The National Science Foundation had excellent timing. Less than two weeks after the announcement that the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico would be permanently decommissioned, as fraying support cables accelerated the possibility of spectacular collapse, the telescope’s internal tensions exceeded their bounds. At 7:53:51 local time Tuesday morning, the 900-ton collection module fell 500 feet into the dish.
On Thursday the NSF released a pair of videos showing the collapse. The first is a video from the ground; the more dramatic angle was shot by a drone that near the observatory platform when the collapse happened. It’s one thing to know that the telescope will never send a message out to hypothetical alien civilizations ever again, but it’s another to see it destroyed in seconds.
The NSF’s press release said there were no injuries, and that a recovery effort to salvage the 12-meter telescope lens is underway. Initial photographs from Arecibo were released shortly after the collapse, and while they showed the iconic dish irreparably cracked, like an egg after two taps on the side of the frying pan, they undersold what was caught on video.
Now the hard work will begin. The NSF will commission cleanups and environmental damage assessments, but the biggest question looming over Arecibo is the extent to which the U.S. government will invest in a rebuild. The non-telescope facilities at the observatory are still in operation, and there’s momentum within Puerto Rican academia to push for a rebuild. The telescope is gone, but there’s still a version of this story with a happy ending.