December 10, 2020

On December 1, 2020, the iconic radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed.  Engineers had warned that the 900-ton platform suspended above the telescope’s 305-meter-wide dish could fall at any moment, as one of the main cables supporting it had snapped in early November.  Last month, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the observatory, had announced it would shut down the telescope permanently, citing safety concerns over its instability, and damage too extensive to repair.  The final collapse happened just before 8 a.m. local time.  No one was injured.

The cable that failed in November dated back to the observatory’s construction in 1963.  Since construction, scientists using the Arecibo Observatory have made amazing discoveries.  The first extrasolar planets around the pulsar B1257+12 were found in 1992.  Detailed radar maps were made of the surface of Venus and Mercury and these showed that Mercury rotated every 59 days instead of 88 days, proving the planet did not always show the same face to the Sun.  American astronomers Russell Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, Jr., used Arecibo to discover the first binary pulsar, and showed it was losing energy through gravitational radiation at the rate predicted by physicist Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  They won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1993 for their discovery.  The iconic structure was also used as a movie set for filming Golden Eye, Contact, and Species, among others.

The NSF intends to continue paying staff at the observatory to carry on the science at smaller facilities on site.  It is unclear whether the dish will be demolished, rebuilt, or left in ruins.  Observatory director Francisco Córdova told reporters that officials would investigate ways of establishing similar or even better scientific capabilities, perhaps at or near the site.  This would depend on the US Congress allocating money to replace the Arecibo dish.  Given the speed Congress has used to respond to the pandemic, this may take a while.

Thoughts:  One of the responses to the collapse in the article’s comments section was to say that with everything else that has gone on this year, it was a fitting end to 2020.  While there seems to be a general feeling that “if we can only get of 2020,” the reality is little will change.  The new year will bring what it always brings, expectation and hope for the future.  What makes a difference is not the passage of time but learning from what has happened during that time.  This too is the same every year.  The coming year can achieve great advances if we decide to do what has been proven to work, with or without the vaccine.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you

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