May 14, 2021

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Work continues to repair the Arecibo Observatory

31 days after the Arecibo Observatory was disconnected, due to the breakage of an auxiliary cable that damaged the dish and the Gregorian Dome, the team continues to work for its repair and operation.

In a press release, Observatory management indicated that although the cause of the failure is still unknown, the team is working with the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the facility, to implement a plan to stabilize critical structural elements of the installation and initiate a full forensic investigation of the cause of the cable failure.

UCF manages the NSF facility under a cooperative agreement with Ana G. Méndez University and Yang Enterprises Inc.

What has been done to date?

  • A team from the observatory and UCF has met with more than 40 experts in the areas of suspension cable fabrication and installation, structural analysis and forensic investigation.
  • An Observatory Engineering and Safety team was formed.
  • Three companies: WSP, Thornton Thomasetti and Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. (WJE) have been contracted to help coordinate the investigation, analysis and repair planning.
  • NASA’s Center for Engineering and Safety, Kennedy Space Center and Pfeifer Wire are also assisting in the overhaul of the structure.
  • A detailed structural model of the current state of the entire telescope began on August 17 and is expected to be completed in the next two weeks.
  • Daily inspections of the structure are carried out.
  • The Gregorian Dome was moved to its safety position, normally used for hurricane events, and safety pins have been installed since August 20.
  • Basic functional testing has been done on the receivers and at this time it appears that there was no damage to the electronics within the Gregorian Dome, but the S-band radar has not been tested.
  • The observatory leadership and UCF have been reporting regularly to NSF, NASA and other stakeholders.

Next steps

To determine the cause of cable failure, the part of the cable and socket that failed must be retrieved for forensic investigation and analysis. These components cannot be recovered until a comprehensive security analysis of the facility is completed. This will be followed by a safety plan for the personnel who will perform the work on the towers and the platform.

The safety plan cannot be completed without the structural analysis. A computer model will be used to create a structural analysis, which will help determine the cause of the cable failure and whether other areas of the telescope are at increased risk as a result of the break. This model will help frame the scope of repairs, along with costs and time. And that is why analysis is key to the security plan.

As soon as the analyzes are complete, they will be shared with the NSF.

The observatory expects to remove the damaged cable and socket soon after. With those parts in hand, a full forensic investigation of the cable and socket will follow.

“We know the process is taking a long time and we are eager to begin the repairs.”said the director of the Arecibo Observatory, Francisco Córdova.

“However, this is a large and complex facility, so it is taking some time to make sure we are getting it right. We have to make sure we take all factors into account before we go ahead with placing people on the telescope to remove those pieces. Once they are in hand, we expect the schedule to pick up the pace, “he added.

While the main dish is offline, Arecibo’s light and range detection (LIDAR) operations and the remote optical facility (ROF) continue to operate, because they were not damaged in the incident. The ROF is located on the island of Culebra on the eastern side of Puerto Rico. Scientists using LIDAR at Arecibo are conducting a variety of research projects including meteor composition studies. The ROF houses various passive radio and optical equipment.

The facility is used by scientists around the world to conduct research in the areas of atmospheric sciences, planetary sciences, radio astronomy, and radar astronomy. Arecibo is also home to a team leading the Planetary Radar Project supported by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program at NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office through a grant awarded to UCF.

At a minimum, the Arecibo Observatory expects to update the media as the following steps are accomplished:

  • When determining a plan and schedule for temporary repairs
  • When the failed cable and socket are removed
  • When determining the cause of cable failure
  • When a permanent repair plan and schedule is ready
  • A change in operational status at the Arecibo Observatory

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