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Iconic Puerto Rico telescope collapses just weeks after being declared unsafe

The telescope’s receiver platform fell 140 metres onto the radio dish below it yesterday.

Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory telescope before its collapse (file photo)
Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory telescope before its collapse (file photo)
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

THE FAMOUS ARECIBO Observatory telescope in Puerto Rico, which once starred in a James Bond film, has collapsed.

The telescope’s 900-tonne receiver platform fell 140 metres onto the radio dish below yesterday, just weeks after experts said it was in a precarious state.

Engineers had warned of the huge structure’s decrepit condition, and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced only last month that it would be dismantled.

Two of the cables that held the platform over the radio dish – which is 300 metres in diameter – had snapped this year, and the structure finally gave way yesterday morning.

Photographs showed clouds of dust rising into the air and the remains of the telescope instruments scattered across the site.

“We can confirm the platform fell and that we have reports of no injuries,” Rob Margetta, spokesman for the NSF, told the AFP news agency.

The telescope was one of the largest in the world and has been a tool for many astronomical discoveries since the 1960s, as well as being famous for its dramatic scale and setting.

One scene from the film GoldenEye took place high above the dish, while the telescope also featured in the Jodie Foster film Contact, in which an astronomer used the observatory in her quest for alien signals.

Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, said the platform fell sometime before 8.00am (12pm GMT), describing it as “a total disaster.”

“Many students are trained in astronomy in the observatory, they are inspired like me to do a career in science and astronomy,” he said.

“The loss of the Arecibo telescope is a big loss for the world, but it is more of a loss for Puerto Rico. It is an icon for our island.”

The telescope was in operation for 57 years until August, and scientists had lobbied the NSF to reverse its decision to close the site.

In August, an auxiliary cable failed after slipping from its socket in one of the towers and left a 100-foot gash in the dish below.

Engineers were assessing the damage and how to repair it when a main cable connected to the same tower broke on 6 November.

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Before Tuesday, a controlled demolition had been planned to avoid an unexpected collapse.

Among the telescope’s successes was in 1992 discovering the first exoplanet – a planet outside the solar system – and in 1981 it helped produce the first radar maps of the surface of Venus.

The observatory’s website said the telescope was “a world-leading radio astronomy, solar system radar and atmospheric physics facility, contributing highly relevant data to support discovery, innovation and the advancement of science.”

“What a sad day for Astronomy and Planetary science worldwide and one of the most iconic telescopes of all time,” tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator at the NASA science mission directorate.

The site had hoped the dismantling plan would preserve other parts of the observatory for future research and education.

“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,” the NSF said in a tweet.

© AFP 2020

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