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Massive Arecibo Observatory telescope collapses

December 1, 2020

The structure's demise was sudden, though it has been deteriorating for several months. The telescope's collapse brings to an end 57 years of astronomical work.

Puerto Rico | Arecibo Observatory telescope collapsed
Image: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP

A giant telescope at Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory that had been deteriorating since August collapsed on Tuesday, officials said. 

After making astronomical discoveries for well over half a century, the radio telescope's 900-ton receiver platform, suspended by cables 450 feet (137 meters) above a 1,000-foot-wide (305 meters) bowl-shaped reflector dish, fell on Tuesday morning.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) tweeted: "No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our top priority is maintaining safety."

The NSF later released a statement saying: "Local authorities will keep the area cordoned off as engineers work to assess the stability of the observatory's other structures."

Read more: Scientists discover more water on moon than previously thought

Vulnerable but crash still stuns

The structure was already looking vulnerable after an auxiliary cable snapped in August, causing a 100-foot gash on the 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) dish.

A main cable then broke in early November, prompting the NSF to announce the structure was beyond repair and would have to be demolished.

Nevertheless, Tuesday's crash stunned many scientists who had relied on what was, until 2016, the world's largest radio telescope. It had been in operation for 57 years studying distant planets, finding potentially hazardous asteroids and searching for potential signs of extraterrestrial life.

"It sounded like a rumble. I knew exactly what it was,'' said Jonathan Friedman, who worked for 26 years as a senior research associate at the observatory and still lives nearby. "I was screaming. Personally, I was out of control.... I don't have words to express it. It's a very deep, terrible feeling."

Angel Vazquez, the telescope's director of operations, told news agency The Associated Press. "It was a snowball effect," he said. "There was no way to stop it.... It was too much for the old girl to take."

The telescope also gained fame after being used in the 1995 James Bond film "GoldenEye" starring Pierce Brosnan.

jsi/aw (AP, AFP, Reuters)