Puerto Rican government commits $8 million to rebuild Arecibo

The government of Puerto Rico earlier this week announced that it has allocated $8 million to rebuild the Arecibo Observatory.

Via an executive order, Gov. Wanda Vazquez made reconstruction of the observatory public policy. In a ceremony at La Fortaleza, the seat of the island’s government, Vazquez said that the Puerto Rican government believes that the telescope’s collapse provides a great opportunity to redesign it, taking into account the lessons learned and recommendations from the scientific community so that it remains relevant for decades to come.

…Vazquez said that she and her administration want the scope to once again become a world class center and the $8 million being allocated for reconstruction includes funds to repair the environmental damage caused by the collapse, something that has already begun under the supervision of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

We shall see what happens. $8 million is not really enough to rebuild Arecibo. And the NSF has been trying to unload it from its budgetary responsibility for almost a decade. I would be shocked if that agency now suddenly decided to fund its reconstruction.

Only if Congress gets involved will this likely change, and that wouldn’t surprise me, considering how nonchalant our present Congress is about spending money that doesn’t exist.

Arecibo’s suspended instrument platform has collapsed onto dish

The suspended 900-ton instrument panel of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed early today, crashing down onto the radio telescope’s dish.

[Ramon Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida] says no one was near the dish when the platform fell. But he did not have all the details on how the structure came down. He believes it was because of a failure of one of the remaining cables connecting the platform to one of three support towers. These cables were carrying extra stress following the two previous failures. And since the Thanksgiving holiday, Lugo says, wires were breaking in these remaining cables at a rate of about one a day. He says he told NSF the structure only had a week or two remaining before it would collapse.

They plan on figuring out exactly what caused the collapse, but that is only to facilitate the planned decommissioning and removal of the telescope.

To me, this is another indicator of the arriving dark age. Earlier American generations would not only have never allowed this facility to fall into such disrepair, they would have never considered dismantling it. Instead, they would be planning how to make it bigger and better. Not today.

Arecibo Observatory to be shut down permanently

The arriving dark age: Due to the extent of its recent cable failures and the risks they pose to works, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to shuttered and dismantle it permanently.

Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s astronomy division, said at the briefing the agency wants to preserve other instruments at the site, as well as the visitor and outreach center. But they are under threat if the telescope structure collapses. That would bring the 900-ton instrument platform, suspended 137 meters above the 305-meter wide dish, crashing down. Flailing cables could damage other buildings on the site, as could the three support towers if they fell, too. “There is a serious risk of an unexpected and uncontrolled collapse,” Gaume said. “A controlled decommissioning gives us the opportunity to preserve valuable assets that the observatory has.”

Over the next few weeks, engineering firms will develop a plan for a controlled dismantling. It may involve releasing the platform from its cables explosively and letting it fall.

The radio telescope was built in the early 1960s, and for many years was the world’s largest single dish radio telescope. It has struggled however in recent years with both financial and infrastructure problems, the latter initially caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Arecibo’s status appears to be worsening

According to a new engineering report, the condition and status of the Arecibo Observatory’s main antenna, suspended by cables above its giant radio dish, appears very uncertain and to be worsening.

Preliminary analysis indicates the main cable, which failed on Nov. 6, should have easily handled the extra load based on design capacity. Engineers suspect it is likely that the second cable failed because it has degraded over time and has been carrying extra load since August. A final determination could not be made without retrieving and analyzing the second cable.

The engineering firms cannot verify the integrity of the other cables at this time supporting the 900-ton platform. Each of the structure’s remaining cables is now supporting more weight than before, increasing the likelihood of another cable failure, which would likely result in the collapse of the entire structure.

Other wire breaks on two of the remaining main cables have also been observed. [emphasis mine]

If the 900 ton antenna structure that the cables hold up should fall, it will do significant damage to the disk, and will also likely make the cost of repairing the radio telescope prohibitive.

Second cable failure further disables Arecibo radio telescope

A second cable at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has broken, further disabling the radio telescope from operation.

A main cable that supports the Arecibo Observatory broke Friday at 7:39 p.m. Puerto Rico time.

Unlike the auxiliary cable that failed at the same facility on Aug. 10, this main cable did not slip out of its socket. It broke and fell onto the reflector dish below, causing additional damage to the dish and other nearby cables. Both cables were connected to the same support tower. No one was hurt, and engineers are already working to determine the best way to stabilize the structure.

The telescope has been badly crippled since the first cable failure in August.

Snapped cable damages Arecibo radio telescope

One of the cables that supports the central platform above the Arecibo Observatory’s giant dish snapped yesterday, damaging the dish and shutting down operations.

The break occurred about 2:45 a.m. When the three-inch cable fell it also damaged about 6-8 panels in the Gregorian Dome and twisted the platform used to access the dome. It is not yet clear what caused the cable to break. “We have a team of experts assessing the situation,” says Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory. “Our focus is assuring the safety of our staff, protecting the facilities and equipment, and restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible, so it can continue to assist scientists around the world.”

The radio telescope has not much luck the past few years. It was badly damaged and shut down for a long time after Hurricane Maria in 2017, with repairs from that still on-going.

Arecibo shut temporarily due to earthquakes

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has suspended all operations temporarily because of the swarm of earthquakes that have hit the island in the past two weeks.

The strongest of those quakes was a 6.4 temblor early in the morning of Tuesday (Jan. 7). An initial survey conducted by drone after that event found no damage to the massive radio dish or the equipment above it, an Arecibo Observatory representative said here at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society on Tuesday (Jan. 7).

However, safety protocols mean that observatory personnel can’t examine the dish or its accessories until the ground stops shaking, and it’s difficult to predict when that will happen.

The observatory was about to embark on a yearlong refitting to repair damage caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. They have set January 10th as a tentative reopen date.

Arecibo gets $19 million NASA research/education grant

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was today awarded an $19 million NASA research/education grant for studying near Earth asteroids.

NASA awarded the University of Central Florida (which manages the site on behalf of National Science Foundation) the four-year grant to observe and characterize near-Earth objects (NEO) that pose a potential hazard to Earth or that could be candidates for future space missions.

…The award also includes money to support STEM education among high school students in Puerto Rico. The Science, Technology And Research (STAR) Academy brings together 30 local high-school students per semester once a week for 16 classes to learn about science and research at the observatory.

This, plus the recent NSF grant, will keep the telescope operating for at least the next few years.

Arecibo gets $12.3 million NSF grant

The National Science Foundation has awarded the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rica a $12.3 million grant to pay for needed repairs and upgrades following the hurricane damage from 2017.

The money will pay for the following work:

  • Repairing one of the suspension cables holding the primary telescope platform, ensuring long-term structural integrity of one of the main structural elements of the telescope.
  • Recalibrating the primary reflector, which will restore the observatory’s sensitivity at higher frequencies.
  • Aligning the Gregorian Reflector, improving current calibration and pointing.
  • Installing a new control system for S band radar, which is part of the microwave band of the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • Replacing the modulator on the 430 MHz transmitter, increasing consistency of power output and data quality.
  • Improving the telescope’s pointing controls and data tracking systems.

Most of this looks to be very basic maintenance, which suggests the telescope is still very starved for funds.

Arecibo gets upgrade, new funding

Back from the dead: Threatened with closure only last year due to lack of funds, then damaged badly from Hurricane Maria, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico has not only obtained a new operational funding from a new partner but also a $6 million upgrade.

The money will help design and build a super-sensitive set of antennas to be installed at the focal point of Arecibo’s dish. The 166 antennas, together part of the phased-array feed to be installed in 2022, are expected to significantly increase Arecibo’s capabilities. The phased-array feed will boost the telescope’s sky survey speed, making it five to six times faster than it is now, and it’ll enable the telescope to look at a larger piece of sky at one time.

…This month’s announced upgrade comes after years of uncertainty about Arecibo’s operations. In September 2017 Hurricane Maria caused about $14 million in damage to the telescope and ancillary buildings, some of which is still being repaired today. The facility lost its 430-megahertz line feed, which was used for atmospheric studies. Pieces of the antenna fell and punctured panels in the primary reflector of the main dish, forcing the replacement of 80–90 of the panels. There was also significant flooding under the primary reflector, which damaged some of the lines and heating facilities. In addition, several pieces of electronic equipment, some imagers, and laser rangers were damaged. Three buildings — a maintenance facility, a heater/transmitter building and a family unit — were also partially or completely destroyed due to rock and tree debris.

The hurricane was only the latest challenge for the observatory, after Arecibo had fought off repeated threats of closure over the previous decade due to NSF funding concerns. The latest situation was resolved last February, when a consortium led by the University of Central Florida took over operation and management of the observatory, significantly lessening the burden on NSF.

While Arecibo is no longer the world’s largest single radio dish, having been topped by China’s FAST radio telescope, it appears at least for now better positioned to do research. China does not yet have the radio astronomers experienced enough to operate its telescope, and so FAST at present is significantly under-utilized.

New backers to run Arecibo

The National Science Foundation this week revealed the make-up of the consortium that is taking over the operation of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

The new agreement is valued at $20.15 million over five years, subject to the availability of funds, and is scheduled to begin April 1, according to the statement.

The new partnership represents a mixture of academic and corporate interests. The Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Yang Enterprises Inc. in Oviedo, Florida, will partner with [the University of Central Florida] to manage the observatory. The team plans to expand the capabilities of the telescope, officials said.

This relieves the National Science Foundation (and the taxpayers) of the the cost burden for this facility, at least directly.

Arecibo returns to operation with images of asteroid Phaethon

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has resumed science observations after recovering from Hurricane Maria with new radio images of the asteroid Phaethon.

After several months of downtime after Hurricane Maria blew through, the Arecibo Observatory Planetary Radar has returned to normal operation, providing the highest-resolution images to date of near-Earth asteroid 3200 Phaethon during its Dec. 16 flyby of Earth. The radar images, which are subtle at the available resolution, reveal the asteroid is spheroidal in shape and has a large concavity at least several hundred meters in extent near the leading edge, and a conspicuous dark, circular feature near one of the poles. Arecibo’s radar images of Phaethon have resolutions as fine as about 250 feet (75 meters) per pixel.

The images also revealed that Phaethon, which is considered a potentially hazardous near Earth asteroid, is about 3.6 miles across and is about a half mile larger than previously believed.

Arecibo gets a backer to keep it running

The National Science Foundation has found at least one backer to pick up the majority of the cost for running the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, thus keeping it operational.

For about a decade, the National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory and supplies about two-thirds of its $12 million budget, had been mulling downsizing or even shuttering the telescope to free up funds for other projects. Instead, the NSF will continue scientific operations at the facility in collaboration with an unnamed partner organization, according to a Record of Decision signed this week.

Arecibo sustained $4 million to $8 million in damage during the hurricane, according James Ulvestad, acting assistant director for the agency’s mathematical and physical sciences directorate. Some scientists worried that would weaken the case for keeping the observatory operational.

But Ulvestad said the agency’s Record of Decision reflects that it has received viable partnership proposals from one or more collaborators — though he would not provide details about those proposals. This announcement allows the NSF to move forward with negotiations on a new management contract.

Under the new plan, the agency will reduce its annual contribution to the observatory from about $8.2 million to $2 million over the next five years. It is also committed to funding any repairs required to restore Arecibo to its pre-hurricane condition, Ulvestad said.

Status of Arecibo radio observatory

It appears that, while Puerto Rico itself suffered devastating damage from Hurricane Maria, the Arecibo Observatory came through relatively unscathed.

The surface of the dish was largely unscathed, and the observatory’s most vulnerable component, the instrument platform suspended high above the dish by cables strung from three towers, each more than 80 meters tall, was still in place and seemed undamaged, says Schmelz. She is based at the Columbia, Maryland, headquarters of one of Arecibo’s operators, the Universities Space Research Association, and spoke with staff in Puerto Rico who first used a ham radio and then a single working satellite phone. But the roofs on some observatory buildings were blown off, the sinkhole under the dish was flooded, and other equipment was damaged by rain and fallen trees. Most significantly, a large portion of a 29-meter-long antenna—the 430-megahertz line feed used for studying the upper atmosphere—appears to have broken off and fallen from the platform into the dish. Mathews estimates a bill of several million dollars to replace the line feed alone.

Because of the significant infrastructure damage across the island, there will be significant delays in getting any of this fixed. Since the telescope is already being considered for shut down due to budget issues, these delays could lead to that shut down.

Post-hurricane update from Arecibo radio telescope

USRA, the university consortium that operates the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, has released an update on the observatory’s condition following Hurricane Maria.

Currently, we have no contact with the Observatory. One observatory staff member located in Arecibo Town contacted via short-wave radio reports that trees are down, power is out, houses damaged and roads impassable. We have no reason to believe that staff sheltered at Arecibo Observatory are in immediate danger since they have generators, well water and plenty of food. This is a rapidly changing situation, and we are trying to do the best we can to contact USRA employees and find out their status.

Essentially, they don’t know much at this point.

National Science Foundation considers shuttering Arecibo

Faced with tight budgets, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering several options for the future operation of the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest single radio telescope dish, including its complete removal.

[T]he NSF could mothball the site, shutting it down in such a way that it could restart (sometime in the future). Or it could dismantle the telescope altogether and restore the area to its natural state, as required by law if the agency fully divests itself of the observatory and closes it. Previous studies have said such a process could cost around $100 million—more than a decade’s worth of its current funding for telescope operations. Jim Ulvestad, director of the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences, says the agency is still investigating, not concluding. “No alternative has been selected at this juncture,” he says. And much consideration will go into the final financial decision, whatever it may be. Some outside the agency see writing on the wall. “NSF is dead serious about offloading Arecibo funding to someone else—anyone else,” says Ellen Howell, a former staff scientist at Arecibo and now a faculty member at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in Tucson, Arizona.

The article spends a lot of time talking about how wonderful Arecibo is, but never tells us how many astronomers actually demand to use it. Is it oversubscribed, like Hubble, where five times the number of astronomers request time than can be handled, or does it often sit unused because not enough astronomers require its use? NSF and the government do not have unlimited funds, and need to focus their spending where the demand is. If Arecibo is not in demand, then they are wise to consider closing it, or handing it off to someone who wants it.