The big telescopic “ear” designed by Cornell in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, which has been hearing the light of the world for almost six decades, is now listening to the silence.
Following two recent support cable failures, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will decommission and dismantle the giant dish at the Arecibo Observatory – the world-class radio telescope in Puerto Rico designed by the Cornell School and funded by Cornell for his first five decades.
The NSF announced the news on November 19.
“Arecibo has been a highly productive facility for almost 60 years,” said Jonathan Lunine, Professor David C. Duncan in Natural Sciences and chair of the Department of Astronomy at the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).
“For the Cornell scientists and engineers who took a bold dream and realized it, for the scientists who made new discoveries with this uniquely powerful radio telescope and planetary radar,” said Lunine, “and for all the young people who were inspired to “Scientists from the sight of this huge telescope in the middle of the island of Puerto Rico, the end of Arecibo is an unparalleled loss.”
In August, a support cable was disconnected and cut the huge mesh plate, which is 1,000 feet (305 meters) in diameter. The University of Central Florida, which now manages the facility on behalf of the NSF, has sent engineers to evaluate the correction of the famous telescope.
Engineers had formulated solutions and were ready to apply emergency structural stabilization to the cable system holding the plate, according to the NSF. But on November 6, while waiting for replacement cables to be delivered, a main cable broke.
Because of the pressure on the second broken cable – which is believed to be still structurally sound – scientists at the NSF, which finances the installation, and engineers concluded that the remaining wires were probably weaker than originally thought.
Created in the late 1950s by the late William E. Gordon, Professor of Electrical Engineering Walter R. Reed, the Arecibo was a radar / radio telescope designed to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere and nearby space.
The telescope was built in a natural bowl in central Puerto Rico in the early 1960s and became the most powerful radio telescope in the world and a key tool for astronomy, atmospheric science, and planetary science.
Like a giant ear watching the skies, the Arecibo telescope was the largest single-hole radio telescope on Earth, tuned to find pulsars, galaxies and objects in the solar system and to examine our planet ionosphere. It is so large that the height of the Empire State Building fits its diameter. the Washington Monument would sit comfortably at the center of the plate.
Arecibo heard the natural noise day and night throughout the universe. In 2012, the observatory captured one of the most elusive, mysterious and rare events of long distances – a so-called “rapid radio explosion” that lasted just three thousand seconds.
“It was a pulse,” said James Kords, Cornell Astronomy (A&S) professor George Feldstein and a productive, enthusiastic patron. “The nature of these explosions was questionable … and the discovery at Arecibo confirms that they are astrophysical.”
Arecibo found the first pulsars in a binary system – a duet of neutron stars – in 1974, Cordes said. It mapped ice water reserves in craters at Mercury’s poles, uncovered lake-like structures on Saturn’s titanic moon, and measured the exact orbits of asteroids near Earth.
The discovery of the two pulsars in binary orbit led to the confirmation of Albert Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves, he said. This was the best proof of their existence, until 2015 for the direct detection of gravitational waves by LIGO.
“My first trip to Arecibo was in 1972 as a first-year graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, working on pulsars,” Cordes said. “In the years since, I have made about 150 trips to Puerto Rico and I have spent a total of three years there.
“It was always a great thrill in the telescope control room,” Kordz said, “watching pulses of rotating neutron stars – pulsars – appear on an oscilloscope in real time.”
Forty-six years ago, Cornell astronomy professors Frank Drake and Carl Sagan famously sent a radio message through the Arecibo to the skies – with basic information about the human race – to potential aliens. The purpose was to draw attention to the enormous power of the newly installed radar transmitter at the observatory.
“It was strictly a symbolic event to show that we could do it,” said Donald Campbell, now an associate professor of astronomy (A&S) who was a research fellow at the observatory at the time.
Campbell became director of the National Center for Astronomy and Ionosphere, then based at Cornell, which operated the telescope until 2011 for the NSF.
Arecibo was also the world’s leading solar radar installation and was funded by NASA to allow accurate studies of the motion of orbiting asteroids near Earth, according to Campbell. “It’s a big loss to watch them,” he said.
“Arecibo could determine the size, shape and rotation of asteroids close to Earth and provide much more accurate predictions of their future orbits than can only be obtained with optical telescopes.”
Martha Haynes, Professor of Astronomy Goldwin Smith (A&S), first used Arecibo in 1973, when she was a summer researcher. Keep using Arecibo. “Atomic hydrogen research using Arecibo,” he said, “was the cornerstone of my research career.”
Haynes’ Arecibo’s work led to the discovery of the filamentous character of large-scale structure in the universe, which won her the 1989 Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, an honor shared with fellow professor of astronomy Riccardo Giovanelli.
Cordes is currently part of a project called NANOGrav (Nanohertz North American Observatory of Gravitational Waves), which uses pulsars as astrophysical clocks to detect gravitational waves from binary black holes.
“In 15 years of data acquisition for this project, Arecibo has contributed half,” Cordes said. “We were on the verge of making our first scan, so this is an extremely terrible, big loss. “Our project team, funded by the NSF, is now evaluating how to deal with this.”
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