The telescope had been used by scientists around the world to hunt for possible signatures of extra-terrestrial life and study distant planets.
Puerto Rico’s massive Arecibo telescope, famous for its stellar contributions to astronomy, collapsed on Tuesday, leaving many among the scientific community in shock and anguish. The collapse was devastating also for many Puerto Ricans, for whom the observatory was culturally significant.
The US National Science Foundation, which owned the telescope, tweeted, “The instrument platform of the 305m telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our top priority is maintaining safety. NSF will release more details when they are confirmed.”
The telescope was popularised beyond the scientific community by the 1995 James Bond film ‘GoldenEye’, starring Pierce Brosnan, and Jodie Foster’s 1997 film
What happened to the Arecibo telescope?
The second-largest single-dish radio telescope in the world, Arecibo had withstood many hurricanes and earthquakes since it was first built in 1963.
Even before its collapse, experts had expressed alarm about the telescope’s condition, and had recommended a controlled demolition of the entire structure. On November 19, the NSF announced that the Arecibo would have to be decommissioned after two cables broke in a matter of months and threatened the observatory’s survival.
At the time, the NSF had said, “The decision comes after NSF evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support.” Soon after, the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe had trended on Twitter.
However, less than two weeks later, the worst-case scenario the NSF was seeking to avoid materialised when the telescope’s receiver platform, weighing 900 tonnes, collapsed 450 feet into the 1000-feet-wide dish below, smashing it.
Being the most powerful radar, scientists employed Arecibo to observe planets, asteroids and the ionosphere, making several discoveries over the decades, including finding prebiotic molecules in distant galaxies, the first exoplanets, and the first millisecond pulsar.
In 1967, Arecibo was able to discover that the planet Mercury rotates in 59 days and not 88 days as had been originally thought. In the following decades, it also served as a hub in the search for extraterrestrial life, and would look for radio signals from alien civilisations. Arecibo also played a key role in tracking killer asteroids heading towards Earth.
In 1993, scientists Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the observatory in monitoring a binary pulsar, providing a strict test of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the first evidence for the existence of gravitational waves.
The telescope had also become a cultural symbol for Puerto Rico, and drew around 90,000 visitors every year.
In November, the engineering reviews led the NSF and the university to conclude that efforts to repair the structure would be too dangerous and that it would have to be demolished.
The NSF said that initial findings indicated that the top section of all three of the telescope’s support towers broke off and that as the instrument platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also plummeted.
The observatory also includes other scientific assets such as a 40-foot (12-metre) telescope used for radio astronomy research and a facility used to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The observatory’s learning centre, located next to the telescope, sustained significant damage from falling cables, the NSF said.
“We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement. “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 it will authorize the university to continue paying Arecibo staff and to come up with a plan to continue research at the observatory. The agency said it has not determined the cause of the initial cable failure in August.
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