Puerto Rico’s famed Arecibo Telescope will not be rebuilt as the NSF shifts focus to new educational center

Goodbye Big Dish, Hello STEM

Puerto Rico’s famed Arecibo Telescope will not be rebuilt as the NSF shifts focus to new educational center

The 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope dish at Arecibo Observatory, built in a massive natural depression, and the 900-ton instruments platform above (Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The sizable faction of scientists whose fingers have been crossed for over two years in anticipation that the Arecibo Observatory’s colossal namesake radio telescope would be rebuilt following its collapse in late 2020 received disheartening—but not entirely surprising—news late last week. As announced by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the famed astronomical research facility in Puerto Rico, the mighty Arecibo Telescope will not be rebuilt, and instead a “world-class” $5 million learning center focused on STEM education and research will be established at the site.

Per the NSF, the new educational hub is set to open as soon as next year within existing facilities at the complex, enabling the agency to expand its existing and already robust education and outreach programming at the storied Arecibo Observatory. The facility first formally debuted in 1963 as the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory with the completion of its 1,000-foot reflector dish, which reigned for decades as the world’s largest single-aperture telescope. The facility, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been operated by the NSF since the 1970s.

In announcing that rebuilding the Arecibo Telescope won’t be revived, the NSF put out a call for proposals seeking interested parties to manage educational programming and outreach at the observatory’s new educational hub.

“The solicitation calls for proposals to manage the education, STEM research, and outreach aspects of the center. Resources available on site include: a learning center, the Ángel Ramos Science and Visitor’s center, exhibition space, laboratory space, auditorium, cafeteria, office space, and dormitories,” the NSF detailed. “A third-party contractor will be responsible for maintenance of the site resources listed above, in addition to grounds maintenance.”

The agency added: “The solicitation does not include rebuilding the 305-meter telescope or operational support for current scientific infrastructure, such as the 12-meter radio telescope or Lidar facility. Teams seeking to utilize existing scientific infrastructure or proposing for new projects can submit proposals that are complementary to the scope of the new center.”

The NSF’s solicitation can be read in full here.

The drawn-out imperilment of the Arecibo Telescope, a towering source of pride and joy for both the scientific community and for Puerto Rico, began in August 2020 when an auxiliary cable snapped and came crashing down on the massive reflector dish. The damage was considerable—but certainly not beyond repair—although the failure of another cable (this one a main cable) in November of that year only compounded the increasingly perilous situation. Just weeks after the second cable snapped, the NSF reversed course and announced plans to carry out a controlled demolition of the telescope. That never happened, however, as the 900-ton platform suspended more than 400 feet over the pop culture–famous dish collapsed just weeks later, destroying the instrument below it. No injuries were reported during the dramatic event as the site had already been evacuated as part of a larger decommissioning plan.

Other research has continued full-steam ahead at Arecibo’s smaller facilities although researchers had been holding into hope that eventually a new radar dish would be built to replace the destroyed one. Under the proposed plan the site would be stripped of its observatory tag and be renamed as the Arecibo Center for for STEM Education and Research to reflect its new primary focus.

As mentioned, the new educational facility will cost $5 million—that’s roughly $45 million less than the estimated cost of cleaning up the collapsed telescope.

“We understand how much the site has meant to the community,” Sean Jones, assistant director for directorate of mathematical and physical sciences at NSF, told the Associated Press in a phone interview following the announcement of the forthcoming educational center. “If you’re a radio astronomer, you’ve probably spent some time of your career at Arecibo.”

Jones added that the decision not to rebuild came in part from the fact that other U.S. government–owned radar facilities have come online in the years since the construction of the Arecibo Telescope and can essentially perform the same mission, making the replacement of the historic instrument a costly and non-essential endeavor despite protest and disappointment from Puerto Rico–based researchers.