The giant, aging cables that support one of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes are slowly unraveling in this U.S. territory, pushing an observatory renowned for its key role in astronomical discoveries to the brink of collapse. The Associated Press reports: The Arecibo Observatory, which is tethered above a sinkhole in Puerto Rico’s lush mountain region, boasts a 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) dish featured in the Jodie Foster film “Contact” and the James Bond movie “GoldenEye.” The dish and a dome suspended above it have been used to track asteroids headed toward Earth, conduct research that led to a Nobel Prize and helped scientists trying to determine if a planet is habitable. Last week, one of the telescope’s main steel cables that was capable of sustaining 1.2 million pounds (544,000 kilograms) snapped under only 624,000 pounds (283,000 kilograms). That failure further mangled the reflector dish after an auxiliary cable broke in August, tearing a 100-foot hole and damaging the dome above it. Officials said they were surprised because they had evaluated the structure in August and believed it could handle the shift in weight based on previous inspections. It’s a blow for the telescope that more than 250 scientists around the world were using. The facility is also one of Puerto Rico’s main tourist attractions, drawing some 90,000 visitors a year. Research has been suspended since August, including a project aiding scientists in their search for nearby galaxies. Some new cables are scheduled to arrive next month, but officials said funding for repairs has not been worked out with federal agencies. Scientists warn that time is running out. Only a handful of cables now support the 900-ton platform. The observatory estimates the damage at more than $12 million and is seeking money from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that owns the observatory. The report notes that the observatory is considered crucial for the study of pulsars, which are the remains of stars that can be used to detect gravitational waves. It’s also used to search for natural hydrogen, which can reveal how certain cosmic structures are formed.
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