By University of Central Florida, The remains of the Arecibo Observatory’s iconic radio telescope.

By University of Central Florida, The remains of the Arecibo Observatory’s iconic radio telescope as seen from the point of the cable failures which caused the collapse in 2020.

I came across an article this week on the Arecibo Observatory and its final words to mankind. I remember writing about the catastrophic collapse of one of the greatest tools of astronomy in my lifetime. I was shocked to hear of the news in December 2020. Early in the month, a support cable failed, and less than two weeks later a second failure caused the complete collapse of the telescope. I fully expected that this was the end of the research conducted by the telescope. Imagine my surprise when I read that there were new discoveries from Arecibo.You might say they are words from beyond the grave.

Arecibo, like its predecessors and those large deep space telescopes to follow, collect more data than we can process in their lifetimes. It is highly possible that we will be seeing new astronomical discoveries from Arecibo for another decade.

The September 2022 issue of Planetary Science Journal published a research paper entitled, “Arecibo Planetary Radar Observations of Near-Earth Asteroids: 2017-December-2019 December” In the article Anne K. Virkki and associates published the observation of 191 near-Earth asteroids observed by analyzing the S-band planetary radar system of Arecibo.

Among their most interesting observations are four binary asteroids. A binary asteroid is a pair of asteroids that have established orbits around one another. The most interesting of these is the equal-mass binary asteroid referred to as 2017 YE5; this is considered an ultra-rare discovery. Asteroid 2017 YE5 consists of two nearly identical size rocks estimated to measure approximately 1/2-mile in diameter. The high reflectivity of the asteroids indicate an abundance of ice beneath the surface, making them both a never-before seen class of near-Earth asteroids.

The discoveries also included nearly 70 near-Earth asteroids that are considered “potentially hazardous,” meaning that their projected paths bring them within 4.65 million miles of Earth and that they are large enough to reach the surface of the planet rather than burning up in Earth’s oxygen rich atmosphere. Fortunately, none of the newly discovered asteroids pose a threat for at least 100 years. However, it is important to know the risks and keep a close eye on these asteroids.

What I found most interesting was not so much the discoveries, but the fact that they were made by applying new analytic techniques to existing data. The telescope was originally constructed in 1963 and was only more recently made world famous by being featured in 1990s’ films “Contact” (1997) and “GoldenEye” (1995). Both movies predict the use of the telescope to reach life on other planets, but prior to the films the scientific community already accepted the fact that Arecibo was responsible for beaming humanity’s first message to outer space in 1974.

It was formally decided in October 2022 that the telescope at Arecibo would not be repaired or replaced, but scientists are still analyzing the massive amounts of data it collected. We can expect new discoveries from the famous telescope for years to come.

Arecibo was instrumental in the planning of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission I wrote about last month; by the way the results of the DART test are in and the mission was a success. The orbital period of Dimorphos was altered by 32 minutes from the impact of the DART spacecraft, meaning we can successfully alter the path of dangerous asteroids yet to be discovered from data analysis coming from Arecibo. You can read the full article from the Planetary Science Journal at https://tinyurl.com/yvppuvbp. Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.

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