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The Arecibo Observatory radio telescope has been used to track asteroids and meteorites near the Earth for years

By Joelle Goldstein
December 01, 2020 03:53 PM
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Arecibo Observatory
Arecibo Observatory
| Credit: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty

Arecibo Observatory, the famed radio telescope in Puerto Rico, has collapsed after operating for more than 50 years, according to multiple outlets.

Considered to be one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, the observatory came tumbling down on Tuesday following months of deterioration, according to the island's local newspaper, El Nuevo Dia.

For years, the structure has been used to track asteroids and meteorites near the Earth and has served as an environmental and meteorological reference for its tools to analyze the atmosphere, the outlet reported.

It was also known for its role in helping discover the first-ever binary pulsar in 1974, which eventually earned radioastronomer Joseph Taylor and physicist Russell Hulse a Nobel Prize in physics, according to the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC).

"Friends, it is with deep regret to inform you that the Arecibo Observatory platform has just collapsed," El Nuevo Dia's senior meteorologist, Deborah Martorell, tweeted on Tuesday.

Problems for the observatory first arose in August when one of the support cables broke, weakening the structure, according to El Nuevo Dia. 

At the time, officials temporarily shut down the radio telescope after the break caused the reflector dish, which is 1,000-feet in diameter, to suffer a cut that was 100-feet long, The Weather Channel reported.

More recently, on Nov. 6, another cable snapped, causing more than 900 tons of weight to be suspended on the secondary cables that were supporting the structure, according to El Nuevo Dia.

Following the second incident, the National Science Foundation declared that they would close the observatory due to the massive damage, The Weather Channel reported.

In addition to the cable breaks, the observatory had also been battered and temporarily shut down by a number of previous natural disasters, including Hurricane Maria and Irma in 2017 and earthquakes earlier this year, according to the weather outlet.

Martorell told El Nuevo Dia she believes the collapse could have been avoided had the observatory addressed those structural failures sooner.

"The employees knew that it was... falling, that there was less than a week left," she said. "The way the threads broke was so fast, there was no way to stabilize it. That point had passed barely a week ago."

"It could have been avoided. The bureaucracy and the waiting of the NSF destroyed the platform of the Arecibo Observatory," she continued. "It was very difficult because yesterday there was a lot of sadness, a lot of regret and worry there. They were very nervous because they knew that at some point it could happen, but they did not want it to happen."

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At this time, it is unclear if the observatory will be rebuilt, but Martorell told the outlet that she believes officials will take action.

"There are intentions to build an improved structure," she explained. "To erect a similar structure it would be $ 200 million, to erect an improved structure the cost to erect it would be $ 400 million. And yes there is intention. There is the intention of U.S. agencies to lift the facilities, but that depends on us. That this pressure can be done, that the intention does not sleep."

A movement on Facebook has already been launched, called Save the Arecibo Observatory.

On Tuesday, the group posted, "While our initiative was directed at preventing this catastrophe, we now will redirect our efforts at finding a path to the reconstruction of the facility. We cannot lose our Observatory forever."

The group also created an online petition for the White House to address the collapse and take emergency action. They currently have over 61,600 signatures but need another 38,000 to warrant a response from the White House.

Those interested in signing the petition can do so here.