Legendary Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico to Be Demolished

Damaged beyond repair, it's a heartfelt goodbye for the beloved Arecibo telescope.
Derya Ozdemir
The photo credit line may appear like thisUniversity of Central Florida/Arecibo Observatory

It's a sad day for the lovers of astronomy and scientists who have relied on the world-famous Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The observatory, which has helped researchers search for deep-space objects and events like pulsars and bursts of distant radio waves, is set to be decommissioned and demolished after engineers concluded that the facility's structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure following two fatal mishaps in recent months.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), which oversees Arecibo, has decided the facility cannot be repaired without risking human life, bringing an end to its 57 years of astronomical discoveries.

'The telescope is in danger of catastrophic failure'

The tough decision came after the two major cables failed and caused significant damage to the observatory. Engineers of the University of Central Florida (UCF) were assessing the situation; however, the alarm bells were ringing since the other cables showed signs of degradation, fueling the worries that the platform could fall and crash through the dish below, National Geographic reports.

Legendary Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico to Be Demolished
The aftermath of a cable failure in August 2020. Source: UCF/AO

Now, after NSF and UCF have assessed the situation, it has been decided to cease repair efforts and decommission the observatory before the other cables can fail. 

NSF stated, "The telescope is in danger of catastrophic failure. Any attempts at repairs could put workers in potentially life-threatening danger," in a November 19 statement.


The main cables were installed decades ago, with the auxiliary cables following in the 1990s. “All of the main cables, all of which are decades old and have been through storms, earthquakes, and constant heavy moisture, may no longer be capable of supporting the load that they were designed [to carry],” Ashley Zauderer, the program director for the Arecibo Observatory at NSF, said during the call, The Verge reports.

Legendary Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico to Be Demolished
Source: University of Central Florida

Any of the remaining cables breaking could spell disaster for the observatory, and the engineers fear that the 900-ton suspended platform above the facility could come crashing down onto the dish. Moreover, the three surrounding towers which are situated at more than 300 feet (92 meters), could topple over and potentially hit other important nearby buildings. 

Safety of people is the number one priority

Most recently, NSF's engineers have left the facility, and a safety exclusion zone has been set up around the spaces where people would be in danger in the event of a collapse. Engineers are working on a plan to figure out how to take the facility apart safely. 

Sean Jones, the assistant director for the mathematical and physical sciences directorate at NSF, stated, "This decision is not an easy one for NSF to make, but safety of the people is our number one priority," in a call with reporters.

However, scientists are saddened by NFS's decision. Some are saying that this could have been avoided with proper maintenance and the news came as a disappointment since NSF isn't going to attempt any possible ways of stabilizing the structure before demolishing it.

NSF recommended that portions of the observatory remain intact, and after the controlled demolition, the site can still be used for educational purposes.


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