The Collapse of Puerto Rico’s Astronomical Landmark

Puerto Rico Observatory BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of apnews.com

The second-largest radio telescope in the world collapsed earlier this week, leaving scientists all over the world mourning the loss. Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory was destroyed early Tuesday morning as the 900-ton metal platform held above the telescope collapsed, killing the already fragile apparatus.  

Owned by the National Science Foundation, the Observatory had already been declared irreparable after one of the main cables that support the receiver platform snapped back on November 6th. Two weeks later, the director of the astronomy division of the foundation, Ralph Gaume, had warned that another cable breakage from the tower could jeopardize the entire structure. 

After concluding that any repair efforts could put workers severely at risk, the National Science Foundation announced that they would be decommissioning the Arecibo Observatory.

Months prior, one of the six auxiliary cables had failed, causing significant damages to the antenna dish that the University of Central Florida was tending to with three different sets of engineers to evaluate the situation. These cables were initially put in place to withhold the upgrades made to the telescope in the 1990s, including a Gregorian Dome that was also damaged in the collapse.

Its history

The news comes as a major blow to scientists, astronomers, and general communities everywhere as it solidified its reputation as the most powerful radar on the planet. Allowing astronomers to track killer asteroids and map out planets from a distance, the observatory became a research hub for scientists all over the world. It pioneered the search for alien civilizations and worked to detect signs of interference from gravitational waves emitted by dead stars called pulsars. These merits and extraordinary advances in the field of astronomy earned a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993. 

Officially known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, the facility was built in 1963 by the Air Force Research Laboratory with the intent of further understanding objects like nuclear warheads that made their way through the upper atmosphere. Its biggest accomplishment was in 1967 when scientists within the facility debunked the theory that planet Mercury rotates in 88 days, determining that it actually rotates in 59 days.

The impact

After news broke in November, social media flooded with messages of support from astronomers, scientists, and those who had visited the iconic structure with the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe and a petition calling for emergency action to rescue the telescope. 

The facility was not only the hub for scientific breakthroughs; it also served as a cultural symbol. 

Considered a tourist destination, the site was an iconic source of inspiration for tourists and residents alike. Puerto Rican planetary scientist Edgard Rivera-Valentín from the Lunar and Planetary Institute shared with National Geographic, “As someone who was inspired as a child by the observatory to reach for the stars, this is devastating and heartbreaking. I’ve seen how the observatory to this day continues to inspire my island.” 

Alongside this, it became famous for its appearances in features like GoldenEye (1995), The X-Files (1994), Species (1995), and Contact (1997). 

The director of the observatory Francisco Córdova expressed in a press conference that budget cuts did not play a role in the facility’s decay. However, the hurricanes and earthquakes that battered the Island over the last few years left the Arecibo Observatory with a series of challenges in infrastructure that left the National Science Foundation questioning the future of the facility.

Luckily, the learning center led by University Ana G. Mendez suffered minor damages, and other structures of the facility are intact, so those areas are expected to still be operational and open for educational purposes.

In an Island that has already faced all kinds of turmoil over the last few years, the Arecibo Observatory signified a beacon of hope perched on the mountains of La Isla del Encanto

As a hub that pioneered discoveries and paved the road for established and aspiring Latinx scientists everywhere, one can only hope the possibility of rebuilding comes sooner rather than later.