WASHINGTON – Following a review of engineering evaluations that found that damage to the Arecibo Observatory cannot be stabilized without risk to construction workers and facility personnel, the United States National Science Foundation (NSF, for its plans to dismantle the 305-meter telescope, which for 57 years has served as a world-class resource for research in radio astronomy, planetariums, solar systems and geospaces, will begin Thursday.
“NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, albeit unfortunate,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in written communication.
“For almost six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for revolutionary science and what a partnership with a community can look like. Although this is a profound change, we will look for ways to help the scientific community and maintain that solid relationship with the people of Puerto Rico, ”he added.
The decision comes after NSF evaluated multiple evaluations by independent engineering companies that found that the telescope’s structure is in danger of catastrophic failure and that its cables may no longer be capable of supporting the loads for which they were designed. Additionally, multiple assessments indicated that any repair attempt could put workers in life-threatening danger. Even in the event of future repairs, the engineers found that the structure would likely present long-term stability issues.
Engineers have been examining the 305-meter telescope at the Arecibo Observatory since August, when one of its supporting cables came off. The NSF authorized the University of Central Florida, which administers Arecibo, to take all reasonable steps and use available funds to address the situation, while safety remains the top priority. UCF acted quickly and the assessment process followed its expected schedule, considering the age of the facility, the complexity of the design, and the potential risk to workers.
Engineering teams had designed and were ready to implement the emergency structural stabilization of the booster cable system. While the observatory was arranging for the delivery of two replacement auxiliary cables, as well as two temporary cables, a main cable broke on the same tower on November 6. Based on the stresses in the second broken cable, which should have been within its ability to function without breaking: the engineers concluded that the remaining cables are likely weaker than originally projected.
“The leadership of the Arecibo Observatory and UCF did a commendable job in addressing this situation, acting quickly and seeking all possible options to salvage this incredible instrument,” said Ralph Gaume, director of the Division of Astronomical Sciences at NSF. “Until these evaluations came, our question was not whether the observatory should be repaired, but how. But in the end, a preponderance of data showed that we simply couldn’t do this safely. And that is a line that we cannot cross ”.
The scope of NSF’s decommissioning plan would focus only on the 305-meter telescope and is intended to safely preserve other parts of the observatory that could be damaged or destroyed in the event of an unplanned catastrophic collapse. The plan aims to retain as much of the remaining infrastructure of the Arecibo Observatory as possible so that it remains available for future research and educational missions.
The decommissioning process involves developing a technical execution plan and ensuring compliance with a series of legal, environmental, safety and cultural requirements over the next several weeks. NSF has authorized a high-resolution photographic study using drones and is considering options for forensic evaluation of the broken cable, if such action can be done safely, to see if any new evidence could inform ongoing plans. This work has already begun and will continue during decommissioning planning. Equipment and other materials will be temporarily moved to buildings outside of the danger zone. When all necessary preparations have been made, the telescope will undergo controlled disassembly.
Following the dismantling of the telescope, NSF would intend to restore operations at assets such as the Arecibo Observatory LIDAR facility, a valuable geospatial research tool, as well as the visitor center and off-site facility at Culebra, which analyzes coverage. cloud and precipitation data. NSF would also seek to explore possibilities to expand the educational capabilities of the learning center. Security precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in place as appropriate.
Some Arecibo operations involving the analysis and cataloging of archived data collected by the telescope would continue. UCF secured improved cloud storage and analytics capabilities in 2019 through an agreement with Microsoft, and the observatory is working to migrate on-site data to servers outside of the affected area.
The observatory areas that could be affected by an uncontrolled collapse have been evacuated since November will be broken down and will remain closed to unauthorized personnel during the decommissioning. NSF and UCF will work to minimize risk in the area in the event of an unexpected collapse. NSF has prioritized a speedy and comprehensive process with the intention of avoiding such an event.
NSF recognizes the cultural and economic importance of the Arecibo Observatory to Puerto Rico, and how the telescope serves as an inspiration to Puerto Ricans considering STEM education and employment. NSF’s goal is to work with the government of Puerto Rico and other stakeholders and partners to explore the possibility of applying resources from the Arecibo Observatory for educational purposes.
“Throughout its life, the Arecibo Observatory has helped transform our understanding of the ionosphere, showing us how density, composition, and other factors interact to shape this critical region where Earth’s atmosphere meets the Earth’s atmosphere. space, “said Michael Wiltberger, Head of NSF’s Geospace Section. “While I am disappointed in the loss of research capabilities, I believe this process is a necessary step to preserve the research community’s ability to utilize the other assets of the Arecibo Observatory and hopefully ensure that a important work on the premises ”.