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Mt. Wilson Observatory escapes serious damage

But scientists working on projects there say the Station fire has taken a toll on ongoing astronomical research.

September 03, 2009|John Johnson Jr.

The historic Mt. Wilson Observatory, site of some of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th century, appears to have escaped serious damage from the Station fire, but scientists working on the mountain say the blaze still managed to take a toll on the ongoing research there.

Hal McAlister, observatory director and head of the CHARA experiment that uses six telescopes to measure shapes and sizes of stars, said he was on his way to teach on Monday at Georgia State University, where he is an astronomy professor, when he heard that firefighters had pulled out and ordered his staff to leave. He was so worried he was unable to teach his class.

"I've been teaching 32 years, and I'd never lost it like that," he said.

As many as 40 different projects were underway, he added, and some people had waited a year to get observing time. They will have to be rescheduled, but McAlister was philosophical about that: "Losing observing time is a small problem compared to losing the observatory," he said.

Charles Townes, a Nobel-Prize-winning astrophysicist at UC Berkeley who recently discovered that the bright star Betelgeuse is mysteriously shrinking, said his team had been using three telescopes on mobile trailers to watch changes in the star CIT 6 when the word to evacuate came down.

Townes said he hopes to get his team back in action in time to continue monitoring Betelgeuse. "We've been watching it for 15 years," he said. "We're eager to get going again."

Edward Rhodes, a USC astronomy professor who manages the 60-foot-tall solar observatory, the oldest instrument at Mt. Wilson, said his team manager had to pull out so quickly it's not clear he had time to stow the telescope's two main mirrors to protect them from ash and dust.

"There could be some contamination inside the dome," said Rhodes, who is using the solar observatory to study subsurface oscillations in the sun to try to understand the sun's influence on Earth's climate.

The mirrors were just coated with a new aluminum reflecting surface in July. If that was damaged, the observatory might need to do the expensive process all over again.

"We'll just have to wait and see," Rhodes said.


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