The fate of the heavily damaged Arecibo Dish in is uncertain after two cables snapped and compromised the structural integrity of the 1,000-foot radio telescope.
A few are uniting the many across Earth who can't and won't give up on the pop-cultural icon.
When we look on the famous dish, we think of cameos in Hollywood movies like "GoldenEye" and "Contact." and its radar capability, which was heavily used to study near-Earth asteroids and other solar system objects.
This following has helped a formal White House petition calling for aid from the federal government in the hopes of reassessing the planned decommissioning.
"This might seem like a disaster, but I think we can transform it into an opportunity to make the Arecibo Observatory a better institution," said Wilbert Ruperto-Hernández of the University of Puerto Rico and an organiser of the "Save the Arecibo Observatory," campaign.
For Ruperto-Hernández, the Arecibo Observatory is where his love for space sprouted wings. After completing the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy as a student, he stayed on for two more years to volunteer as a teaching assistant.
Whilst at the academy, Ruperto-Hernández documented the correlation between budget cuts and the gradual depreciation of the dish. "I remember going to two public hearings and defending it — and back then, Arecibo was in perfect shape," Ruperto-Hernández said. "Nothing had happened and they wanted to close it."
Partnerships in 2017 padded the dwindling budget of the Arecibo Observatory. That was until a 3-inch-thick cable holding the 900-tonne platform elevated above the dish snapped, tearing a 50 foot shred through the bowl itself.
Sadly, during planning to reconstruct the damage, another cable from the same support snapped.
And although the initial plan was to recover the dish's integrity, the structure has been deemed unsafe and will demolish of its own volition unless it's performed safely first.
"We believe the structure will collapse in the near future if left untouched," wrote Thornton Tomasetti expert John Abruzzo. "Controlled demolition, designed with a specific collapse sequence determined and implemented with the use of explosives, will reduce the uncertainty and danger associated with collapse."
This would counter the plans of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) who own the dish.
"The telescope is currently at serious risk of an unexpected, uncontrolled collapse," Ralph Gaume, director of NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences, said. "According to engineering assessments, even attempts of stabilization or testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure. Engineers cannot tell us the safety margin of the structure, but they have advised NSF that the structure will collapse in the near future on its own."
Although the NSF is the agency most closely tied to the facility, NASA currently provides about one-third of the observatory's operating costs to fund planetary radar observations, particularly of near-Earth asteroids.
"While NASA was not directly involved in the investigation of what led to the observatory’s damage in August, the NSF communicated with stakeholders, including NASA, as their investigation proceeded," NASA representatives wrote in a statement. "NASA respects the National Science Foundation’s decision to put the safety of those who work, visit, and study at the historic observatory above all else."
For Ruperto-Hernández, the announcement was devastating. "It's everything for me," he said. "Without it, I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't have the path that I'm on, I wouldn't have the opportunities that I've been presented."
That same day, Ruperto-Hernández reached out to friends at the academy and got to work on campaigning for the preservation of the Arecibo Observatory. He championed its scientific significance and its standing as Puerto Rico's most esteemed scientific institute.
"This decision has nothing to do with the scientific merits of Arecibo Observatory," Gaume replied. "That is not a consideration. It's all about safety."
Despite resistance, the petition which includes requests to deploy Army Corps Engineers to evaluate stabilisation of the telescope has gained more than 18,000 signatures. If the petition reaches 100,000, the White House owes the team a response within two months of the final signature.
"We understand the risk of going there and trying to fix it; we know that's really risky," Ruperto-Hernández said. "But not many people think that it should be an excuse to just demolish it and leave it like that."
The NSF claims some features will remain for tourism purposes, but for Ruperto-Hernández it isn't good enough. On the idea of a decommissioned telescope with a novelty observatory, he said "We should not do that before having a plan, before knowing what's next and, most importantly, knowing how we're going to continue doing science with the Arecibo Observatory, either by repairing what we have or by building a completely new structure that can enhance the capabilities that Arecibo has or had,"
"You're not going to the observatory to see things on the walls. People are not going to go to the Arecibo Observatory to see the remains of it. I think the biggest loser will be Puerto Rico. We'll lose that inspiration and the source of our dreams."
As of this moment, the NSF's priority is safely decommissioning the radio dish and protecting the remaining facilities on site. They continue to emphasize that while the radio telescope will be demolished, the observatory as a whole will not cease operations.
"We're discussing the decommissioning of a structure made of steel and cables, but it truly is the people on that have the ideas," Ashley Zauderer, the program director for Arecibo Observatory at the NSF said. "It's the idea of discovery that led to the construction to start with, it's the passion of the people that work at the observatory … to continue to explore, to learn, that is the true heart and soul of Arecibo."
"It's not the telescope that's the heart and soul, it's the people."
Click here to save the Arecibo Observatory Radio Telescope.
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