Claim: The USA’s Largest Radio Observatory is on the Verge of Structural Collapse

The Arecibo Observatory
The Arecibo Observatory. By JidoBG – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, link

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

According to The Register, after two recent cable failures the 900 ton platform suspended above the gigantic Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico is literally hanging by a thread. Fraying has been observed in the other cables. Engineers are refusing to certify whether the remaining cables can hold the central platform.

America’s largest radio telescope close to collapse as engineers race to fix fraying cables

900-ton receiver platform threatens to plummet into dish below

Katyanna Quach Tue 17 Nov 2020 // 15:37 UTCSHARE

The remaining cables supporting a 900-ton platform hanging over America’s largest radio telescope are struggling to take the load, threatening the 1,000-ft wide reflector dish.

The Arecibo Observatory instrument, located in a national forest in Puerto Rico, was the largest radio telescope of its kind in the world until 2016 when the Chinese built a bigger one. Now the US installation’s future hangs in the balance as engineers attempt to reinforce the structure after one of the cables holding up the overhead platform fell away and tore a 100-ft-long gash in the telescope’s dish below.

Some of the wires in the platform’s remaining cables are already fraying, and if they snap, the structure holding the telescope’s receiver will come tumbling down with disastrous results, according to the University of Central Florida, which operates the observatory.

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The University of Central Florida received a record $204 million in grants this year. Lets all hope the university’s Radio Astronomy group convince administrators to give them a little love in time to save their telescope.

88 thoughts on “Claim: The USA’s Largest Radio Observatory is on the Verge of Structural Collapse

  1. Perhaps these scientists should drag themselves away from gazing at the the stars for a bit and have a look at the problems of Hydrogen Embrittlement. A problem which beset the Forth Road Bridge cables here in the U.K. which required a new bridge to be built.

  2. Not surprising as it was badly damaged by the villains that James Bond defeated in Golden Eye. j/k

    Seriously, this is not good as it is also an important radio transmitter/receiver — it can image large and/or close asteroids.

    • I loved Nintendo 64 Golden Eye video game. I achieved OO agent status (completed all levels) and earned most of the cheats. Last video game I was really good at.

      I put it away for a year playing other games and never was as good again.

      Running around the dish to catch the villain required running at an angle, slightly faster then running straight.

  3. I was in PR for a conference years ago, about 2002. Went to see it while everyone else was at the beach or playing golf (what’s an amateur science geek to do?).. It looked to be in rough shape back then. No surprise.

    • I went to Radio Array out in Socorro NM about 17 yrs ago (I could google to get the correct name for it, but I don’t care enough to). I was expecting to see modern tech and well maintained stuff state of the at tech for early 2000’s. What I saw was early 1990’s vintage 386 and 486 PCs and CRT tube monitors in the controls room and labs. And stuff that looked right out the early 80’s. Was told over half the antennas platform-transporters were immobile and essentially permanent on their pads, no parts for all them to stay movable.

      With all the biggest radio astronomy money going to Southern Hemisphere observing locations like Chile and elsewhere, I can’t imagine it’s much better today. Advanced signal processing with better clocks on the receivers now allows modern beam forming technology these days. So the need to move around antennas to adjust the aperture like the original design employed is not as important I suppose. It still does some decent deep space/cosmology radio science though from some of the papers I’ve seen.

      • The electronic have been upgraded in the VLA, the computer system is state of the art, paid by Canada! Somehow between the Clinton, Bush and Oblama administrations, money could not be found to have the US pay for a new computer system. My guess to much went to climate change. The original detectors in the antenna themselves were from the 1970s. They all have been upgraded, the new detectors are much more sensitive. You need to see the video, they run to really understand what’s going on.

        • That’s good to hear. I was dismayed at the antiquated computer tech there I saw then. I think it was about 2002.
          With the sub-nanosecond timing accuracy available now, I know antenna spaced many thousands of km’s apart are now able to be part of an even larger, coherent beam forming array for a sub-arc second pinpointing of radio sources in the distant universe.

      • Joel,
        CRTs were used because digital displays generate too much RFI, the telescopes are extremely sensitive.
        There are only two antenna transporters, they ride the rails and do not sit on pads. The antennas are transported to different pads based on baseline requirements for observations.
        The antennas are relocated multiple times a year. High frequency observations use the compact configuration, lower frequency observations use longer baselines.
        There is no problem using using 386 or 486 computers , nonetheless less, they all have more than likely been replaced by now.

        For those interested, please do a google search on the Very Large Array. The VLA wrapped up a very significant upgrade and modernization at the end of 2012

        • Not too many years ago flight-safety critical software was deliberately run on 486 processors because Pentium was not considered sufficiently matured and bug-free.

  4. Can’t Bezos do something useful & contribute a mere couple 100 million to fix this instead of wasting it on marxist apparatchiks trying to destroy the US?

    • Honestly, is there value to this research?

      Even if climatology is pseudoscience, the related technology seems more “worth while” to me.

      Astronomy is crowded with a lot of “already know” and “not affecting anyone’s life”

      The apparently negligent presidents may have been investing wisely.

      • This type of research makes people take a break from navel-gazing and look up from time to time to say, “I wonder…” I’m sure there were people during the stone-age that said, “Stop trying to figure out where that fire stuff comes from and help collect some berries. We’re going to kick you out of the tribe if you keep wasting valuable time like that” or the equivalent. All the marvels we have today can be traced back to someone (or many someones) asking, “Why?” or “How does that work?” You never know where the answers will lead. Check out the TV series “Connections” and the follow-on “The Day the Universe Changed”.

    • One of its big contributions is in radar astronomy. Its one of the few big telescopes that can send & receive. Its done radar imaging of asteroids, Venus, and even Saturn’s moon Titan.

  5. Computer geeks and software developers. Probably have mechanics check the oil in their cars. Instrument, what instrument? Our instrument is a keyboard/monitor. Puerto Rico? I suspect oxidation is a problem but I bet few of the scientists have ever kept autos long enough to worry about that.

    This is what happens when you lettoo many academics run the show.

  6. Guess they need to quickly find some evidence of catastrophic global warming in the radio-wave part of the spectrum. That should solve any funding issues with fixing the problem.

    • Perhaps the funds that would/should have gone to maintenance went to pay for things the funding was not intended for? Such a thing is not unusual and, might even be called, a long standing tradition in Puerto Rico and many other places.

      Max P

      • Puerto Rico is a Democrat stronghold, so it’s no surprise that corruption is rampant.

        Now that the election is over, the New York media have suddenly discovered that Cuomo and DeBasio have been grossly mismanaging the response to COVID 19.

      • Why do repairs when a whole new facility can be built at 3x the cost with stimulus/disaster recovery money surge? It is rational political calculus that Chicago and NYC are also counting on.

        Never let a crisis go to waste.

  7. Must understanding is that the radio telescope’s central receiver (the 900 ton platform) that is “hanging by a thread” high above the bottom of the dish reflector is designed so that the supporting cables can be unreeled to lower that platform down the dish bottom in order to perform occasional heavy-duty maintenance on the receiver and associated equipment.

    One can only wonder why—in the interest of safety and eliminating the risk of catastrophic equipment damage—such lowering hasn’t been done already . . . is something jamming the supporting cables and preventing this from happening?

    • The 900-ton platform cannot be reeled down by its supporting cables. The components of the platform were built on the ground and then lifted up by temporary cables back in the early 1960s. The platform has been suspended hundreds of feet in the air ever since. The 1000-foot dish was only built once the platform had been hoisted into place.

  8. As constructed, what was the estimated design life for the Arecibo Observatory? Were there replacement schedules proscribed for the support cables? Were the cables replaced on schedule?

  9. That thing has been there for decades. I saw it several times in my three year stay in Puerto Rico from late 1968 to early 1970. The antenna package was smaller then.

  10. Of course, someone in the MSM is sure to say that this is because of the failure of the Trump administration to provide adequate support following Hurricane Maria in 2017.

  11. Two questions:
    1. Why does the headline say it’s the USA’s largest radio telescope when it’s in Puerto Rico?
    2. Why does the main dish look so astoundingly badly maintained?
    3. Does the thing still work? (bonus question)

    • That’s three questions but #1 has been answered.

      #2 The discoloration on the dish surface has no effect on the functioning of the telescope.

      #3 Yes, the telescope was in operation on the morning when the first cable slipped out of its socket.

  12. “after two recent cable failures the 900 ton platform suspended above the gigantic Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico is literally hanging by a thread.”

    Not really.

  13. It seems to me that this is when a gender-fluid, person of color with a disability who feels threatened by intolerance in the astronomy community would be most useful. I’m told they’re the most important excluded members of all scientific communities.

    Just one of ’em could repair all damage and make pigs fly up and re-string the supports with a wave of their hand… if their physical disability left them with a hand, or the use of it.

    Or so I’m told.

  14. It was the fight between 007 and 006 in Goldeneye that weakened the structure. You can’t fire PP7’s and AK’s at a structure like that and expect it to last. Plus, 007 put a steel bar in the gears. Another example of government fraud and waste.

  15. It’s in Porta Rico, the Socialist sh!tHole. What do you mean it’s falling apart? Who cares, one less thing PR has to offer the world. At least they still have their crime, poverty and rich politicians.

  16. Do they ever say exactly how dehumidification is done, what a dehumidification system consists of, how it works, etc.? I didn’t read every word, but scanned the doc a couple of times and searched for “dehumidification” twice, reading the text before and after each occurrence. Maybe I missed it, but didn’t see anything that explains it. I’m very interested in cable-related topics and would like to understand the details of the process.

    • Dehumidification dramatically increases the life and decreases the maintenance cost of virtually all types of materials and equipment.

      However it must be quite difficult to apply it to these wires since they must be enclosed in an airtight containment for a dehumidifier to work.

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