When big science goes wrong

To do top quality science research these days, you usually need a lot of equipment. Sometimes it needs to be big as well. Radio telescopes are a very good example of big science. However, when these massive structures are built, it isn't just the science that is pushed to the frontiers; the engineering is as well. This is bleeding edge stuff and occasionally, just occasionally, things will go wrong.

There used to be a 300ft telescope at Green Bank in Virginia. I say 'used to' because at 9:43 p.m. EST on Tuesday the 15th of November 1988, it collapsed. The collapse was due to "the sudden failure of a key structural element - a large gusset plate in the box girder assembly that formed the main support for the antenna". An astronomer named Richard Porcas (surely one of the few astronomers with an IMDB entry) had been taking pictures of the telescope during the day it collapsed, so was asked to take some more showing it afterwards. I've heard an urban myth that the observers in the building beneath only noticed the collapse because the signal they were looking at stopped. This probably isn't true but makes a good story.

300ft telescope after collapse
IMAGE: Richard Porcas, courtesy of NRAO/AUI

Thankfully, the Green Bank telescope was rebuilt (it took a long time) as the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope which is just about operational now. It is currently the largest steerable radio telescope in the World and is an amazing sight to see.

It isn't just radio telescopes that have had problems though. The Super Kamiokande neutrino telescope 'exploded' back in 2001 and had to be rebuilt. I would hate to be the person on duty when a disaster like that happens.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 26th May 2005 (21:53 UTC) | Permalink
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