Congresswoman González-Colón reacts to news of pending plans for decommissioning Arecibo Observatory’s 305-meter telescope

November 19, 2020
Press Release

Washington, D.C.- "It is with great sadness that we all received the news about the radio telescope today. In Puerto Rico, we think of the radio telescope as a great source of pride, a world-class scientific asset treasured by the entire scientific community. I recognize that the decision to put the life and safety of workers first is the right thing to do, but it is critical  for engineers and experts to work together to preserve the remaining capabilities and focus on delimiting how this important facility can return to its former glory  and continue to serve its original purpose," said Resident Commissioner González Colón.

The Congresswoman has been in communication with both the National Science Foundation and the Arecibo Observatory team concerning updates and repairs. She has a meeting with staff of the Arecibo Observatory scheduled for today regarding the state to the facility.

In 2016, prior to arriving in Congress, she met with administrators of the Ana G. Méndez University System, to communicate willingness to collaborate on anything related to the needs of the Observatory. The administrators shared that $25 million in radio telescope improvements were reported and that the facility was up to date.

After Hurricane Maria, the Commissioner secured $16 million in federal funds for repairs to the Arecibo Observatory and its radio telescope through the National Science Foundation.

The Observatory was working on repairs from hurricane damage during the time the cables failed. It is understood that there is still a balance of funds available, however how decommissioning plans impact previous repairs is yet to be known.

The U.S National Science Foundation made the decision to begin the planning process to decommission the 305-meter telescope, which opened on November 1, 1963, after teams of engineering firms found that damage to the Arecibo Observatory cannot be stabilized without putting construction workers and facility personnel at risk.

These evaluations found that the structure is currently in danger of catastrophic failure and that its cables may no longer be able to withstand the load and weight for which they were designed. Several evaluations indicated that any attempted repair could put workers in potentially fatal danger. Even if repairs were made in the near future, engineers found that the structure would likely present long-term stability problems.

The NSF authorized the University of Central Florida (UCF), which administers the Arecibo Radio telescope, to take all reasonable steps and use available funds to address the situation, while safety remains the top priority. The NSF reports that UCF acted quickly and the evaluation process followed, considering the age of the facility, the complexity of the design and the potential risk to workers.

The plan is to decommission the radio telescope and maintain the remaining structures of the Observatory for research and educational purposes. The NSF would intend to restore operations to assets such as the LIDAR facility of the Arecibo Observatory, a valuable geospatial research tool, as well as at the visitor center and the external installation of Culebra, which analyzes cloud and precipitation data. NSF would also explore possibilities to expand the educational capabilities of the learning center. Safety precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic shall be kept in place as appropriate.

Areas of the observatory that could be affected by an imminent collapse have been evacuated since the November cable break and will remain closed to unauthorized personnel during dismantling. NSF and UCF will work to minimize risk in the area in the event of an unexpected collapse.

The NSF is an independent federal agency that aims to promote science and engineering development in the United States and funds research and education in various fields of science and engineering.