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Aerospace and ancient astronomy
The traces of gear wheels within the corroded mass of metal found more than a century ago

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The quest to understand ancient astronomical technology has led to sharper, more powerful scanning for flaws in aerospace materials such as turbine blades.

The Antikythera mechanism, a fragile archaeological find some 2100 years old, was found in a shipwreck in Greece in 1900. It is the earliest astronomical calculator, using 20 or 30 interlocking toothed wheels to show the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets. When found, it was an unrecognisable lump of corroded metal; some years later a gear wheel was noticed, appearing embedded in the metal. Now it has been scanned in detail using new new high-power computer tomography (CT) imaging.

The techniques developed to analyse this artefact – the Bladerunner scanning system among them – have generated some £15 million turnover for X-Tek, an X-ray imaging company. Collaboration between Cardiff University researchers, Hewlett-Packard and X-Tek made it possible to scan the Antikythera mechanism in 3D and see its complex internal structure.

“The Antikythera work was the spur to develop a new range of high-powered microfocus X-ray sources,” says Roger Hadland, director of X-Tek. “The details and precision of the 2D and 3D CT information was stunning, far better than any competition. X-Tek is now part of Nikon, with the Bladerunner scanner accounting for a large proportion of X-ray production.” More than 25 Bladerunners have been sold, at a total cost of more than £20 million.

The techniques developed to analyse this artefact have generated some £15 million turnover

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Dr Sue Bowler

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Dr Sue Bowler

Dr Sue Bowler is Editor of A&G and A&G Forum.

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