The massive Arecibo radio telescope, a destination for astronomers perched in the mountains of Puerto Rico, has collapsed, the National Science Foundation said on Tuesday.
The telescope’s 900-ton receiving platform, which was suspended by cables connected to three towers, fell on the 1,000-foot satellite dish overnight, the foundation said.
“The platform fell unexpectedly,” said Joshua Chamot, a spokesperson for the foundation, owner of the Arecibo Observatory telescope. Officials said they were assessing the collapse before releasing more details. They did not say when the platform collapsed or why it fell.
“As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to help the scientific community and keep our relationships strong with the people of Puerto Rico,” the foundation said on Twitter.
The foundation announced on November 19 that the telescope was to be demolished after an auxiliary cable slipped out of its socket and left a 100-foot gash in the dish below. The observatory is managed by the University of Central Florida.
“The move comes after NSF assessed several assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope’s structure to be in danger of catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be able to support the loads they were designed to be used for. The foundation said last month.
On November 24, the foundation said engineers observed more breaks in the wires of the remaining cables attached to one of the towers that held the platform up.
The observatory served as a vanguard in the search for extraterrestrial civilizations, and astronomers used it to track killer asteroids.
For nearly six decades, the observatory has been a renowned resource for radio astronomy and planetary research, and it has had enormous cultural significance to Puerto Ricans. Many said they were inspired through the observatory to pursue careers in science and technology.
The telescope has become entrenched in popular culture and has been featured in films like “Contact” and the James Bond film “Golden Eye”.
The telescope emitted signals to and from space, an ability that helped collect undiscovered details about planets in the solar system, said Catherine Neish, assistant professor of earth sciences at the University of Western Ontario. .
One of his first exploits, in 1967, the discovery that the planet Mercury spins in 59 days, and not 88 as astronomers initially thought.
“It was amazing technology,” said Dr Neish.
But after years of hurricane damage and financial constraints, questions have arisen about the observatory’s future.
The people of Puerto Rico and the astronomers had asked the foundation to repair the telescope rather than tear it down.
Before the collapse, nearly 60,000 people signed a petition urging federal agencies to find a way to stabilize the structure.
But Thornton Tomasetti, an engineering company hired by the University of Central Florida to evaluate the telescope, said the likelihood of another failed cable was too high to warrant repair work.
“While it saddens us to make this recommendation, we believe the structure should be demolished in a controlled manner as soon as it is pragmatically possible,” the cabinet said in a letter to the university and the foundation.
On social media, scientists and Puerto Ricans who remember visiting the observatory cried the telescope after the collapse
“This is a staggering loss to our scientific capacity,” Justin Kugler, aerospace engineer, said on Twitter. “The United States must create a plan for a successor radio telescope that builds on Arecibo’s legacy and honors Puerto Rico’s commitment over these many years.”
Dr Neish, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, said the loss of the telescope was not only devastating, but also infuriating for scientists who believe the foundation could have done more to save it.
“It wasn’t inevitable,” she said of the collapse. “If they had maintained it properly, it is likely that this would not have happened.”
“It’s such an unworthy end,” she added. “That’s what’s so sad about it.”
Dennis Overbye contributed reporting.