Story at a glance
- The Arecibo Telescope was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope until 2016.
- The instrument platform of the telescope fell overnight at the observatory in Puerto Rico.
- The radio telescope had already been damaged and was scheduled to be decommissioned.
The 305-meter Arecibo Telescope collapsed overnight at a historic observatory in Puerto Rico, reported the National Science Foundation (NSF) on Tuesday.
NSF is saddened by this development. As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.
— National Science Foundation (@NSF) December 1, 2020
No injuries were reported and the NSF said they are working to assess the situation.
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The telescope was scheduled to be decommissioned after a second auxiliary cable broke this year and experts found the structure was “in danger of a catastrophic failure.” The NSF planned to keep the rest of the facility intact for future use and restoration of the LIDAR facility, offside Culebra research substation and the visitor center.
“NSF prioritizes the safety of workers and Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a statement at the time. “For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like. While this is a profound change, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain that strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.”
The NSF reduced funding for the observatory even before Hurricane Maria damaged the telescope in 2017 and recent earthquakes only worsened conditions. Owned by the federally funded NSF, the Arecibo Observatory (or National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center) started as part of the United State’s anti-ballistic missile defenses in the late 1950s. By 1963 it had morphed into an observatory dedicated to studying the Earth’s ionosphere, the “ionized” part of the Earth’s atmosphere that extends to the uppermost levels of the atmosphere.
The Arecibo Telescope is built into a natural sinkhole, one of several in Puerto Rico that made it the ideal location for what would be the world’s largest single-aperture telescope until 2016, when it was surpassed by another in China. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, the telescope has been part of several major discoveries, including the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the first ever binary pulsar in 1974, ice at the north and south poles of Mercury in 1992 and, more recently, the first ever repeating fast radio burst (that might be extragalactic).
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