Arecibo Observatory telescope in Puerto Rico collapses after 57 years

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Aerial view showing the damage at the Arecibo Observatory

RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

The huge 815-tonne platform of the Arecibo Observatory telescope in Puerto Rico has collapsed, falling 140 metres into its reflector dish below. The news comes mere weeks after the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the telescope’s decommissioning amid safety concerns.

On 1 December at 7:55am local time (11:55am GMT), the receiver platform came crashing down into the 300-metre-wide reflector dish. The platform is usually suspended above the reflector dish by cables connected to three support towers.

There have been no reports of injuries following the collapse. The NSF is still investigating why the platform fell, but initial findings show that the top of the three support towers broke off. As the platform plunged into the reflector dish, the cables were unable to support its weight.

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Last month, the NSF announced that the Arecibo Observatory was to be dismantled amid safety concerns. It was one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, operating for 57 years.

“It’s a sad end to a spectacular telescope,” says Dave Clements, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London. “The amazing instrument has been involved in all sorts of things.”

It has accelerated many scientific discoveries in the field of radio astronomy, including the first solid evidence for a neutron star and exoplanets.

The collapse is an inevitable consequence of a string of distressing events at Arecibo, says Clements. The telescope was damaged during a tropical storm in August, having already been battered by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“My main worry now is for all the people who work there,” says Paulo Freire at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, who worked at Arecibo Observatory for more than eight years. The telescope was a useful instrument even until its last month and there is now a huge team of researchers who have a very uncertain future, he says.

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