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Telescope key to UArizona’s asteroid mission is shut down

Famous Arecibo telescope judged beyond repair
Posted at 6:54 PM, Nov 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-26 20:54:32-05

TUCSON, Ariz. - The University of Arizona is proud of the Osiris Rex mission to grab a sample of an asteroid; but now the famous telescope that helped scientists choose which asteroid to sample is so badly damaged, it’s being shut down.

When Osiris Rex eased down to the asteroid called Bennu and grabbed a sample to bring to Earth, part of what made it possible was work years before at a huge radar telescope in Puerto Rico.

Since the 1960’s the Arecibo telescope has used the unmatched power of its huge dish---a thousand feet wide--- to find objects deep in space.

Doctor Michael Nolan leads the Osiris Rex Science Team now, but he was the director of Arecibo and helped select the asteroid later re-named Bennu as a prime target for a spacecraft to sample.

“And so, at the time it was called 1999, RQ36. Bennu was one of our best ones and so we were able to make a shape model, measure the rotation rate measurements orientation. Look at its surface, and we use that in planning the Osiris Rex mission pretty extensively.”

You don’t have to be a scientist to have at least seen a picture of Arecibo. Its unique look earned it a part in at least two movies. Even at almost 60 years old it still had the power to make new discoveries. But now it’s so badly damaged it’s shutting down.

The structure is old. Puerto Rico’s been battered by hurricanes and earthquakes.

Cables that suspended parts of the telescope above the big dish snapped. Pieces fell through the dish. Now the National Science Foundation which owns the telescope has ruled there’s no safe way to make repairs.

It was hard news for Doctor Nolan and for science.

“I worked there 20 years, I was head of the observatory for five of those. When I was talking to my colleagues, I was able to keep it together when I had to announce it to the Osiris Rex team. That's when I kind of lost it, and that it's very sad. But we're also not going to go and risk people to try to save this machine."

Doctor Nolan says Arecibo was one of the most powerful parts of the program to find asteroids that might hit the Earth. He says other telescopes can do that work but they have just a fraction of the power that makes Arecibo so hard to replace.