No Minister

Two crashes

Both spectacular.

First up is the Arecibo Radio Observatory, based in Puerto Rico. If you’re not familar with it from an astronomy standpoint you may recall seeing it in the Bond film, Goldeneye, and also the movie Contact. It’s a giant, fixed radio dish 300 metres wide, set into a hollow between small hills, upon which stand towers with massive steel cables attached that hold up a 900 ton receiving apparatus above the dish. Despite being fixed in the earth the dish can be “steered” to different points in the sky by moving the receiver. It was built in 1963.

A couple of months ago there was an alarming report that a couple of the steel cables had “failed” and this led the National Science Foundation (NSF) to declare that it was now unsafe to use and would be decommissioned, probably via a controlled demolition. In the meantime they set up cameras and even a drone over the structure to constantly check the cables.

However, reality was faster than the NSF and thus this happened the other day.

It’s incredible to see those massive cables snapping in an instant, watched by the drone that was flying nearby at the time, as well the tops of those towers being knocked off to tumble into the jungle below. Awesome destruction and a sad end to the observatory. As is often the case nowadays there is a larger version already operating in China!

Second up is this…

The figure at the top of the first frame is Grosjean climbing back across the barrier while his team doctor reaches out to help him. His F1 car broke in half, with the front half containing him, smashing through the steel barrier. At the 1:20 mark you can see Grosjean getting up and out of the cockpit while surrounded by flames as two men blast extinguishers on the blaze.

Car and Driver magazine has a superb article on this accident, The Tech and Training behind Why F1 Racer Grosjean Is Alive Today. It describes in detail the engineering of Formula 1 racecars that enabled the driver to survive largely unhurt. There’s also this animation of the crash, which includes a frame-by-frame look (120 FPS) from multiple angles.

The keys to his survival was that he was protected by multiple layers of defense, and although some failed the following did not:

  • The “Halo” cockpit protection system.
  • The chassis survival cell.
  • HANS (Head And Neck Support) device.
  • His helmet.
  • Fire-proof overalls.
  • The “fuel cell” (fuel tank) which retained almost all the full load. The massive fireball was merely from a few kilograms of the 100kg starting load.
  • And, finally by the rapid response of the medical car team of Alan van der Merwe and Dr. Ian Roberts. This was a bit of a fluke since they’re only this close at the start of the race, but Grosjean probably would have escaped the fire anyway as it was small (seriously – see the point above)

I was struck by these passages, as just two examples of the technology at work here:

FIA researchers will be able to study various video streams, including video produced by a high-speed camera which faces the driver and films at 400 frames per second…
Drivers wear in-ear accelerometers that are custom made for each driver to fit inside a driver’s ear canal to measure the movement of his head in a crash.

To me the key device here is the Halo mounted above the driver. Without it – even with most of the other safety systems working – he would have been decapitated. The Halo was only introduced in 2018 and some drivers complained about it affecting their field of vision. Grosjean was apparently one of them. No more objections I would say. In the live video you can actually see one of these “Halos” (labeled AlphaCentauri Fashion and with the driver’s number, 26, written on it) above the head of the driver who Grosjean crossed in front of as he lost control of his car.

If you have the time watch the documentary, Senna, a documentary about the legendary Brazilian race car driver, Ayrton Senna, who died in a famous 1994 crash which resulted in the avalanche of safety improvements that saved Grosjean’s life.

I’d heard of Senna and his death but I’m actually not much into motor sports so watching the crash was astounding to me because it looks like nothing at all. He goes off the track in a straight line and hits a concrete barrier at an angle. The car does not fly to pieces, there’s no fireball and you almost expect to see Seena climb out. Yet it killed him.

Nowadays it would not have. I’m not sure if Senna has a memorial but if he does Grosjean should leave a tribute there.

Written by Tom Hunter

December 19, 2020 at 8:55 am

Posted in Science, Space, Technology

%d bloggers like this: