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Star Of 'Contact' And 'GoldenEye,' Arecibo Telescope Collapses In Puerto Rico


An historic telescope has collapsed. For more than half a century, the enormous Arecibo telescope searched the skies from its spot in a lush forest of Puerto Rico. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, its sudden end is an emotional blow for many Puerto Ricans.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The Arecibo radio telescope has a huge collecting dish, a thousand feet wide. Scientists have used it to find planets outside our solar system and to search for alien life. Filmmakers have used it as scenery for movies like "Contact" and "GoldenEye." When I reached Wilbert Ruperto (ph) on his cellphone, he was in the neighborhood next to the telescope.

WILBERT RUPERTO: And I'm here in one of these houses overlooking the observatory.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He could see its three tall support towers standing above the trees. Between them, suspended on cables, there used to be a 900-ton instrument platform, but no more. This morning, it came crashing 450 feet down, smashing onto the massive dish.

RUPERTO: We knew that it could happen. And we knew that it was a matter of days.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The telescope's aging structural cables had been snapping in recent months. That's why the National Science Foundation, which owns the telescope, announced it would be decommissioned. But Ruperto, who's a student at the University of Puerto Rico, helped organize a campaign to save it. He says this telescope was something Puerto Rico could be proud of.

RUPERTO: And be amazed by. And now we no longer have it. And that's certainly a big loss for the island.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: News of its demise spread quickly. Ada Monzon is a popular TV meteorologist.


ADA MONZON: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: "Friends," she said. "I have to inform you with my heart in my hand that the Arecibo Observatory collapsed." She looked to be in tears.


MONZON: (Speaking Spanish).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kevin Ortiz Ceballos lives in Puerto Rico, where he grew up. He's an astronomer who's used the telescope. He says since the 1960s, it's been an important part of the island's culture, its only advanced facility for science. It's explored near-Earth asteroids and studied pulsars. Lots of school kids visit. It feels like a monument.

KEVIN ORTIZ CEBALLOS: I think people were just not ready when the first cable snapped to even consider that it might not be there anymore because of how much of a fixture it was.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says seeing it broken is tragic, disastrous. He expects there will be widespread support for rebuilding.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
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