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Investigation begins into damage at one of the world’s most iconic observatories

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This week, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — an iconic facility made famous by movies like Contact and Goldeneye — had to halt observations of the Universe after a structural cable failed, punching a hole in the facility’s giant reflector dish. Operators of the observatory say the overall facility is mostly fine, but they’re working to figure out exactly what went wrong.

“The majority of that primary reflector is in good shape, but our focus is really making sure that the platform has the structural stability needed to operate in the near future,” Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory at the University of Central Florida, said during a press call.

Damage as seen from underneath the disk.
Image: UCF

Early Monday morning, one of the cables that helps to keep a large metal platform in place over the observatory detached. The end of the cable slipped out of one of its sockets, causing the three-inch-wide cord to fall to the ground. The incident destroyed about 250 panels that comprise the main reflector dish, creating a 100-foot-long gap in the structure. The accident also slightly damaged panels on the large Gregorian dome above the observatory, a white golf ball-shaped structure that houses reflectors that help direct the facility’s observations of the sky.

Photos of the damage make it seem particularly nasty, but Arecibo’s main reflector dish is comprised of 40,000 panels — making the overall destruction very small. Still, the observatory cannot operate at full capacity in the meantime. Normally, Arecibo is up and running 24/7, with observations typically taking place between 3PM and 7AM each day, according to Cordova. UCF sent a note out to all of Arecibo’s users, notifying them that observations have been put on hold for at least a two-week period. However, the team doesn’t know how long it will take to repair the damage — or how much it’s going to cost.

Drone footage of the damage.
Image: UCF

“These cables are very custom for this particular application,” Cordova said. “So they take, you know, a little bit of time to fabricate and ship and get them installed.” They hope to have more information by the end of next week, he says. The Arecibo Observatory is funded through the National Science Foundation.

Right now, the operators at UCF are launching an investigation into the incident, as they still don’t know why the cable snapped. “This was certainly an unprecedented event,” Cordova said. “These cables are expected to last at least for another 15, 20 years at the minimum.” The cable that broke was installed more than 20 years ago, Cordova noted, when the Gregorian dome was added to the facility. Investigators are still trying to pin down the origin of the failure. “We’ve barely started on this endeavor,” Ray Lugo, director of UCF’s Florida Space Institute and the lead overseeing the investigation, said during the press conference. “Our focus right now is making sure that we protect our people, and the unique equipment and facilities we have here.”

Not only has Arecibo been featured in numerous films, but the observatory is also critical for numerous deep-space observations, used to search for exotic cosmic objects and events like pulsars, bursts of radio waves, and more. The dish is also instrumental for planetary defense, helping NASA look for potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet. Arecibo also receives particular attention for its involvement with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). As part of that project, it scans the sky for potential radio transmissions from intelligent beings.

Arecibo has also weathered a lot of storms — both figuratively and literally — these last few years, and UCF is confident that this will only be a small delay. “We are a pretty resilient bunch…I think we’ve proven that after the impact of Hurricane Maria,” Cordova said. “We’ve been kind of tested again with some earthquakes and then tested again with this pandemic and now, it’s just another bump in the road.”

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Science

Too bright to breed

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Night light from coastal cities overpowers natural signals for coral spawning from neighboring reefs.

PHOTO: NOKURO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Most coral species reproduce through broadcast spawning. For such a strategy to be successful, coordination has had to evolve such that gametes across clones are released simultaneously. Over millennia, lunar cycles have facilitated this coordination, but the recent development of bright artificial light has led to an overpowering of these natural signals. Ayalon et al. tested for the direct impact of different kinds of artificial light on different species of corals. The authors found that multiple lighting types, including cold and warm light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, led to loss of synchrony and spawning failure. Further, coastal maps of artificial lighting globally suggest that it threatens to interfere with coral reproduction worldwide and that the deployment of LED lights, the blue light of which penetrates deeper into the water column, is likely to make the situation even worse.

Curr. Biol. 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.039 (2020).

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SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers

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SpaceX has debuted an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband internet service, for both iOS and Android devices. The Starlink app allows users to manage their connection – but to take part you’ll have to be part of the official beta program, and the initial public rollout of that is only just about to begin, according to emails SpaceX sent to potential beta testers this week.

The Starlink app provides guidance on how to install the Starlink receiver dish, as well as connection status (including signal quality), a device overview for seeing what’s connected to your network, and a speed test tool. It’s similar to other mobile apps for managing home wifi connections and routers. Meanwhile, the emails to potential testers that CNBC obtained detail what users can expect in terms of pricing, speeds and latency.

The initial Starlink public beta test is called the “Better than Nothing Beta Program,” SpaceX confirms in their app description, and will be rolled out across the U.S. and Canada before the end of the year – which matches up with earlier stated timelines. As per the name, SpaceX is hoping to set expectations for early customers, with speeds users can expect ranging from between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, and latency of 20ms to 40ms according to the customer emails, with some periods including no connectivity at all. Even with expectations set low, if those values prove accurate, it should be a big improvement for users in some hard-to-reach areas where service is currently costly, unreliable and operating at roughly dial-up equivalent speeds.

Image Credits: SpaceX

In terms of pricing, SpaceX says in the emails that the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per moth, plus a one-time cost of $499 initially to pay for the hardware, which includes the mounting kit and receiver dish, as well as a router with wifi networking capabilities.

The goal eventually is offer reliably, low-latency broadband that provides consistent connection by handing off connectivity between a large constellation of small satellites circling the globe in low Earth orbit. Already, SpaceX has nearly 1,000 of those launched, but it hopes to launch many thousands more before it reaches global coverage and offers general availability of its services.

SpaceX has already announced some initial commercial partnerships and pilot programs for Starlink, too, including a team-up with Microsoft to connect that company’s mobile Azure data centers, and a project with an East Texas school board to connect the local community.

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Erratum for the Report “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances” by R. Van Klink, D. E. Bowler, K. B. Gongalsky, A. B. Swengel, A. Gentile, J. M. Chase

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S. Rennie, J. Adamson, R. Anderson, C. Andrews, J. Bater, N. Bayfield, K. Beaton, D. Beaumont, S. Benham, V. Bowmaker, C. Britt, R. Brooker, D. Brooks, J. Brunt, G. Common, R. Cooper, S. Corbett, N. Critchley, P. Dennis, J. Dick, B. Dodd, N. Dodd, N. Donovan, J. Easter, M. Flexen, A. Gardiner, D. Hamilton, P. Hargreaves, M. Hatton-Ellis, M. Howe, J. Kahl, M. Lane, S. Langan, D. Lloyd, B. McCarney, Y. McElarney, C. McKenna, S. McMillan, F. Milne, L. Milne, M. Morecroft, M. Murphy, A. Nelson, H. Nicholson, D. Pallett, D. Parry, I. Pearce, G. Pozsgai, A. Riley, R. Rose, S. Schafer, T. Scott, L. Sherrin, C. Shortall, R. Smith, P. Smith, R. Tait, C. Taylor, M. Taylor, M. Thurlow, A. Turner, K. Tyson, H. Watson, M. Whittaker, I. Woiwod, C. Wood, UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) Moth Data: 1992-2015, NERC Environmental Information Data Centre (2018); .

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