Arecibo Observatory featured in GoldenEye to be decommissioned


The 1,000-foot diameter space telescope that featured in the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye is to be shut down after 57 years of service. 

Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in the Caribbean is in danger of ‘catastrophic failure’ according to owners, the US National Science Foundation (NSF).  

Cables that supported the structure broke this year, meaning it’s no longer capable of carrying the loads it was designed to support. 

Damage to Arecibo Observatory cannot be addressed without endangering the lives and safety of crew and staff, the NSF said. 

Over nearly six decades of service, Arecibo detected whirling pulsars, captured geologic features of Mars and helped discover the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. 

Following a review of engineering assessments, the US National Science Foundation will begin plans to decommission the telescope, which for 57 years has served as a world-class resource for radio astronomy, planetary, solar system and geospace research

A scene from the climax of GoldenEye at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Alec Trevelyan played by Sean Bean (top) proceeds in his attempt to kill James Bond played by Pierce Brosnan (bottom) by knocking him off the observatory's antenna array, high above the satellite dish

A scene from the climax of GoldenEye at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Alec Trevelyan played by Sean Bean (top) proceeds in his attempt to kill James Bond played by Pierce Brosnan (bottom) by knocking him off the observatory’s antenna array, high above the satellite dish

‘NSF has concluded that this recent damage to the 305-meter telescope cannot be addressed without risking the lives and safety of work crews and staff,’ said Sean Jones, assistant director of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate at NSF.

‘NSF has decided to begin the process of planning for a controlled decommissioning of the 305-meter telescope.’

The decision has been taken following a recommendation from an engineering firm hired by the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory under a five-year $20 million agreement with NSF.

Citing safety concerns, the firm ruled out efforts to repair the observatory and recommended a controlled demolition.

Operations at the observatory were halted in August when one of its supportive cables slipped loose from its socket, falling and gashing a 100-foot-long (30 metre) hole in its 1,000-foot wide reflector dish. 

A image from the GoldenEye shoot: Izabella Scorupco, who plays computer programmer Natalya Simonova and Pierce Brosnan as 007 are filmed sliding down the observatory's giant satellite dish

A image from the GoldenEye shoot: Izabella Scorupco, who plays computer programmer Natalya Simonova and Pierce Brosnan as 007 are filmed sliding down the observatory’s giant satellite dish

Broken cables (pictured) tore holes in the structure leading to the final decision to decommission Arecibo. Picture taken November 7

Broken cables (pictured) tore holes in the structure leading to the final decision to decommission Arecibo. Picture taken November 7

This aerial view shows a hole in the dish panels of the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on November 19

This aerial view shows a hole in the dish panels of the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on November 19

Damage in August done by a broken cable that supported a metal platform, creating a 100-foot (30-meter) gash to the radio telescope's reflector dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico

Damage in August done by a broken cable that supported a metal platform, creating a 100-foot (30-meter) gash to the radio telescope’s reflector dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico

While the observatory was awaiting delivery of two replacement auxiliary cables, as well as two temporary cables, another main cable broke on the same tower on November 6. 

This tore a new hole in the dish and damaged nearby cables, leading officials to warn that the entire structure could collapse.  

‘Leadership at Arecibo Observatory and UCF did a commendable job addressing this situation, acting quickly and pursuing every possible option to save this incredible instrument,’ said Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences. 

‘In the end, a preponderance of data showed that we simply could not do this safely and that is a line we cannot cross.’

Another aerial view shows a hole in the dish panels of the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on November 19

Another aerial view shows a hole in the dish panels of the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on November 19

NSF accepted the recommendation to prepare for controlled decommissioning of the massive telescope

NSF accepted the recommendation to prepare for controlled decommissioning of the massive telescope

Engineers have not yet determined the cause of the initial cable’s failure, a NSF spokesperson said.

The observatory’s vast reflector dish and a 900-ton structure hanging 450 feet above it is nestled in the humid forests of Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

It has been used by scientists and astronomers around the world for decades to analyse distant planets, find potentially hazardous asteroids and hunt for signatures of extra-terrestrial life.

The telescope was built in the 1960s with money from the Defence Department amid a push to develop anti-ballistic missile defences. 

In its 57 years of operation, it endured hurricanes, endless humidity and a recent string of strong earthquakes. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced on November 19, 2020, it will decommission the radio telescope following two cable breaks

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced on November 19, 2020, it will decommission the radio telescope following two cable breaks

The telescope was instrumental in detecting the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 1999, which laid the groundwork for NASA to send a robotic probe there to collect and eventually return its first asteroid dirt sample some two decades later.

In 1974, scientists used Arecibo to detect whirling pulsars – the first evidence for gravitational waves – earning them the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics. 

Pulsars are neutron stars – the collapsed cores of giant stars – that emit beams of radiation that sweep through Earth’s line of sight. 

Alex Wolszczan, a Polish-born astronomer and professor at Pennsylvania State University, used Arecibo to discover of pulsar PSR B1257+12 in 1990.  

‘I was hoping against hope that they would come up with some kind of solution to keep it open,’ he told The Associated Press. 

‘For a person who has had a lot of his scientific life associated with that telescope, this is a rather interesting and sadly emotional moment.’ 

In 1998, Arecibo Observatory ‘found’ the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft on July 28, after it lost communications with European Space Agency and NASA.

The Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico is used as a location for the James Bond film 'GoldenEye', 1995

The Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico is used as a location for the James Bond film ‘GoldenEye’, 1995

Arecibo bounced a radar signal off SOHO, enabling its mission to be resumed, and SOHO continues to produce data to this day. 

NSF said it aims to retain as much as possible of its remaining infrastructure of Arecibo so that it remains available for future research and educational missions. 

The distinctive observatory was the setting for the dramatic climax of GoldenEye, starring Pierce Brosnan as 007. 

Bond and computer programmer Natalya Simonova, played by Izabella Scorupco, are seen sliding down the observatory’s giant satellite dish while avoiding gunfire in a memorable scene. 

Later, the film’s antagonist, defected MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan played by Sean Bean, meets his fate when Bond drops him from the observatory’s antenna array, which subsequently explodes and collapses on him. 

The observatory made another high-profile film appearance two year later – in the 1997 sci-fi film Contact, Jodie Foster stars as Dr Ellie Arroway, who works at Arecibo in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. 

For England, James? The film's antagonist, defected MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan, played by Sean Bean, meets his fate when Bond drops him from the observatory's antenna array, which subsequently explodes and collapses on him.

For England, James? The film’s antagonist, defected MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan, played by Sean Bean, meets his fate when Bond drops him from the observatory’s antenna array, which subsequently explodes and collapses on him.

ARECIBO OBSERVATORY HISTORY

1963: Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory Commissioned for service on November 1 for $9.7 million.

1965: One of its first accomplishments was establishing the rotation rate of Mercury, which turned out to be 59 days rather than the previously estimated 88 days.

1968: Sporadic radio pulses from the direction of the Crab Nebula supernova remnant found at Green Bank were shown by Arecibo to come from a 33-ms period pulsar situated at the centre of the nebula. 

1974: New high precision surface reflector installed, planetary radar transmitter installed.

1974: The first pulsar in a binary system was discovered, leading to important confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and a Nobel Prize 1993 for astronomers Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor.

1974: On 16 November, the ‘Arecibo message’ was broadcast into space toward the globular star cluster M13 25,000 light years away. 

The message’s main purpose was to demonstrate the capabilities of newly installed equipment in the upgraded radio telescope and was an attempt to contact extraterrestrial intelligence.

1979: A large, anomalous travelling ionospheric disturbance (that is, an upper atmosphere wave) moving southeast to northwest was detected in the early morning hours – something researchers had never before witnessed. Data helped define the probable cause as an air nuclear blast over the Indian Ocean.  

1981: First radar maps of the geologic surface of Venus are produced.

1982: The discovery of strong ‘megamaser’ emission from the hydroxyl (OH) molecule in the starburst galaxy Arp 220 (IC 4553).

1982: The discovery of millisecond pulsars, which rotate several hundred times per second. This demonstrated the existence of two classes of pulsars – the millisecond pulsars and the slower-rotating pulsars, which rotate about once per second. 

1989: The first measurement of hydrogen escape flux from Earth is presented, based on velocity distribution measurements of the hydrogen airglow emission in the upper atmosphere.

Early 90s: The first planets outside the solar system were discovered around Pulsar B1257+12, a rapidly rotating pulsar with three Earth-like planets in orbit.  

1992: In October, ice is discovered in shadowed craters at Mercury’s north pole. Later observations show ice in south pole craters as well.  

1996: A layer of helium ions is shown to be a common, but previously unrecognised feature in the low-latitude ionosphere near 600 km.

1998: Arecibo Observatory ‘found’ the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft on July 28, after it lost communications with European Space Agency and NASA,. by bouncing a radar signal off the satellite. SOHO’s mission was resumed and continues to produce data today.

May 2000: Radar Observations of Asteroid 216 Kleopatra reveal a ‘dog bone’ shaped metal-rich object. 

September 2000: Discovery that 2000 DP107 was the first near-Earth asteroid identified by radar as a binary system. The primary is roughly spherical with a diameter of a half mile and the smaller secondary, which orbits it in 1.8 days, is about 1000 feet.   

2003: Evidence for hydrocarbon lakes on the Saturn satellite Titan is established using the Observatory planetary radar. 

April 2004: Installation of the Arecibo L-band Feed Array, enabling a wide variety of astronomical surveys including discovering pulsars, mapping the gas in our Galaxy, and searches for other galaxies.  

2005-2012: Radar imaging of Mars reveals lava flows and near-surface geologic features not seen in visible images. This provides new insights into Mars surface geology. 

2006: Search for water ice in the permanent shadow of the lunar Shackleton Crater disputes evidence for water ice on the lunar surface.  

October 2006: Radar images of the south pole of the moon reveal no evidence for thick deposits of ice. 

November 2006: Radar images of binary asteroid (66391) 1999 KW4 in May 2001 and again in June 2002 reveal exotic physical and dynamical properties which may be common among near-Earth binaries.    

March 2007: Radar images of Mercury reveal features to be studied further by the Messenger spacecraft over the next several years.   

2007: The near-Earth asteroid 2005 PH5 was observed to be increasing in spin rate, due to non-uniform absorption and emission of solar radiation.

2007: Previously undetected radio lines of the molecule hydrogen cyanide (HCN), and the presence of the molecule methanimine (CH2NH), were recently discovered in the distant ‘starburst galaxy’ Arp 220.         

February 2008: Discovery of the first triple asteroid system among the near-Earth asteroids. The asteroid, 2001 SN263, is about 1.5 miles in diameter, with two moons orbiting it. 

2008–2012: Observations discover a radio outburst in the nearby galaxy NGC 660, ten times brighter than a radio supernova.    

2011: Observations of brown dwarfs find the coldest star to show radio emission. 

November 2011: Radar imaging of near-Earth asteroid 2005 YU55, which made a very close flyby. This dark, spheroidal asteroid was found to be about 1,148 feet in diameter. 

2012: An ion-neutral chemistry model is developed to successfully describe thin layers of neutral metal atoms at above 62 miles altitudes.

More info:  National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center

 

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