The second-largest radio telescope in the world is no more.
The Arecibo Observatory’s 1,000-foot-diameter telescope collapsed at about 7:55 a.m. Tuesday in Puerto Rico. The telescope’s 900-ton platform, which was suspended 450 feet in the air to send and receive radio waves, crashed into its disk below, pulling down with it the tops of three support towers.
“Friends, it is with deep regret to inform you that the Arecibo Observatory platform has just collapsed,” Deborah Martorell, a meteorologist in Puerto Rico, tweeted in Spanish on Tuesday morning.
Before-and-after images show how the platform fell.
—Deborah Martorell (@DeborahTiempo) December 1, 2020
The collapse was not unexpected: Following two cable breaks in August and November, experts determined that the radio telescope was so structurally unsound that it had to be decommissioned.
On November 19, the National Science Foundation, which owned the telescope, tasked engineers with deconstructing it. That was supposed to take about five or six weeks, but the iconic telescope couldn’t last that long.
The foundation published video footage of the collapse on Thursday, captured from a nearby control tower.
—Morgan McFall-Johnsen (@MorganMJohnsen) December 3, 2020
Nobody was injured in the collapse, the NSF said in a statement, since the area had been cleared after the second cable failure.
“I feel sick in my stomach,” Ramon Lugo, the director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida, who managed the telescope, told Science on Tuesday. “Truthfully, it was a lot of hard work by a lot of people trying to restore this facility. It’s disappointing we weren’t successful. It’s really a hard morning.”
‘It’s like losing someone important in your life’
In its 57 years of operation, the Arecibo telescope hunted for hazardous near-Earth asteroids, searched for signs of alien life, and discovered the first planet beyond our solar system.
In 1974, Arecibo beamed the most powerful broadcast Earth has ever sent to communicate with aliens if they’re out there. In 2016, it detected the first repeating fast radio bursts – mysterious space signals that scientists now think come from dead stars.
But Arecibo’s woes began in August, shortly after Tropical Storm Isaias passed over Puerto Rico. A 3-inch-thick auxiliary cable popped out of its socket on one of the telescope’s three towers and crashed into the 1,000-foot reflector dish below. It tore a 100-foot gash in the panels.
Then in early November, just before repairs were set to begin in earnest, a 15,000-pound main cable from the same tower broke and crashed into the dish. Engineers