Puerto Rico’s Arecibo telescope, once world’s largest, collapses

For five decades, Arecibo was the largest single-aperture telescope in the world, used to study distant planets and find asteroids.

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was closed in November 2020 after damage rendered it dangerous [File: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP]
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was closed in November 2020 after damage rendered it dangerous [File: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP]

The massive telescope on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico – located at the Arecibo Observatory and deteriorating since August – collapsed on Tuesday, officials said, after 57 years of astronomical discoveries.

The radio telescope’s 900-tonne instrument platform, suspended by cables 137m (450 feet) above a 305-metre-wide (1,000-foot) bowl-shaped reflector dish, fell on Tuesday morning, the United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF) said. No injuries were reported, it added.

The telescope, one of the largest in the world, had been used by scientists around the globe for decades to study distant planets, find potentially hazardous asteroids and hunt for potential signatures of extraterrestrial life.

It was also featured in two US films, GoldenEye starring Pierce Brosnan as James Bond and released in 1995, and Contact, with actors Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey two years later.

 

The Arecibo Observatory space telescope, seen in a satellite image taken over Arecibo, Puerto Rico [File: Planet/Handout via Reuters]
Two cables supporting the reflector dish had broken since August, leaving a gash in the dish and making the site unsafe, forcing officials to close the observatory. The NSF, which helped manage the telescope, said in November that efforts to repair the structure would be too dangerous and therefore it would have to be demolished.

“NSF is saddened by this development,” the independent federal agency wrote on Twitter. “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.”

When it announced the closure last month, the NSF said that “the telescope serves as an inspiration for Puerto Ricans considering education and employment in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]”.

In the same statement, Michael Wiltberger, head of NSF’s Geospace Section, said the observatory “has helped transform our understanding of the ionosphere, showing us how density, composition and other factors interact to shape this critical region where Earth’s atmosphere meets space”.

The NSF’s original plan was to dismantle the site with “aims to retain as much as possible of the remaining infrastructure of Arecibo Observatory, so that it remains available for future research and educational missions”.

Source : Al Jazeera and News agencies

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