The National Science Foundation (NSF) released footage of the unexpected collapse of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico on December 3, 2020. The video, which captured the tragic event on December 1, shows the actual moment when the support cables snapped and caused the massive 900-ton platform to be suspended above Arecibo to fall onto the observatory’s 1,000-foot-wide dish.
The collapse was not only seen by a camera located in Arecibo’s Operations Control Center, but it was also captured from a drone located above the platform at the time of the collapse. Fortunately, the drone operator was able to see what was happening and adjusted the drone camera once the support wires gave way and the
platform started to fall, and thereby he was able to capture the very moment of impact.
The National Science Foundation (NSF), which oversees Arecibo, had already been doing regular, hourly monitoring of the observatory with drones, from the time that the engineers warned that the structure was in grave danger of collapsing. Thus the NSF, with the help of drones, warned of the serious danger of it collapsing a full month earlier in November. In fact, Ashley Zauderer, the NSF program manager for Arecibo Observatory, said, during a press conference, “I think we were just lucky and the drone operator was very adept to see what was happening and be able to turn the camera.”*
When multiple cables snapped and caused the platform to swing outward and hit the side of the dish, the collapse also brought down the tops of the three support towers that surrounded Arecibo, where the cables had been connected to keep the platform in the air. John Abruzzo, a contractor at an engineering consulting firm, Thornton Tomasetti, hired by the University of Central Florida, described the first video from the control center:
“The cables that go from the top of Tower 4 to the platform — they’re very faint in the camera view but they’re there. And so it’s those cables that fail near the tower top first, and then once those fail, the platform then loses stability and starts to come down.”*
Space Explored, a sister site, covered the collapse of the Arecibo telescope previously, and in August, it was announced that the telescope would be permanently closing due to excessive damage, which included a hole that had ripped through it. The hope was that it could be repaired up until November when the first support wire broke, which made it unstable and too hazardous for workers.
NSF hoped to do a controlled demolition of the telescope before that happened, but the collapse occurred before any kind of action could take place.
Although the telescope is obviously beyond fixing, the NSF plans on opening up the surrounding buildings to the public when it is safe to do so.
Replacing Arecibo involves decisions from lawmakers. According to Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s division of astronomical sciences:
“With regards to replacement, NSF has a very well defined process for funding and constructing large scale infrastructure — including telescopes. It’s a multi-year process that involves congressional appropriations, and the assessment and needs of the scientific community. So it’s very early for us to comment on the replacement.”*
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, had already been doing regular, hourly, monitoring of the observatory with drones, and then, at the unexpected time the telescope collapsed, a drone operator also captured that footage. As Ashley Zauderer, the NSF program manager for Arecibo Observatory, said during a press conference, “I think we were just lucky and the drone operator was very adept to see what was happening and be able to turn the camera.”
By capturing footage from the drone, the engineers will have a much more accurate picture of what really happened, and will have a better understanding of what not to do and what to do in the future, since they plan to replace the Observatory.
This is also exciting as it shows yet another way that drones can be used proactively, to ensure the safety of others, as well as to warn well before structures are in danger of collapsing thus saving structures as well as even more importantly — saving lives.