Wildfires threaten Californian astronomical observatory

From New Scientist in the USA:

California fire threatens historic observatory

* Updated 18:05 31 August 2009 by Kelly Beatty, SkyandTelescope.com, and Maggie McKee

A rampaging fire in the Angeles National Forest in southern California is threatening a historic observatory at the summit of Mount Wilson, as well as a dense crowd of television transmitters there.

The “Station Fire” fire began on Wednesday afternoon but has spread quickly, doubling in size overnight, to an area covering more than 345 square kilometres. With tongues of flame stretching about 25 metres long, the fire is only 5 per cent contained and will likely take another week to contain completely.

By Sunday evening, it had moved to within 3.2 km of Mount Wilson Observatory. On Monday, fire officials said fire had not reached the area, but they said the area still remained highly vulnerable.

Observatory staff reported at 0750 PDT (1450 GMT) on Monday that fire fighters had been ordered to withdraw from Mount Wilson, although the staff was not clear on why the decision had been made. Fire fighters were reportedly going to remain close by, within 8 kilometres away.

Throughout the day on Sunday, crews cleared tinder-dry brush from around the observatory complex and treated wooden structures to make them less vulnerable.

Historic discoveries

Located at an altitude of 1740 metres, Mount Wilson Observatory got its start in 1904 when George Ellery Hale signed a free, 99-year lease for 40 acres at the summit to build world-class telescopes.

Then Hale erected the Snow Solar Telescope (1905), a 60-inch reflector (the world’s largest when completed in 1908), the 150-foot Solar Tower, and finally the 100-inch Hooker Telescope (1918), which Edwin Hubble used to discover that the universe is expanding.

Despite being swamped with light pollution from the 13 million residents to its immediate south and southeast, the observatory has regained much of its scientific relevance.

In recent years, Mount Wilson has served as a test-bed for adaptive-optics and interferometric imaging. It’s the main facility of Georgia State University’s Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) and the site of the University of California’s Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI).

Closed NASA site

Over the weekend, the Station Fire also kept NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory closed to all non-critical personnel. Officially, JPL is in Pasadena, California, but technically it’s in the town of La Cañada Flintridge, which has been posting hourly updates about the rapidly spreading inferno.

Building observatories on remote mountaintops places them at great risk from forest fires, especially where climates have turned dryer in the last decade or two.

This is not the first time Southern California’s notoriously frequent conflagrations have threatened a major astronomical facility. In November 2007, the Poomacha Fire came near, but did not damage, Palomar Observatory. Likewise the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory had a close call during the Aspen Fire in June 2003.

Australia‘s Mount Stromlo Observatory wasn’t so lucky – it was totally destroyed by a wildfire in 2003.

Amazing New NASA Images From Hubble Telescope (PHOTOS): here.

In May 2009, the Hubble Space Telescope received its final upgrade. The billion dollar effort bore its first fruit on September 9, when NASA released the most recent pictures from Hubble, a dazzling combination of planetary nebulae, star clusters and galaxies: here.

Orion nebula: here.

Brand new telescope captures Omega Nebula in all its glory: here.

MASSIVE CALIFORNIA WILDFIRE REPORTEDLY CAUSED BY GUNFIRE Has left 800,000 acres scorched near Yosemite. [HuffPost]

3 thoughts on “Wildfires threaten Californian astronomical observatory

  1. LOS ANGELES (AP) Investigators have launched a homicide investigation into the wildfire north of Los Angeles. They’ve determined the gigantic blaze was set intentionally. The flames have killed two firefighters, scorched 226 square miles and destroyed dozens of homes.


  2. Pingback: Hurricane Irma, from Caribbean to Florida, USA | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: California, USA wildfires, inadequate warnings | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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