SAN JUAN -- The giant radio telescope at Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory is to be dismantled to avert what could be a catastrophic collapse, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) said Thursday.
"NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory's staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate," Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement.
One of the cables supporting the 305m (1,000ft) telescope detached in August and the University of Central Florida (UCF), which manages the observatory on behalf of NSF, began work on a plan to stabilize the structure.
But on Nov. 6, during the wait for the delivery of materials to secure the telescope, a second cable failed.
At that point, the three engineering firms consulted by UCF concluded that it was impossible to repair the damage without risk to other structures at Arecibo.
"For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like. While this is a profound change, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain that strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico," Panchanathan said.
NSF said that it intends to preserve as much as possible of the remaining infrastructure of Arecibo Observatory, "so that it remains available for future research and educational missions."
Completed in 1963, the Arecibo telescope was the largest single-aperture radio telescope in the world until 2016, when China inaugurated the 500m spherical telescope.
"Over its lifetime, Arecibo Observatory has helped transform our understanding of the ionosphere, showing us how density, composition and other factors interact to shape this critical region where Earth's atmosphere meets space," Michael Wiltberger, head of NSF's Geospace Section, said.
Scientists working on the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project used the Arecibo telescope in their quest years to learn whether there is intelligent life beyond our planet.
Besides its contributions to science, the telescope has been featured in a number of films, including the 1995 James Bond film "GoldenEye" and the 1997 film "Contact."