Officials seeking answers to Puerto Rico telescope collapse

Full Screen
1 / 2

This photo provided by Aeromed shows the collapsed Radio Telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. The already damaged radio telescope that has played a key role in astronomical discoveries for more than half a century completely collapsed, falling onto the northern portion of the vast reflector dish more than 400 feet below. (Yamil Rodriguez/Aeromed via AP)

SAN JUAN – The National Science Foundation said Friday that it could cost up to $50 million just to clean up the debris at a renowned radio telescope that collapsed last year in Puerto Rico, adding that investigations into what caused its cables to fail are still ongoing.

The update is part of a report that the federal agency, which owns the telescope, had to submit to Congress as the investigation continues into the Arecibo telescope. It was until recently the world’s largest radio telescope and was used to study pulsars, detect gravitational waves, search for neutral hydrogen and detect habitable planets, among other things.

The NSF noted that results from the forensic evaluations by engineering firms, including mapping the distribution of debris, won’t be ready until late this year. In addition, the NSF said it asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to launch an independent and expedited study into what caused the telescope to collapse.

“Ensuring safety has continued to be the NSF’s top priority,” the report stated. “This includes not only the safety of personnel on the site, but also the safety of the environment in the area and the need to address concerns about historic and cultural preservation.”

Estimated cleanup costs range from $30 million to $50 million, with crews so far sampling soil and excavating areas contaminated by hydraulic oil. The telescope is located in Puerto Rico’s karst region, which serves as an important water source and contains the island’s richest biodiversity.

The NSF said officials also plan to analyze soil and water and prevent sediment and pollutants from migrating.

Meanwhile, the University of Central Florida, which manages the telescope, is charged with screening the debris to identify any equipment that could be reused or possibly displayed at the site or at another museum.

“All scientific infrastructure that can be utilized is being saved,” the NSF said.