New satellite images show the Arecibo Observatory before and after its violent collapse in Puerto Rico
  • Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory violently collapsed on December 1.
  • Engineers had been planning to dismantle the radio telescope since a support cable snapped in November. 
  • But before that could happen, the telescope's 900-ton suspended platform crashed into the bowl-shaped disk below, destroying the facility.
  • Maxar imaging satellites in low-Earth orbit photographed Arecibo at various stages of its destruction.
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The destruction of Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory has been photographed from space.

The telescope collapsed earlier this month, following damaged inflicted by Tropical Storm Isaias in August.

High winds from the storm damaged a 3-inch-thick auxiliary suspension cable attached to a central, 900-ton radio platform. Before engineers could repair that cable, another snapped in November. Soon afterward, the National Science Foundation decided to decomission and dismantle the structure in a controlled manner.

But Arecibo had other plans. On the morning of December 1, the telescope catastrophically failed, dropping its 900-ton radio platform 450 feet to the ground. The platform crashed into a 1,000-foot-wide disk below and pulled down with it the tops of three support towers, destroying the facility.

"It's hard to take. It's like losing someone important in your life," Abel Mendez, the director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, previously told Business Insider.

Cameras on a control tower and a drone recorded videos of the moment. Ashley Zauderer, the NSF program manager of the Arecibo Observatory, described the collapse as "a very violent and kind of unpredictable failure."

Now, the scope of that failure can be seen from orbit, thanks to imaging satellites operated by the company Maxar.

A space-based view of an iconic observatory's downfall

In the two images below, the aftermath of the early November cable failure can be seen alongside the telescope's later, catastrophic collapse. The first photo shows the roughly 100-foot-long hole that a cable failure in August punched into the reflector dish, and which the November cable failure further expanded.

Maxar also released close-up images cropped from the original satellite photos.

The before-and-after comparison using the above pictures, below, shows more detail.

The two images below compare the Arecibo Observatory from when it was in working order to Maxar's newest image, which its WorldView-2 satellite took on Sunday.

Arecibo was one of only two radio telescopes of its kind in the world — China's FAST is the other. But its death could lead to a more powerful US replacement in the future.

Astronomers are already rallying to push the incoming Biden administration for such an effort and for Congress to fund it.

"A rebuilt Arecibo would be an important scientific instrument in many realms, notably gravitational waves," Saavik Ford, an astrophysicist at the City University of New York and the American Museum of Natural History, wrote to an astronomy email list just prior the observatory's collapse.

She added: "Rebuilding is a choice which would yield both economic benefits and (importantly) scientific advances."

Aylin Woodward, Morgan McFall-Johnsen, and Susie Neilson contributed reporting.

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