The damage on the Arecibo Observatory. The urgency now is to dismantle the structure safely before it collapses, putting people and other equipment at risk.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today it will decommission the iconic radio telescope in Puerto Rico following two cable breaks in recent months that have brought the structure to near collapse.
The platform is a 900-ton receiver held 450 feet above the reflecting antenna - built into a bowl-like depression in the ground - by cables attached to three support towers.
In August, one of its supportive cables slipped loose from its socket, falling and gashing a 30 metre hole in the telescope. Another cable then broke earlier this month, tearing a second hole.
Last week, one of the telescope's main steel cables that was capable of sustaining 544,000 kilograms snapped under only 283,000 kilograms.
An engineering firm hired by the University of Central Florida has said it doesn't even want to risk a stress test on the remaining cables, concerned it could cause a catastrophic collapse.
The foundation "prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory's staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate", said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan.
"NSF has chose to begin the process of planning for a controlled decommissioning of the ... telescope", Jones said. The NSF made a decision to fix the dish and commissioned a survey, but on November 6, a second cable snapped unexpectedly despite being well below its believed breaking strength.
"Until these assessments came in, our question was not if the observatory should be repaired but how", said Ralph Gaume, director of NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences.
Several science news outlets quoted managerial officials noting that the decision to dismantle the observatory hinged exclusively on safety concerns and that it doesn't reflect on the telescope's merit. The Arecibo Observatory Amateur Radio Club, KP4AO, is headquartered at the research facility, and several radio amateurs are employed there.
Yet news of the observatory's end isn't likely to be welcome for scientists who have, for many decades, banked on it for observations of distant stars and galaxies, to spot potentially hazardous asteroids and to hunt for potential signatures of extraterrestrial life. "Arecibo is this and more to Puerto Rico because it has gone beyond an icon". While the observatory will soon cease to exist, its interplanetary message will live on - as will the memories of its use in astronomers' archives.