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02 December 2020 12:33

Arecibo Observatory Observatory Radio telescope

Arecibo Observatory Suffers Fatal Collapse Before Planned Demolition

The suspended platform of the 1000-foot (305-meter) telescope in Arecibo Observatory, an icon of astronomy, collapsed in on itself overnight in Puerto Rico, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). This catastrophic ending was feared by scientists and engineers to be imminent after multiple cables supporting the platform broke in recent months. The inevitable has now happened, and the 900-ton platform that hung above the radio dish fell 450 feet (140 meters) below around 8 a.m. local time and caused massive damage, as documented with photos online. According to the initial findings, the top sections of all three towers holding up the platform broke away and the structure fell after that, CNN reports. This started a chain reaction where the telescope's worn out support cables also fell and caused major damage to Arecibo's nearby learning center.

As the 900-ton instrument platform fell, the telescope's support cables also dropped. Preliminary assessments indicate the observatory's learning center sustained significant damage from falling cables," wrote NSF in statement. He further added: "Our 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." The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has collapsed, after weeks of concern from scientists over the fate of what was once the world's largest single-dish radio telescope. Arecibo's 900-ton equipment platform, suspended 500 feet above the dish, fell overnight after the last of its healthy support cables failed to keep it in place. The Arecibo Observatory had been slated last month to be withdrawn from service, with the NSF citing the risk of an "uncontrolled collapse" because of failures in the cables that suspended the platform and its huge Gregorian dome above the 1,000-foot-wide reflector dish.

The telescope's trademark dish, nestled amid thick tropical forest, was left with a huge gash in August after a cable fell and slashed through its panels. In Arecibo's nearly 60 years of operation, the observatory's powerful capabilities made it a popular choice for researchers chasing breakthroughs in radio astronomy and atmospheric science. Arecibo: The Arecibo Observatory telescope in Puerto Rico, which once starred in a James Bond film, collapsed Tuesday when its 900-ton receiver platform fell 450 feet (140 meters) and smashed onto the radio dish below. Engineers had recently warned of the huge structure's decrepit condition, and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced only last month that it would be dismantled. Two cables that held the platform in place over the radio dish — which measures 1,000 feet (300 meters) in diameter — had snapped this year, and the structure finally gave way on Tuesday morning.

Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, said the platform fell before 8:00am (1200 GMT). "The loss of the Arecibo telescope is a big loss for the world, but it is more of a loss for Puerto Rico. We will continue to work to find ways to support the science mission at Arecibo." The instrument platform of the 305-meter or 1000-feet telescope fell at approximately 7.55 am Atlantic Standard Time on December 1, resulting in damage to the dish and surrounding facilities. Constructed in 1963, one of the world's most powerful telescope consisted of a radio dish with a 900-ton instrument platform hanging 450 feet above. However, engineers assessed the damage and initial findings suggest that the top section of all three of the telescope's support towers broke off, sending the instrument platform plummeting down to the dish below.

As the platform fell, the telescope's support cables also dropped. NSF tweeted that it is saddened by this development and will look for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain its strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico. When engineers advised NSF that the structure was unstable and presented a danger to work teams and Arecibo staff, we took their warnings seriously and continued to emphasize the importance of safety for everyone involved. Our 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." Engineers were working to determine how to repair the damage and determine the integrity of the structure when a main cable connected to the same tower broke on November 6. As the 900-ton instrument platform fell, the telescope's support cables also dropped (Getty Images) The second broken cable was unexpected--engineering assessments following the auxiliary cable failure had indicated the structure was stable and the planning process to restore the telescope to operation was underway.

Multiple assessments by independent engineering companies determined that the telescope could collapse because it is "in danger of catastrophic failure." They warned that the cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support. Accordingly, the NSF announced on November 19 that it will begin plans to decommission and dismantle the telescope, which has served as a world-class resource for radio astronomy, planetary, solar system, and geospace research for nearly six decades. The NSF will continue to authorize UCF to pay Arecibo staff and take actions such as repairing the observatory's 12-meter telescope and the roof of its LIDAR (light detection and ranging) facility, a valuable geospace research tool.