Even if you don’t know it by name, the imposing futuristic vision of the Arecibo Observatory rising out of the rainforest is surely an image you’ve encountered along your travels through the internet.

But today is a sad day as the Arecibo Observatory is being decommissioned following a litany of breakages.

Back in August, a support cable snapped causing a massive tear in the telescope’s dish. While engineering teams were waiting on delivery of two replacement auxiliary cables, a main cable broke.

What makes Arecibo unique is that the entire structure is suspended in the air by three main pillars. This makes making repairs to the telescope rather difficult.

In the case of these latest breakages, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted several assessments regarding repairs before deciding to decommission the telescope.

“The decision comes after NSF evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support. Furthermore, several assessments stated that any attempts at repairs could put workers in potentially life-threatening danger. Even in the event of repairs going forward, engineers found that the structure would likely present long-term stability issues,” the foundation wrote in a press statement.

This decision was not made lightly as following a recommendation from Thornton Tomasetti, the engineering firm of record hired to assess the structure, NSF brought in another engineering firm and Army Corps of Engineers to review the findings.

“The firm NSF hired concurred with the recommendations of Thornton Tomasetti and expressed concern about significant danger from uncontrolled collapse. The Army Corps of Engineers recommended gathering additional photographic evidence of the facility and a complete forensic evaluation of the broken cable,” NSF wrote.

So what caused these breakages?

Put simply, time and the inordinate amount of stress the weight of the telescope put on the suspension cables.

“Over its lifetime, Arecibo Observatory has helped transform our understanding of the ionosphere, showing us how density, composition and other factors interact to shape this critical region where Earth’s atmosphere meets space,” head of NSF’s Geospace Section, Michael Wiltberger said, “While I am disappointed by the loss of investigative capabilities, I believe this process is a necessary step to preserve the research community’s ability to use Arecibo Observatory’s other assets and hopefully ensure that important work can continue at the facility.”

[Image Credit – University of Central Florida]