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HomeNature NewsFamend Arecibo telescope received’t be rebuilt — and astronomers are heartbroken

Famend Arecibo telescope received’t be rebuilt — and astronomers are heartbroken


The Arecibo Observatory after one of the main cables holding the receiver broke in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on December 1, 2020.

The Arecibo Observatory’s 305-metre-wide telescope dish was destroyed in late 2020, after supporting cables snapped.Credit score: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP by way of Getty

After a world-famous radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed two years in the past, many scientists hoped that the US Nationwide Science Basis (NSF), which runs the ability, would finally construct a brand new one to interchange it. As a substitute, the company has introduced that it’ll set up an academic centre for science, know-how, engineering and maths (STEM) on the web site. The revised plan would possibly ramp down or dramatically alter the remaining analysis being completed at Arecibo.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Héctor Arce, an astronomer at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, who’s from Puerto Rico and has labored on Arecibo advocacy efforts. “To many it looks as if yet one more unjust manner of treating the colonial territory of Puerto Rico.”

The NSF says that it’s following group suggestions in not planning to rebuild the big telescope and as an alternative establishing the brand new academic centre. “We’re not closing Arecibo,” says Sean Jones, head of the NSF’s directorate of mathematical and bodily sciences. “We expect this new method and new centre will probably be catalytic in lots of areas.”

The company introduced its plans in a name for proposals on 13 October. It requests concepts for organising and operating an academic centre at Arecibo, at a value of US$1 million to $3 million per 12 months over 5 years beginning in 2023. That cash would possibly or won’t embody funds to function analysis services at Arecibo nonetheless in use, resembling a 12-metre radio antenna and a lidar system that makes use of lasers to check Earth’s ambiance.

The scenario “may very well be worse,” says Abel Méndez, a planetary astronomer on the College of Puerto Rico at Arecibo who makes use of the 12-metre antenna for analysis and educating. However “it may very well be a lot, significantly better”.

“It’s devastating to know that that’s their final resolution,” says Desirée Cotto-Figueroa, an astronomer on the College of Puerto Rico at Humacao. “Particularly regardless of all of the efforts made by the employees and scientists of the Arecibo Observatory and by the overall scientific group to maintain it working because the analysis centre of excellence that it has all the time been with the observing services which can be left.”

A powerhouse of training

One main query is how the Arecibo web site will draw college students and academics if there may be little lively analysis to take part in. “But the NSF requires proposals for a world-class academic establishment,” says Anne Virkki, a planetary scientist on the College of Helsinki in Finland. “How does anybody do this with out the world-class scientists, engineers, and devices?”

The NSF says that it’s asking for exactly these kinds of concepts. The brand new centre may assist ongoing work in astronomy and planetary science, or it may concentrate on different areas such because the organic sciences, says James L. Moore III, the top of the NSF’s training and human assets directorate. “Right here’s a chance to reimagine what the probabilities may very well be,” he says.

Arecibo Observatory has lengthy been a powerhouse of STEM training in Puerto Rico due to its famend telescope and place in astronomical historical past. College students skilled there have gone on to change into skilled astronomers and planetary scientists in lots of nations.

The 305-metre-wide radio telescope that collapsed in 2020 performed a key function in lots of scientific fields for greater than half a century, together with the seek for extraterrestrial life, the invention of the primary extrasolar planets and of gravitational waves, and the examine of near-Earth asteroids and of quick radio bursts.

The NSF has run the observatory for the reason that Seventies, working with a collection of contractors. It has been making an attempt to wind down funding at Arecibo since 2006, to shift funding to newer astronomical services. Advocates rallied and analysis continued, however the observatory confronted recent challenges in 2017, when Hurricane Maria broken a lot of the ability, and in early 2020 when a collection of earthquakes prompted extra injury.

Then got here the collapse of the 305-metre dish. One among its essential supporting cables failed in August 2020, then one other in November of that 12 months, and the NSF determined it was too structurally unsound to restore. An engineering investigation revealed 5 components that contributed to the collapse, together with the design of the cable system, deferred upkeep, and injury from hurricanes and earthquakes.

An observatory no extra

Analysis has continued on the smaller services at Arecibo Observatory. At the moment funded tasks utilizing these services will be capable of end up, Jones says, and scientists can suggest to proceed their use underneath the scope of the brand new academic centre.

The lidar services embody a potassium laser that research the temperature of layers in Earth’s ambiance, and a deliberate new instrument to probe aerosols resembling atmospheric mud. The 12-metre antenna serves as a node in a long-distance astronomical community operated by European astronomers. Different analysis tasks that use it embody Méndez’s research of pink dwarf stars and the habitability of planets round them.

Many who work with Arecibo devices at the moment are scrambling to determine find out how to ramp down their analysis tasks. Underneath the brand new plan, the positioning will not be referred to as Arecibo Observatory — changing into as an alternative the Arecibo Heart for STEM Training and Analysis.




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