Science News

Arecibo Observatory seeks $10.5M for cable repairs after accident

By Paul Brinkmann   |   Nov. 2, 2020 at 3:00 AM
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the most powerful single-dish radio telescope in the world, was damaged Aug. 10 when an auxiliary cable that supports the suspended platform broke. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida A cable tower at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico illustrates the lofty heights of the facility, which on Aug. 10 suffered damage when an auxiliary cable broke. File Photo by Paul Brinkmann/UPI The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the most powerful single-dish radio telescope in the world, was damaged Aug. 10 when an auxiliary cable that supports the suspended platform broke. File Photo by Paul Brinkmann/UPI

ORLANDO, Fla., Nov. 2 (UPI) -- The Arecibo Observatory, the world's most powerful radio space telescope, is seeking $10.5 million to begin repairs after a disastrous cable break in August that damaged the facility in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

Observatory managers, based at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., made the funding request recently to the National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory.

The $10.5 million is only the first stage of funding that will be needed, and the request could be more than double that amount to make the facility fully functional again, said Ray Lugo, director of the university's Florida Space Institute.

"I wouldn't say the situation is dire, but I would say it's complicated," said Lugo, who heads a network of organizations that manage Arecibo. "We still don't know the root cause of the cable break, which makes things difficult."

A 3-inch-wide cable that helped support the observatory's suspended telescope failed in the predawn hours Aug. 10, tearing a 100-foot gash in the observatory's dish below. The observatory shut all major operations as a result, including crucial efforts to track asteroids that could destroy life on Earth if they hit the planet.

Lugo said a contractor in charge of investigating the accident has determined that the cable slipped out of a socket embedded in a support tower.

Unique failure

"The professionals tell me they've never a failure like this before," Lugo said. "These cables are sealed into the sockets with molten zinc metal, so they should be very secure.

"If it ends up being something like a manufacturing defect, then we have a problem because we have a bunch of cables made around the same time."

At least "half a dozen" support cables at the observatory are showing similar signs of slipping through their base socket, he said. So, the observatory has ordered a newer, tougher cable to replace the broken one and seeks funding to replace all the cables at risk, he said.

"This may be expensive, but it beats building a new observatory, which would likely run near $1 billion," Lugo said.

A spokesman for the National Science Foundation said it does not comment on funding requests unless they are approved.

The facility, nestled in rural hills in central Puerto Rico, suffered millions of dollars in damage during Hurricane Maria in 2017. But the facility's staff reported that it came through a series of earthquakes last winter without major damage.

Cables for the observatory, completed in 1963, were made by legacy cable company Bethlehem Wirerope, which was part of Bethlehem Steel and based in Pennsylvania. A successor, Wire Rope Works, bought the company and still owns it.

Socket examined

Technicians and scientists at Kennedy Space Center in Florida are examining the socket from the failed cable, while staff members at the observatory still seek a safe way to enter the dish area and retrieve the cable, Lugo said. He said the unknown nature of the problem has prevented that retrieval.

"We may try to inspect all the cables, using some type of imaging. But the cables are thick, several inches in diameter, and they are embedded in the sockets. So we don't really have the technology to look at it," Lugo said. "We've spent a lot of time trying to figure this out."

He said the proposal to the foundation for emergency funding was more than 500 pages.

The reflector dish set in the mountains spans about 18 acres, while the suspended platform above it is about the size of a six-story building, hanging from three towers as big as skyscrapers.

The facility received two grants of more than $14 million for repair and upgrading after Maria. But Arecibo's annual funding from the National Science Foundation has been slashed.

The structure is known as a film location for such movies as such as 1995's GoldenEye and Species, and 1997's Contact. Two scientists using data from the dish have won Nobel Prizes.

Astronomy conducted at Arecibo over the years has included the study of gravitational waves, possible signs of extraterrestrial life, asteroids, the Earth's ionosphere, pulsars and interstellar hot gas.

Such work led to the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of a binary pulsar by scientists Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, which provided the first evidence for the existence of gravitational waves, according to the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center.

Astronomers at the observatory are to be involved in watching the Didymos asteroid in 2022, when NASA's DART mission will try to hit the asteroid's small moon with a spacecraft to see how that changes its course.