The scientific community suffered a major loss earlier this month when the famous Arecibo radio telescope collapsed onto itself after months of structural failures. One of the world’s premier space observatories now lies in ruins in the jungles of Puerto Rico.
Although many have hoped that the massive structure would be rebuilt, officials from the National Science Foundation (NSF) said that doing so would be dangerous. Instead, the agency plans to tear down the remains of the observatory.
However, that plan may not be set in stone—at least not if Puerto Rico has something to say about it. Governor Wanda Vázquez just allocated $8 million to help rebuild the famous telescope. Whether or not that will be enough to get others on board remains to be seen.
To be clear, $8 million isn’t nearly enough money to rebuild the entire Arecibo observatory. The world-class radio telescope was the culmination of many years of design and engineering. For more than half a century, it was the largest single-aperture telescope in the world before being surpassed by the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China.
Some estimate that rebuilding the observatory will cost as much as $400 million. As such, Puerto Rico’s $8 million commitment represents a first step rather than a final solution.
Vázquez notes that the project is a matter of “public policy” and that the government hopes to reestablish Arecibo as a “world-class educational center.”
The massive telescope has had a major impact on Puerto Rico for decades. It has served as a major attraction for students, bringing more than 50,000 researchers to the area each year to study outer space. It also attracts over 50,000 other visitors annually. Losing that much traffic will be a major blow to the local economy as well as the local scientific community.
Puerto Rico’s $8 million investment is a sign of commitment and hope. The territory will, however, need help. It could be enough to convince a U.S. government agency to contribute additional funding to rebuild the telescope.
Meanwhile, individuals donations and contributions from private companies and non-profits will also help make rebuilding the observatory a possibility.
Of course, nothing will be happening anytime soon. At this point, the Arecibo site is considered highly dangerous and unstable. There will need to be in-depth surveillance efforts to ensure the site is safe for engineers to start redesigning it.
From there, any construction efforts will be slow and tedious. Clearing out the rubble from the telescope’s collapse and rebuilding around what is left will likely take years if not decades.
Even so, Arecibo has a chance to come back better than ever. Should the necessary funds be granted, the radio telescope could return as one of the world’s best space observatories. That would be a major win for both the scientific community and for Puerto Rico.