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Cosmic Space

Collapse delivers death blow to Arecibo radio dish

The Arecibo radio telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform fell into the 1,000-foot-wide antenna dish this morning, adding to previous damage and putting Puerto Rico’s iconic scientific structure beyond repair.

The National Science Foundation, which funds the Arecibo Observatory through a management contract with the University of Central Florida, said no injuries were caused by the collapse.

“We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement. “When engineers advised the NSF that the structure was unstable and presented a danger to work teams and Arecibo staff, we took their warnings seriously and continued to emphasize the importance of safety for everyone involved.”

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Less than two weeks ago, the NSF announced that it wasn’t safe to make repairs to the telescope, due to the damage done when two of the cables supporting the instrument platform broke on Aug. 10 and Nov. 6. Some continued to hold out hope nevertheless that the 57-year-old facility — which became famous in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — could somehow be revived.

Today’s collapse delivered the killing blow to the current telescope. Panchanathan said “our focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.”

The NSF said preliminary findings from an investigation into the platform’s fall suggest that the top sections of all three support towers snapped off. As the platform made its 500-foot drop to the dish, its support cables also dropped, according to the NSF’s statement.

“This whole process took 30 seconds, and an unfortunate icon in radio astronomy was done,” Angel Vasquez, the observatory’s head of telescope operations, said during an Arecibo news briefing.

The observatory’s learning center sustained “significant damage from falling cables,” the NSF said. Workers at the site were taking appropriate safety precautions as the damage was being assessed. Arecibo’s staff will be authorized to receive their pay, continue research work and make repairs to the observatory’s 12-meter (39-foot) research telescope and the roof of its lidar research facility.

Some of the telescope’s users have voiced concerns about how the telescope had been maintained in recent years, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a series of seismic shocks that occurred last year. An upgrade that was completed in 1997 added significantly to the weight of the instrument platform’s weight — and that may have contributed to the structural stress.

Last week, Physics Today quoted John Mathews, an emeritus professor at Penn State who used Arecibo regularly from 1969 through 2019, as saying that “deferred maintenance has been a problem for decades, and it’s only gotten worse.”

Arecibo’s role in the SETI quest got the Hollywood treatment in the 1997 film “Contact,” starring Jodie Foster. In real life, the telescope played a role in listening for alien signals, and sent the Arecibo Message to the stars in 1974. But the telescope also contributed to other astronomical pursuits, ranging from the search for exoplanets to the study of black holes, gravitational waves and fast radio bursts.

The telescope’s hardest-to-replace function was to track near-Earth asteroids using radar. “No other instrument has Arecibo’s capacity for asteroid detection/characterization/orbit refinement,” planetary scientist Alessondra Springmann said in a tweet.

Even before this morning’s collapse, NASA began discussing the options for shoring up its planetary radar capabilities — perhaps through the use of the Goldstone Observatory in California, or through a project undertaken in cooperation with the U.S. Space Force, which is increasingly interested in tracking objects in cislunar space.

For decades, Arecibo has been a source of pride for Puerto Ricans in particular. Today, some of the telescope’s fans are suggesting that the best course would be to clear away the wreckage — and then build a brand-new, state-of-the-art radio telescope on the same site.

Update for 10 a.m. PT Dec. 3: Chilling videos that were distributed by the NSF document the collapse of the platform, as seen from the observatory’s control room and from a drone that was monitoring the platform’s cable attachments at the time.

The footage from the control room was taken by Carlos Perez with a GoPro. Electronic technician Adrian Bague took the drone footage.

Officials say cameras were set up to keep close watch on the telescope in the wake of the previous cable breaks. They also say it’s likely to take a long time to investigate the circumstances of the radio telescope’s demise and determine what to do with the Arecibo site.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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