Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mt. Wilson Observatory Threatened

[UPDATE for Sept. 5 - the Station fire that threatened several Southern California science locations appears to be under control at this time. After several very close calls, Mt. Wilson fortunately was not destroyed by the fire. The observatory's website is back in operation: with requests for donations to go toward the clean-up process.]

The national news these past few days has had significant coverage of the massive forest fire in Southern California, now determined to be the result of arson. As of September 2, the so-called “Station fire” had burned about 150,000 acres and destroyed 64 homes. From my lab/office nearly 40 miles to the southwest, I can clearly see the clouds of smoke and my car was covered with ash this morning. The moon the last few nights has been orange through all the smoky haze in the air. As tragic as all this is, I’ve been holding my breath for the potential threat to scientific research in the first area affected by the fire – La Canada/Flintridge, home of JPL.

JPL is located just a couple of miles south of where the fire originated. Fortunately, the fire took off to the north and spread rapidly. For the moment, JPL looks out of danger. I can’t even imagine what a loss it would be for JPL to disappear.

Another scientific installation that came much closer to being threatened is the famed Mt. Wilson Observatory. The fire crews knew what was at stake and waged a 5 day battle to save the facility. At one point the situation became so dire that firefighters were ordered off the mountain. Fortunately, the next day crews were back and conditions improved. Backfires were set within a few feet of the observatory’s dome. All that could be done was done, and it became a waiting game as the fire stayed below the observatory perimeter. Currently, the fire has retreated to a less-threatening distance, but there is still potential danger for a fire that rapidly changes directions.

It is unimaginable to me that the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory could be destroyed. Mt. Wilson is the storied location where Edwin Hubble, using the 100-inch Hooker telescope, made the discovery in 1922-1923 that the universe was expanding. In addition, much research still happens at Mt. Wilson, such as the CHARA experiment that uses six telescopes to measure shapes and sizes of stars, an experiment to monitor changes in the star CIT 6, and a solar observatory. As many as 40 other projects are underway at Mt. Wilson.

It appears that the web server located at the Mt. Wilson observatory is down due to the fire affecting the T1 line connection to the Internet. This means the observatory’s website is not functioning: You can take a peek at the situation yourself using the Towercam run by the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Situations like this make me reflect on the fragile nature of scientific experimentation. Decades of important work can disappear in a flash. I guess that’s why I greatly appreciate all the science I encounter every day.

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