Fire Damages Siding Spring Observatory

Yesterday bushfires swept through Australia's Warrumbungle National Park, home to Siding Spring Observatory. The telescopes there appear to have escaped harm, but some support facilities and staff homes were destroyed.

Right now more than 170 wildfires are burning portions of New South Wales in Australia — 50 of them uncontained. One of the affected areas is Warrumbungle National Park and, within it, Siding Spring Observatory — the crown jewel of Australian optical astronomy. Late yesterday afternoon a fast-moving bushfire overran a portion of the observatory compound. One weather sensor briefly registered temperatures exceeding 212°F (100°C).

Bushfire at Siding Spring Observatory
The view from an aerial tanker as it battled a bushfire that threatening Australia's Siding Spring Observatory on January 13, 2013. The dome in the middle houses the 4-meter Anglo-Australian Telescope, the largest of more a dozen optical telescopes at the sprawling facility.
Alex King / NSW Rural Fire Service
Siding Spring is a sprawling facility operated by Australian National University. It is home to 10 professional optical telescopes (and three others that have been decommissioned), a 22-meter radio dish, and a just-completed complex of amateur robotic telescopes owned by iTelescope.net.

According to the NSW Rural Fire Service, the inferno remained strong overnight, but by 4 a.m. it was moving away from the observatory. Astronomers won't know the true extent of damage until they're allowed back into the area. In many cases their only information is coming from still-operating webcams and computer systems on the mountain. In an ANU news release, officials announced that the site would be closed for two weeks.

Fortunately, everyone on the site was evacuated safely. Reports received from multiple sources suggest that all of the optical telescopes — including the 4-meter Anglo-Australian Telescope (the site's largest) and the 2.3-m Advanced Technology Telescope — have escaped damage.

Also unscathed is LCOGT's 2-meter Faulkes South telescope, whose webcams showed the main observatory complex early this morning. "Made it though with no major problem! " exults LCOGT president Wayne Rosing, "the virtue of clearing a fire break."

"The Sun has risen, and the first images available show positive signs of buildings standing where we saw evidence of small fires last night," write Amanda Bauer, an astronomer who has been keeping vigil through her Astropixie blog.

Brad Moore of iTelescope.net told me, "Initial reports indicate our observatory survived the attack thanks to the generous water air bombings."

There's less optimism for the Mopra radio dish, at which a webcam recorded the fire sweeping over the facility until yesterday's sunset provided too little light to record the scene. One report suggests that the dish itself was spared but that its operations building was damaged.

Photos released by the NSW Rural Fire Service show that the astronomer's lodge on site has been destroyed. So has the visitor's center. Local contacts also say that the fire ravaged some of the houses where staff members live.

Destroyed lodge at Siding Spring Observatory
An aerial photo shows how fire destroyed the living quarters for visiting astronomers at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.
NSW Rural Fire Service
"I have no news about telescopes," reports observer Robert McNaught, well known for his many discoveries of comets and near-Earth asteroids using the 1.2-m U.K. Schmidt Telescope. "But note that I can login to computers in the Uppsala office and the 2.3-m building. The AAT should be unaffected as it is a very secure and well defended building. It is in fact the evacuation area on the mountain."

McNaught continues, "Two houses on the Timor Road are known to be be lost. I understand the fire went through our property so we can only hope. A high proportion of the Observatory staff have houses along this road and I met many of them in the evacuation center this afternoon or heard reports that they were safe. Once again, many hold fears that their houses are lost."

As if this wasn't tragedy enough for Australian astronomers, they are recalling with sadness that it was 10 years ago, this coming Friday, that a fire destroyed Mount Stromlo Observatory, located just outside the capital city of Canberra.

Similar tragedies have been narrowly averted closer to home. With the drying of the American Southwest since about 2000 (see Fig. 2.11), wildfires have threatened Arizona's Steward Observatory in 2002 and 2003, California's Palomar Observatory in 2007 and Mount Wilson Observatory in 2009, and Texas's McDonald Observatory in 2011. The drying trend is predicted to continue (see Figure 2.22).

3 thoughts on “Fire Damages Siding Spring Observatory

  1. Greg T

    When are we going to clear trees from around professional observatories. With the way that the climate is behaving, these types of fires will become more and more common. Eventually, we are going to lose a major facility, like Palomar, unless something is done.

    I am aware that the foliage reduces ground heating. Ground heating will worsen seeing. However, what is wrong with having grass, or something similar, which would be easier to keep from incinerating our telescopes? That may require effort, and money, especially in rocky terrain, but what costs more, lawn or the LBT, for example?

  2. Stephen Bieda Jr

    There was one other fire in the US that threatened a major observatory. In early July, 2004 lightning sparked two fires on Mt. Graham which merged into the Nuthall fire which threatened but fortunately did not damage the observatory. The fire was so intense that at night flames could be seen (and videotaped) from Sierra Vista 70 miles away and pyrocumulus columns extended to a height of over 40000 feet.

    Steve

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