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Iconic dome at Arecibo Observatory collapses

Iconic dome at Arecibo Observatory collapses
Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the most powerful single-dish radio telescope in the world, was damaged August 10 when an auxiliary cable that supports the suspended platform broke. On Tuesday, the entire dome collapsed. File Photo courtesy of University of Central Florida

ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 1 (UPI) -- The iconic Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the most powerful in the world, was destroyed Tuesday morning in an uncontrolled collapse.

The 57-year-old facility had hosted Nobel Prize-winning scientists and blockbuster Hollywood movies alike over the years. But the dome containing instruments that weighed over 1 million pounds crashed into the dish below at 6:55 a.m. EST, said Ray Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute.

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One of three skyscraper-tall towers that supported the dome broke about halfway up. The collapse came just two weeks after the National Science Foundation announced it would decommission the facility due to damage incurred by cable breaks in August and early November.

"The tops of the towers sheared off and the azimuth and dome sheared off the platform," said Lugo, who led a coalition managing the facility for the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "No one was injured. [We are] performing our assessment now."

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A statement from the foundation on Twitter said, "NSF is saddened by this development. As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico."

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The collapse first was reported by journalist Deborah Martorell with El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico's largest newspaper. She posted photos on social media showing the valley in the rural interior of the island where the dome had hung for decades, absent the iconic structure.

"Friends, it is with deep regret to inform you that the Arecibo Observatory platform has just collapsed," Martorell posted in Spanish on Twitter.

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The damage from cable breaks had left the radar dish and surrounding structures unsafe and subject to further collapse at any time, foundation officials had warned.

Ancillary facilities at Arecibo that also conduct astronomical observations may be salvaged.

The visitors and learning center, however, "sustained significant damage from falling cables," the foundation reported about 7 hours after the collapse.

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"Engineers arrived on-site today. Working with the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory, NSF expects to have environmental assessment workers on-site as early as tomorrow," a statement from the foundation said.

The foundation would continue to pay staff members at the facility and seek to restart smaller related facilities nearby, according to the statement. But safety assessments for the remaining structures were the first priority.

Two scientists using data from the dish have won Nobel Prizes. It was also the scene of popular movies such as 1995's GoldenEye and Species, and 1997's Contact.

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The university had submitted a request to the foundation for $10.5 million to begin repairs on the August damage. That work would include at least six massive cables, which range in thickness from 3 inches to 6 inches.

But that work hadn't begun when a second larger cable broke.

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