Categories: Observatories

The Arecibo Observatory Platform Has Collapsed

Early this morning, the 900-ton instrument platform suspended above the Arecibo Observatory collapsed and crashed down on the iconic telescope’s giant dish. The collapse occurred at about 7:55 a.m. local time, officially ending any possible hopes of refurbishing the famous observatory in Puerto Rico.

Images of the collapse and subsequent damage started appearing on social media this morning; the National Science Foundation then confirmed via tweet that indeed the observatory had collapsed. They also said no injuries were reported.

Deborah Martorell, a meteorologist from Puerto Rico, was on the scene and took a photo showing dust and debris above the observatory, with several towers sheered off and the platform and cables obviously missing from the usual view of Arecibo above the treetops.

Martorell later tweeted out aerial views, showing the devastating damage to the Arecibo Observatory.

Originally tweeted by Deborah Martorell (@DeborahTiempo) on December 1, 2020.

Update: Here is a video posted by Wilbert Andrés Ruperto on Twitter, interviewing Ángel Vázquez, Director of Operations at Arecibo, about the collapse of the instrument platform. Vázquez was in the control room for the observatory when the collapse occurred:

The fate of the Arecibo Observatory has been in question since August of this year when an auxiliary cable that supported the platform above the telescope slipped, striking the reflector dish and causing considerable damage with a large 100-foot-long gash in the panels of the dish. Before repair work could begin, another support cable snapped in early November. According to the University of Central Florida (UCF) – which manages the facility– the broken cable caused additional damage to the dish and other nearby cables. Both cables were connected to the same support tower.

Engineers assessed all the damage, reporting that the observatory would likely collapse on it’s own at some point. Following a review, the NSF announced that the observatory could not be stabilized without risking the lives of construction workers and staff at the facility. Therefore, NSF decided to decommission the Arecibo Observatory, and ways to conduct a controlled demolition were under consideration. Meanwhile, a petition was started to try to convince Congress to fund the substantial repairs. But that is likely out of the question now.

The Arecibo Observatory was completed in 1963 and for over 50 years was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope, at 1,000 ft (305 m) across. It was used in three major areas of research: radio astronomy, atmospheric science, and radar astronomy. The observatory has appeared in movies, television shows and more, and is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

The facility has contributed to significant breakthroughs in astronomy and cosmology, including the discovery of the first binary pulsar, the first-millisecond pulsar, the first exoplanets, along with helping to study asteroids and planets in the Solar System.

In addition, the facility has also played an important role in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), providing the source data for SETI@home ad the SETI Institute’s Project Phoenix,

We’ll keep you posted on any further developments.

Lead image: Aerial view of the devastating damage to the Arecibo Observatory following the collapse of the telescope platform on December 1, 2020. Photo copyright and courtesy of Deborah Martorell.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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