Accidents do happen

Maybe time to move on from the religion wars.

In case you hadn’t heard, there was an accident recently at the 4m Blanco telescope at CTIO. The f/8 secondary had been removed to allow the installation of the camera for the Dark Energy Survey (DES). At first I heard a rumour it had actually fallen out, but it wasn’t quite that dramatic. The cart carrrying it on the dome floor toppled over. Two technicians were injured, but it seems they will be ok. The mirror is cracked. DES soldiers on apparently.

I guess we should be grateful it wasn’t worse in human terms. Telescopes are huge chunks of balanced metal and glass, and their infrastructure is chock full of electrical, chemical, and mechanical hazards.

I just know that every infra-red astronomer over a certain age is thinking of Marc Aaronson. Marc was killed in 1987 in a freak accident at Blanco’s twin, the 4m Mayall telescope on Kitt Peak. He was crushed by the revolving dome. The NY times news article is here  and there is a Wikipedia page  about Marc. Steward Observatory set up a Memorial Lectureship, which has  has had some very distinguished holders, including two subsequent Nobel prize winners.

I am aware of other close calls. The week before one of my WHT observing runs, a parked car was destroyed by a huge slab of ice sliding off the dome. Nobody was inside, luckily. They don’t park there any more. Visitors to the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii may recall a scary photo just above the reception hatch, which I reproduce here.

Overturned Bronco on Mauna Kea Summit Road

This is what happens if you drive too fast on the Mauna Kea summit road. This picture is actually from the wall in JAC. I don't know who took it. I think this is a scan of a 35mm slide of a picture I took of the picture many years ago !

Academics hate bureaucracy of course. A favourite whinge is  “Health and Safety”. Well, I guess its true that it is often the victim of administrative excess … but … accidents do happen, boys and girls.

13 Responses to Accidents do happen

  1. Scott Trager says:

    The urban rumor is that the upside down SUV was driven by a now-senior Caltech professor (who clearly survived the accident).

    The slab-of-ice story also happened at Palomar — a good friend of mine, a postdoc at OCIW at the time, parked his rental car outside the snow-covered 200-inch telescope dome to use the photocopier in library. He returned a short time later to find that his car was now a convertible!

  2. Bill Keel says:

    Ron Buta spent months in an Australian hospital, and years using a cane between surgical procedures, after a fall at the AAT from a spot which was, as I heard it, already known as Gascoigne’s Leap. And one colleague in grad school came in on crutches after observing at the Crossley reflector (where I was pretty sure once I cracked teeth after a tumble, but that was a false alarm). Evidently even astronomers believe we’ll live forever, at least in our youth! Then there was Sue Simkin and the ‘roo at the AAT. Remote observing is starting to sound more sensible.

  3. Tony says:

    New sport: extreme observing!

  4. Didn’t Sandy Faber once fall off of a telescope?

  5. It does not take driving fast on the Mauna Kea road to roll a vehicle. Slow speed, a sheet of ice and a well placed ditch works fine. We experimented with that last year, totaling a new Ford Expedition in the process. The guys were banged up a bit, but nothing a little time off would not heal.

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    On one of my first observing runs on the MMT, there was a huge crash from the dome in the middle of the night. Panic abounded, and we switched on all the lights and rushed into the dome. A heavy metal door from the top box had not been latched, and had been swinging around until it sheared its hinges and fell down through the telescope structure. Fortunately at the time MMT stood for Multiple-Mirror Telescope, and the large chunk of metal clattered its way down between two of the six mirrors before putting a dent in the floor: nowadays, it would require a rather more costly repair job!

  7. Mark McCaughrean says:

    At the risk of increasing the exposure of the Mauna Kea observatories to higher insurance premiums, I have to declare that I also brought a Ford Bronco to its knees near the summit a good number of years ago.

    While I’ve forgotten exactly when and at which telescope I was observing, I suspect it was either at the IRTF or UH 88 inch, but in either case, I’m pretty sure it was with John “Nobby” Rayner. He’s always had an indecently good memory, so if he reads this, he can fill in the details / correct any embellishments.

    Anyway, we left the summit at the end of one of the nights and when we hit the top of the infamous Goodrich Pass (all nicely blacktopped to keep the dust down for Gemini; thank-you, Matt), we hit black ice and, err, departed from controlled progress.

    Our rather hair-raising acceleration down the slope ended abruptly when we impacted one of the guard rails, promptly ripping the front axle of the Bronco off completely. No-one else was hurt, just poor dobbin.

    Walking back up hill was amusing in itself, given the amount of black ice, but we managed to reach the CSO and called around the summit to warn everyone still up there that chains might be advisable.

    Ah, Mauna Kea; so many stories. I really should try and get back there soon.

    • ian smail says:

      i went off the hilo road (on the way down from HP) in a bronco around ~1992 – along with alfonso aragon – can’t remember who was driving… but it popped out of gear as we went around a corner and immediately lost all steering and brakes. luckily no one was coming the other way – as we went across the opposite lane and then the pull-off-area and into the vegetation.

      no wonder i always buy german cars.

  8. Pauline Barmby says:

    More Mount Hopkins stories; I think I heard all of these from John Huchra, which means there must be many more out there somewhere.

    – the road up the mountain passes by “Toyota Canyon”, named for a well-known roll-over

    – a car was once pushed off the summit by the rotating MMT dome. Can’t park quite so close any more.

    – someone was struck by lightning and evacuated in a helicopter (no mean feat at 8000 feet)

  9. Alex M says:

    Has anyone heard of this? I remember seeing a photo of a mobile home-like structure in the Nevada (?) desert which had been used for some cosmic ray (?) experiments. Over night, while no one was there, it was hit by a stray MX missile from the nearby test range.Presumably the run ended early.

  10. Marianne says:

    Thanks, Andy, for remembering Marc Aaronson (my late-husband). I keep hoping that safety remains a high priority in astronomy.

    Wishing all of you clear skies and good data 😉


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