High-stakes Astronomy and Risks
Not quite a year ago, I was invited to write an article for a book called State of the Universe 2008
I decided to write about low-frequency astronomy, that is–radio astronomy detections below about 400 Mhz (read more about radio frequency bands here). In it, I focused on some new arrays online, or coming online in the next decade. Some of the work has been done at Haystack Observatory, which is about 10 minutes away from where I live. The scientists there created an instrument that detected primordial deuterium in our galaxy, quite an accomplishment considering that the line it transmits at is 327 MHz, which is quite sensitive to such things as radio frequency interference from home stereos, microwave ovens, and so on.
Other arrays, such as LOFAR (for Low-Frequency Array), and the Murchison Wide-field Array (formerly known as the Mileura Wide-field Array), are springing up to detect frequencies as low as 80 MHz, which is smack in the middle of the radio and TV broadcast spectrum.
An artist’s concept of how the MWA will look.
There’s fascinating science to be done in such low-frequency regions of the spectrum, and I discuss that in the book, so I won’t repeat it all here. But, what I found equally fascinating was the danger (if you will) that the people who build these arrays face. For example, right now the folks building the MWA are working in the Australian Outback, in temperatures upwards of 45 degrees celsius (for you Fahrenheit fans, that’s about 140 degrees). I was over at Haystack the other day talking to one of the project scientists, and he showed me a picture of another hazard: giant lizards. Some of them are bigger than some of the detector array elements. And, he also pointed out that kangaroos can (and probably will) take interest in the array elements (which can’t hurt the roos or the lizards).
Chajnantor Plateau; site of the ALMA array.
The designers and builders of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile are facing risks of another sort: high altitude and maintaining the health and safety of the workers building the array, while at the same time protecting the high desert environment. I was talking to one of the public relations people for the project during a meeting last month, and he was describing the work conditions and the extreme precautions the workers have to take, since they are working at 2,900 meters (9,500 feet) at the operations support center and at 5,000 meters (16,500 feet) on the Chajnantor Plateau where the array is located. The risks are great, but so are the scientific rewards, provided everyone works carefully and deliberately.
Mauna Kea Observatories on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Of course, since astronomers frequently work at high altitudes, many are familiar with the risks of such environments. Back when I was in graduate school, I did an observing run at the University of Hawai’i 2.2-meter (88-inch) telescope on Mauna
Kea, on the Big Island of Hawai’i. It’s located at about 4,200 meters (13,779 feet) above sea level, and is another beautiful but potentially risky environment. While there I watched the engineers building the Gemini North facility, and marveled at their ability to work at such high altitudes.
All astronomy, all science, comes with some risk. Look at what got risked to put the Hubble Space Telescope on orbit; it’s working well, but each time it is refurbished, humans put their lives at risk to go into space to do the work.
But, of course, risk is part of the success of any endeavor. The study of astronomy is worth taking some risks; after all, the evolution of the universe is not a planned event; since the moment of the Big Bang (at least) it has involved countless risks (large and small) for each moment that ultimately shape the stars, planets, and galaxies that we study.