The McDonald gun shooting incident

On the 5th of February, 1970, a rather bizarre incident happened at the McDonald Observatory, at the 2.7m reflector telescope. A newly hired employee was apparently very dissatisfied with his new job, or, something else was very wrong. Whatever the reason was for said person to be angry with the world, he had decided to take it out on the telescope itself.

Bringing with him a 9mm gun, he first fired a shot at his supervisor, and then fired seven shots, point blank, into the primary mirror of the telescope, no doubt hoping to shatter it. Alas, big chunks of glass like telescope mirrors, do luckily not break so easily, so the bullets merely created small holes in the mirror. Not being happy with this outcome, he also attacked the mirror with a hammer, but to no avail. The mirror did still not shatter. Shortly after, the person was subdued by the rest of the astronomer staff, rushing to the site.

The primary mirror of the 2.7m telescope at McDonald Observatory. The bullet holes can clearly be seen. Photo credit: McDonald Observatory.

The primary mirror of the 2.7m telescope at McDonald Observatory. The bullet holes can clearly be seen. Photo credit: McDonald Observatory.

When the sheriff arrived, the employee was arrested and later committed to a mental health institution. In the report following the incident, the sheriff, clearly being unfamiliar with telescope designs, stated that the mirror had indeed been destroyed as it had a big, circular hole, right in the middle! Thus, it was allegedly reported widely that the telescope had essentially been destroyed. However, most astronomical telescopes do in fact have holes in the middle of the primary mirror, as it allows you to attach instruments to the bottom of the telescope (the Cassegrain focus). Because of such erroneous stories, the director of the observatory, Dr. Harlan J. Smith, released a report setting the facts straight:

“… The harm suffered by the mirror from his bullets and his several preliminary blows with a hammer was extraordinarily small. The damage is limited to small craters about 3 to 5cm in radius, which reduce the light collecting efficiency by about 1 percent and introduce a very small amount of diffraction …… Astronomical observations of all types are essentially unimpaired by this tragic episode; the telescope resumed its observing program the following night, producing some of the best photographs (of quasar fields) so far obtained with this instrument in its first year of use.”

The full report can be read here.

This is likely the only telescope in the world who has been a victim of a handgun assault, and it will hopefully stay this way. The bullet holes can still clearly be seen in the primary mirror. Fortunately, no people were hurt during this rather tragic incident.

Blame the animals, it wasn’t our fault!

When doing radio interferometry observations, one needs to combine observations from a number of different telescopes, at different locations, to get good quality data. This of course means that there is a potential for a lot of different things going wrong, as one needs to deal with multiple sites. Some of the problems that may come up, are completely out of your hands. However, even if one is having problems with the observations for these reasons, as the good scientists we are, we investigate the problems in detail. This is to make sure that it was indeed out of our hands, and not just us overlooking some obvious step we could have taken to avoid the issue in the first place. A situation that occurs more frequently than one would imagine.  Such inspection can also allow us to at least put the blame for loss of observations in the right place. Whether this means it will not happen again, is a completely different story. A beautiful example of this is the following excerpt from a paper by N. Bartel and colleagues on radio observations of the galaxy M82:

“No data were taken at station D during the period 0830 to 1630 GST due to the presence of a red racer snake (Coluber constrictor) draped across the high-tension wires (33,000 V) serving the station. However, even though this snake, or rather a three-foot section of its remains, was caught in the act of causing an arc between the transmission lines, we do not consider it responsible for the loss of data. Rather we blame the incompetence of a red tailed hawk (Buteo borealis) who had apparently built a defective nest that fell off the top of the nearby transmission tower, casting her nestlings to the ground, along with their entire food reserve consisting of a pack rat, a kangaroo rat, and several snakes, with the exception of the above-mentioned snake who had a somewhat higher density. No comparable loss of data occurred at the other antenna sites.”

At the very least, that snake will not be interrupting the observations again in the future. If you are interested in the actual outcome of the observations, the paper can be read in full here.

The telescope that ran over a car

It is well known that cars are often involved in accidents, either by crashing into something, running over things, slipping off the roads and similar nasty business. This is also true in astronomy, where accidents do happen from time to time. What is different though, is that while cars can run into things almost everywhere, having something running over your car is a much rarer experience.

The Nordic Optical Telescope. Photo credit: NOT, Thomas Mellergaard Amby.

The Nordic Optical Telescope. Photo credit: NOT, Thomas Mellergaard Amby.

Meet the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT): A nice, 2.5m telescope of a somewhat peculiar design. Whereas all telescopes have some sort of turning dome, that allows the telescope to point to many different parts of the sky, the NOT is constructed in such a way that not only the dome, but the entire telescope building turns, when you want to aim your telescope at a different patch of sky. This of course involved some engineering challenges, like, plumbing (there’s no bathroom in the telescope), as well as an entry staircase that is attached to the telescope. Which, amongst other things, means that you never really know what direction you are facing when you leave the telescope.

One day, the day-time crew were in need of hoisting equipment into the telescope dome, from the observatory pickup. For the crane to be able to reach the equipment, it needs to be positioned right at the wall of the telescope building. Thus, the pick-up was backed up, really close to the telescope, to make it easier to get the equipment in. This being an everyday operation, the crew unloaded the pickup, closed the dome, and proceeded with whatever they were doing.

The one warning sign you do want to pay attention to.

The one warning sign you do want to pay attention to.

Shortly after, someone decided that the telescope should be put in the parking position, so it was ready for the night to come. A sensible thing to do, except that no one had checked if the pickup had been moved away from the building. Thus, as the building turned, the entry staircase rammed into the side of the pickup, with the telescope effectively running over the car. Fortunately, the impact cut the wires to the safety system, which happened to run along the staircase, forcing the telescope to an emergency stop. Had this not happened, the telescope building could have been severely damaged, and the pickup as well.

The damages were luckily so small that the pickup could drive out of there, and at the time of writing, is still being used at the telescope. This is also one of the times where it really pays off to pay attention to the warning sign outside the telescope building.

Getting your priorities right

Astronomers tend to be very dedicated to their work, and giving it very high priority in their lives. This is likely true for any branch of science, but sometimes you wonder if we are getting those priorities quite right. Here’s a story from back in the days;

Friedrich Argelander was observing at the observatory of Turku, Finland, on the 4th of September 1827, when a fire broke out and destroyed practically all of the city, including the university. Argelander’s observation log contains the following line:

“Hic observationes terribili illo interceptae sunt incendio, quod totam fere urbeam ad ineres reduxit, observatorium vero, gratiae habeantur Deo O.M., salvum intactumque reliquit.”

Argelanders' observing log on display at Helsinki University. Photo credit: Olli Wilkman.

Argelanders’ observing log on display at Helsinki University. Photo credit: Olli Wilkman.

which roughly translates to:

“Here the observations were interrupted by a terrible fire, which reduced the entire city to ashes. The observatory was, thank God, spared.” A couple of days later the astronomical observations continued as normal. One could argue that most other people would likely have a rather different opinion on what should be considered important during such a disaster.

After the fire the university was moved to Helsinki, where it remains, now called the University of Helsinki.

Getting too attached to your work.

When observing with telescopes, a fairly fundamental requirement is that the telescope dome is open. This will also mean that whoever is inside the dome, will be exposed to the elements, which may require some special precautions. In particular if you are observing in the colder parts of the world. Like, for instance, Poland.

The winters in Poland can get quite cold indeed. But this will not hold back the dedicated astronomer from braving the elements to get some much needed observing done. This was the case during a particularly cold night at the observatory, where the guiding of the telescope is done manually, by looking through an eyepiece. As astronomical exposures are often rather long, this eager scientist had to guide the telescope during the full 30min exposure he was performing.

Having secured the exposure, the observer no doubt wanted to celebrate this, by getting back inside in the warm, and have a nice, steaming hot cup of coffee (I know I’d want that!). However, when the poor man tried to leave the telescope, he found that this was in fact, impossible to do, without leaving behind a significant amount of skin from around his eye. Anyone who watched “Dumb and Dumber”, can likely imagine the general concept of what had happened…

Luckily for this guy, he had quite some acrobatic skills, and very flexible body parts, so after fiddling around for a while, he managed to unscrew the entire eyepiece and carry it with him inside, resting it on a table for another 15 minutes, before the entire thing had defrosted and could be removed from his eyebrow.

This amount of dedication and attachment to your work is rarely seen and definitely deserves sharing with the world.

Signal lost!

When doing observations, it sometimes happens that things just won’t collaborate, one way or the other, making it impossible to get any good data. This is true for all areas of astronomy, where you can have clouds, high water vapor, light pollution, radio frequency interference or equipment malfunction of various sorts. Sometimes the reasons for not getting observations are tricky, but in other cases they are fairly obvious… Or so you would think.

Doing a pulsar survey one night at the Parkes Observatory, an undergrad student observer doesn’t seem to be getting any good data from the 64m radio telescope. In fact, he’s not even getting bad data, he’s getting no data at all. As much as it is annoying getting bad data, getting zero data is just immensely frustrating. The bad data would at least get you something that could potentially be useful. But having gone through all the planning and work associated with observations, for zero gain, is just painful.

After long hours that no doubt involved pulling out hairs and being frustrated, the relief, which happens to be the supervisor of the undergrad student, enters the observing tower at 4am. He’d apparently been keeping an eye out for things on the ground on the way there, as he had found a receiver lying on the ground outside. His immediate reaction was along the lines of “Huh, I wonder what that’s doing here? I better pick that up and bring it in with me.” The receiver was then brought to the control room, after which the supervisor continued to try and get some observations going, with very limited success.

At sunrise, one of the staff members arrive, to meet what was no doubt a very frustrated astronomer, who had not gotten any useful data at all that night. Upon seeing the receiver in the control room, he casually pointed out that there was a very nice receiver-shaped hole in the radio dish. In fact, it looked suspiciously like the receiver the supervisor had picked up during the night, would fit exactly there. Which of course provided an immediate explanation as to why no data was received. One can only wonder, why this had not come to mind earlier. I suppose it’s like when you are looking for your glasses while already wearing them. You just don’t see what’s right in front of you.

The Parkes Radio Telescope from the air Credit: Shaun Amy, CSIRO

The Parkes Radio Telescope from the air. Credit: Shaun Amy, CSIRO

Apparently, the receiver had recently been changed, and whoever was putting the receiver in, had not tightened the bolts sufficiently, so as the telescope was turning, the receiver had gotten loose and fallen to the ground. I suppose that the lesson here is: If you find a fairly essential piece of your instrument in a weird place, that might be a good place to start, when trying to figure out why nothing is working. In addition to that, some safety advice; Always wear a hard hat when observing. Even if in the middle of nowhere, with no tall things around, you never know what might hit you.

Shake it, baby

At the 2.5m Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain, efforts had been ongoing to improve the performance of the FIES spectrograph so that improved radial velocity measurements could be made.  This would hopefully lead to a higher success rate in the detection of exoplanets, as well as other areas of astronomy, requiring accurate measurements of the motions of stars.

One way to improve the accuracy is to ensure that the light entering the spectrograph, and hits the spectrograph grating, is as uniform as possible. If you have a spectrograph that is fed by an optical fiber, like FIES, it will usually suffer from modal noise which creates a speckle-pattern of the light hitting the grating. This pattern depends both on how the light enters the fiber and on the wavelength on the light itself. So, in other words, you do not have a uniform light. There are many ways of getting rid of this speckle pattern, most of which are referred to as “scrambling”. One way of achieving scrambling is to shake the fiber while you are observing your star. This will mean that the speckle pattern moves around and is effectively “smeared out”, resulting in a more uniform illumination of the instrument.

Always striving to make the most of their instrument, it was decided to implement a fiber shaker, with the expectation that this would be an efficient way to improve FIES. However, fiber shakers are not exactly off-the-shelf items,  so as the true entrepreneurs they are, the staff decided to build their own fiber shaker. After all, building something that shakes back and forth is not exactly rocket science.

The first fiber shaker prototype at the Nordic Optical Telescope.

The first fiber shaker prototype at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Photo Credit: Nordic Optical Telescope

Since the Nordic Optical Telescope is run by the Scandinavian countries, there was very little choice, really, as to what materials should be used to build the fiber shaker prototype. Staying true to the favourite building blocks of any sensible person from the Nordic countries, a shaking mechanism was quickly constructed out of LEGO, and set to work at the telescope. LEGO being as awesome as it is, this fiber shaker actually improved the performance, but unfortunately the shaker had to be decommissioned after a few weeks, as the person in charge (aka the instrument scientist’s son) demanded his toys back. It also turned out that although LEGO is great, it isn’t quite sturdy enough for prolonged use as a fiber shaking mechanism.

It was naturally disappointing that the shaker had to be taken out of use after such a short period of time, but these kind of setbacks are not something that kills the spirit of an instrument scientist. It merely represent a challenge to come up with a better solution. So once again, the staff was off hunting a shaking, vibrating contraption, to replace the LEGO scrambler. This did not take long, since people apparently have all sorts of things stashed away in attics and basements.

The fiber shaker upgrade at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Much more potent than the first version.

The fiber shaker upgrade at the Nordic Optical Telescope. Much more potent than the first version. Note the essential duct tape, holding the optical fiber in place. Photo credit: Nordic Optical Telescope.

Meet the fiber shaker prototype 2: Bigger, better, sturdier. An item more commonly known as a foot massager, but now enjoying a life as an integral part of  a modern-day telescope. That gotta be more exciting than retirement, or massaging people’s smelly feet! At the time of writing, the foot massager is still sitting comfortably in the dome of the Nordic Optical Telescope.

In related news, the staff at the Wendelstein Observatory outside of Munich, Germany, implemented a low-frequency fiber shaker, built from the car-wipe engine from an old car belonging to one of the observatory staff members. When the fiber optics specialists at one point asked in horror; “But aren’t you worried that you will damage the optical fiber with all this shaking?” the instrument scientist replied; “Well… a while back, someone forgot to turn the wiper engine off, so we had it running continuously for more than a month, and the fiber was just fine. So no, we’re not overly concerned about that.”

Due to the ingenuity of engineers and scientists such as these, functional solutions are made with whatever equipment they have in hand. Best part? It often works! And after all, being able to claim that a foot massager is an important part of an astronomical instrument, is rather cool, really.

Welcome to Astro Anecdotes

Astronomy; The world of beautiful images of spectacular pieces of our universe, which never ceases to amaze. The world of Hubble Deep Field, The Pillars of Creation, Planets, Black Holes, Galaxies, you name it.

Also the world of mind-blowing discoveries made by highly trained scientists, unraveling  new aspects of our world. gravitational lensing, supernova explosions, the expanding universe, exoplanets and a never ending list of impressive scientific discoveries.

This is how most people know astronomy and astrophysics. But astronomy is also a world of ad hoc solutions, bizzare fixes using whatever was available at the time, “discoveries” and strange incidents in remote corners of the world. Stories that are normally just passed around by word of mouth. This site is an attempt to collect and publish these stories, showing “the other side” of astrophysics, which will hopefully make you both laugh and think.

The site could not have happened without the input from a large number of people in astronomy, who were willing to share their experiences, or point me to places where I could aquire more details about some of the stories. This has made the project so much more fun! Your contributions, from small corrections to some stories, to elaborate details and photos from others, has helped get this project off the ground. I couldn’t have done it without you. I am excited and grateful for this, and hope that you will all continue to share your stories. Thank you all, you people are awesome! To the rest of you there’s just left to say;

Welcome to Astro Anecdotes.