Puerto Rico’s Famous Arecibo Observatory Decommissioned
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.”
It is with deepest of broken hearts that I post this. And it really hurts, so very much.
“NSF begins planning for decommissioning of Arecibo”https://t.co/QX18OsGqe7
— Ed Rivera-Valentín 🇵🇷🏳️🌈 (@PlanetTreky) November 19, 2020
My heart just broke.
The Arecibo Observatory is more than a historial landmark in Puerto Rico and a scientific hub with great contributions.
It was my home. The first place to host and value me as a scientist. It was were I learned what research was and how I could contribute. https://t.co/jLmTZPTzGh
— Paola Figueroa-Delgado (@PaolaVFigueroa) November 19, 2020
My heart is breaking a little
My favorite movie of all time was Contact, which helped inspire me to be a scientist. I originally wanted to be an astronaut!
— Dr. Jey McCreight (@jeymccreight) November 19, 2020
— Kevin Ortiz Ceballos 🇵🇷 (@kortizceballos) November 19, 2020
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.
Nadia Drake is a science journalist for National Geographic. She’s based in San Francisco, California.
Edgard Rivera-Valentín is a Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.
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.
The transcript for this segment is being processed. It will be posted within one week after the episode airs.