Historic telescope that served as a radar to observe asteroids approaching Earth collapses

December 03, 2020

The historic telescope located in Puerto Rico, used by astronomers around the world and which discovered the first exoplanets, was one of the main radars for observing asteroids approaching Earth.

The famous Arecibo telescope, which made it possible to discover the first planets in orbit around stars other than the Sun, collapsed on Tuesday, December 1, after 57 years of operation.

“The platform collapsed in an unplanned way,” said Rob Margetta, a spokesman for the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the observatory.

The fall of two cables that supported the 900 tons of the telescope instruments above the spherical antenna, 305 meters in diameter, had damaged the antenna. These were broken on August 10 and November 6 for unknown reasons.

Since then, the telescope was considered unstable and not repairable and the institution announced its dismantling. It finally collapsed this Tuesday around 08:00 local time.

Professor Abel Méndez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo regretted what happened because the radio telescope was used by all astronomers on the planet for a certain time to make their observations from a distance.

“Many students were trained in astronomy at the observatory, which was the one that inspired them to pursue a degree in science or astronomy, as was my case,” he explained.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” he added indignantly.

Unlike optical telescopes, radio telescopes work day and night, even in overcast skies.

Arecibo was also one of the main radars for observing asteroids approaching Earth, within the framework of NASA’s planetary defense program. The US space agency has access to at least one other radar, but it is less powerful.

“The loss of Arecibo is a great loss for the world, but even more so for Puerto Rico. It is an emblem of our island ”, affirmed Méndez.

An action scene from the James Bond movie “GoldenEye” takes place over the telescope, and in the movie “Contact” an astronomer played by Jodie Foster uses the observatory in her search for extraterrestrial signals.

Astronomers and scientists lamented on social media the collapse of the telescope, pointing out that it was “a sad day for astronomy.”

“What a sad day for astronomy and planetary sciences around the world and for one of the most iconic telescopes of all time,” tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator at NASA’s science missions directory.

The announcement of its dismantling ten days ago had already shocked many professional and amateur astronomers, especially on Twitter under the label “WhatAreciboMeansToMe” (what Arecibo means to me).

“Thank you for your services, brother”, tweeted this Tuesday the Gran Telescopio de Canarias from the other side of the Atlantic.

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