A new telescope facility in Hawaii designed to search for asteroids and comets which could threaten Earth has been destroyed in a freak accident.
The Pan-STARRS 1 telescope was built primarily to map large portions of the sky each night to track close space objects which could be a risk to Earth. The telescope had only been operating for six months prior to the accident.
The telescope and buildings around it were completely destroyed in an unexplained explosion at around 4 am local time last night. Luckily, the operations team works from a building outside the blast area and controls and monitors the telescope remotely. As a result, nobody was hurt, although the damage estimate runs to tens of millions of dollars.
For the last few weeks, Pan-STARRS 1 had been tracking a newly discovered comet with the aim of determining if it was headed for Earth. Astronomers at the facility said that it was an extremely rare comet and it had created great interest in the astronomical community.
Professor Carlos Frenk, from Durham University, is the UK's member on the Pan-STARRS board. He explained what happened.
"The comet was first spotted a few weeks ago," said Professor Frenk. "It was unique in that it was completely stationary in the night sky. Over the weeks we tracked it, it became apparent that although fixed in position, the comet was increasing in volume at an incredible rate. We have no idea where the additional material necessary for this was coming from, but the comet literally grew in size in the centre of our screens. It had just reached a point where it appeared to be roughly the same size as our own nearby moon and completely filled our monitors, when the freak explosion occurred, rendering our tracking inoperative."