Telescope lost and found

Some of you probably already know about this, but for those who don’t, here’s a strange story. A telescope designed to observe the cosmic microwave background radiation was on its way to the NASA balloon launch facility in Palestine, Texas, when it went missing for about  three days.

The driver of the truck containing the telescope disappeared for a while, then turned up without the trailer containing the telescope. The trailer turned up later. The driver won’t say what happened.

Apparently the telescope is fine. All that was missing from the trailer were “two bicycles and three ladders.”

The cost to replace the telescope would have been enormous, but of course it’s an extremely illiquid asset — who would you try to fence it to?

Since I work in this field, it’s no surprise that I know many of the people involved in the experiment, and of course I’m very relieved for them and for the cosmology community.

I feel a strong connection to this story, because many years ago I was briefly a member of a team that flew a similar (albeit much more primitive) microwave background telescope from the balloon launch facility in Palestine. I wasn’t involved in the project for very long, and my only real contribution was driving the truck containing the telescope back from Palestine to California with my friend and fellow graduate student Warren Holmes. Nowadays, apparently they outsource tasks like that to professionals rather than grad students. Look how well that worked out.

A couple of elitist coastal vignettes about Palestine:

  1. One guy on the experiment was a vegetarian. Options for him were not plentiful. He got mighty sick of the salad bar at the Golden Coral.
  2. One of the more interesting places to visit in Palestine was the pawn shop. As I recall, about 80% of the shelf space was taken up by two items: guns and guitars.


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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

5 thoughts on “Telescope lost and found”

  1. I know a vegetarian who was on an observing trip to the VLA. At a local steakhouse, the waitress was informed that he was a vegetarian—so she brought him chicken.

  2. Read an article on line about this and I am not sure I understand how it works; the article actually referred to the telescopes ability to photograph “back in time” and it lost me completely. I mean, does the telescope view what’s out there now and calculate backwards to come to a conclusion as to what the universe was like then? Anyone who can shed light, please do.

  3. Perhaps the truck driver was a closeted astronomy geek who stole away to a quiet place with clear night sky to observe cosmic radiation – it has been known to happen! 😀

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