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Posted on January 5th, 2021

Out of this World – The Downfall of the Arecibo Observatory

2020 isn’t going quietly into that good night. No, it’s kicking and screaming as we humans try to rush it out the door. As a last middle finger to human innovation, 2020 saw the collapse of the world’s second largest radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory. While it looks like a last-minute downfall, the series of events that lead to its demise were put into motion back in 2017 by Hurricane Maria, then tropical storm Isaias, and an overall lack of maintenance funds. Repairs were scheduled for this year when Puerto Rico was hit by a series of earthquakes in January of 2020, the largest a 6.4 temblor.

The damage seemed minimal at the time, until a supporting cable snapped on August 10th and ripped a 100-foot-long (30 meter) gash into the dish. Despite investigations into the integrity of the telescope, stating that it wasn’t in critical danger, this event laid plain undiagnosed problems as a primary cable then went down on November 6th.

These cables hold up a 900-ton (800,000-kilogram) platform that houses the antennas and scientific equipment for the observatory. Once the structural integrity of the cables is compromised, it’s impossible to do any repairs without endangering people. With this reality facing the National Science Foundation (NSF), the owner of the radar telescope, they decided to decommission the Arecibo Observatory, deeming it too dangerous to repair.

On December 1st, the massive platform plummeted into the dish as more cables broke, causing it to swing down, ripping away one of the structural pillars and careening into the side of the dish.

On December 1st, the Arecibo Observatory platform crashed into the dish below, destroying the radar telescope. (Credit: Arecibo Observatory, US National Science Foundation)

At every turn, the telescope was only days or weeks away from a repair that might have saved it from destruction. It’s a tragic end to a 57-year-old telescope, that for decades was the largest of its kind. While a loss to the astronomical community, it’s also a blow for Puerto Ricans, who have faced one hardship after another. Despite continued budget cuts from the NSF, the telescope was an inspiration to many people and hosted over 100,000 tourist a year. Check out the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe to see the personal connections people cherished.

Arecibo was integral to the discovery and cataloging of near-earth asteroids. As an active sensor, shooting radar waves at objects and measuring the return signal, Arecibo was utilized around the clock, in good weather and bad. It was a work horse, establishing the rotation rate of Mercury and mapping the surface of Venus along with the distribution of galaxies in the Universe. The Arecibo Observatory was vital to discovering the first planets outside our solar system, ice on Mercury, hydrocarbon lakes on Titan, and lava flows on Mars.

Using Arecibo, two scientists earned a Nobel Prize for discovering the first pulsar in a binary system and confirming Einstein’s theory of relativity. With its destruction, our view into the cosmos is short sighted, a somewhat fitting end to 2020. With funding diverted to new endeavors, often in areas with a sordid history of colonization, will we continue to push aside local communities for the sake of science only to abandon them when they have lost their luster?

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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