Iconic Arecibo Observatory to be demolished after cable damage

Ruben Fields
November 20, 2020

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today it will decommission the iconic radio telescope in Puerto Rico following two cable breaks in recent months that have brought the structure to near collapse.

Then on November 6, one of the telescope's main steel cables snapped, causing further damage and leading officials to warn that the entire structure could collapse.

The telescope was built in the 1960s with money from the Defense Department amid a push to develop anti-ballistic missile defenses. Its building was completed in 1963, and for more than 50 years it has been considered the world's largest single-aperture radio telescope.

The telescope's 1,000-foot-wide dish was featured prominently in the 1995 James Bond thriller "GoldenEye", as the traitorous villain played by Sean Bean famously plummets to his death upon it.

The Observatory's giant reflector dish and the 816-ton, 137-meter-high 816-ton hanger, located in the moist forests of Arecibo, Puerto RicoHas been used by scientists and astronomers around the world for decades to analyze distant planets, find potentially unsafe stars, and search for signatures of extraterrestrial life.

In the case of these latest breakages, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted several assessments regarding repairs before deciding to decommission the telescope.

Arecibo-Observatory1
The Arecibo Observatory in its prime

The University of Central Florida, which took part in the management of the Arecibo Observatory confirmed that the university had hired two additional outside engineering teams to assess the situation.

The engineering firm hired by UCF to lead the inspection and fix work on the radio telescope, Thornton Tomasetti, advised that fix work would be too risky to carry out. "For a person who has had a lot of his scientific life associated with that telescope, this is a rather interesting and sadly emotional moment".

Ralph Gaume, director of NSF's division of astronomical sciences, said: "Until these assessments came in, our question was not if the observatory should be repaired but how". Thornton Tomasetti's model suggested there was no course of action that could safely verify the structure's stability and advised against allowing personnel on the telescope's platforms or towers. "Even attempts at stabilization or testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure". Arecibo Director Francisco Cordova said there's still a lot of work to be done at the facility, even with the main dish offline. Those are used for upper atmospheric and ionospheric research, including analyzing cloud cover and precipitation data.

NASA's Goldstone Observatory in California, another planetary radar, recently returned to operation after equipment upgrades and can also characterize near-Earth objects.

"I think the legacy at Arecibo is really a legacy of discovery and innovation that will continue to live on through the years just because it has impacted so many people in a positive way", said Cordova. "It won't be instantaneous".

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