The End of Arecibo

I’ve just heard the news that the famous (and indeed iconic) radio telescope in Puerto Rico known as the Arecibo Observatory is to be decommissioned. The facility was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and it was feared it might close then, but it was saved when an agreement was reached whereby a Consortium led by the University of Central Florida took over its operations.

Unfortunately, in August 2020 an auxiliary cable broke in August and tore a 30-metre diameter hole in the reflector dish and damaged the dome above it. Then, earlier this month, one of the telescope’s main steel cables snapped, causing further damage. It has now been decided that it will be too dangerous and too expensive to repair the telescope. It is to be decommissioned and then dismantled entirely. Presumably the site will be returned to the state it was in before the telescope was built.

This will be sad news for the people who work at Arecibo Observatory and for the local economy in Puerto Rico not to mention the many astronomers who have used the facility over the years. For a time it was the largest radio telescope in the world, its 1000ft diameter dish enabling it to achieve a resolution of about 3.5 arc minutes at 21cm. Even before the Hurricane struck, however, Arecibo had been struggling to find the funds necessary to maintain its operations. Now, almost 60 years after it was built, that struggle is over.

17 Responses to “The End of Arecibo”

  1. It’s days were numbered when Ellie Arroway moved over to the VLA.

  2. You do wonder whether the repairs would have been funded had it been in a US state, rather than in Puerto Rico

    • It is no secret that Green Bank profited heavily from Senator Byrd. The citizens of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, but it is essentially what was formerly known as a colony, and there isn’t much representation. Considering that taxation without representation was the reason for the War of Independence, that might seem strange, but there is some representation and somewhat less tax.

      • It’s also the case that Jodrell Bank was kept open largely because of the intervention of local politicians when the funding councils (PPARC/STFC) thought funding should be cut,

      • Sometimes local politicians are good to have on one’s side. 😐

        Had Jodrell Bank been closed down, the SKA Headquarters would probably have been built somewhere else.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Well worth reading is the biography of Bernard Lovell by his neighbour John Bromley-Davenport, “Space has no frontier”. It includes plenty on difficult it was not to get the plug pulled on Jodrell even as it was being built, and on the success of the cavity magnetron in creating the first ground-scanning airborne radar system (H2S) during the war – the latter despite II Rabi’s transatlantic scepticism and preference for an inferior system.

      • I think that (later) Sir Bernard originally planned to stay for two weeks out at Jodrell Bank, and things kept getting extended. The site is a good example of “organic growth”. The SKA headquarters is probably the first building which was intended to stay in its original form for a long time.

      • Jodrell Bank is owned by the University of Manchester, not by STFC. I think you are referring to e-Merlin instead? That survived on minimized funding and turned out remarkably well, in my biassed opinion.

      • Right, but with no STFC funding at all, would the institute have been able to survive?

      • There is no institute. Funding for the activities comes from STFC, the ERC, individual universities, and a few other things. e-Merlin is shared with STFC as a national facility, but the Lovell telescope is fully university owned. The Discovery Centre is university funded and attracts 150,000 visitors per year (ok, not this year). The Lovell telescope is grade-1 listed ,and the site as a whole is a Unesco world heritage site. The range of activities is clearly dependent on funding, but the university has good reasons not to close it.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Reminds me of a cricket ground with one of those moveable overhead cameras on wires strung from the floodlights. (Explain that sentence to someone watching a county championship match 50 years ago!) Perhaps it could be made a permanent site for World Cup finals.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think the Arecibo things moves a bit more slowly than the cricket cameras. It would have been OK when Geoffrey Boycott was batting though.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        A nice exercise would be to write the software that turns the pulleys at each lighting tower so as to put the camera at a given height above a given point on the pitch.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Tommy Gold was heavily involved with Arecibo. A remarkable man who gave some fascinating lectures on diverse topics over a week in Sydney in the mid-80s when I was there.

  5. I wonder whether Arecibo would have survived if they had done preventative maintenance earlier and replaced those cables, rather than waiting until after one had failed. Maintenance can be expensive, but postponing it is not always ideal either.

  6. […] posted recently about the decision to close the iconic radio telescope at Arecibo. Well it seems the end has come […]

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