After collapse: world-famous Arecibo telescope will not be rebuilt

The Arecibo telescope collapsed two years ago, and it was unclear whether there would be a successor. Now the responsible US organization has decided against it.

The Arecibo telescope after the collapse (Image: National Science Foundation)

The Arecibo telescope that collapsed two years ago will not be rebuilt. This emerges from a statement from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which operated the observatory. Instead, a “new multidisciplinary education center” is to be built at the location in Puerto Rico. A spokesman assured the US research magazine Nature that the move was in line with scientific recommendations. The new approach will serve as a catalyst, he promises. However, it is unclear how researchers, students, and teachers are to be lured to a location without a comparable instrument.

The legendary Arecibo telescope was destroyed on December 1, 2020, when the large observation platform fell into the huge antenna dish. Even before that, the damage to the system was so great that the telescope had been taken out of service. The system is currently being dismantled, and so far it was unclear whether there would be a successor. On site, a decision had been made in favor of it. The telescope was a pride of America’s largest and most populous outlying territory. Astronomer Héctor Arce told Nature that many would see the decision as yet another unfair treatment of colonial Puerto Rico.

The situation could be worse, says astronomer Abel Méndez, who works on site: “But it could also be much, much better.” The final decision was devastating, says Desirée Cotto-Figueroa from the University of Puerto Rico. It is therefore at least doubtful that the NSF will actually succeed in establishing a world-class educational institution there without a comparable observatory. “How can you do that without world-class researchers, engineers and instruments?” asks planetologist Anne Virkki. That’s exactly why the NSF is asking for suggestions, it’s an opportunity to rethink the possibilities.

The Arecibo telescope was one of the most famous scientific instruments in the world, despite its age it was irreplaceable for the research community. Completed in 1963, it was the largest radio telescope in the world until 2016. The observatory has been involved in many scientific discoveries and has been continually upgraded. Many scientific careers have also started there. In addition, it had also become famous as a backdrop in films and series, such as James Bond 007 – GoldenEye and Contact. It has survived several hurricanes and earthquakes, but over time the damage has become too great. Smaller instruments are still in use on-site. The new successor facility, called Arecibo Center for STEM Education and Research, is scheduled to open in 2023.

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