Arecibo Observatory Clean Up Has Us Feeling The Feels

Arecibo Observatory Clean Up Has Us Feeling The Feels

In December of 2020, a year plagued with adversity, a pop-culture icon met its untimely end. 

Satellite images show what's left of the beloved observatory after years of neglect lead to its collapse. 

It's sad work.
And it's hard to see.

But it's part of the grieving process we're happy to share with you all.

We've compiled a timeline from the early days of the Arecibo Observatory Dish to the present day. As workers remove the remnants of the dish we're reminded that Arecibo observed planets around our sun, distant stars, and uncovered sources of mysterious flashes of light, such as pulsars and fast radio bursts.

And now, we pay tribute to the dish in photos. From its early beginnings, to the tragic end.



The First Light


The 14th of February 1963 - Arecibo's Catwalk Construction


The mid to late 1960s as Arecibo was constructed from tons of aluminium material and steel cables to create the 1,000 ft diameter dish that covered 81,000 square meters over the course of roughly 3 years. The dish was formed in a massive natural sinkhole in the Puerto Rican mountains.

The Better Days



Arecibo was completed in November, 1963. Upon its completion, it became the world's largest single-aperture telescope for just over 53 years. Evidently the cameras back then were covered in olive oil.

During its reign, Arecibo made some noteworthy achievements, such as:

  • Timed the Crab Nebula's Pulsing
  • Clocked the fastest pulsar nebula (PSR 1937+21)
  • Discovered ice on Mercury
  • Cut through the dense clouds of Venus to reveal the surface
  • Measured Mercury's 59-day rotation
  • Catalogued countles near-Earth asteroids
  • Sent the first extraterrestrial radio message
  • Directly detected the first gravitational waves
  • Was in Goldeneye (and to a lesser degree, Contact)



The telescope's unique and futuristic design led to several appearances in film, gaming and television productions. It has been listed on the US National Register of Historic Places since 2008 and was named an Invention in the History of Electrical Electrical and Electronic (IEEE) Milestone in 2001.


The Beginning of the End 


The threshed innards of the Arecibo dish after a snapped cable on the 10th of August, 2020.


On the morning of Aug. 10, a cable that helped support the triangular structure that holds the antenna’s radio receivers snapped and crashed through the antenna causing a 100 ft gash. About 250 of the 38,778 aluminum panels that make up the dish were damaged. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The issue wasn't the snapped cable or the 250 damaged panels, it was whether the 900-ton instrument platform above the dish was stable. Before repairs could be started on November 7th, 2020, one of the two main tower support cables snapped and shattered part of the dish itself. While stabilisation efforts and load reduction techniques were considered, the damage raised too many concerns about the state of the dish.

Decreased funding from the NSF and  NASA contributed to the dish's compromised structures, with Arecibo personnel claiming maintenance hadn't been upheld in years.

Funding decreased from US$10.5 million in 2007 to US$4.0 million in 2011 after a report from the Astronomical Sciences division. Shortly after, NASA and the NSF ended financial support almost entirely. This lead to the further degradation of the Arecibo telescope, making collapse a certainty.

Estimates at the cost of repairing the dish were in the hundreds of millions with most reports settling at US$400 million.  

Overseers found no way to safely repair the damage and that a controlled decommissioning of the telescope was the only way to avoid catastrophic failure. The NSF took this advice and made the announcement on November 19, 2020 that they would decommission Arecibo over the following few weeks. 


The Collapse


The collapse of the 900-ton observation platform on the 1st of December, 2020


On December 1, 2020, as the second main cable from Tower 4 failed with the other two remaining support cables failing moments later. The collapse of the receiver structure and cables onto the dish caused extensive additional damage. As the receiver fell, it sheared the tips of the towers which the support cables ran through.

Tower 4, which had had its backstay cables adjusted to provide more support away from the dish, pulled backwards and snapped in half once the platform support cables failed. The other two towers, under the strain of supporting the platform was released, also had their tips sheared off due to the backstay cable adjustments. The top of Tower 12 caused some small amount of structure damage to the other buildings on the observatory as it fell.

Arecibo was destined to fail as a result of neglect.


The Goodbye 


The Arecibo Dish clean up effort seen from space in this satellite image captured Feb. 23, 2021.


New satellite images from Maxar Technologies from Feb. 23 show work crews removing part of the structure and clearing the land for safety reasons. 

"We at NSF are extremely grateful that the safety zones were adequate and that nobody was physically hurt," Ashley Zauderer, the program director for the Arecibo Observatory at the NSF, said during a virtual town hall event held separately Jan. 11 at the 237th conference of the American Astronomical Society. "I say 'physically hurt' because we do want to clearly communicate that we understand that this was a very traumatic event, impacting a lot of people," Zauderer added. "There is a lot of hurt."


A close-up of the satellite image shows cleanup crew working to dissemble the Arecibo Observatory


Arecibo's location in Puerto Rico brought tourism and scientific employment to the island associated with the telescope's work; how to secure that for the future is still being discussed. A recent editorial in Astronomy magazine suggested selling off pieces of Arecibo (in the context of a growing, worldwide space memorabilia market) to contribute to a fund for education and outreach at the former facility.

The Puerto Rican government still supports the reconstruction of the dish with a reported $8 million to start the reconstruction work, painfully shy of the $400 million mark. Plus, China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) dwarfs the Arecibo in almost every way, making the Puerto Rican dish construction all but redundant.

A sad end to a good friend.
RIP to the Arecibo Radio Telescope...




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