The loss of Arecibo Observatory

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Tagged: arecibo, radiotelescope, science, astronomy, danny dunn

We learned this morning that the Arecibo radio telescope has collapsed entirely. (Announcement; news story.) The hanging instrument platform broke loose and smashed into the dish below. No one was injured.

There are some preliminary photos of the wreckage on Twitter. I'm sure there will be more later. I won't link them. Here is a photo I took in March of 2019, when the observatory was fully operational:

Arecibo Observatory, March 2019

This is an ignominious end, but we knew it was coming. The first cable failed in August; more failed in November. On November 19th, engineers declared that the damage could not safely be repaired and the telescope would have to be decommissioned. We hoped for a controlled disassembly, but cables continued to unravel progressively, and this morning it all went.

So this hurts, but I did my grieving two weeks ago. Here is the twitter thread I wrote on the 19th:

Of all the terrible news this year, I am unexpectely wrecked by the decommissioning of the Arecibo radio telescope.

I saw the report of the first cable failure in August, but not the second, worse cable failure in November. It's bad and engineering assessments say it can't be safely repaired.

(Don't "what if" this. We believe that engineers know their shit.)

When I was in elementary school, I read Danny Dunn and the Voice from Space (Williams and Abrashkin). The book was written in 1967, a few years after Arecibo was completed. It was about a kid decoding messages from aliens. I loved everything about that.

The book's radio telescope was fictional ("Grendel Observatory" in England, thank you easily accessible ebooks) but it must have been inspired by the excitement around the brand-new world's-largest radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

I was so excited about SPAAACE that I started drawing a tiny radio telescope on things as my personal logo.

I did not wind up becoming an astronaut. But, for a while, I was "radiotelescope" on livejournal. I still have, although I don't post there.

Hadean Lands source code book (a limited kickstarter reward) with radiotelescope logo

I still sometimes stick that radio telescope logo onto something, just for old time's sake. And SPAAAAACE.

Me visiting Arecibo

Here's me visiting that, early 2019. Like I said, one of the wonders of modern human civilization. We suck in a lot of ways but we build literal, monumental cathedrals to Science. Working Science.

The news stories say the observatory will still exist in some form, and maybe a new instrument can be built. I hope so. Every other headline this week [of Nov 19th] is about the absolute rage and contempt that's arisen against knowledge, science, and cooperative effort.

Sorry. This was supposed to be a positive thread. I want to be hopeful, but the future is hard these days and I'm scared for a lot more than astronomy.

Stop the fascists.

Apologies (again) for getting dark at the end. It's two weeks later now. The US fascist movement has lost its immediate hope of seizing power. (Don't ask me about 2022.) COVID vaccines are in production. We might still build a new telescope at Arecibo. It seems like a distant hope; we're still reaching towards the possibility of funding the Post Office. But we don't have to give up yet.

Civilization is a group effort. Stand in support of all of us.