11/20/2020

Puerto Rico’s Famous Arecibo Observatory Decommissioned

17:18 minutes

the underside of a massive dish structure, where metal panels have fallen off and some are hanging from the dish
The damage on the Arecibo Observatory. Credit: Arecibo Observatory

The astronomical observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, has been standing since 1963. It has weathered hurricanes, earthquakes, and time itself. But in August, a large cable—holding up one of three towers that help suspend the telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform above the collecting dish—slipped out of its socket. It fell into the dish below, leaving a trail of broken panels.

One broken cable seemed like a fixable problem, but in early November a second cable broke. Now, after engineers assessing the damage said it’s likely these breakages have increased strain on the remaining cables, and pointed to fraying strands on additional cables, scientists and others worried of the odds of an accelerating spiral of broken cables, which would cause the massive receiver to collapse onto the dish below and destroy the observatory beyond repair.

On Thursday, it seemed the National Science Foundation agreed with these worries: The agency announced it would decommission the historic observatory, and plan for a demolition process that could eliminate the portions at risk of collapse while preserving as much of the structure as possible. As National Geographic contributor (and daughter of one-time observatory director Frank Drake) Nadia Drake wrote Thursday, “It’s game over.”

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Drake, former observatory director Mike Nolan, and astronomer Edgard Rivera-Valentín about the damage, as well as the telescope’s irreplaceable role in detecting Earth-threatening asteroids, and its huge importance as a symbol for Puerto Ricans.  


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Segment Guests

Nadia Drake

Nadia Drake is a science journalist for National Geographic. She’s based in San Francisco, California.

Edgard Rivera-Valentín

Edgard Rivera-Valentín is a Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.

Michael Nolan

Michael Nolan is the former Director of the Arecibo Observatory and a research professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

Segment Transcript

The transcript for this segment is being processed. It will be posted within one week after the episode airs.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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