Fallen Arecibo Observatory to be transformed into STEM education centre

14 Oct 2022

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico before it collapsed in 2020. Image: University of Central Florida

The famous observatory, once the largest radio telescope on Earth, collapsed in 2020 after a number of its cables began to fail.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to turn the iconic Arecibo Observatory into a STEM-focused education centre.

The 305-metre radio telescope, made internationally famous by movies such as GoldenEye and Contact, was regarded as a beacon for breakthrough science.

The observatory operated for 57 years but was set to be decommissioned in 2020 after a series of incidents left it damaged beyond repair. The platform collapsed at the end of 2020 after a third cable snapped off.

A site of debris with trees and a cloudy sky in the background. It is the Arecibo Observatory after it collapsed in 2020.

Damage to the Arecibo Observatory after its collapse on 1 December 2020. Image: Michelle Negron/National Science Foundation

Before the observatory collapsed, the NSF stated that even if repairs were made to Arecibo, the structure would still present long-term stability issues.

Rather than rebuild, the NSF has decided to turn the site into a multidisciplinary centre to serve as a hub for STEM education and outreach.

The new education centre will work to promote learning and teaching within STEM and broaden participation. The centre will also seek to build and leverage existing and new collaborations and support fundamental STEM education research.

The NSF said the scientific community has shown support for an expanded educational facility, such as the 2020 Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics (Astro2020).

“Astro2020 recognised that the observatory has, over the course of its nearly 60-year history, become a highly regarded part of the community for many of Puerto Rico’s citizens, serving as a source of pride and local economic benefit while also providing access to training and employment for many in the community,” the NSF said in a statement.

The new centre is expected to open sometime in 2023 and will expand upon the existing education and outreach opportunities currently in place at the site.

The NSF is soliciting proposals to “manage the education, STEM research and outreach aspects of the centre”.

The Arecibo Observatory was the largest radio telescope on Earth until China completed the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in 2016.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic