Tensions High After Second Failed Cable At Arecibo

Today we’re sad to report that one of the primary support cables at the Arecibo Observatory has snapped, nudging the troubled radio telescope closer to a potential disaster. The Observatory’s 300 meter reflector dish was already badly in need of repairs after spending 60 years exposed to the elements in Puerto Rico, but dwindling funds have made it difficult for engineers to keep up. Damage from 2017’s Hurricane Maria was still being repaired when a secondary support cable broke free and smashed through the dish back in August, leading to grave concerns over how much more abuse the structure can take before a catastrophic failure is inevitable.

The situation is particularly dire because both of the failed cables were attached to the same tower. Each of the remaining cables is now supporting more weight than ever before, increasing the likelihood of another failure. Unless engineers can support the dish and ease the stress on these cables, the entire structure could be brought down by a domino effect; with each cable snapping in succession as the demands on them become too great.

Workers installing the reflector’s mesh panels in 1963.

As a precaution the site has been closed to all non-essential personnel, and to limit the risk to workers, drones are being used to evaluate the dish and cabling as engineers formulate plans to stabilize the structure until replacement cables arrive. Fortunately, they have something of a head start.

Back in September the University of Central Florida, which manages the Arecibo Observatory, contacted several firms to strategize ways they could address the previously failed cable and the damage it caused. Those plans have now been pushed up in response to this latest setback.

Unfortunately, there’s still a question of funding. There were fears that the Observatory would have to be shuttered after Hurricane Maria hit simply because there wasn’t enough money in the budget to perform the relatively minor repairs necessary. The University of Central Florida stepped in and provided the funding necessary to keep the Observatory online in 2018, but they may need to lean on their partner the National Science Foundation to help cover the repair bill they’ve run up since then.

The Arecibo Observatory is a unique installation, and its destruction would be an incredible blow for the scientific community. Researchers were already struggling with the prospect of repairs putting the powerful radio telescope out of commission for a year or more, but now it seems there’s a very real possibility the Observatory may be lost. Here’s hoping that teams on the ground can safely stabilize the iconic instrument so it can continue exploring deep space for years to come.

45 thoughts on “Tensions High After Second Failed Cable At Arecibo

      1. Find some corporate sponsorship to fund a complete rebuild and upgrade to a similar adjustable surface. If there’s a tax incentive involved, there will be money available.

      1. The initiating article from August https://hackaday.com/2020/08/24/damage-to-arecibo-leaves-gaping-hole-in-astronomy/ had a response for your comment already. This facility was already backlogged significantly. Further the China facility was made because of the years of backlog world wide (well partially for that reason). Researchers in China will have priority (welcome to reality) on their facility. The new China facility likely has quite the backlog already so “it won’t be available” any time soon unless someone of great political power gets involved.

        1. It stands to reason that there will be some “China First” at the start; afterall with ~1.4Bn population I’m pretty sure they have shitload of scientists that will want to get their hands on the shiny new toy. But the plans are, same as with most great scientific tools (Arecibo, Hubble, ISS, LHC, ESO, …), to make it available to everyone “Next year, FAST will be open to the world. Although this telescope was built by the Chinese people, we should have the mind of a big country and contribute to mankind’s exploration of the mysteries of the universe.”

      2. What makes Arecibo special is it’s ability to transmit. Other radio telescope around the globe are receivers only. It’s also wonderful that Arecibo turned from a cold war era radar dish into a peaceful instrument.

      1. it is not a radio telescope, it is:
        radio star beaming ear…
        damn, my creativity fails to simulate aliexpress’ naming for something like that (russian translations there are… they feel like they were written under some psychedelic substance)

        1. Reading Russian product reviews auto translated to English is great fun too. “The cat arrived to Moscow in no time! Looking forward to licking it!” while reading comments under FPGA development board.

  1. NSF, which provides much of the Arecibo observatory funding, has budget of over $8 billion. That budget increases steadily btw, despite what popular preconceptions would suggest. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/12/final-2020-spending-bill-kind-us-research

    And yet, for over a decade, it has been actively trying its best to reduce funding for the observatory, to less than $10 million.

    And I really struggle to figure out why.

    1. Their budget increases, but does it increase at the same rate as the cost to fund graduate students, post-docs and equipment increases? Or the overhead to fund the university buildings in which they work? Not to mention the army of administrators who implement the federal laws imposed to regulate the research, and make sure that all the training required by federal and state regulation and law are implemented? Speaking as a (self-funded, part-time) adult grad student, the amount of training the University requires on behalf of federal regs and laws has tripled in the last 5 years. The cost of health insurance for grad students/post-docs is part of their compensation, and the safety requirements university labs are also now more like private industry. So rather than paying for highly educated indentured servitude, NSF is funding a somewhat higher level of work environment, just like private employer’s labor costs have increased.

      Why do they try to reduce funding for legacy science? For the same reason they reduced funding for the Synchrotron Radiation Center in Wisconsin-the first dedicated storage ring synchrotron. Age, changing safety requirements, increased maintenance costs due to aging infrastructure, and a persistent penchant among the headlines that celebrates “new and different”, while ignoring the everyday people and activities maintaining the “commonplace”.

      1. The budget of NSF is itemized in a rather significant degree, so we know how much money goes to what.
        At the same time, the regulatory requirements changes in the last five years could hardly explain why they pushed for closing the facility since at least 2005.

        But I think you have hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph. The facility is old, and hardly interesting to general public.

        There is a reason why there are so few of these facilities around the globe, even compared to say, particle colliders, or optical telescopes.

        1. Used to work there. It’s a long story, but in part it’s politics & bureaucracy, in part personal grudges, and in part NSF’s over budgeting.

          I only have hearsay (from a rather well placed individual I won’t name who was close to the people involved), but the initial closing push came in part due to a grudge between the director of NSF Astronomy and the Arecibo leadership at Cornell. This started the long downward spiral.

          Then in 2011, NSF decided that they didn’t want Cornell to run it anymore and pushed it to a proposal for leadership. This lead to massive complications, as the observatory leadership was now led by three entities. Things like different staff groups having different holidays and benefits, or slow purchasing because all purchasing had to go through one of the entities and their purchasing dept had only a handful of employees (less than five iirc), which were shared between the observatory and their own needs.

          On top of that, NSF kept reducing funding along the way. That wouldn’t be a problem, except they made it difficult for the observatory to find it’s own money. A wealthy donor close to the observatory attempted to donate a large sum of money to fund a summer internship program (supplemental to the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergrads program), NSF gave the observatory leadership the runaround for so long that the donor gave up and walked away (I have first hand knowledge of this, but am also withholding names). Another case of this is actually public knowledge so I’ll link it here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/search-for-alien-life-ignites-battle-over-giant-telescope/. At every turn, NSF would either claim the funding source was unsuitable (can’t really share details as I’m not sure of the exact ones but have heard it from three different high level people at AO over the years that a local well known distillery had interests in sponsoring in exchange for advertising at the visitor center), would turn around and decrease funding claiming that since we found a new source they could decrease their promised funding levels ahead of schedule, or would just generally mismanage things until the donor gave up.

          I don’t begrudge the need for reducing funding. I know the US gov’t has been dialing back science spending due to an alarming lack of belief in basic sciences in our congress. But when that gets coupled with the NSF’s over promises to new projects and under funding, and then you toss in petty personal grievances, you get the seemingly intentional behavior that has run the Arecibo Observatory into the ground.

      2. ” Synchrotron Radiation Center in Wisconsin” my bet its USA aka the byproduct of failed socioeconmic experiment “what will happen if we let corporations roam free, cut social spending to the bone and give guns to anybody who wants it”. Sorry American friends you are walking dark path now, please return to civilized family we need you guys because theres China and Russia looming.

  2. I guess the “tensions high” headline was supposed to be punny…..

    This telescope needs to be treated as a national treasure. It’s the most famous radio telescope of all time and still serves a very useful function in the research of the universe. NASA and private corporations should be jumping at the opportunity to get the telescope repaired and upgraded. The general public doesn’t know about this because science is not “newsworthy” these days, but the plight of the telescope needs to be publicized and an uproar made for the government to fund, at least in part, the repair and upgrade.

    And you can always use the NASCAR model, I’m sure Tesla and Google would like to have their logo painted on the interior of the dish.

      1. Sounds like a great idea, until NSF comes along and pisses on it claiming it’s an unsuitable source of funding. See my other comment on here… that idea was pitched, though I think it was getting Google or Coca-Cola to clean & paint the dish.

      1. Gates has been doing philanthropic work for decades. Maybe one of these other nouveau riche goons can stop doing mountains of blow and womanizing long enough to cough up the cash.

      1. While you *can* repaint your house and fix the foundation at the same time, it’s probably advisable to do the foundation first. Just in case, you know, the house turns out to be unlivable.

  3. Green Bank fell down; a newer and better telescope was built (currently the largest steerable dish). Almost immediately, its funding faltered, and it’s currently tottering along. The Arecibo facility was already teetering on the edge of closing, as pointed out, maintenance was already behind. So, dear readers, closing the facility is in all probability inevitable.

    Odd that we as a nation should have funded the Chinese antenna through our policy decisions which, through recent events, are about to change again.

    1. Except you can have civilized capitalism working for the people not for corporations look at nordic countries, heck even look at Germany. Real life solution is to let free market do what it does the best but limit and even choose social solutions where they do the best.
      Say for example urbanism, do you like standing in traffic jams? searching for parking spots? solution isn’t more cars and “freedom” multi lane roads but public transport. Sparesly populated areas are better served with private cars but cities need buses, trams and subways. Same thing works for rest of the country economy.

        1. Exactly it is capitalist country where it needs to be and socialist country where it needs to!(healthcare, education, social programs, public transport and so on).

          Compare it to USA and Wenezuela (or other socialism gone bad country) see the difference?

          Full capitalism ends with corporations and bilionaires going rampant like USA with healthcare being joke, with back breaking university debts and so on, full socialism ends us breaking country economy and driving into poverty. Capitalism isn’t on-off type of thing there are many many flavours and options in-between heck even socialism isn’t on the far left of the scale because theres also full blown communism where noone owns anything and everything is shared, while full right on the economic scale you have full anarchy without any kind of economic control over free market.

          You need mixed system using best of two worlds thats why you have Nordic countries that not only get on top of “doing business” like lists of freedom of market but they also get on top of the lists of social care, they are low on lists of incom inequality, low on crime and so on.
          Throw out ideologies, left-right, socialists-capitalists, republicans-democrats, look at what works and what doeasn’t and then take the best solutions. this is my exepirience of 20 years working as economist it really doesn’t matter if hammer is red or blue what matters is if its best to drive nails.

  4. Thanks for covering this! Arecibo has always been close to my heart, and it so often goes unnoticed by the public due to it’s location and age.

    This amazing piece of technology and engineering has sadly been set aside by NSF and left to languish until it falls apart, which is a massive shame since it’s still producing magnificent and competitive science.

    So few know of how unique it is due to being one of the few “active” radio telescope, meaning it can transmit radar beams to study objects in our solar system. When it comes to studying near-earth asteroids, Arecibo can’t be beat. Due to the nature of radar observations, a single observation of an asteroid can give you enough detail to determine an object’s orbital parameters, something which can generally take a number of optical observations, as well as in most cases a highly detailed 3d model of the asteroid.

    It’s sensitivity is also amazing due to it’s size. At 305m in diameter, it was the largest single-aperture telescope for over 50 years. It’s still the second largest!

    For over 50 years it’s stood up to hurricanes and earth quakes, it’ll be a shame to see it go because it won’t be maintained any longer.

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