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  HOME | Caribbean

The Collapse of the Arecibo Radio Telescope, Chronicle of a Death Foretold

SAN JUAN – The collapse on Tuesday morning of the world renowned radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in northwestern Puerto Rico was the final act in an era of scientific investigation and tourism on the island.

The 900-ton platform of the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory plunged some 120 meters (400 feet) into the bowl of the gigantic eye on the sky due to structural problems that had plagued the site for months and had led the US National Science Foundation, the owner of the installation, to recently announce that the ‘scope would be dismantled to avert a potential catastrophic collapse.

Completed in 1963, the Arecibo telescope was the largest single-aperture radio telescope in the world until 2016, when China inaugurated its 500 m spherical telescope.

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 the 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.

Deborah Martorell, one of Puerto Rico’s two best-known meteorologists, was tasked with reporting the news of the telescope’s collapse along with Ada Monzon – whose emotions got the better of her when she delivered the report – revealed that just on Monday she was at the observatory and could hear some of the wires making up the cables suspending the platform high over the center of the bowl-shaped telescope snapping and breaking.

She said that over the weekend six other wires broke and workers at the site knew that it was just a question of a few days before the collapse would come, as it did very early Tuesday morning.

Federal safety and local emergency personnel are presently inspecting the area. So far, no injuries have been reported.

The entrance to the observatory, located about 90 minutes from San Juan by road, has been cordoned off.

The destruction of the Arecibo telescope is a significant loss for the world scientific community, given that it contributed for more than half a century to the search for near-Earth asteroids and the observation of “exotic” deep space objects, along with pulsars and distant radio wave sources.

The telescope was also a prime tourist destination and was even the site for several films, including the 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye” and the 1997 film “Contact.”

Among the landmark achievements of the observatory was obtaining the first indirect evidence for gravitational waves in 1974, a project that won a Nobel Prize for the scientists involved, and also the detection of the first planets circling stars outside the Solar System in 1992.

Along with the El Yunque rainforest and Old San Juan, as well as Puerto Rico’s beautiful beaches, the observatory was one of the island’s main tourist attractions, welcoming some 100,000 visitors each year.


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