Mike F. Strong
One of the first, and probably most well-known radio telescopes used in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has been mysteriously damaged.
The Arecibo Observatory — a gargantuan telescope in Puerto Rico famous for scouring the cosmos for signs of alien life — went dark last week, following a devastating accident that left the telescope's reflector dish in pieces.
According to reports, on Monday, August 10, at approximately 2:45 a.m. local time, a metal cable at the facility snapped, slashing through the radar dish and tearing open a 100-foot-long hole, disabling the telescope. The snapped cable also smashed through several other cables and platforms that support the dish, causing debris to rain down on the ground below and making it harder for technicians to access the site.
"We have a team of experts assessing the situation," Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory, said in the statement. "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."
Arecibo began operating in 1963 from the bottom of a natural sinkhole in Puerto Rico. At the time of its completion, Arecibo was the world's largest single-dish telescope, stretching 1,000 feet (305 m) in diameter. While you may not know the telescope by name, you might know it by sight, thanks to the 1997 movie "Contact." That film's protagonist is an astronomer working at Arecibo, who hopes to make first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. The observatory also gained fame as the gargantuan reflector dish was used to dramatic effect at the end of the 1995 James Bond flick, "GoldenEye."
But the cable that nearly destroyed the facility was no fiction. Was it just a bizarre accident, or a deliberate act by someone or something, that wanted to close Arecibo’s eyes for a while?
As of the writing of this piece, experts say it could be “months” before the telescope is back online. Lindley Johnson, director of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, said during an August 17 meeting of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee that Arecibo will probably be out of commission for “several months.”
What do you think? Was this just an accident due to the facility’s aging infrastructure, or could there be something more nefarious at work? Reply in the comments below.