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You may not have heard of the Arecibo observatory before, but I can guarantee you that you have seen it before!  The massive telescope has been a key location in movies like James Bond GoldenEye (1995), Species (1885), and Contact (1997) which is based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name. This iconic structure has also served as inspiration for levels in games like Battlefield 4 (Rouge Transmission map), Just Cause 2, and SuperTuxKart. But what is this the Arecibo telescope used for and why is it so strange that it was damaged?

A Little About The Arecibo Telescope…

The Arecibo Observatory houses a massive radio telescope and is located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. This particular telescope is used in three major areas of research: radio astronomy, atmospheric science, and radar astronomy. The 56-year-old telescope is responsible for many impressive scientific discoveries, which you can read more about here. Until very recently, the Arecibo Telescope was the largest single-radio-dish on Earth!

What Happened?

In the early hours of the morning on August 10th, an auxiliary cable broke, causing a 100-foot-long gash on the reflector dish. The cable in question is a three-inch-thick cable that supports a large platform that is suspended over the 1000-foot-wide radio dish. Luckily, the incident occurred early in the morning so there was no one on-site, and no one injured. On the other hand, there was no one on-site to witness what caused the damage! It seems that the end of the cable slipped out of the socket, causing the cable to fall, damaging 250 panels on the main reflector dish. 

The main reflector dish is actually made up of 40,000 panels, so the destruction might seem small in comparison but it is enough to put the massive telescope out of action until it is repaired! At the moment, there is a hold on observations for the next two weeks however, it’s unlikely that the Arecibo observatory will back up and running by then. The materials used by the observatory are purpose-built for each application so it is time-consuming to build the materials, ship them, and then install them. They are currently unsure whether the structure is safe to commence repairs. 

Okay, So Why is This So Intriguing?

Here’s where it gets interesting. Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory at the University of Central Florida, states that the “cables were expected to last at least another 15 or 20 years, minimum”. So, a three-inch-thick cable which was supported a suspended platform over a hugely important and expensive piece of equipment seemingly broke on its own, 20 years before it should have? The cable was installed just over 20 years ago, when. the Gregorian dome was built. Given the scale of this operation and the expense involved, one would assume that machinery and equipment would be monitored and checked regularly for any signs of deterioration. So did someone slack off when doing the rounds, or is there more to this story?

It Gets Even Weirder…

This impressive telescope is not only a film backdrop, it plays an important role in numerous deep-space observations. The Arecibo telescope plays a crucial role in planetary defense and it aids NASA in detecting potentially dangerous asteroids. The telescope is also heavily involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)! The Arecibo Observatory plays a massive role in scanning the skies for potential radio transmissions from intelligent beings. They’re also involved in an active search by sending out radio transmissions to try and communicate with our intergalactic neighbors.
So, a telescope that is actively searching for ETs is damaged in the middle of the night. But, not completely destroyed, just damaged enough to shut down operations for a couple of weeks or months. Sounds a little strange…

What Caused The Damage?

Because the incident occurred in the early hours of the morning, there was no one on-site to witness the incident. It certainly seems to be an odd occurrence as experts expected the cable to stay intact for at least another 15 years. Surely, given that that cable, in particular, was supporting a platform, and could potentially cause quite a lot of damage, someone would need to check it regularly? Did the health and safety team slack off or could the cable have been tampered with? 
The telescope makes most of its observations between 3 am and 7 am, as the sky is clearest at this time. This is also when the incident occurred. Could the Arecibo telescope have picked up a radio transmission that it wasn’t supposed to? The telescope has been through a number of serious storms like hurricane Maria for example, and lived to tell the tale. There’s something not quite right about this incident so it’s no surprise that Ray Lugo, the director of UCF’s Florida Space Institute is currently leading a full-scale investigation into the incident. 

When the cause of the damage is discovered, no doubt there will be a public statement made by the director of the observatory but until then we can only speculate. Even then, can we really believe everything we read?

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