Arecibo telescope collapse may complicate NASA asteroid mission

An aerial photo shows the cleanup of damage from the December collapse of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where the ongoing remediation is estimated at up to $50 million. Photo courtesy of National Science Foundation
1 of 3 | An aerial photo shows the cleanup of damage from the December collapse of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where the ongoing remediation is estimated at up to $50 million. Photo courtesy of National Science Foundation

ORLANDO, Fla., March 12 (UPI) -- The destructive collapse in December of the world's most powerful radar telescope, Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, will make some observations of an upcoming asteroid mission difficult, according to NASA.

The primary goal of the asteroid experiment, or DART mission, is to crash a spacecraft into a small moon that circles asteroid Didymos in 2022, and to observe how the impact affects its motion. The project may help NASA develop a method to redirect an asteroid headed toward Earth someday.


The initial observation of that impact won't be affected by the loss of Arecibo, but follow-up radar images will be limited to a smaller, less sensitive radar telescope, the Goldstone Observatory in Southern California.

NASA had intended to have both Goldstone and Arecibo observe DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, to ensure that problems at one facility wouldn't prevent such observations.


"Radar observations are a scientifically compelling 'value-add' to the DART mission but are not essential for mission success," Tom Statler, program scientist for the mission said in an email.

NASA would use radar to confirm what optical telescopes observe about the impact from reflected light, he said.

"Without Arecibo, using Goldstone alone, this will be more difficult, but it will still be achievable," Statler said.

Arecibo's dish, at 1,000 feet in diameter, is over twice the size of Goldstone's at 229 feet across. Large areas of the Arecibo dish were smashed when the structure above collapsed Dec. 1.

Cables had failed on the telescope in the months leading up to the collapse, but investigators still can't pinpoint the cause of those failures. Cleanup is expected to cost up to $50 million.

"Radar observations, while very interesting, are secondary in importance for the mission," Statler said.

Goldstone won't provide the same level of detail that Arecibo could have because it is not as sensitive, said Flaviane Venditti, a planetary scientist based at Arecibo.

"Goldstone won't be able to spatially resolve the moon [provide a visual image] and provide detailed images, but it will be able to detect it and provide important data for the mission," Venditti said.


SpaceX plans to launch the DART spacecraft no earlier than November from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The total cost of the mission is over $313 million including launch.

The mission is just one of many plans to conduct space science with an uncertain future after the Arecibo disaster. The telescope was known for detecting pulsars and analyzing Earth's ionosphere, or upper atmosphere, where it interacts with solar winds.

For example, the facility, until its collapse, had been a primary tool for a consortium of scientists known as NANOgrav to study supermassive black holes based on detecting gravitational waves.

"Future sensitivity to gravitational waves will decrease without Arecibo," the organization said in a statement about the loss of Arecibo.

In a paper published in December, scientists that have used Arecibo outlined their hopes for a new, more powerful radar telescope to be rebuilt at Arecibo.

But the National Science Foundation, which owns the facility, has said such a new construction project would need to follow the organization's process for building major new facilities.

"Our facilities are conceived and planned through a multi-year process involving many stakeholders," foundation spokesman Rob Margetta said in an email.

That process could take years as the astronomy community examines long-term priorities, Margetta said.


The Arecibo dish was built in Puerto Rico because scientists located a valley that was the right size and shape to support its huge framework. It was an iconic setting for major Hollywood movies and hosted research that led to a Pulitzer Prize for two astronomers.

A coalition of organizations runs Arecibo now, led by the University of Central Florida.

The Arecibo coalition appreciates that the National Science Foundation plans to keep some facilities open at Arecibo, including the visitor's center and a dish that is only 40 feet across, said Ramon Lugo, director of UCF's Florida Space Institute.

"We understand the process that NSF uses and we respect that, but the unforeseen collapse of the telescope is an emergency," Lugo said.

The foundation plans a series of workshops in June to hear ideas for Arecibo's future.

Latest Headlines