A huge US space telescope located deep in the jungle of Puerto Rico will be closed after suffering two devastating accidents in recent months, ending 57 years of astronomical discoveries.
Operations at the Arecibo Observatory, one of the largest in the world, ceased in August when one of the supporting cables slipped out of its socket, causing a 30-meter (100-foot) hole to fall into a 305-meter (1,000-foot) reflecting dish.
Then another cable broke earlier this month, creating a new hole in the dish and damaging adjacent cables as engineers scrambled to devise a plan to preserve the defective structure.
Accidents at the site – which also famously served as the stage for the James Bond movie GoldenEye, as well as contact Jodie Foster – prompted the US National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent government agency, to request time at the facility.
“The NSF has concluded that recent damage to the 305-meter telescope cannot be remedied without risking the lives and safety of crews and employees,” said Shawn Jones, assistant director of the NSF’s Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, on Thursday.
“The NSF has decided to start the planning process for a regulator shutdown,” Jones said.
A NSF spokesperson said engineers have yet to determine the cause of the initial cable failure.
The observatory’s broad reflective dish and 816-ton structure hangs 137 meters above it, nestled in Arecibo’s humid forests Puerto RicoIt has been used by scientists and astronomers around the world for decades to analyze distant planets, find potentially dangerous asteroids and search for fingerprints of extraterrestrial life.
The telescope was instrumental in the discovery of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 1999, laying the groundwork for NASA to send a robotic probe there to collect a dusty sample from the first asteroid and eventually return it after about two decades.
An engineering firm hired by the University of Central Florida, which operates the NSF observatory under a five-year, $ 20 million agreement, concluded in a report to the university last week that “in the event of an additional major cable failure, the catastrophic collapse of the entire complex of the structure would soon follow.”
Citing safety concerns, the company ruled out efforts to repair the observatory and recommended demolishing the monitor.
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