Iconic radio telescope in Puerto Rico is at risk of collapsing

Arecibo Observatory, which has discovered planets, searched for alien life, and appeared in classic films, is in critical danger after two cables supporting the telescope failed.


The main collecting dish at Arecibo Observatory is among the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes. A cable failed in August and carved a 100-foot-long gash in the dish, and another cable failed on November 6, putting the entire telescope at risk.

Editor's Note, November 30: Arecibo Observatory’s suspended platform collapsed around 8 a.m. local time. No one was hurt, according to observatory guards.

One of the world’s most venerable radio telescopes is on the brink of catastrophe, triggering a frantic race by engineers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to save it after two critical cables supporting a 900-ton equipment platform broke.

The platform, held aloft over a massive dish by cables strung to towers, must be quickly stabilized, or it could crash to the ground and destroy the telescope. With the loss of these two cables, the remaining cables are under increased strain, and it’s uncertain whether rescue efforts will be successful.

“For me, it’s probably fifty-fifty,” says former observatory director Michael Nolan, now at the University of Arizona. “They are doing what can be done. I’m still really worried that they can’t do enough. If we’re worried about it falling, nobody should go up there or be there when it happens.”

Suspended from three towers, the telescope’s platform hovers some 500 feet above the thousand-foot-wide dish. In August, an auxiliary cable slipped from its socketand plummeted into the dish, carving a 100-foot-long gash into its reflective panels. Before crews could repair that cable, another one attached to the same tower rupturedon November 6. This second broken cable is one of four primary ones connecting that tower to the platform.

“I was not that worried when the first cable failed because I was confident that it would take a...

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