At 305m in diameter, Arecibo Observatory's William E. Gordon telescope is not only the largest but also one of the most iconic of the world's radio telescopes. Though it starred in Goldeneye and Contact, until now there hasn't been an accurate 3D computer model of the telescope to play with. So my boss decreed that this had to change, mostly to create a laser-etched glass cube. A project for which I have only myself to blame, since I had such a cube (containing hydrogen data from the Virgo Cluster) sitting on my desk...
Laser etching focuses a laser beam at a series of points within a glass block, creating a microscopic fracture. In this case radio astronomy data of the Virgo Cluster, but what it's really good for is showing ordinary surfaces. So the telescope makes an ideal subject.
Modelling the telescope was a somewhat arduous process, because it involved a lot more excercise than is normally expected for computer modelling. True, I had the offical telescope schematics to hand (both paper and electronic copies). But the telescope structure is massively complex, and there's really only so much you can get from schematics and even photographs. From two-dimensional drawings it's nigh-on impossible to work out where all the cables go.
With a great deal of site walking (not so easy in the tropics), the schematics, and terrain data from the USGS, I was able to get a basic model. Not one you could do engineering studies with, but good enough that all the basics are there.
This of course led to the primary goal of the project, producing a laser-etched glass cube, which I think turned out quite well. They even sell them in the visitor center now, though whether or not anyone will buy any at $80 I don't know. I would, but I get mine for free. :)
Having a reasonably accurate model of the telescope means there are many possible spin-offs from this. For example, it's now possible to see what the telescope would look like if we were to try and honour its designer Bill Gordon :
More interestingly, it also makes it possible to see what the telescope is observing in its proper context - the radio sky above the telescope :
And of course, animations. I was asked to produce something to show in the background for Arecibo's 50th, so I went for something vaguely Game Of Thrones-esque :
I hope that more projects will result from this, even though I don't work there any more. I would certainly like to make a higher quality rendered image (more realistic terrain and trees, better materials etc.) and I'd love to do something interactive. But, as ever, there's never a shortage of things to do...
UPDATE : Arecibo has completed mapping the neutral hydrogen gas of the Milky Way over the full 13,000 square degrees of sky it can observe. This is the awesome GALFA-HI survey. Josh Peek released an amazing preview image of the entire survey, so showing this in its proper context was something I just had to do, otherwise I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. Click on the image for an animated gif (larger version in link below). Colours are generated according to how bright the hydrogen is at different frequencies.
Large animated gif here.