Famous Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico Collapses
Famous Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico Collapses

Famous Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico Collapses

A 900-ton equipment platform suspended hundreds of feet above the ground fell and punched a hole in the giant radio dish below, marking a catastrophic end for the iconic observatory.

Ashley Yeager
Ashley Yeager
Dec 1, 2020

ABOVE: The Arecibo Observatory in 2014
© ISTOCK.COM, ISAACRIUZ

The Arecibo Observatory collapsed today (December 1), shattering the telescope’s 305-meter-wide radio dish and marking a cataclysmic end to the telescope’s 57-year run studying outer space, searching for alien life, and characterizing asteroids with the potential to hit Earth. No one was hurt in the incident, according to National Geographic, though astronomers around the world are mourning the telescope’s demise, the Associated Press reports.

Jonathan Friedman, a 26-year veteran of radio astronomy with the telescope, lives near the observatory in Puerto Rico and heard the rumble this morning as a cable holding a 900-ton equipment platform suspended above the 305-meter-wide radio dish snapped. The platform went into freefall and slammed into the radio dish, destroying it. Before he saw the damage, Friedman knew what had happened, and tells the AP, “I was screaming. Personally, I was out of control. . . . I don’t have words to express it. It’s a very deep, terrible feeling.”

On November 19, the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the observatory, announced it would permanently halt operations at the telescope. An engineering analysis had predicted that the observatory was at risk of collapsing. Two cables supporting the platform over the dish snapped earlier this year, one in August and one in early November. The loss of those cables made it impossible to ensure the safety of crews trying to fix the telescope, leading to the decision to decommission it. Astronomers around the world began to petition to save the famed telescope, posting on social media under the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe and on the Save the Arecibo Observatory Twitter account.

The telescope has been a source of inspiration for astronomers and science enthusiasts alike, making cameos in the James Bond film GoldenEye and the film adaptation of the Carl Sagan book Contact

“As someone who was inspired as a child by the observatory to reach for the stars, this is devastating and heartbreaking. I’ve seen how the observatory to this day continues to inspire my island,” planetary scientist Edgard Rivera-Valentin of the Lunar and Planetary Institute told National Geographic last month.

Abel Méndez, a physics and astrobiology professor at the University of Puerto Rico who uses the telescope to study stars to identify habitable planets, shares a similar sentiment. “I am one of those students who visited it when young and got inspired,” he tells the AP. “The world without the observatory loses, but Puerto Rico loses even more.”

Because of the scientific and cultural pride associated with the telescope, there are murmurs of a campaign to rebuild it. Those efforts must begin today, Anne Virkki, who leads the team that uses the telescope to characterize planet-threatening asteroids, tells National Geographic in an email.