Arecibo Observatory, an Icon of Science and Pop Culture, Has Collapsed

After 57 years of service to the astronomical community, the Arecibo Observatory collapsed on Tuesday, sparking widespread grief.
December 1, 2020, 2:08pm
The Arecibo Observatory.​ Image: Arecibo Observatory/NAIC
The Arecibo Observatory. Image: Arecibo Observatory/NAIC 

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed on Tuesday, ending its illustrious 57-year run as a source of scientific discoveries and a site of public inspiration and wonder. 

The giant radio telescope was fatally destabilized by two devastating cable breaks within the past few months, prompting its operators to officially decommission it on November 19. Without the support of the cables, it was only a matter of time before the 900-ton platform suspended over the telescope dish fell. That moment finally came early in the morning of December 1, local time. 

Though rumors of Arecibo's imminent collapse have spread in recent weeks, the awful reality of its destruction has sparked mourning across the global astronomical community. The loss is particularly painful for Puerto Ricans, as Arecibo was part of the island’s cultural heritage as well as a tourist destination that attracted tens of thousands of visitors annually. 

Arecibo suffered catastrophic damage from a cable failure on August 10 that tore a 100-foot gash in the dish. Telescope operators think that this malfunction put extra stress on the remaining cables stabilizing the structure, and attempts were made to reinforce the support system in the wake of the damage. 

Those hopes were dashed by the second cable break on November 7, which was likely caused by the extra loads placed on the observatory by the first accident. 

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It’s not clear at this time what will become of Arecibo’s remains, or the hallowed site of the telescope in northern Puerto Rico. Even before the cable breaks, the observatory was hard-hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and earthquakes in the region in recent years. 

For decades, the observatory was the largest single-dish telescope ever built, surpassed only recently by China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope. It served as a central hub in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and it played a crucial role in detecting asteroids and other near-Earth objects that could pose threats to our planet. 

It also became a pop culture icon due to its appearances in films such as GoldenEye and in Carl Sagan’s bestselling novel Contact

For these reasons, and countless others, this great observatory will be grieved by millions. But the imprint that Arecibo left on the scientific community, and our collective human imagination, lives on.