‘Alien-hunting’ Arecibo Observatory suffers more damage as second cable fails

    The massive dish at Arecibo Observatory as seen in spring 2019.

    The massive dish at Arecibo Observatory as seen in spring 2019.

    (Image: © Arecibo Observatory/University of Central Florida)

    The famed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has suffered another major blow in a difficult year that has seen two snapped cables damage the fragile dish.

    The facility’s heart is a massive, delicate radio telescope built into the island’s geology and surrounded by jungle. Arecibo Observatory has operated for more than five decades, including perhaps most famously broadcasting in 1974 the so-called Arecibo Message meant to update any intelligent life about our technical skills. But lately, the observatory has been battered: First it suffered “relatively minor” damage during 2017’s massive Hurricane Maria; this year already it endured a batch of earthquakes in January and then lost one of its thick cables, which snapped and damaged the dish in August. Now, another cable has snapped just three months later.

    “This is certainly not what we wanted to see, but the important thing is that no one got hurt,” Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory, said in a statement released by the University of Central Florida, which manages the facility.

    Related: The Arecibo Observatory: Puerto Rico’s giant radio telescope in photos

    “We have been thoughtful in our evaluation and prioritized safety in planning for repairs that were supposed to begin Tuesday,” Cordova said, referring to the work planned to fix the cable that broke in August. “Now this. There is much uncertainty until we can stabilize the structure. It has our full attention. We are evaluating the situation with our experts and hope to have more to share soon.”

    According to the statement, the newly broken cable was one of the main supporting cables connecting to the same tower as the cable that damaged the dish in August. That cable slipped out of its socket and potentially put extra weight on the cable that fully snapped on Nov. 6 and damaged both other cables and the main dish, the university said.

    The incident didn’t cause any injuries but has prompted the observatory to limit access to the area. Now, observatory personnel hope to be able to install reinforcements to the tower to protect other cables while evaluating what additional repairs will be necessary.

    “This is not good, but we remain committed to getting the facility back online,” Cordova said. “It’s just too important of a tool for the advancement of science.”

    Email Meghan Bartels at or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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