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Hurricane Maria leaves Arecibo radio telescope damaged and dark

Feed antenna collapses, dropping debris onto main dish

In the midst of the humanitarian disaster unfolding after Puerto Rico was battered by Hurricane Maria, astronomers working at the Arecibo radio telescope have reported damage that will leave it unable to operate for months.

Work done at Arecibo is the source of dozens of Reg stories, but there's been little news of late as the telescope's own feeds and media service went dark late last week. But reports that while the main structure survived the Category 4 storm, there’s significant damage. A 29 metre antenna suspended above the world’s second-largest radio telescope was lost, and its debris punctured the metal mesh of the main 305 metre dish in several places.

That’s hardly surprising, since the line feed antenna involved had more than 150 metres to fall.

The Universities Space Research Organisation (USRA), which shares operation of the telescope, told National Geographic the damage also includes the loss of a 12 metre dish that acts as a phase reference for VLBI (very long baseline interferometry).

America’s National Science Foundation told National Geographic it won’t be able to fully assess damage until roads to Arecibo are opened.

All staff who sheltered at the site are known to be safe, and are stocked with food. As much as a week’s worth of diesel is present to keep backup generators humming.

However, repairs to the telescope will be hampered by the country’s lack of electricity. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) national grid was completely shut down by the hurricane, and recovery could take months.

PREPA, which filed for bankruptcy in July, had already been hit by the previous Hurricane Irma. That storm blacked out a million customers, but the authority said it had restored power to all but 60,000 when Maria hit. ®

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