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Cleanup of Arecibo Observatory's collapsed radio telescope seen from space

arecibo observatory
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which collapsed in December 2020, is seen from space in this satellite image captured Feb. 23, 2021. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies)

The sad work of dismantling the remains of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is underway.

Fresh satellite images from Maxar Technologies from Feb. 23 show work crews removing part of the structure and clearing the land for safety reasons, after the telescope collapsed Dec. 1, 2020

The National Science Foundation (which stewarded the telescope since the 1970s) had no updates about Arecibo's status recently on Twitter or on its press releases. It announced the decommissioning of the famed observatory back in November, however, due to hurricane and cable damage deemed too dangerous to repair. The new pictures are therefore no surprise.

Related: Astronomers are still reeling from the loss of iconic Arecibo radio telescope

The collapse, documented in pictures and video, saw the 900-ton platform that hung above the radio dish suddenly falling 450 feet (140 meters) into the structure below at 8 a.m. local time. A preliminary investigation is ongoing for the cause amid the cleanup; a first update Jan. 21 from NSF suggested manufacturing error in the cables may have contributed to the collapse.

"We at NSF are extremely grateful that the safety zones were adequate and that nobody was physically hurt," Ashley Zauderer, the program director for the Arecibo Observatory at the NSF, said during a virtual town hall event held separately Jan. 11 at the 237th conference of the American Astronomical Society.

"I say 'physically hurt' because we do want to clearly communicate that we understand that this was a very traumatic event, impacting a lot of people," Zauderer added. "There is a lot of hurt."

arecibo observatory

A closeup view of the satellite image shows cleanup crew working to dissemble the Arecibo Observatory. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies)

The telescope's astronomical achievements are vast, but include scanning asteroids that came close to Earth, examining exoplanets and once sending a message to extraterrestrials in 1974. The public was also familiar with Arecibo's work through sci-fi films in the 1990s such as "Goldeneye" of the James Bond franchise, and the alien-focused "Contact" that starred a young Matthew McConaughey decades before his more famous space flick "Interstellar" (2014).

Arecibo's location in Puerto Rico brought tourism and scientific employment to the island associated with the telescope's work; how to secure that for the future is still being discussed. A recent editorial in Astronomy magazine suggested selling off pieces of Arecibo (in the context of a growing, worldwide space memorabilia market) to contribute to a fund for education and outreach at the former facility.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.