Chilling Video Shows Arecibo Collapse

Chilling Video Shows Arecibo Collapse

The National Science Foundation (NSF) released chilling video today of Tuesday’s collapse of the instrument platform above the 305-meter dish of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. NSF owns the facility and officials said today a decision on whether to rebuild must go through the agency’s usual process to determine what major equipment and facilities to fund.

No one was hurt.  NSF and the University of Central Florida (UCF), which manages Arecibo under contract to NSF, already had established keep-out zones after earlier structural damage imperiled the iconic observatory.  No one was allowed to enter the “red zones” and only authorized personnel were allowed elsewhere at the site.

Areas circled in red are safety keep-out zones. Credit: NSF

Arecibo’s troubles began in August when a support cable came out of its socket and landed on the dish. Then, on November 6, one of the main cables supporting the 900-ton platform failed.  Engineers who had been trying to determine the cause of the August failure and what it would take to repair it now warned NSF and UCF that the facility was unstable.  NSF announced on November 19 that it would therefore decommission Arecibo rather than attempt repairs.

On Tuesday, all the support cables gave way and the platform fell onto the dish.

Arecibo Observatory’s platform photographed against a starry sky in better days. Credit: University of Central Florida, August 4, 2020.

NSF had installed a camera in the observatory’s control room to monitor the cables and the number of wire breaks, which was growing over the weekend. It also was flying a drone over the observatory every few hours. As it happened, the drone was aloft when the end came. Video released today by NSF shows the view first from the control room (taken by Carlos Perez), then from the drone (operated by Adrian Bague).

Ashley Zauderer, NSF’s Arecibo program manager, told reporters today that no one was injured and all the dangerous debris fell in the prohibited red zones.  Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, repeated what he said earlier this month that NSF is not closing Arecibo entirely, only this 305-meter dish. A 12-meter telescope and a LIDAR facility also are located there, as well as STEM education facilities.  He expressed the sentiments of many about the nearly 60-year-old facility.

First I want to express how deeply saddened we are here at NSF … and thankful no one was hurt. … Originally built by the Department of Defense, the Arecibo 305-meter telescope has been part of our NSF science family for approximately 50 years and we will miss it. NSF felt that the Arecibo telescope had a bright future.

Arecibo was built by the Air Force to conduct radar studies of the Earth’s ionosphere and began operations in 1963. NSF took it over in 1970 once its use for radio and radar astronomy became more prevalent.

The main question now is whether to rebuild or move on.  Gaume said today that NSF has a well-defined process for deciding what major equipment and facilities to build and it involves congressional appropriations and input from the science community. The decision on what to do next must go through that process.

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