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3d porn 4kIn the early morning hours of April August 10th, a support cable at the Arecibo Observatory pulled lose from its mount and crashed through the face of the primary reflector below. Images taken from below the iconic 305 meter dish, made famous by films such as Contact and GoldenEye, show an incredible amount of damage. The section of thick cable, estimated to weigh in at around 6,000 kilograms (13,000 pounds), had little difficulty tearing through the reflector’s thin mesh construction.

3d porn 4kWorse still, the cable also struck the so-called “Gregorian dome”, the structure suspended over the dish where the sensitive instruments are mounted. At the time of this writing it’s still unclear as to whether or not any of that instrumentation has been damaged, though NASA at least has said that the equipment they operate inside the dome appears to have survived unscathed. At the very least, the damage to the dome structure itself will need to be addressed before the Observatory can resume normal operations.

The Arecibo Observatory by JidoBG [CC-BY-SA 4.0]
But how long will the repairs take, and who’s going to pay for them? It’s no secret that funding for the 60 year old telescope has been difficult to come by since at least the early 2000s. The cost of repairing the relatively minor damage to the telescope sustained during Hurricane Maria in 2017 may have been enough to shutter the installation permanently if it hadn’t been for a consortium led by the University of Central Florida. They agreed to share the burden of operating the Observatory with the National Science Foundation and put up several million dollars of additional funding.

It’s far too early to know how much time and money it will take to get Arecibo Observatory back up to operational status, but with the current world situation, it seems likely the telescope will be out of commission for at least the rest of the year. Given the fact that repairs from the 2017 damage still haven’t been completed, perhaps even longer than that. In the meantime, astronomers around the globe are left without this wholly unique resource.

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It might not be immediately obvious why the loss of Arecibo might be such a problem. After all, it’s just a radio telescope. It’s not even the largest one anymore, as that title was taken from it in 2016 by the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China. Surely researchers could shuffle their experiments over to other observatories?

In some cases, they likely will. But the Arecibo Observatory has a special feature that makes it unique among all of the large radio telescopes in the world. It can do something that even the much more modern FAST isn’t capable of: it has the ability to transmit, where the others can only serve as receivers. This lets Arecibo perform radar astronomy, by transmitting microwaves and observing how they reflect off of distant objects.

Workers installing the reflector’s mesh panels in 1963.

Normally, transmitting is not something a radio telescope would ever be expected to do. No more than an optical telescope would be expected to project light into the sky. But the Arecibo Observatory wasn’t actually designed as a radio telescope to begin with, at least, not primarily. Its original goal was to help detect nuclear intercontinental ballistics missiles launched from the Soviet Union.

In the late 1950s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (now known as DARPA) started looking into ways to detect incoming ICBMs as they reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. It was generally understood that a object traveling at reentry speeds through the atmosphere would leave a ionized trail in its wake, and that further, this would show up as a distinctive radar signature. But there was little hard data on the subject, and even less was known about the region of the upper atmosphere known as the ionosphere.

To help fill in these gaps, and hopefully produce a reliable way of detecting and tracking potential ICBM warheads, a contract between Cornell University and the ARPA led to the construction of what was then called the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory in 1963. By sending powerful radar transmissions into the ionosphere and studying the returning echo, the installation would be able to study electromagnetic interactions at the wispy edges of the atmosphere.

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The field of radio astronomy was still in its infancy when the dish was built, but it didn’t take long before the true scientific value of Arecibo became apparent. The study of the ionosphere certainly had value, but the sensitive equipment at the observatory could see much farther than that. Within a decade of coming online, data from the dish was able to confirm the existence of neutron stars and identify the first binary pulsar.

The first image ever taken of an asteroid.

The installation’s ability to transmit signals into deep space also held tantalizing possibilities. In 1974 researchers broadcast what has come to be called the Arecibo Message towards the star cluster M13. This 210 byte burst of digital information included simple images of the human form and the radio telescope itself.

It represented the first, and to date only, concerted attempt to directly communicate with potential extraterrestrial life. The composers of the message, which included Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, didn’t really expect a reply; but the fact that humanity was capable of sending it in the first place was seen as a technological turning point.

In 1989, Arecibo was able to capture the first direct images of an asteroid in space. Usually asteroids are too far away and too small to be more than a spec of light through an optical telescope, but when viewed by radar, the shape and rotation of Castalia could be observed easily.

Data collected by the dish in 1990 would later be used to confirm for the first time the existence of planets outside of our own solar system. We now know there to be thousands of these so-called exoplanets, and more are still being discovered thanks to dedicated planet-hunting spacecraft that owe their origins to Arecibo.

An Uncertain Future

To this day, the Arecibo Observatory remains the largest and most powerful deep space transmitter in the world. The radar images it’s able to generate of distant objects is absolutely unparalleled, even 60 years after its construction. More than just satisfying our curiosity about the cosmos, this capability makes it an important part of NASA’s Planetary Defense program. We’re already leaning heavily on antiquated orbital assets to help identify and track potentially dangerous asteroids as they approach the Earth, losing the one-of-a-kind radar capabilities of Arecibo is only making a bad situation even worse.

The 70m dish at Goldstone

Until Arecibo Observatory is able to come back online, our closest thing to a backup is the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. Rather than one huge dish, it’s made up of five independent antennas, the largest of which is less than 1/4 the diameter of the primary reflector at Arecibo.

While not nearly as sensitive, the multiple antennas do have the advantage in that they can each be aimed at a separate targets. That’s because Goldstone is primarily tasked with maintaining communications with distant spacecraft, often several at a time. The antennas can be used as radio telescopes, but only when they aren’t actively engaged in spacecraft communications. That limited research time just got even more valuable with the influx of former Arecibo researchers who will be vying for time on the equipment.

The reality is, much of the research that was being conducted at the Arecibo Observatory will have to be put on hold for the time being. There’s no direct replacement for the radio telescope’s unique set of abilities, and the available research time on lesser installations won’t be sufficient to cover the increased demand. Still, the clear scientific need to get the Observatory back online doesn’t automatically make the logistics of making it happen any easier. At least for the time being, humanity’s ability to peer into the cosmos will be a bit more limited than what we’ve become accustomed to.

52 thoughts on “Damage To Arecibo Leaves Gaping Hole In Astronomy

          1. This is 2020…. the only “bad guys” we have to worry about are piss-ants like North Korea and massive, nigh unstoppable armies like China.In either case throwing money at the problem isn’t going to solve it.This is real life, not a gi-joe cartoon.Now you know.

        1. 1 in 7 people in the US are directly, or indirectly, working for the Military-industrial complex. How much unemployment would be caused even by slowly weaning down from $721.5 billion (The full Fiscal Year 2020 Department of Defense’s budget authority). The easiest way would be to keep it static for say the next 100 years, even attempting that would probably get you killed.

        2. Do you think that at the end of the cold war, the practice of daily testing the US border defenses by foreign armed forces came to an end? Are you unaware of Chinese submarines in US coastal waters? If the US shut down its military, America’s population would be dead or enslaved within a month.

          1. ROTFLMAOAre military does nothing with that spending but build tanks and fighters to sit and rot out in the desert.Also we can’t win against the Chinese, so get that idea out of your head.What keeps them from taking over is the global economy and a little thing called diplomacy.

            Fighting for Peace is like Fucking for Virginity — George Carlin

      1. It’s politics.It’s like the guy who buys a new shiny car instead of just getting new tires and tune up for the one he has.No one else will notice the tune up and new tires, but everyone notices a new car.

    1. Gotta love the NASA hype. “LCRT could enable tremendous scientific discoveries in the field of cosmology by observing the early universe in the 10– 50m wavelength band (i.e., 6–30MHz frequency band), which has not been explored by humans till-date.” Unless it couldn’t.

      It reminds me of a NASA presentation at a Geophysics gathering before the Apollo missions where a NASA guy said that with some Moon rocks we can tell the origin of the Moon. One of my physics profs got up and asked “What if it is Basalt?” There was a blank stare by the NASA guy so prof continued “If the rocks are basalt, what is the origin of the Moon?” There was some mumble mumble uhum, and he moved on.

  1. Quote: It represented the first, and to date only, concerted attempt to directly communicate with potential extraterrestrial life. The composers of the message, which included Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, didn’t really expect a reply; but the fact that humanity was capable of sending it in the first place was seen as a technological turning point.

    Thank goodness that was our only attempt. Look at our own history. Many tech advances came from war and war-like competitions. Space beings that could hear and come to us might be ones that’s had centuries of war-like behavior. Not good for us on our comfortable little planet.

    JPL’s DSN can’t replace Arecebo. As you can see from this site, those antennas stay busy communicating with our space probes or setting up to do so. We might be better advised to start afresh and build a replacement for Arecibo, one specifically designed to spot asteroids that might strike our planet. That would justify the cost for a large antenna with a powerful transmitter. And I suspect seeing those objects with radar will be better than seeing them with a telescope. Among other benefits, radar automatically provides the range and (through doppler) relative speed. That would speed up the classification into safe or dangerous.

    https://eyes.jpl.nasa.gov/dsn/dsn.html

    1. One additional reason to build a new Arecibo—additional receive antennas of the more traditional type.It might make sense to have a large antenna that transmits a powerful pulse in a specific direction and then moves slightly to transmit another series. Waiting some minutes for a return signal each time would tie up that large antenna. Those smaller antennas could do the listening and the system as a whole could cover more of the sky in less time.

      1. I think another large dish like Arecibo should be built in the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand, southern Chile?), to view area that the FAST and Arecibo do not “see”.

        1. The problem is, is there a suitable crater or sinkhole to build it over? Arecibo is built over a karst sinkhole. FAST is built over a natural depression.

          It would cost a lot more and construction would be more complicated to build such large dishes on any other shape of terrain. The supporting towers would have to be much more massive.

          FAST can only use a 300 meter diameter circle of its surface at any time. Unlike Arecibo, FAST has 2225 winches under its reflector surface to warp it into a parabola as needed.

          Upgrading Arecibo to such a system would increase its capabilities due to being able to more sharply focus rather than having the instruments adapt to spherical aberration.

    2. “Look at our own history. Many tech advances came from war and war-like competitions. Space beings that could hear and come to us might be ones that’s had centuries of war-like behavior. Not good for us on our comfortable little planet.”

      This is really, really, really bad logic.

      If there are space beings that can come to us on *any* reasonable timescale, they already know this planet exists. It would be *extremely* trivial to survey literally all of the stars in the galaxy if you’ve got faster-than-light travel. We’re stuck on this rock with little spacefaring technology and we’ve already confirmed over 4000 planets in over 3000 systems, at a rate of over 100/year.And it’s an exponential growth technology, with a doubling rate of about 4 years. There’s no way whatsoever that an alien civilization capable of interstellar travel hasn’t already mapped out the entire galaxy.

      It’s just not that hard a problem, regardless of the silliness of “star chart” logic in sci-fi space shows. Sea charts existed because you literally can’t see over the horizon. There’s nothing really similar with space on a similar scale.

      Moreover, if they already know this planet exists, it’s not interesting to them. They would have known it exists for a long time. We certainly aren’t going to make it more interesting to them, and if it’s interesting to them for resource purposes, they would’ve already been here.

      As much fun as it is to imagine a conquering space alien race that could be a threat to us, they simply don’t exist.

      1. “As much fun as it is to imagine a conquering space alien race that could be a threat to us, they simply don’t exist.” I disagree, they may well exist, but what do we have that they would want? I mean the U.S. may conquer the Middle East, but that’s for oil, and China conquered Tibet for land and honour but who the hell would want to conquer Bouvet Island? So the aliens may be out there but we’re not important enough to send a shuttle full of cadets after.

    3. So you see a danger with attempting to communicate directly with aliens, but not with blasting the cosmos with radar? It’s basically the same thing if the aliens are as smart and warlike as you fear.

    4. Technology has moved on, and a fixed parabolic dish — even a huge parabolic dish that could be pointed — is not the appropriate choice for asteroid search or most of the other Arecibo jobs. A phased array antenna system makes possible looking in multiple directions at once. The burden becomes electronics and software, not a huge and dramatic looking edifice.

    1. I think these things will be built privately. This kind of thing gets easier all the time due to advances in design, materials, and software. A fraction of the endowment at any number of universities could easily build an all new Arecibo, or another VLA. Or put telescopes in orbit with the ever-lowering costs of reaching high orbit.

      A lunar antenna is beyond the scope, unless the mass is very low and maybe it can be oven in place by robots like a spider web. In 1/6g and steel wire (no rusting in vacuum) or something like coated/plated Aramid could keep launch weight down and very compact.

      HaD prize for spider web robots?

      1. The Moon has the advantage over the Earth that it rotates 1/30th as fast, making stable pointing a bit easier. A Lagrange point telescope makes more sense because it need not rotate at all and doesn’t have to fight significant gravity. But as long as we’re putting it in space, low Earth orbit allows repairability, which may be more important than microgravity or distancing from Earth-based interference.

  2. No Gofundme campaign?

    Sam Harris used to say that if an antenna survived the winter, it must be too small.Then he moved to Arecibo.His role there in hobby circles seemed to present him as a“lowly technician” but I gather from recent reading his role was much bigger.

    He did arrange in 1964 to use Arecibo for moonbounce.I assumed because it was early and there was free time,but maybe not.But the dish provided so much gain that the bounced signal was still relatively strong back on earth.It meant others could use relatively small antennas, and less than full power, but still make contact. They say that at Arecibo, it sounded like a crowded shortwave band, rather than UHF.

    The September 1965 issue if “73” magazine,page14 has an article about this

  3. Sadly, they may do better if they leave the local contractors out of the repair loop. (and any mainland project mgt firms as well) No, not the recent reasons you’re thinking of, it was the HUGE electrical grid one.

  4. Crowdfund repairs and an upgrade to an active surface like the 500 meter FAST in China. FAST only uses a movable 300 meter circle of its surface. It has over 2200 computer controlled winches to warp the part being used into a parabola so it can have a tighter focus.

  5. I’m surprised that maintenance and ’emergency slush funds were not catered for in the running costs.All things that age will break down and someone should have had a plan, and funds, to maintain this.

  6. why do people find lose (pronounced like ooze) and loose (pronounced like moose) so difficult?
    Lose means something is lost, as in ‘When will you lose your marbles?’
    Loose means something is nearly detached as in ‘You have a screw loose’

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