The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the second-largest radio telescope in the world and iconic in pop culture, is to be decommissioned after being damaged irreparably.
The observatory opened 57 years ago and remains a focal point for solar system and geospace research. The dish probes space for everything from unexplained radio signals, to planets, to signs of alien life. The telescope’s loss will be felt deeply among the global community of scientists who used its capabilities to understand our universe.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) made its decision after two massive cable failures resulted in structural damage and forced the observatory to close. Both cables snapped just days after each other in early November, the first of which resulted in a 100-foot gash in the telescope.
Originally the plan was to modernize and update the telescope, but engineering assessments showed that the telescope structure was verging on catastrophic failure, repairs would put workers in peril, and even successful repairs would leave the structure unstable in the long term. And so, the telescope will be decommissioned.
“NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a statement. “For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like. While this is a profound change, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain that strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.”
In addition to its role in science, the telescope was an economic and cultural hub for the city of Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Not to mention it even made appearances in international pop culture: the James Bond film Goldeneye was shot on location, and it appeared in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact and the film adaptation.
Not all is lost, however. According to the NSF, the telescope may be gone but other facilities of the observatory remain. In fact, the decommissioning is being done precisely to preserve them.
“After the telescope decommissioning, NSF would intend to restore operations at assets such as the Arecibo Observatory LIDAR facility—a valuable geospace research tool—as well as at the visitor center and offsite Culebra facility, which analyzes cloud cover and precipitation data,” NSF wrote in a blog. “NSF would also seek to explore possibilities for expanding the educational capacities of the learning center. Safety precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in place as appropriate.”
Additionally, the NSF blog notes, the analysis and cataloging of data collected by the telescope will continue, and servers are being moved offsite.
NASA, which funded the telescope through its program for characterizing Near-Earth Objects, paid tribute to the telescope in a statement.
“For decades, the facility has been an important emblem of Puerto Rico’s commitment to international science research and education, and the discoveries enabled by Arecibo’s 305m radio telescope will continue to inspire the next generation of explorers. While the 305m radio telescope is being decommissioned, the Arecibo facility and its STEM education and other assets will continue.”
Arecibo was one of two main data sources for the NEO program, NASA notes, and it was only used to characterize previously discovered objects and so “NASA’s NEO search efforts are not impacted by the planned decommissioning of Arecibo’s 305m radio telescope,” the agency states.
While all is not completely lost, it’s a sad day for science.