Video shows dramatic collapse of iconic Arecibo Observatory telescope

One of world’s most iconic telescopes came crashing down this week after more than 50 years of peering into deep space.

The enormous Arecibo Observatory single-dish radio telescope had recently suffered a number of smaller structural failures that made it a safety hazard, leading to a decision to decommission the telescope and dismantle the instrument platform that hung high above the dish.

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which oversees the Arecibo Observatory site in Puerto Rico, posted a video (above) showing the platform’s sudden collapse from two different angles — one from the ground shot by a stationary camera, and another from above captured by a drone that was filming close by when the structure gave way on Tuesday, December 1.

“The instrument platform of the 305-meter telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight,” the NSF said in a tweet confirming the incident, adding that “no injuries were reported.”

The instrument platform of the 305m telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our top priority is maintaining safety. NSF will release more details when they are confirmed.

— National Science Foundation (@NSF) December 1, 2020

Initial findings in an ongoing investigation suggest that the top sections of all three of the telescope’s support towers broke, causing the telescope’s support cables to snap as the 900-ton platform came crashing down.

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said: “We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt,” adding that “our focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore [scientific and educational] operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.”

Commenting on the incident, Elizabeth Klonoff, vice president of research at the University of Central Florida, which helps to manage the observatory site, said that while they knew a collapse of this nature was possible, “it is still heartbreaking to see.”

The trouble started in August when one of the telescope’s supporting cables unexpectedly snapped, followed by the failure of a second cable in November. After that, the decision was taken to decommission the structure.

Arecibo Observatory was completed in 1963 and was the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope until 2016, when China’s 500-meter FAST radio telescope became operational.

“Arecibo Observatory has contributed to many important scientific discoveries, including the demonstration of gravitational waves from a binary pulsar, the first discovery of an extrasolar planet, composition of the ionosphere, and the characterization of the properties and orbits of a number of potentially hazardous asteroids,” the NSF said this week.

It also has a place in poplar culture,after being featured in the 1997 movie Contact starring Jodie Foster, and TV shows that included The X-Files. James Bond fans will know it as the location of the climactic fight scene in the 1995 movie GoldenEye.

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