An iconic observatory telescope featured in the James Bond movie Golden eye it has collapsed, a few weeks after its decommissioning was announced.
It’s a final blow to one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth that has aided astronomical discoveries for 57 years and has weathered hurricanes, earthquakes and tropical storms.
The location also served as the setting for the climax of 1995. Golden eye, Pierce Brosnan’s first appearance as Bond.
Engineers evaluated the damage and determined that the telescope’s three support towers broke, causing the 900-ton instrument platform to plummet toward the dish below.
The telescope support cables also fell off. The observatory’s learning center was also significantly damaged by falling cables.
The collapse occurred just weeks after NSF announced that the telescope would be dismantled and disassembled through controlled demolition after suffering irreparable damage earlier this year.
“The instrument platform of the 305-meter telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico went down overnight. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Maintaining safety is our top priority. NSF will give to know more details when confirmed, “according to a tweet from the National Science Foundation.
“NSF is saddened by this development. As we move forward, we will look for ways to help the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico,” the foundation said in another tweet.
The spherical radio / radar telescope includes a 305-meter wide parabolic antenna and a 900-ton instrument platform suspended nearly 140 meters above. Cables connected to three towers hold the telescope in place.
“We are saddened by this situation, but grateful that no one was injured,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement.
“When engineers informed NSF that the structure was unstable and presented a hazard to Arecibo crews and personnel, we took their warnings seriously and continued to emphasize the importance of safety for all involved.
“Our focus now is on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations in other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community and the people of Puerto Rico.”
An auxiliary cable came loose from a socket on one of the towers in August, creating a 30-meter cut in the plate. Engineers were evaluating and working on a plan to repair the damage when another main tower cable broke on November 6.
When it broke, the wire smashed into the reflector plate below, causing additional damage.
After the November 6 break, engineers inspected the rest of the cables and discovered new breaks and slippage in some of the tower plugs. Several engineering companies reviewed the damage.
They determined that the telescope could collapse because it is “in danger of catastrophic failure” and the cables were weaker than expected.
The latest review revealed that the damage to the telescope could not be stabilized without putting construction personnel and equipment at risk. This led the NSF to make the decision to dismantle the telescope after 57 years.
“We believe the structure will collapse in the near future if left untouched,” according to a letter from engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti that evaluated the observatory prior to the decommissioning announcement on November 19.
“Controlled demolition, designed with a specific collapse sequence determined and implemented with the use of explosives, will reduce the uncertainty and danger associated with collapse.”
The firm also recommended that this be done “as soon as pragmatically possible.”
Those plans were in the works when the telescope collapsed.
NSF will also ensure Arecibo staff are paid and repairs are made to investigation tools, such as the roof of the light detection and determination facility, or LIDAR, and the 12-meter telescope used for the investigation of radio astronomy.
The NSF had planned to preserve as much of the observatory as possible to allow the facility to serve as a center for future research and education, as well as to restore operations at the observatory. It is not yet known how this collapse affects those plans or if the foundation was able to migrate all the archival data collected by the telescope to external servers.
Of interest is the LIDAR geospatial research facility, visitor center, and off-site Culebra facility for analyzing precipitation and cloud cover data.
Over the years, the Arecibo Observatory has revealed new details about our planet’s ionosphere, the solar system, and the worlds beyond.
The telescope has supported and contributed to important discoveries in radio astronomy, as well as research of the solar and planetary system, including gravitational waves.
The Arecibo telescope played a key role in the discovery of the first planet outside our solar system and has helped astronomers identify potentially dangerous asteroids en route to Earth.
Observations made by the telescope helped discover the first binary pulsar in 1974 (which led to the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics), supported NASA’s Viking mission, produced the first radar maps of the surface of Venus, and detected the first exoplanet in 1992.
More recently, Arecibo detected organic molecules in a distant galaxy and discovered the first fast and repetitive radio burst.
The observatory was completed in 1963 and has been run by the NSF since 1970. It is operated and managed by a team from the University of Central Florida, Ana G. Méndez University, and Yang Enterprises Inc.
“Arecibo has been an incredibly productive facility for nearly 60 years,” Jonathan Lunine, David C. Duncan professor of physical sciences and chairman of the department of astronomy at Cornell University, said in a statement after the decommissioning was announced.
The telescope was designed and built by Cornell.
“To the Cornell scientists and engineers who took a daring dream and made it come true, to the scientists who made new discoveries with this exceptionally powerful radio telescope and planetary radar, and to all the young people who were inspired to become scientists by seeing this huge telescope in the middle of the island of Puerto Rico, the end of Arecibo is an inestimable loss, ”said Professor Lunine.
Scientists are concerned about projects that were in progress using the Arecibo telescope, as well as what it means for future detections, especially of asteroids approaching Earth.
After the decommissioning was announced, NASA made a statement.
“The planetary radar capability at Arecibo, funded by NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations (NEO) Program, has served as one of the top two planetary radar capabilities,” the organization said.
“It has allowed NASA to fully characterize the precise orbits, sizes and shapes of some NEOs that pass within radar range after they are discovered by wide-field optical telescope study projects.”
But the fully functioning NASA Goldstone Observatory in California will also be able to characterize these objects, “so NASA’s NEO search efforts are not affected by the planned decommissioning of the 305-m radio telescope at Arecibo.”