Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory telescope collapses after 57 years

Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory telescope collapses after 57 years

The Arecibo Observatory telescope has been instrumental for scientists around the world to hunt for possible signatures of extra-terrestrial life, study distant planets and hazardous asteroids for nearly six decades.

Remember the fight scene towards the end of the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye, where Pierce Brosnan as Agent 007 and Sean Bean as Alec Trevelyan were fighting on top of a giant dish antenna? Well, the dish antenna was shown as destroyed due to an explosion. It was all about visual effects then, but now it has collapsed in reality. Yes, the Arecibo Observatory telescope of Puerto Rico has been collapsed on 1st December, ahead of its planned demolition.

The radio telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory was the second-largest single-dish one in the world. The giant telescope collapsed after sustaining severe damage since August, following 57 years of astronomical discoveries.

On Tuesday morning, the deteriorating Arecibo Observatory telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform suspended by cables 450 feet above a 1,000-foot wide bowl-shaped reflector dish fell down, destroying the dish below.

The observatory’s learning centre, located next to the telescope, also sustained significant damage from the falling cables.

Informing this incident, the National Science Foundation (NSF), tweeted, “The instrument platform of the 305m telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our top priority is maintaining safety. NSF will release more details when they are confirmed.”

Arecibo Observatory telescope

Why Arecibo Observatory telescope was important?

The telescope was used for nearly six decades to receive radio waves from space by scientists around the world to hunt for possible signatures of extraterrestrial life. Also, scientists used to study distant planets and find potentially hazardous asteroids heading towards earth, with the help of Arecibo Observatory telescope. It was also used to study the ionosphere.

The telescope was also used as a hub to find prebiotic molecules in distant galaxies, the first exoplanets and the first-millisecond pulsar. Back in 1967, the Arecibo Observatory telescope discovered that the planet Mercury rotates in 59 days instead of 88 days, which was believed earlier.

In 1993, Russel Hulse and Joseph Taylor were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research on the observatory in monitoring a binary pulsar, providing a strict test of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the first evidence of the existence of gravitational waves.

Apart from these scientific achievements, the Arecibo Observatory telescope also became a cultural symbol for Puerto Rico, drawing around 90,000 visitors from around the world every year.

Arecibo Observatory telescope

Arecibo Observatory telescope was about to be decommissioned

Since it was first built in 1963, the Arecibo Observatory telescope had withstood many hurricanes and earthquakes. Experts had already expressed alarm about the telescope’s condition and recommended a controlled demolition of the entire structure. After two cables broke within months and threatened the observatory’s survival, NSF announced on 19th November 2020 that the Arecibo Observatory would have to be decommissioned. The cause of the initial cable failure in August has not been determined yet.

As NSF had said last month, it had evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the Arecibo Observatory telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the load they were designed to support.

Soon after this announcement, hashtag #WhatArceiboMeansToMe trended on Twitter.

Now, with the entire structure destroyed, NSF said that it will authorise the University of Florida, which manages the observatory to continue paying Arecibo Observatory staff and to come up with a plan to continue research there.

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said that the agency’s focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.

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Images: NAIC

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