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Plan emerges to rebuild collapsed Arecibo telescope, with early $8 million pledge from Puerto Rico

By Benjamin Bullard
The enormous Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, in a photo taken in 2019 before it was damaged by broken cables. The NSF plans on decommissioning it soon. Credit: UCF

In the wake of the mishap that caused the sad (yet spectacular) collapse of the Arecibo Observatory telescope earlier this month in Puerto Rico, a plan appears to be emerging to reconstruct one of the world’s most recognizable instruments for deep space research.

Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día news reports that Puerto Rican Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced has signed an executive order that sets aside $8 million toward the reconstruction of the enormous single-dish radio telescope. The order also provides for removal of debris from the Dec. 1 collapse, and designates the telescope site as a “historic zone,” according to the report.

Captured in dramatic drone footage, the observatory’s 900-ton platform, suspended 150 meters above the giant 305-meter dish, gave way on Dec. 1 when several support cables snapped, causing the platform to plummet to the dish surface below. The observatory had been closed since August due to an initial cable snap. That earlier mishap prompted an investigation and, subsequently, plans for a controlled demolition; one operator never got the chance to carry out.

Owned by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the Arecibo Observatory went into service in 1963, and for nearly 60 years collected radio data used to make a variety of observations that included the world’s first evidence of the existence of exoplanets. The telescope also became integral to NASA’s search for near-Earth objects.

In her order, Vázquez Garced said that the $8 million would be used to fund debris disposal for the remnants of the collapsed telescope, as well as the design of a new radio telescope to replace it. That leaves funding to construct an actual replacement — a far more costly proposition than $8 million — a matter of future budgeting priorities from the NSF, which receives its research allocations from Congress.

For the coming year, Congressional funding for the NSF currently hinges on the fate of the $1.4 trillion spending bill that President Donald Trump recently signed — with a number of novel provisos — before returning to Congress for resubmission. Science reports that the NSF’s share of funds included in the bill comes with a request that the agency outline its plans for the site. “In particular, lawmakers want to know how NSF will decide whether to build a new observatory, and the estimated cost of such a facility,” the report notes.

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