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Sunday, January 19, 2003

Terrible, Terrible News

Fires have destroyed much of Canberra, Australia---now including the Mount Stromlo Observatory. This is terrible; I had no idea it was even in danger. The SMH article reports that all the telescopes were destroyed, although the back channel news (still kind of fragmentary at this point) is that one of the smaller ones was not. All of the staff and residents were evacuated safely, although most of the residents' homes are gone.

Even though they're just bits of glass and metal and cabling and smelly oil, a telescope is like a friend to those who use it. (Friends' friends, to me---I was never up there.) I was going to write that 74" telescopes (the largest lost) don't just grow on trees, but they kind of do. This company makes an off-the-shelf 2m telescope.

Also destroyed was an instrument they were building for the Gemini telescope in Hawaii. This was going to be a large chunk of Australia's contribution to the multinational Gemini project, and it was going to be really, really cool. And now it's gone, and so is the workshop in which is was being built, so making a new one---should the money be found---may not be easy.

This is really a terrible blow for Australian astronomy. Have I said terrible enough yet? My writing is terrible.

This Canberra Times story doesn't mention the observatory, but gives a horrific account of how suddenly the fire grew. This story says it's the worst fire Canberra has had, and the first time home in the suburbs (as opposed to the forest) have been lost in 50 years.

Here are some pictures of the aftermath.

Here's a picture of the 74 in telescope, and one of the entire observatory complex.

I can't point you to other pictures. They reside on the observatory's computers, and my attempts to access them have been futile. The observatory is a part of the Australian National University in Canberra, which is still up, and I would have assumed their computers would be located on campus, but perhaps they were all on the mountain.

In better news, Canberra blogger Chris Textor is still holding on; the fire didn't come to him. Yesterday it looked like this near his place.

Last year we had bush fires outside Sydney. The place reeked of smoke for about a week, and one morning I woke up to a sky the color of a new penny. But those were far away from me.

Via Bad News Blair.

UPDATE: Here's a Canberra Times story about rebuilding the observatory, and here's another about the general cost of the damage throughout Canberra.

UPDATE II: Jack at Captain Yips Secret Journal writes to point out that there are pictures of the devastation at Sky and Telescope's web site. There are only a couple. This article points to one in the SMH which has one more photo. The one of the Yale-Columbia (did the Aussies know the pun and the allusion?) makes me sick to my stomach. It was a large refractor, too. Geek break: Refracting telescopes use lenses; all research telescopes for about the past century have been reflecting telescopes, using mirrors (most amateur telescopes larger than a couple inches are reflectors as well). It's much easier to fabricate and support a large mirror than it is a large lens. So they don't make big refractors anymore, and now this one is lost.

Both the SMH and Sky and Telescope articles mention NIFS, the instrument I talked about, above.


The fire then consumed the main administration building, which housed the observatory's library...

Which no doubt contained much valuable stuff---historic research papers in manuscript, early photographs and photographic plates, log books noting important discoveries and petty, comical carping. Not to mention a complete collection of Far Side books.

Look at that beautiful dome in the side-by-side comparison picture. They knew how to build observatories then. That will no doubt be the subject of a future blog post.