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Tragedy Devastates Radio Astronomers

2 July 1999 6:00 pm
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PARIS--Scientists and staff at the Institute of Millimetric Radioastronomy (IRAM), one of the world's leading radioastronomy research centers, are in shock after a cable-car accident yesterday killed 20 IRAM employees and subcontractors. The cable car, which was ferrying the workers to IRAM's facility 2552 meters atop the Bure plateau in the French Alps, somehow came loose from its cable and plummeted 80 meters. The accident is likely to delay completion of a new radiotelescope.

IRAM is run by the French basic research agency CNRS, Germany's Max Planck Society, and Spain's National Geographical Institute. The institute operates two major facilities, a 30-meter telescope at Pico Veleta in southern Spain and an array of five 15-meter telescopes at Bure. The telescopes detect radiowaves at millimeter wavelengths, which allows observation of interstellar molecules and dust from comets and stars. In recent years, IRAM's telescopes have racked up an impressive list of accomplishments: For example, astronomers have discovered that the young stars Auriga and Tauri are surrounded by flat disks of gas and dust, similar to a disk thought to have circled our own sun before the birth of the solar system; this information may lead to valuable insights into the formation of planets.

The cable car provided the sole access to the mountaintop facility, so until the tragedy has been fully investigated and the cable system repaired, the center's activities will be sharply curtailed, says Philippe Chauvin, a CNRS spokesperson in Paris. It will also delay completion of a sixth radiotelescope, which was supposed to have come online late this year or early next, Chauvin says. IRAM officials plan to meet next week to discuss the consequences of the accident. For the moment, no one has wanted to think about this, Chauvin says. "The people there are completely traumatized."