By MARY ESCH, Asso­ci­at­ed Press Writer Mary Esch, Asso­ci­at­ed Press Writer

Bill Gordon at Arecibo, ca. 1961 (photo courtesy of Marshall H. Cohen)

Bill Gor­don at Areci­bo, ca. 1961 (pho­to cour­tesy of Mar­shall H. Cohen)

ALBANY, N.Y. – Astronomer and engi­neer Bill Gor­don, who designed the pho­to­genic radio tele­scope in Puer­to Rico that spot­ted the first plan­ets beyond our solar sys­tem and lakes on one of Saturn’s moons, has died in New York state. He was 92.

Gor­don died Tues­day of nat­ur­al caus­es, accord­ing to offi­cials at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty in Itha­ca, the Ivy League col­lege where he served on the engi­neer­ing fac­ul­ty from 1953–66.

He designed the Areci­bo Observatory’s radio tele­scope in the 1950s; it’s a 1,000-foot-wide dish set in a sink­hole sur­round­ed by forest­ed hills.

With­in a year of open­ing, it was used to deter­mine the plan­et Mercury’s peri­od of rota­tion. After radio pul­sars — rotat­ing neu­tron stars — were dis­cov­ered in 1967, the obser­va­to­ry played a promi­nent role in study­ing their prop­er­ties.

The astronomers Joseph Tay­lor and Rus­sell Hulse dis­cov­ered the first bina­ry pul­sar at Areci­bo in 1974, lead­ing to a 1993 Nobel Prize in physics.

Arecibo Observatory

Areci­bo Obser­va­to­ry

In 1990, Pol­ish astronomer Alek­sander Wol­szczan used the tele­scope in the dis­cov­ery of a pul­sar in the con­stel­la­tion Vir­go that was shown to be orbit­ed by the first known plan­ets beyond Earth’s solar sys­tem.

Bill Gordon and a host of friends and former and present Arecibo staff met at the observatory to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its inauguration.

Bill Gor­don and a host of friends and for­mer and present Areci­bo staff met at the obser­va­to­ry to cel­e­brate the 40th anniver­sary of its inau­gu­ra­tion.

The tele­scope, owned by the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and oper­at­ed by Cor­nell, had a promi­nent role in the 1997 Jodie Fos­ter film “Con­tact,” based on a Carl Sagan book about the search for extrater­res­tri­al life — a hunt that still con­tin­ues at the obser­va­to­ry. In the 1995 James Bond movie “Gold­en­Eye,” the telescope’s plat­form fig­ured in the cli­mac­tic fight scene.

“When we were talk­ing about build­ing (the tele­scope) back in the late ‘50s, we were told by emi­nent author­i­ties it couldn’t be done,” Gor­don said at Arecibo’s 40th Anniver­sary in 2003. “We were in the posi­tion of try­ing to do some­thing that was impos­si­ble, and it took a lot of guts and we were young enough that we didn’t know we couldn’t do it.”

These days, the telescope’s work includes search­ing for aster­oids and comets head­ed for Earth. It also dis­cov­ered lakes of hydro­car­bons on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Gor­don was born in Pater­son, N.J., and earned a bachelor’s degree from Mont­clair State Teacher’s Col­lege, a master’s degree from New York Uni­ver­si­ty and his doc­tor­ate at Cor­nell. He was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Rice Uni­ver­si­ty in Texas from 1966 until his retire­ment in 1985.