Categories: Radio Astronomy

Work Begins on Cleaning up Arecibo. The job Could Cost $50 Million

The collapse of Arecibo’s radio telescope was a devastating blow to the radio astronomy community.  On December 1st, the suspended instrument platform came crashing down, destroying a large part of the receiver dish and the towers supporting the platform, as well as causing minor damage to some outlying buildings.  Now the National Science Foundation (NSF), the government agency responsible for operating Arecibo is starting to pick up the pieces to figure out what’s next for the site, as they detailed in a brief report to Congress recently.

There were several major takeaways from the report.  The most important is that no one was hurt during the collapse.  This is in large part thanks to several engineering assessments after a preliminary cable collapse in November that strongly suggested no one travel near the 305m dish given then imminent chance of collapse. 

Video showing the collapse of the instrument platform at Arecibo.
Credit: NSF

The engineering team had suggested a “controlled decommissioning” – a euphemism for blowing up the telescope’s components in a way that allowed engineers to minimize risk to surrounding facilities.  Unfortunately they were not able to carry out that plan before the platform collapsed of its own volition, proving their theory about it being unstable.  The report found that the damage only occurred in the exclusion area, and since noone had been allowed in that zone, there was no human cost to the collapse. 

A second interesting note in the report dealt with clean up.  Currently, the estimated cost was somewhere between $30-50 million. Work will be spread over the next two years and will focus on debris removal and limiting environmental impact.  Efforts have already started, as evidenced by an image NSF released as part of the report that shows some of the debris cleared from the main dish.

Image of the destroyed 305m telescope with some cleanup started.
Credit: NSF

Details of the next steps were also outlined in the report.  It provided a breakdown of what was damaged and what was operating at the Arecibo facility, which was more than just the famous 305 meter dish.  The site still contains a LIDAR system that is operational but still needs repair from Hurricane Maria that struck the island almost 4 years ago.  Additional operating parts include a pair of 12 m receivers, a passive optics system, and a visitor center, which the NSF plans to continue operating as soon as the site is deemed safe.

NSF, along with its sub-contracted research institution, the University of Central Florida, who is actually responsible for running the site, plan to maintain a presence there, and potentially to leverage the other, largely undamaged infrastructure. Its still unclear what, if any, science might take place at the facility, but the NSF reiterated its commitment to the work that was done at Arecibo and to the community in Puerto Rico surrounding the facility.  With luck, maybe there will some further science done at the site in the not too distant future.

Learn More:
NSF – NSF begins planning for decommissioning of Arecibo Observatory’s 305-meter telescope due to safety concerns
NSF – Report on the Arecibo Observatory
UT – Now you can Watch Actual Video of Arecibo Collapsing…If You Dare
UT – Arecibo’s Damage is so Serious and Dangerous, They’re Just Going to Scrap the Observatory Entirely

Lead Image:
Image of the 305 meter telescope at Arecibo before the final collapse of the instrument platform.
Credit: University of Central Florida

Andy Tomaswick

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