Puerto Rico’s beloved Arecibo telescope is slated to be decommissioned, following a series of recently-sustained damages that have put the structure at risk of collapse, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S. announced Thursday.

The move is being called a ‘huge blow to science’, with the observatory having served more than 250 researchers over its 57-year history in the hunt for new planets, asteroids, and extraterrestrial life. It has played a vital role as a training hub for hundreds of undergraduate students.

The telescope is also a boon to the local economy and community, attracting more than 90,000 visitors annually, pre-COVID. After Hurricane Maria hit the area in 2017, the observatory used its private power supply and well to distribute electricity, drinking water, and radio communications to nearby communities. 

“It’s important to know that it is not just another radio telescope,” Kevin N. Ortiz Ceballos, a senior undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico majoring in physics and philosophy, tells We Rep STEM via email.

“In addition to being the most powerful planetary radar on the planet and a uniquely versatile science instrument, the Arecibo Observatory is a very important institution of Puerto Rican science, society, and culture. It has been a great pride for us to fulfill such an important scientific and planetary protection role from right here on our island, and it is completely devastating to lose this.”

Ortiz Ceballos says the Arecibo Observatory has inspired countless students, himself included, to study science.


Dr. Tracy Becker, a planetary scientist and group leader at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, worked at the observatory off and on between 2008 and 2018. During her time there, she collaborated with Mike Nolan and Ellen Howell – her first female mentor in STEM – alongside a diverse group of scientists.

“Just being at the observatory every day was motivation to work hard. I would step outside and see this magnificent, awe-inspiring, massive telescope. It is rare to work at a place where your source of inspiration is just outside of your window,” Dr. Becker tells We Rep STEM.

“When I went to Arecibo in 2008, I was one student among eight NSF REU students that summer – half of whom were young women. Several of the students were from Puerto Rico and one student was international.

The diversity among us was not only fun, but also encouraging. A number of science staff of all levels at the observatory were women, including my direct advisor and a postdoc with whom I often interacted. My introduction into the world of science was far more welcoming and inclusive than that experienced by many of my colleagues and many of the young scientists currently being introduced into the field.”

It was this encouraging atmosphere, coupled with exposure to other women in STEM, that helped Dr. Becker confront feelings of impostor syndrome.

“As an undergraduate at Lehigh University, we had a small physics program and I was often the only, or one of two, young women in the classes of 7-15 students,” she recalls.

“While most of my classmates were really great, the natural, subconscious boundaries were there. There were no women faculty in the department until my junior year. The women’s bathroom was on a separate floor — old buildings, built before a time when any women attended the school.

“I think that one of the biggest impostor syndrome triggers for me was the confidence that so many of the other students displayed. I now realize, five years post-Ph.D. that in many cases, differences in displaying confidence do not necessarily translate to differences in capabilities or knowledge.” 

Dr. Becker’s work under Nolan and Howell involved analyzing data and building a computational model of a near-Earth asteroid with two moons that was discovered by Arecibo radar. It “was thought not to be able to exist until this discovery,” she says.

“Of course being trusted to analyze this data was a huge boost to my confidence and the importance of what I could contribute to the field of planetary science. My mentors encouraged me to present my work at a scientific conference where it was well-received, which further built up my confidence and desire to remain in the field. Ultimately, this work led to my first scientific publication.”


The telescope, with its giant 305-metre dish, has become “too dangerous” to operate, the NSF said. In August an auxiliary cable broke, tearing a 30-metre hole in the reflector dish, damaging the dome, and halting operations at the facility, the Associated Press (AP) reports. Then, on November 6, its main steel cable snapped, putting the entire structure at risk of collapse.

According to the NSF, repairing the damage is not an option, as the structure would remain “unsustainable.”

“NSF’s first priority is safety,” the foundation said on Twitter.

“Multiple assessments by independent engineering companies 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.”

If additional cables fail – which could happen at any time, “the entire platform could crash into the dish below,” Nature says.

The NSF is devising a plan to lower the platform safely, but the process could take weeks, and there is a risk of the structure collapsing uncontrolled in the meantime.

“Even attempts at stabilization or at testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure,” Ralph Gaume, director of the NSF’s astronomy division, told reporters at a November 19 press conference.

A potential manufacturing error is thought to be partially responsible for the cable break. While NSF had identified the issue, Arecibo program officer Ashley Zauderer told AP it “wasn’t seen as an immediate threat.” The NSF says all standard maintenance procedures had been followed.

“This decision is not an easy one for NSF to make, but the safety of people is our number one priority,” Sean Jones, the agency’s assistant director for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, told AP.

“We understand how much Arecibo means to this community and to Puerto Rico.”

The NSF intends hopes to keep the observatory’s visitor section open and restore operations at its two nearby LIDAR facilities.


Shortly after the announcement was made, several scientists took to social media to share personal experiences with the telescope and share the impact it had on the scientific community, particularly within Puerto Rico, under the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe.

Scientists shared stories of falling in love with science, finding endless inspiration, and even getting married at the observatory.

Others have used the hashtag #SaveArecibo to urge officials to explore all options to repair and preserve the structure.

“I have worked in astronomy research with Arecibo for the past 2 and a half years,” Ortiz Ceballos says.

“Working at Arecibo isn’t the only opportunity of its kind in Puerto Rico for students to work directly in forefront astronomical research, and I owe my career as an observational astronomer completely to Arecibo.”

The Arecibo telescope was built in the 1960s, funded by the U.S. Defence Department, and has made several Hollywood cameos in its 57-year history. In 1997 it appeared in the film Contact starring Jodie Foster and in 1995, it can be seen in the James Bond film GoldenEye.

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