By Scott Hamilton
On December 1, 2020, at 6 a.m., the Arecibo telescope collapsed into itself, completely destroying the Arecibo Observatory. The collapse came just weeks after the National Science Foundation decided to decommission the observatory following the breakage of two support cables, which had left the platform on the brink of collapse.
There were hopes of finding a way to safely dismantle the observatory for fear of the collapse damaging the nearby learning center. Unfortunately time was not on the side of the engineers responsible for safely decommissioning the site, as the 900-ton platform plummeted to its death before the months of planning required to safely lower the platform.
Ramon Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida, which managed the 57-year old radio telescope said, “I feel sick in my stomach. Truthfully, it was a lot of hard work by a lot of people trying to restore this facility. It’s disappointing we weren’t successful. It’s a really hard morning.”
Lugo is worried about the 130 observatory staff members and their future. There was extensive damage to the learning center, leaving the facility more than likely permanently closed. Lugo was still speaking with engineering firms about the possibilities of stabilizing and repairing the telescope despite the NSF decision to decommission the unit. He was hopeful that something could be done.
Current speculation indicates that one of the remaining two support cables snapped, bringing the structure down. Lugo says that since Thanksgiving day, they could hear and see wires snapping in the remaining cables at a rate of about one per day. He predicted they had only a week or two before it would collapse. The next step is for engineers to inspect the remains of the three support towers to see if they can piece together how it collapsed.
Video of the collapse was released on Dec. 3 during an NFS news conference; it showed the collapse took 17 seconds to fall, but it will take years for the dust to settle. The iconic structure in Puerto Rico has been a piece of both science and science-fiction culture for over five decades and all that remains is a crater full of dust and debris. During the same news conference, Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, said, “We’re in the assessment phase.”
A cleanup contractor arrived on the site Dec. 3 to begin making preliminary plans to move forward. There is no doubt that the collapse was brutal, but cleanup efforts will be underway soon and the NSF states that some limited research will resume at the observatory as the agency has authorized funds to repair the facility’s LIDAR instrument and a smaller telescope used for atmospheric science. As to the replacement of the telescope, it is an open question, likely years in the answering.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to email@example.com.