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Green Bank radio telescope collapses

GREEN BANK, W.Va. -- A 300-foot radio telescope, the first of its kind built to track distant galaxies, was destroyed when two supporting towers collapsed on it at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Deercreek Valley, officials said today.

Officials at the observatory, which is overseen by the National Science Foundation, said the towers fell about 10 p.m. Tuesday, destroying the telescope and damaging the nearby control building. No monetary estimates were given.

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An operator was in the control building at the time of the collapse, but no one was injured.

Officials said they did know details of the incident, saying it was still under investigation. The telescope resembled a large satellite dish and was used in basic research by scientists in several fields of study.

George Seielstad, assistant director of the observatory, said today about 150 scientists used the telescope a year and it is considered a major loss to the astronomy community.

Work on the telescope was started in 1961 and it was completed in 1962 at the cost of $1 million after a group of radio astronomers asked Congress to set up a laboratory for scientists to scan the heavens. The telescope sent beams of radio waves into the cosmos and scientists measured the way the beams bounced back.

Deercreek, near Green Bank, was selected for the observatory because of its isolation and the absence of radio noise, which could be caused by anything from a household clothes dryer to a 747 airplane.

The observatory also has a 140-foot telescope and several smaller ones.

Seielstad said the telescope was the key to discovering the pulsar at the center of the Crab nebulae, a supernova famous in astronomy circles that erupted in July 1054.

The 300-foot dish was supported by two steel towers and the dish was turned by a huge 'bicycle' chain north to south, Seielstad said. The towers crashed into the control building.

Seielstad said a team is to be appointed to investigate why the telescope fell. He said no recommendations have been made yet as to whether the telescope will be replaced or whether newer technology will be used to replace the instrument.

Seielstad said the national observatory saw its role as helping scientists worldwide study the heavens. The telescope was a major part of that.

'I would say the key role that the telescope has played is census taker of the radio sky -- pulsars, voids,' Seielstad said. 'There are two kinds of telescopes: those that see the forest, so to speak, and those that see the trees. This one looked at the forests.'

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