COVID-19, and Lightning, Won’t Stop Green Bank Telescope Operations

COVID-19 has changed the way life and works looks for the nation. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is no different. When a lightning strike from spring storms damaged equipment on the world’s largest fully-steerable radio telescope, staff developed a plan that would allow them to complete repairs safely in a very confined space.

Engineer John Shelton replaces the GBT’s azimuth encoder, taking extra precautions for COVID-19

“Despite having to have many staff work from home and change what our work looks like, we’ve been very proud to offer almost uninterrupted service with the GBT. Scientists around the world are still using our 100-meter radio telescope, one of the largest and most sensitive of its kind in the world,” says site director Karen O’Neil.

The GBT experiences many powerful storms, and is struck by lightning, many times each year. A storm this severe hadn’t been seen for quite some time in Pocahontas County, with many homes and businesses losing power, and several main roads blocked by downed trees.  One unfortunate lightning strike, though, bypassed the telescopes grounding system and damaged the GBT’s azimuth encoder.

Working with other staff, engineer John Shelton diagnosed that the azimuth encoder, which controls the tilt and angle of the 100-meter dish, had failed due to the lighting strike and would need to be replaced. Staff including engineers Jason Ray, Joe Brandt, and Bob Anderson assessed the situation from home concluded it the azimuth encoder would need to be replaced. It would take a pair of engineers to complete the work in the GBT pintle room, a space the size of a large closet, requiring them to be closer that the recommended six feet.

The Green Bank Observatory has many facilities on campus, including full service labs and machine shops where a variety of instrumentation is made. Because of this sensitive technical work, the Observatory staff already possessed a wide range of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) well matched for the safety requirements of COVID-19.

Working closely with Karen O’Neil, the Observatory’s director and Jody Bolyard, Manager of Safety for all of the NSF’s AUI North American Observatories, a safety plan for the work was devised.

The safety plan was thorough from start to finish. The temperatures of staff were checked before the start of work. The two engineers travelled to the GBT in separate vehicles, wearing masks and gloves at all times, and as they entered the pintle room, Tyvek suits. A special ventilation system was set up in the space to increase the flow of fresh air. 

“Working with the required PPE made the process a little more challenging, mainly during the times where we needed to work with small hardware and connectors, but it was manageable,” said Jason Ray.

The repair was completed successfully, and Observatory staff and observers from around the world, were thrilled to have the GBT fully operational again.

The Green Bank Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation and is operated by Associated Universities, Inc.

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Contacts:

Dr. Karen O’Neil, Site Director, koneil@nrao.edu Jill Malusky, Public Relations, jmalusky@nrao.edu