Arecibo Telescope: From Notoriety to Ruin

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

Puerto Rico’s massive Arecibo Telescope, known for its outstanding contributions to astronomy, collapsed in December, leaving the scientific community in shock and fear. The collapse was also devastating to many Puerto Ricans, for whom the observatory was culturally significant. Let us read in detail the role of the observatory 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 world’s largest single-unit radio telescope until FAST began observing in China in 2016.

Arecibo, the second largest single-dish radio telescope in the world, had withstood many hurricanes and earthquakes since it was built in 1963. Even before its collapse, experts had raised alarms about the state of the telescope and recommended a controlled demolition of the entire telescope’s structure.

Massive structure

The Arecibo Observatory, built in the early 1960s, used a spherical 305-meter reflector made from perforated aluminum plates that focused incident radio waves onto movable antenna structures located approximately 168 meters above the reflector surface.

The antenna structures can 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 auxiliary telescope, which served as a radio interferometer, and a high-performance transmitter for studying the earth’s atmosphere.

Cable torn

In August 2020, a cable holding the central platform snapped and drilled a hole in the bowl. After a second cable broke in November 2020, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which owned the observatory, announced that the telescope was at risk of collapse and the cables could not be safely repaired. The NSF therefore planned to shut down the observatory. On December 1, 2020, days after the NSF announced, the cables broke and the central platform fell into the bowl.

Platform for important discoveries

Scientists using the Arecibo Observatory discovered the first extrasolar planets around the pulsar B1257 + 12 in 1992. The observatory also made detailed radar maps of the surface of Venus and Mercury and discovered that Mercury rotated every 59 days instead of 88 days and did not always show the sun the same face.

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

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

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