Nov 19, 2020 - Science

The collapsing Arecibo Observatory is beyond repair

The damaged Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. A telescope dish with a hole in the middle of it.

Arecibo Observatory's 305-meter telescope in November of 2020. Photo: University of Central Florida

The famous 350-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico will not be fixed after multiple accidents left the telescope unstable and on the brink of collapse, according to the National Science Foundation.

Why it matters: Arecibo has contributed to myriad space science advancements for decades. The telescope provided data that helped scientists find the first planet confirmed outside of our solar system, and it has been key to the hunt for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Context: The telescope's most recent problems began in August when a large cable unexpectedly snapped. As engineers and operators were working to find a way to secure the unstable telescope, another cable detached on November 6.

  • According to the NSF, the repairs required to stabilize the telescope are too dangerous for workers to execute, forcing the foundation to decommission the telescope.
  • "This decision is intended to preserve life and safety of people, and prevent the loss of the entire Arecibo Observatory, including the visitor Education Center in the event of an unexpected and uncontrolled collapse," the NSF's Sean Jones said during a press conference Thursday.
  • "The decommissioning is only intended to affect the 305-meter telescope, not the rest of the observatory," Jones added.

What's next: The NSF is now developing a plan for how to demolish the telescope before it collapses.

  • Areas that would be in danger due to an unexpected collapse have been evacuated and the NSF is working to find a way to keep other scientific instruments at the observatory safe during the decommissioning process.
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