Iconic radio telescope in Puerto Rico to be demolished



Arecibo Observatory over a body of water: The world's second largest single-dish radio telescope, Arecibo Observatory is in northern Puerto Rico.


© Photograph by Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The world’s second largest single-dish radio telescope, Arecibo Observatory is in northern Puerto Rico.


Editor’s Note, November 30: Arecibo Observatory’s suspended platform has reportedly collapsed around 8 a.m. local time. No one was hurt, according to observatory guards.

It’s game over for the Arecibo Observatory, home to an iconic, thousand-foot-wide radio telescope near Puerto Rico’s northern shore. Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it is decommissioning the massive 57-year-old telescope. The agency also intends to demolish the instrument, which is teetering on the verge of collapse.

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“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,” writes Edgard Rivera-Valentín of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in a direct message on Twitter to National Geographic.

The decision comes after a tough few months for the observatory. Engineers were trying to stabilize the telescope after two of the cables suspending its 900-ton platform broke. With additional cables showing signs of weakening and degradation, worries were growing that the platform could fall roughly 450 feet, crashing through the dish and into the jungle below. Now, NSF has decided to cease repair efforts and decommission the observatory.

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

Built in the early 1960s, Arecibo’s telescope has been an inspiration and source of pride for the people of Puerto Rico. Many residents have relied on the facility for crucial resources and support during emergencies, such as 2017’s Hurricane Maria. It has played a key role in science, spotting the first confirmed planets beyond the solar system, and detecting gravitational waves emitted by whirling dead stars called pulsars—a discovery that ultimately won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics. The telescope is also an extremely powerful planetary radar, which is key for studying asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit.



Technician Luis Heredia checks some the cables which suspend the receiver over the radio telescope dish at Arecibo Observatory in 1989.


© Photograph by Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Technician Luis Heredia checks some the cables which suspend the receiver over the radio telescope dish at Arecibo Observatory in 1989.


“Think about what the Golden Gate Bridge means to San Francisco, what the Statue of Liberty means to New Yorkers. Arecibo is this and more to Puerto Rico because it has gone beyond an icon,” Rivera-Valentín writes. “For some of us, it became that goal to reach towards, that symbol that we can achieve great things, that pride that in our own backyard; we were serving the entire planet.”

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Over the last decade, the Arecibo Observatory has faced a series of challenges. Hurricane Maria destroyed large portions of the island’s infrastructure and damaged the telescope in 2017. A recent swarm of earthquakes also shook the facility, which Michael Nolan, a former director of the observatory who is now at the University

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