It’s an iconic facility made famous by Hollywood movies like Contact and Goldeneye.
Critical for numerous deep-space observations such as the search for exotic cosmic objects and events like pulsars and bursts of radio waves, it’s also linked with the SETI project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), scanning the sky for potential radio transmissions from intelligent beings.
We’re speaking, of course, about the famed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — a massive platform that has served as one of earth’s most important lenses for more than 50 years.
But this week, something went wrong. A structural cable failed, punching a hole in the facility’s giant reflector dish, The Verge reported, putting hundreds of research projects on hold.
Operators say the overall facility is mostly fine, but they’re working to figure out exactly what went wrong.
According to Space News, the cable weighed about 30 kilograms (about 66 pounds) per meter, and more than 200 meters of cable fell onto the dish.
“The majority of that primary reflector is in good shape, but our focus is really making sure that the platform has the structural stability needed to operate in the near future,” Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory at the University of Central Florida, said during a press call.
Early Monday morning, one of the cables that helps to keep a large metal platform in place over the observatory detached. The end of the cable slipped out of one of its sockets, causing the three-inch-wide cord to fall to the ground, The Verge reported.
The incident destroyed about 250 panels that comprise the main reflector dish, creating a 100-foot-long gap in the structure.
The accident also slightly damaged panels on the large Gregorian dome above the observatory, a white golf ball-shaped structure that houses reflectors that help direct the facility’s observations of the sky, The Verge reported.
Photos of the damage make it seem particularly nasty, but Arecibo’s main reflector dish is comprised of 40,000 panels — making the overall destruction very small. Still, the observatory cannot operate at full capacity in the meantime.
Normally, Arecibo is up and running 24/7, with observations typically taking place between 3 pm and 7 am each day, according to Cordova. UCF sent a note out to all of Arecibo’s users, notifying them that observations have been put on hold for at least a two-week period, The Verge reported.
However, the team doesn’t know how long it will take to repair the damage — or how much it’s going to cost. The Arecibo Observatory is funded through the National Science Foundation.
Right now, the operators at UCF are launching an investigation into the incident, as they still don’t know why the cable snapped.
“This was certainly an unprecedented event,” Cordova said. “These cables are expected to last at least for another 15, 20 years at the minimum.”
Arecibo has also weathered a lot of storms — both figuratively and literally — these last few years, and UCF is confident that this will only be a small delay, The Verge reported.
“We are a pretty resilient bunch … I think we’ve proven that after the impact of Hurricane Maria,” Cordova said. “We’ve been kind of tested again with some earthquakes and then tested again with this pandemic and now, it’s just another bump in the road.”
Constructed in 1963, the Arecibo Observatory was the world’s largest telescope of its kind, Inverse online reported.
Its reign as the biggest only ended in 2016 when China built the FAST radio telescope. Arecibo has a 1,000-foot long dish that spans over 20 acres.
Its sheer size makes for more accurate, sensitive observations of the cosmos — and has made it famous in pop culture.
The observatory was featured in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, the 1995 Bond movie Goldeneye, and an image of pulse waves captured by Arecibo made the album cover for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.
Anne Virkki is a research scientist at the Arecibo Observatory and serves as the leader of the Planetary Radar Science Group. She’s been using the telescope to observe 100 to 200 near-Earth objects a year and determine their chances of hitting Earth.
“All observations are down right now,” Virkki tells Inverse. “There are no other facilities that could be used.”