The massive Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed in on itself overnight. The catastrophic failure had been predicted by engineers after the telescope suffered two major cable malfunctions over the last couple of months, risking the integrity of the observatory’s entire structure.
Pictures of Arecibo surfaced online this morning, revealing that the massive 900-ton platform that is normally suspended above the observatory was no longer there. The National Science Foundation, which oversees Arecibo, confirmed to The Verge that the platform did come crashing down onto the telescope’s giant 1,000-foot-wide dish. No injuries have been reported, according to the agency.
“NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation,” the agency tweeted. “Our top priority is maintaining safety. NSF will release more details when they are confirmed.”
This catastrophic scenario is something the NSF feared might happen. On November 19th, the agency announced that the remaining cables at Arecibo ran the risk of failing, which could lead to the platform’s collapse. Knowing this was imminent, NSF said it planned to demolish Arecibo in a controlled manner, concluding that there was no safe way to save the observatory. Managers had evacuated the facility and set up a “safety exclusion zone” to keep people away.
The collapse comes at the end of a difficult period for Arecibo. In August, the observatory suffered its first major malfunction, when an auxiliary cable came loose from its socket and fell onto the observatory’s dish, punching a large hole in the structure. At the time, NSF and the University of Central Florida, which oversees day-to-day operations at Arecibo, vowed to investigate the failure and fix the damage in order to get the observatory up and running again.
Dennis Vazquez via Facebook: He took these pictures of the collapse of the Arecibo Observatory. You can see the debris and the remains of the platform and the Gregorian Dome. pic.twitter.com/xneOGSVFYi
— Wilbert Andrés Ruperto (@ruperto1023) December 1, 2020
But as engineers were figuring out a path forward for repairs, a second main cable failed on November 6th. This time, the cable snapped and also fell onto Arecibo’s giant dish, causing damage to other cables nearby. Engineers found that the other cables could not be guaranteed to hold. The NSF concluded that Arecibo would eventually collapse if no actions were taken; they just didn’t know when the collapse might occur. The agency had hoped to demolish the structure before it took place.
“NSF is saddened by this development,” the agency tweeted about the collapse. “As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.”
The NSF’s decision to tear down Arecibo was met with a lot of pushback from fans of the telescope. Arecibo has been a major beacon of opportunity in Puerto Rico as well as an incredible asset for peering into the cosmos. The observatory has been used to identify distant exotic objects like pulsars as well as to listen for mysterious blasts of radio waves coming from the distant Universe. Scientists also used Arecibo in 1974 to send out a picture message out into the cosmos, detailing humanity’s achievements for anyone that might be listening. Arecibo has also made numerous cameos in television and film, including GoldenEye and Contact.
Not wanting to see the observatory demolished, a Puerto Rican scientist launched a petition on Change.org to urge the NSF to repair Arecibo. As of today, the petition has more than 36,000 signatures.