Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory collapses as engineers feared

The huge Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed overnight. The catastrophic failure was predicted by engineers after the telescope suffered two major cable malfunctions in the past two months, endangering the integrity of the entire observatory structure.

Images of Arecibo surfaced online this morning, revealing that the massive 900-ton platform that normally hangs above the observatory was no longer there. The National Science Foundation, which oversees Arecibo, has confirmed The edge as the platform crashed into the telescope’s giant 1,000-foot-wide antenna. No injuries have been reported, according to the agency.

“NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation”, the agency tweeted. “Our top priority is to maintain safety. NSF will release more details when confirmed. “

This catastrophic scenario is something the NSF feared would happen. On November 19, the agency announced that the remaining cables at Arecibo were at risk of failing, which could lead to the collapse of the platform. Knowing that this was imminent, the NSF said it planned to demolish Arecibo in a controlled manner, concluding that there was no sure way to save the observatory. Officials had evacuated the facility and set up a “security exclusion zone” to keep people away.

The collapse comes at the end of a difficult period for Arecibo. In August, the observatory suffered its first major malfunction, when an auxiliary cable came loose from its socket and fell on the observatory’s dish, puncturing a large hole in the structure. At the time, the NSF and the University of Central Florida, which oversees daily operations at Arecibo, promised to investigate the failure and repair the damage in order to get the observatory back up and running.

But as engineers scrambled for a way forward for repairs, a second main cable broke on November 6. This time, the cable snapped and also fell on Arecibo’s giant antenna, damaging other cables nearby. The engineers found that the strength of the other cables could not be guaranteed. The NSF concluded that Arecibo would eventually collapse if no action was taken; they just didn’t know when the collapse might happen. The agency had hoped to demolish the structure before it took place.

“NSF is saddened by this development”, the agency tweeted about the collapse. “As we move forward, we will look for ways to help the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.”


Damage to the Arecibo observatory was observed on November 19 after the second cable break.
Photo by Ricardo Arduengo / AFP via Getty Images

The NSF’s decision to demolish Arecibo has been met with much revulsion from fans of the telescope. Arecibo has been a major beacon of opportunity in Puerto Rico as well as an incredible asset to scrutinize the cosmos. The observatory has been used to identify distant alien objects like pulsars as well as to listen to mysterious explosions of radio waves coming from the distant Universe. Scientists also used Arecibo in 1974 to send a photo message into the cosmos, detailing mankind’s accomplishments for anyone who could listen to it. Arecibo has also made numerous cameos in television and film, including Golden eye and Contact.

Not wanting to see the observatory demolished, a Puerto Rican scientist started a petition on Change.org to urge the NSF to fix Arecibo. To date, the petition has over 36,000 signatures.

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