James Bond telescope architect snuffs it

Bill Gordon, the bloke who designed and built a massive radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico has died at the age of 92.

The Arecibo Observatory is well known for finding ice on Mercury, but was such a technological feat it became a film star and was featured in the 1997 film “Contact” and the 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye.”


Gordon built the telescope in 1963. In 1974, astrophysicists Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor used it to discover the first binary pulsar, a feat that led to a new understanding of gravitation and won them the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics. In 1990, it discovered planets outside our solar system, circling a pulsar in the constellation Virgo.

Ironically Gordon’s big idea was not to use the telescope to look at the atmosphere at an altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 miles. He hoped to observe the behaviour of clouds of electrons, which are a measure of temperature.

To get these measurements he worked out that he needed a dish 1,000 feet across. At the time the largest radio telescope at the time was only 150 feet across and the largest optical telescope only 100 inches.

The problem was that anything bigger would collapse under its own weight. Anything that was light enough to move to track objects in the sky was not rigid enough to focus a signal on its collector. Gordon decided the telescope would have to be sunk into the ground for support and have a movable collector to focus the dish.


He stuck it near the equator to get the best view of the planets and identified the limestone pit on a tobacco farm near Arecibo that ultimately became the site.


He squeezed $10 million cash from the US Ministery of Defence to fund the project and completed it three years later.

It was only supposed to last ten years but it has been upgraded twice and is still providing valuable data.