The legendary 1,000-foot-wide Arecibo Observatory’s telescope, a giant dish embedded in the verdant Puerto Rico forest, experienced a major collapse on Dec. 1. A 900-ton platform suspended over the observatory fell, destroying much of the already crumbling dish. On Wednesday, the U.S. National Science Foundation released footage of the collapse from two different angles:
At 10 seconds into the video below, a camera affixed to a control tower captures a cable snapping, and then the platform falls. Dust soon rises from the destruction.
Just after the one-minute mark, a drone was in opportunistic position to film cables violently snapping from a support tower.
The collapse was a dramatic end for the historic telescope. “I feel sick in my stomach,” Ramon Lugo, a former NASA engineer who manages Arecibo for the National Science Foundation, told Science the morning of the collapse. “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 really a hard morning.”
Credit: Courtesy of the Arecibo Observatory, a U.S. National Science Foundation facility
In nearly 60 years of peering into space, the powerful Arecibo Observatory, and its astronomers, made legendary discoveries. Arecibo spotted the first-ever exoplanet (a planet beyond our solar system) and detected the first organic molecules in a galaxy 250 million light-years away, supported Nobel Prize-winning research, and detected around 100 near-Earth asteroids (some that could potentially pose a danger to Earth) each year.
Famously, Arecibo also scoured the skies for signals from intelligent alien life. (We haven’t received any signals, that we’re aware of, yet.)
The National Science Foundation knew the observatory was in dire straits. Just 12 days before the collapse, the organization announced plans to decommission the telescope, as it had fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair. The organization had reduced funding for the aging observatory as it looked for outside financial partners.
Meanwhile, nature gradually degraded the structure: Earthquakes and the infamous Hurricane Maria damaged the aging telescope. Then in August 2020, the first cable broke, leaving a telltale 100-foot gash in the radar dish.
More cables would soon fail.