Alien-hunting observatory seen in 1997 movie 'Contact' damaged, left with a 100-foot hole in mysterious accident

250 of the observatory's primary reflector dish panels were compromised, along with several support cables underneath the dish


                             Alien-hunting observatory seen in 1997 movie 'Contact' damaged, left with a 100-foot hole in mysterious accident
The main collecting dish is among the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes (UCF)

An asteroid and alien-hunting radio telescope in Puerto Rico suffered a mysterious accident. The Arecibo Observatory, which appeared in the 1997 movie named 'Contact', is no longer functioning. Authorities are now probing the incident.

The accident at Arecibo Observatory occurred on August 10 in the wee hours of the morning. A three-inch metal cable fell on the telescope, cutting open a 100-foot-long hole. It also damaged six to eight panels, sending debris into the ground. The cause behind the crash is still a mystery.

“We have a team of experts assessing the situation,” Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory, said in a statement. “Our focus is assuring the safety of our staff, protecting the facilities and equipment, and restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible, so it can continue to assist scientists around the world.” The mishap happened at 2.45 am. If it had been during the day when more staff were on site, there could have been injuries, he added.

Talking about the damage caused, Arecibo director Francisco Cordova told reporters that 250 of the observatory's primary reflector dish panels were compromised, along with several support cables underneath the dish. However, the extent of the destruction is unknown at the moment. They also have to work out the cost of the repairs needed to fix the telescope.

Ramon Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the UCF, said it was "concerning" to see the cables fail in this manner. “We don’t know why it happened. … It’s conceivable that recent weather and seismic events could have contributed," he told Science. The telescope suffered damage due to 2017's Hurricane Maria, but it is unlikely the two events are connected, he added.

Arecibo Observatory. (Getty Images)

In 1963, Arecibo Observatory went live. It began scanning the skies for signs of aliens and asteroids. With a diameter of about 300 meters, the observatory was the largest single-dish telescope in the world until 2016. Replacing it was China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST). The telescope is also designed to detect the elusive dark matter, which is believed to make up 27% of the universe.

The telescope braved several disasters such as hurricanes, tropical storms, and earthquakes for over 50 years. It has also contributed to significant breakthroughs in space research in the area of gravitational waves, asteroid characterization, planetary exploration and more, the University of Central Florida (UCF), which manages the telescope, said in a statement.
 
In 1974, astronomers used the Arecibo telescope to beam a pictorial radio message to globular star cluster M13, roughly 21,000 light-years away. The aim was to establish contact with aliens. The broadcast captured representations of fundamental chemicals, our solar system and simple pictures of a human being and the Arecibo telescope.

Though the message did not get picked up, the observatory accomplished its goal: transmitting radio messages into space.  "It was strictly a symbolic event, to show that we could do it,"  Donald Campbell, Cornell University professor of astronomy, who was a research associate at the Arecibo Observatory at the time, said in a statement

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