Iconic Arecibo Observatory radio telescope closed due to various breakdowns that could lead to a catastrophic collapse: One of the most iconic Astronomical Observatories in the world has suffered a collapse that has caused serious damage to its main telescope.
After two unexpected cable breaks, engineers have determined that the 305-meter radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory has been left in such poor condition that any worker trying to repair it would be risking their lives.
Faced with this danger, the National Science Foundation, owner of the telescope in Puerto Rico, has decided to dismantle it for safety reasons.
However, the structure of it is so unstable that they can not even approach to assess the risk, so they are looking for a plausible way to deconstruct the telescope before it completely collapses.
"Even attempts to stabilize or test the cables could result in catastrophic failure acceleration," Ralph Gaume, director of the NSF's Astronomical Sciences Division, explained at a press conference last Thursday.
In its 57 years of life, the Arecibo telescope has allowed the search for dangerous near-Earth asteroids, signs of extraterrestrial life and has discovered the first planet outside the solar system.
Iconic Arecibo Observatory radio telescope closed
In 1974 Arecibo issued the most powerful transmission Earth has ever sent in an attempt to communicate with potential aliens, should they exist.
In addition, in 2016 it detected the first rapid and repeated radio bursts-mysterious space signals that scientists now believe come from dead stars.
Everything was going well until last August, when tropical Storm Isaiah hit the island. The strong thunderstorms caused an auxiliary cable more than 7 centimeters thick to come out of its socket in one of the 3 towers of the telescope and crash into the reflector plate below, causing a 30-meter cut in the panels.
But the thing didn't stay there. In early November, just before repairs began, a 6,800-kilo main cable from the same tower broke and crashed into the platter.
The engineers believed that the structure was still strong enough to avoid a second disaster, but they were wrong. Relying on the remaining wires could end in catastrophe.
"The 900-ton platform could end up crashing into the main disk, and it is possible that the 3 main towers, more than 90 meters high, will collapse," explains Gaume.
Deconstructing the telescope would mean abandoning any possibility of saving it, but it has been the decision recommended by 3 engineering companies.
"This decision has been easy to make, but people's safety is our number one priority," says Sean Jones, NSF's Deputy Director of physical and Mathematical Sciences.
If they act quickly and effectively, the NSF would manage to save a set of buildings that are located directly under one of the telescope towers. Thus the Arecibo Observatory could remain open, but without its defining feature, the radio telescope.
"When I heard the news, I was totally devastated," Abel Méndez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo, tells Business Insider.
Méndez has lived the Observatory's discoveries since he was 10 years old and worked with him professionally for the last decade.
"It's hard to accept. It's like losing someone important in your life. Yes, 2020 is definitely not being anything good, " he says.
The loss of the Arecibo telescope has been a major blow in terms of the search for extraterrestrial life, defense and protection against asteroid impacts and the entire field of Radio Astronomy.
Although it is true Arecibo does not discover dangerous space rocks, it is essential to investigate them. The telescope can Pine asteroids with a radar, deciphering their shape, rotation, surface characteristics and trajectory through space.
Without such data it is much more difficult to know if an asteroid could pose an imminent danger to Planet Earth.
For the moment, the Observatory plans to work with scientists who intended to use the telescope to find ways to transfer their research elsewhere.
"The death of the telescope effectively puts an end to the possibility of the United States carrying out a comprehensive project to search for radio waves of alien technology," Méndez explains.
The only place capable of performing the same tasks as Arecibo immediately would be China with its five hundred-meter Spherical Radio Telescope in Guizhou province.
"If you are monitoring a source of interest that is in the weak radio spectrum, you need 2 large radio telescopes: one pointing at a point during the day and the other at night," he comments. "If you lose Arecibo, you lose an eye."
For the moment, it is likely that figuring out how to safely deconstruct the Arecibo telescope will take about 5 or 6 weeks and, for this, engineers will evaluate their options from afar, with aerial photos of drones.
They are also considering ways to gain extra time, such as tilting the towers a few inches to reduce the weight of the remaining cables.
"We are working against the clock," adds Gaume.
If engineers can disarm the telescope before it collapses, the Arecibo Observatory could continue to conduct some scientific research thanks to its lasers that can study the upper atmosphere or its installation on the island of Culebra that collects data on cloudiness and precipitation.
Iconic Arecibo Observatory radio telescope closed
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Coronavirus vaccine research and distribution plans overlook a growing group - people who have already passed the disease
Unlike many Americans, Signe Redfield was not comforted by the news that a coronavirus vaccine could soon reach the public.
A robotic engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, Redfield has had COVID-19 symptoms since March. His fatigue lasted about seven months, his mind is still confused and he has trouble sleeping.
But people like her, those who have already fallen ill, could be among the last in the line of vaccinations. And researchers do not yet know what effects vaccines could have on them.
In October, an independent panel of experts convened by the US National Academy of Sciences issued recommendations on the order in which a vaccine should be available to several groups. The guidelines, which are expected to be adopted by the U.S. government, suggest that healthcare professionals should be immunized first, followed by seniors in the residences. But there is no advice for people who have already passed the disease.
"There are many unknowns about the safety and efficacy of vaccines in certain populations," the experts write. Those populations, they point out, include "individuals previously infected with COVID-19."
Modern and the collaboration between Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline have excluded from their trials people who have tested positive for the virus in diagnostic tests or antibodies. Novavax has also not accepted anyone who has been diagnosed or who has had a known exposure. This is mainly because those people could have already developed a robust antibody response and could skew the data.
But the omission means researchers have no idea whether a vaccine would be safe or effective for people who have had COVID-19.
"It's hard for me to have confidence that it will be safe for our population," Redfield points out to Business Insider, specifically referring to people with persistent symptoms. "I'm going to be more concerned about exposing my body to another immune challenge."
But people who have contracted the coronavirus may need to be vaccinated eventually, given that scientists do not know how long immunity lasts.
Pfizer and Moderna have announced these weeks positive results of their phase three trials. Pfizer's vaccine has revealed 95% effectiveness in preventing COVID-19, while Moderna's has 94.5% effectiveness. Experts now anticipate that Americans could have wide access to the vaccine by spring or during summer.
But more than 10 million people in the United States are faced with the dilemma of whether they should receive these vaccines —and do not know if they are eligible at all— since about 3% of the population has passed the coronavirus.
"We want to vaccinate patients who have not been infected with COVID and who are susceptible," Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health in Massachusetts, tells Business Insider. "Post-COVID-19 patients are not going to be the first, second, third or fourth level of groups that we are going to vaccinate."
There is also a large group of people who contracted the virus, but do not know it, either because they could not be tested or because they were asymptomatic carriers. They are likely to get vaccinated.
"Because of the lack of evidence, there are many, many people who have had COVID-19 who do not know," Natalie Lambert, associate professor of Medicine at Indiana University, confirms to Business Insider. "We need to investigate some of these things, along with seeing how people who haven't had COVID might be protected by a vaccine."