One of the world’s most famous radio telescopes is on the verge of disaster, sparking a frantic race by engineers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to rescue it after two important cables supporting a 900-ton equipment platform crashed.

The platform, which is held high above a huge dish by cables fixed to the towers, must be installed quickly, otherwise it may collapse to the ground and destroy the telescope. With these two cables lost, the remaining cables are under increasing pressure, and it is uncertain whether the rescue effort will succeed.

“For me, it’s probably 50,” says the former observatory director. Michael NolanNow at the University of Arizona. They are doing what can be done. I’m still really worried that they just can’t do enough. If we are worried about it falling, nobody should go up there or be there when that happens. “

Suspended from three towers, the telescope platform hovers approximately 500 feet over the 1,000-foot-wide plate. In August, an additional cable Slide out of its socket She fell into the plate, and carved a 100-foot-long wound into the mirrored panels. Before the crew could fix that cable, And another burst associated with the tower itself On November 6, this second broken cable is one of the four primary cables connecting this tower to the platform.

Arecibo has played an important role in discovering planets outside our solar system, searching for civilizations beyond Earth, and studying asteroids and other worlds closer to their home. Today, scientists use the telescope to study powerful bursts of energy called rapid radio bursts and to spy on ripples in the fabric of space-time resulting from colliding galaxies.

The platform suspended over the Arecibo radio dish contains many of the observatory’s scientific instruments, and is at risk of collapse after two cables supporting the structure fail.

Each observatory tower has four primary cables, but only two cables are required to keep the platform elevated – assuming it is in good condition. The fourth tower (named because it’s 4 o’clock if it is noon north) has now reduced to just three primary. If one of these cables fails, it is unclear whether two old cables will be able to secure the platform.

He says, “It’s an ugly situation for sure.” Frank Drake, Former Arecibo Manager (and dad). “When the cables break like this, it can at any moment cause a chain reaction with more broken cables, and the fall of everything.”

That would be a huge blow to ongoing scientific observations – and to Puerto Rico, where the observatory is a source of pride, providing jobs, attracting tourists, and sharing resources with surrounding communities, especially during emergencies like Hurricane Maria.

Several engineering companies and the US Army Corps of Engineers are on the ground Assessment of the platform at risk, while Daily unmanned inspections Provide updates to cables. Teams are exploring ways to stabilize the chassis, including removing some weight from the platform using helicopters, de-stressing the system by lowering the platform, and reattaching the auxiliary fallen cable, which remains largely intact after slipping out of its socket.

“We’ll likely know fairly soon if they can come in with first aid, de-stress some of the stress, and remove the urgent problem so we can fix the big problem,” Nolan says.

Cable corrosion

In the 1960s, engineers built a giant Arecibo radio dish in a Puerto Rican landscape. The triangular overhead gear platform helps guide the telescope toward different parts of the universe. This platform is packed with receivers, line feeders, and a complex inverter system that focuses precisely on radio waves – the place where James Bond Alec Trevelyan fought in 1995 Golden eye.

Although it may seem small in relation to a plate, the suspended structure is really huge – a small home can easily fit inside a dome housing a reflector system.

The platform is anchored by 18 thick steel cables linked to three concrete pylons, the longest of which is 365 feet. In addition to the four core cables in each tower, two additional accessories were installed to each tower in the 1990s to help stabilize the structure and carry additional weight.

Observatory personnel regularly check towers, cables, and platform for signs of weakness or corrosion caused by the salty tropical air.

Denise Egan, engineer at Greenbank Observatory In West Virginia. “You’d better be underwater.”

And those searches have emerged Some evidence of broken strings in cables, An issue that the suspects Nolan could have exacerbated Hurricane Maria And modern A swarm of large earthquakes. But they found no signs of widespread weakness or imminent failure. in a A question and answer has been posted on FacebookThe manager of Arecibo, Francisco Cordova, said the rupture was unexpected and indicated the structural deterioration.

“The observatory is 50 years old, and there has never been a situation where a whole bunch of different strings come apart,” says Drake. Famous for sending a message to outer space From the Observatory in 1974. “I don’t want to be in this thing now. There is no escape. You’re just stuck.”

If the fourth tower fails, the platform can either shatter through the plate or swing down a nearby slope. Without the weight of the platform keeping the balance of the towers, the three could have capsized in the surrounding woods.

If engineers can install the structure, then they can repair or replace some of the old cables. Cordova said on Facebook that the new cables are already in order, It is scheduled to arrive at the observatory in December.

But to replace the cables, workers will need to climb onto the platform. “They have to do something to verify that the cables that are in are correct and not damaged, in a way that does not put people on the structure at risk,” says Drake.

Scientific and cultural icon

Arecibo has faced a number of challenges in recent years, including threats from the National Science Foundation To withdraw funding. But Scientists and surrounding communities ralliedAnd the University of Central Florida Intervened to manage the besieged observatory.

Now, many are wondering if NSF will help Arecibo during this emergency. According to Córdova’s social media post, NSF dropped demand For $ 12.5 million to finance the repair.

NSF is in contact with Arecibo. “We are monitoring the situation and looking at all possible options to accelerate the stability of the structure,” the agency said in a statement. “Our top priority is the health and safety of Arecibo employees.”

Despite its current problems, the observatory has a long and rich history, and it holds a proud place among scholars and Puerto Ricans.

“It has embedded itself in our Puerto Rican culture, in the fabric of our daily life,” he says Edgard Rivera Valentine From the Lunar and Planetary Institute, who helped his grandfather build the telescope. “I definitely have a memory of being hit by this huge machine, right here, and I know the people in my city were doing all these really cool things,” says Rivera Valentine. “I am into science because I grew up near the observatory.”

Discoveries from Arecibo include the 1974 discovery of a pair of pulsars that emit gravitational waves –Received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993– And the The first confirmed planets ever observed revolving around a star other than the Sun. In 1992. Scientists in Arecibo also calculated Mercury’s rotation rate, I spotted a frequent rapid radio explosionAnd made numerous searches for communicative civilizations beyond Earth – an endeavor popularized by Carl Sagan’s novel. call Which was later made into a movie of the same name.

In addition to observing the sky and collecting radio waves, the Arecibo is also a very powerful radar. Scientists use this ability to characterize asteroids crossing Earth’s orbit, and calculate their locations with pinpoint accuracy to see how to avoid future collisions. And in 1974, my father used it to send an interstellar message to a group of stars called the Great Cluster in the constellation Hercules. In it, he coded information about humans, the Earth, the solar system, and Arecibo, and broadcast it during the celebration of the telescope upgrades.

“She does atmospheric sciences, solar system sciences, astronomy, and astrophysics,” Rivera-Valentine says. “It is important to science and the whole world.”