A massive US space telescope nestling deep in the Puerto Rican jungle will be shut down after suffering two devastating mishaps in recent months, bringing to an end 57 years of astronomical discoveries.
Operations at the Arecibo observatory, one of the largest in the world, were halted in August when one of its support cables slipped free of its socket, falling and gashing a 30-meter (100-foot) hole in its 305m wide (1,000ft) reflector dish.
Then another cable broke earlier this month, ripping a new hole in the dish and damaging nearby cables as engineers scrambled to devise a plan to protect the cryptic structure.
The accidents at the site – also known as the location for the James Bond film GoldenEye, as well as Contact star Jodie Foster – prompted the US National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent government agency, to call time at the facility.
“NSF has concluded that this recent damage to the 305m telescope cannot be addressed without endangering the lives and safety of crews and work staff,” said Sean Jones, assistant director of the mathematical and physical sciences directorate at NSF, on Thursday.
“NSF has decided to begin the process of planning for regulated decommissioning,” said Jones.
Engineers have not yet determined the cause of the initial cable failure, an NSF spokesman said.
The observatory’s vast reflector dish and an 816-tonne structure hanging 137m above it, located in the damp forests of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, has been used by scientists and astronomers worldwide for decades to analyze distant, found planets to potentially dangerous asteroids and hunting for extraterrestrial life signatures.
The telescope was instrumental in detecting the Earth-determining asteroid in 1999, which laid the foundation for Nasa to send a robotic probe there to collect and eventually return its first asteroid drop sample some two decades later.
An engineering firm hired by the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory for NSF under a $ 20m five-year agreement, concluded in a report to the university last week that “if an additional main cable fails, a catastrophic collapse of all the structure will follow soon ”.
Citing safety concerns, the company rejected efforts to repair the observatory and recommend a controlled demolition.