The Sciences

Dodging a Flaming Bullet

Cosmic VarianceBy Julianne DalcantonJul 13, 2007 11:18 AM

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It seems that Kitt Peak, home of most of the US's National Optical Astronomical Observatory's north american telescopes, has been spared. Over the last several days it was threatened by the Alambre wildfire in Arizona, to the point where the observatory was evacuated, with the exception of a few key personnel. Smokey webcam pictures are here. The fear of disaster was quite real, as an important observatory in Australia was indeed overrun by fire in 2003. Mount Stromlo observatory lost several telescopes, along with an instrument lab which at the time contained a million dollar instrument which was being built for another facility. (Pictures of the disaster are here, and background is here). Astronomers like to put telescopes on top of high mountains with dry conditions, both of which improve the quality of the images that can be obtained, and the likelihood that weather will be agreeable. These sites are typically remote (to avoid light pollution) and are frequently environmentally sensitive (do a Google search on "Mount Graham" and "red squirrel"). As a result, observatories typically have dry conditions, and nearby vegetation that cannot be disturbed. Frequent droughts aren't helping either. So, for now the telescopes seem to have been spared, but this probably won't be the last time you'll read about an endangered observatory.

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