Only two weeks after the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that the 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope dish at the National Register of Historic Places-listed Arecibo Observatory would have to be demolished, the NSF has confirmed another catastrophic failure. Last night, the 900-ton instrument platform suspended over the dish fell, destroying it.
The collapse was first noted by meteorologist Deborah Martorell, who tweeted out a photo of the observatory, built into a large natural sinkhole, sans the observation platform, which normally dangles 450 feet above the dish. Although the three support towers at the edge of the crater are still standing (good news for the visitor’s center and actual observatory proper where data from the dish was processed), the AP reported that the radio telescope dish, the second-largest in the world until now, has been destroyed. The NSF confirmed the collapse on Twitter.
Thankfully, the observatory, nestled in the mountains of Puerto Rico, had been evacuated as part of the decommissioning plan and no injuries were reported.
NSF is saddened by this development. As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.
— National Science Foundation (@NSF) December 1, 2020
It now seems that the report from Thornton Tomasetti, the engineering firm hired to survey the dish’s condition after a main support cable failed and ripped through the dish on November 10, was correct. In their report, the team predicted that the additional strain on the remaining cables could lead to a catastrophic failure, and recommended a controlled decommissioning (and evacuating the observatory and backing up their research remotely) to avoid exactly this scenario. The NSF then commissioned two more independent engineering teams to verify the report (originally requested by the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory), and finally, independent surveyors, who came to the same conclusion.
Sadly, the NSF had been planning on conducting high-resolution drone flyovers to take photos of, and ultimately create a model of, the dish site before its demolition; it’s unclear whether that had been completed (though a pretty “close-enough” replica will live on inside the 2013 first-person shooter Battlefield 4 forever, where the dish is destroyed in a similar manner).
Although the central dish is now gone, work at Arecibo will continue, assuming that the LIDAR facility, which is used to examine Earth’s upper atmosphere, was left intact.