Massive Arecibo Telescope Collapses in Puerto Rico

The radio telescope was once the largest in the world, and played a key role in many major astronomical discoveries over the last 50 years

This aerial view shows the damage at the Arecibo Observatory after one of the main cables holding the receiver broke in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on December 1, 2020.
The telescope collapsed ahead of its scheduled demolition. Photo by RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed, ending its nearly 60 years of operation, reports Dánica Coto for the Associated Press (AP).

The collapse saw a 900-ton equipment platform fall from more than 400 feet up and crash into the northern part of the telescope’s 1,000-foot-wide dish, per the AP. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the facility, announced that no injuries have been reported.

This final death knell for Arecibo’s telescope, which tracked asteroids approaching Earth and searched the heavens for habitable planets, followed other serious damages to the massive observatory and weeks of discussion about its future.

In August, an auxiliary cable slipped from its socket and slashed a 100-foot fissure in the observatory’s reflector dish. Then, in early November, one of the main support cables responsible for holding the equipment platform above the reflector dish snapped, placing the entire structure at significant risk of an “uncontrolled collapse,” reports Bill Chappell for NPR.

These damages prior to the total collapse led to NSF determining that the telescope could not be safely repaired, and an announcement that Arecibo’s telescope would be withdrawn from service and dismantled.

When the observatory first closed after August’s damages, about 250 scientists around the world were still using it, according to the AP. For these scientists and for those who spent many years of their lives working with the astronomical instrument in the lush mountains of Puerto Rico, its sudden destruction exacts an emotional toll.

Jonathan Friedman, a researcher who worked at the observatory for 26 years and still lives nearby, tells the AP what he heard at the moment of the collapse: "It sounded like a rumble. I knew exactly what it was. I was screaming. Personally, I was out of control... I don't have words to express it. It's a very deep, terrible feeling."

“It’s such an undignified end,” Catherine Neish, an astrobiologist at Western University in London, Ontario, tells Maria Cramer and Dennis Overbye of the New York Times. “That’s what’s so sad about it.”

The telescope even achieved some level of renown among laypeople following its inclusion in popular movies such as “Contact” and the James Bond film “Goldeneye.”

Constructed in the early 1960s, the Arecibo telescope used radio waves to probe the farthest reaches of the universe. Among its most notable accomplishments is the first detection of a binary pulsar in 1974, per NPR. The discovery supported Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and eventually garnered the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics for a pair of researchers.

More recently, the radio telescope had been scrutinizing signals from pulsars across the galaxy for the telltale distortions of gravitational waves, according to the New York Times.

Arecibo has also played a significant role in the search for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Following NSF’s decision to dismantle the telescope, astronomer Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute penned a farewell message to the instrument: “For those astronomers and SETI researchers who have spent time at the Puerto Rican installation, the loss of this telescope is akin to hearing that your high school has burned down… Losing Arecibo is like losing a big brother. While life will continue, something powerful and profoundly wonderful is gone.”

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