An unhappy development in the realm of astrological discovery, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is sadly closing after a confluence of structural damages have rendered the observatory’s 305-meter-wide dish too damaged to safely repair. When one of the support cables collapsed in August earlier this year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the University of Central Florida had made plans to repair the aging site, but when the second cable unexpectedly broke on November 6, the task of repairing the massive dish became unsafe and untenable (Grossman, Nov. 19, 2020).
The Arecibo dish, most famous for its appearances in movies such as GoldenEye and Contact, was originally used to collect radio waves from space and focus them into detectors housed in the dome suspended above the dish. Built in 1963, Arecibo was one of the best facilities in the world for collecting observations such as mysterious radio wave blasts originating from deep space (Crockett, Feb. 7, 2020), tracking near-Earth asteroids that posed a potential harm in impacting Earth (Crockett, Jan. 20, 2020) and was used by the American government’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program in 1992 to conduct NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey (Drake, May 29, 2012). The massive telescope was also used to observe the first-recorded interstellar comet 21/Borisov (Temming, Oct. 14, 2019) and had served as inspiration for students of astrometry for decades before that—not just for Puerto Rican students, but students around the globe.
While Arecibo stood for over 50 years as a testament to scientific discovery and an inspiration for us all to search the stars, the impending dismantling of the observatory is no doubt a saddening turn of events. But although this observatory may be shutting down, there are certainly more large observatories available for astronomers to continue their search (Hsu, Dec. 29, 2011):
Lamentable as it may be to see this massive telescope array to be disassembled, the search through the stars continues unhindered. Searching the infinity above will continue across a host of new places. The lessons learned from Arecibo may even turn into a handful of new and important ways for future astronomers to improve their search methods. Arecibo Observatory has already acquired its Hollywood notice—perhaps now, design innovations will help Puerto Rico’s next expansive telescopic project match or even outperform Arecibo’s legacy in the field of astronomy.