By Allison Li

Cables suspending the telescope broke on December 1. Credits: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

After playing a key role in astronomical research for the past 57 years, the Arecibo Telescope (once the largest radio telescope in the world) collapsed the morning of December 1st. About 90,000 people visited the observatory every year.

In August, a panel on the telescope’s dish suffered damage from a falling cable. The next month, a main cable snapped, leading the National Science Foundation to predict the risk of an “uncontrollable collapse” that suspended the 900-ton platform. 

When the telescope began to collapse, Ángel Vázquez (director of telescope operations) and other staff members were removing equipment from the observatory. The remaining cables holding up the telescope had been unraveling the past few days, increasing the strain. Vázquez described, “When we looked outside the control room, we started to see the eventual downfall of the observatory. This whole process took 30 seconds.”

The observatory has taken a key role in pursuing breakthroughs in radio astronomy and atmospheric science. It has also been used to track down potentially habitable planets, due to its unique ability to send and receive light signals. In addition, Arecibo detected the first binary pulsar in 1974. This was a discovery that supported Einstein’s general theory of relativity and earned two scientists the Nobel Prize.

Kevin Ortiz, a fourth-year university student who conducted investigations at the observatory for almost three years, stated that “the educational impact of the observatory is incalculable… from professionals and college students to the high school academy and the elementary schools that visit our center.” 

More than 140 students and scientists started up the Save the Arecibo Observatory Moment, also gaining support of Puerto Ricans in STEM. They gathered over 66,000 signatures in less than two weeks to spread awareness to save the observatory from being decommissioned, seeking help from the U.S. Congress to rebuild the telescope. Executive Director Ramón Misla commented, “I believe that the scientific community and the STEM community in general, us coming together, is going to make a difference.”

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