Goodbye to Arecibo, the most iconic radio telescope has collapsed

Adiós a Arecibo, el radiotelescopio más icónico ha colapsado

This is one of those news stories that one would rather not have to write, because I wish it hadn’t happened. However the reality is stubborn, and as it seemed quite probable for 10 days, the Arecibo radio telescope has finally collapsed. It is not a surprise, far from it, but despite that it is quite sad that a key installation for astronomy and science has ended up this way.

As we already told you a few days ago, the future of the Arecibo radio telescope was somewhat doubtful since the summer. The reason for this was the breakage of a secondary cable, which, although it did not compromise its structural integrity, did raise the first suspicions about the real state of some key elements of the observatory. As a result of this incident, it was decided not only to replace the broken cable, but also to reinforce the infrastructure and carry out some studies on it.

This, in theory, should not have been necessary, since the periodic analyzes to which the radio telescope was being subjected periodically they did not point to any problem with the elements of it. Something that, of course, raises certain suspicions about the degree of reliability of these tests, because according to their results, the summer incident should not have occurred, and the Arecibo radio telescope should continue to function normally.

In any case, plans had already been laid to reinforce the structure, but these came to nothing when on November 6 one of the main cables broke, those responsible for keeping the 900-ton receiver in the air, 140 meters above the plate, 305 meters in diameter. This meant that both the remaining cables and the towers from which they were laid had to assume a much higher load than that for which they were designed, and also with a different distribution than planned. From that moment on, the Arecibo radio telescope was already doomed.

Emergency managers, in the following days Several studies were launched to try to determine if it was still possible to save the infrastructure, but a little less than two weeks ago it became clear that it was not possible and, from there, a plan was assumed to try to dismantle the Arecibo radio telescope before the structure gave way. A very complex plan, because to guarantee the safety of both the workers and the rest of the Arecibo facilities, operations were very, very limited.

Unfortunately the plan could not be executed, because the structure of the radio telescope has collapsed a few hours ago. How can we read on the Twitter account of the National Science Foundation, «The 305-meter radio telescope platform at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight yesterday. No injuries were reported. The National Science Foundation (@NSF) is working with stakeholders to assess the current situation.»

Fortunately, therefore, There have been no personal injuries, and it is to be expected that other facilities also present in Arecibo have not been damaged. and that they shared space with the radio telescope. However, and although in the end there is no need to regret any loss or damage of any kind (beyond, of course, that of the radio telescope itself), and although for 10 days everything pointed to this end, it is impossible not to feel a pang of grief due to the disappearance of a structure that made us dream of the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life, either in popular culture or with projects like SETI @ home.



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