The big dish at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is on the verge of collapse, leaving officials with no choice but to retire the famous radio telescope. Astronomers around the world are now having to face a grim reality: that this dutiful dish—in service for the past 57 years—is no more.
I have to admit, the thought that the 1,000-foot (305-meter) dish at Arecibo would have to be torn down never occurred to me when I first started to cover this story during the summer. The first disturbing development came on August 10, when an auxiliary cable slipped out from its socket, crashing through the dish below. The falling cable created an unsightly 100-foot scar, but at the time, the incident seemed more of a nuisance than a catastrophic problem. And indeed, officials with the observatory soon made arrangements to repair the damage and replace the missing cable.
Things took a dramatic turn for the worse on November 6, when a main cable snapped and also fell onto the structure. This was the moment when I really started to worry. A missing auxiliary cable is one thing, but a missing auxiliary cable and a main cable? Not good. In my mind’s eye, I imagined the 900-ton platform, which is suspended 450 feet (137 meters) above the dish, being held together by string. A new image of a badly frayed cable didn’t ease my anxiety.
I reached out to the Arecibo Observatory, the National Science Foundation, and the University of Central Florida, which manages the facility on behalf of the NSF. On the morning of Thursday November 19, I woke up to an NSF email alerting me to a press conference that was to be held later the same morning. Finally, I thought, I would be able to report on pending repairs and a strategy for bringing the beleaguered facility back online. After registering for the press conference, however, the NSF sent me further details: The iconic dish was slated for demolition.
It felt like a punch to the stomach.
Engineering teams brought in to evaluate the situation said the platform could undergo a catastrophic collapse at any time, making it unsafe for workers. The dish, in operation since 1963, would have to undergo controlled disassembly in such a way to preserve other assets at Arecibo, including a LIDAR facility and visitor’s center.
While scientific work at the Arecibo Observatory will continue, the radio dish is done. And that’s a huge shame. In addition to its cultural importance, the dish fostered some excellent science, including the first detection of a binary pulsar (which earned the team a Nobel Prize in Physics), the first radar maps of Venus, the detection of potentially hazardous asteroids, the first exoplanets ever discovered, and insights into gravitational waves. The facility