The Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico Collapses

It was an ignominious end to interstellar dreams.

The enormous Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico collapsed unexpectedly Tuesday morning, the National Science Foundation said, like a helpless spent giant in a splash of metal and wire. Officials said a 900-ton platform of girders and radio receivers suspended from mountaintop towers crashed into a 1,000-foot dish nestled in a valley below.

The collapse came two weeks after the National Science Foundation said the telescope, a destination for astronomers perched in the mountains of Puerto Rico, was in danger of falling and would have to be demolished.

“It’s such an undignified end,” said Catherine Neish, an assistant professor of earth sciences at the University of Western Ontario. “That’s what’s so sad about it.”

The platform collapsed at 7:55 a.m. local time, the foundation said.

The cause of the collapse was not immediately clear, but “initial findings indicate that the top section of all three of the 305-meter telescope’s support towers broke off,” according to the foundation.

As the platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also dropped, it said.

“We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt,” Sethuraman Panchanathan, the foundation’s director, said in a statement. “Our focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.”

The telescope beamed signals to and from space, an ability that made it possible to collect undiscovered details about planets in the solar system, Dr. Neish said.

One of its early feats, in 1967, was the discovery that the planet Mercury rotates in 59 days, not 88 as astronomers had originally thought.

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