Monday, August 31, 2009

Wildfire Threatens a Peice of Astronomical History

If you could make a list of the most important telescopes in human history, the 100 inch Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson would be in the top 10. From 1917 to 1948 it was the largest telescope in the world. Albert Michelson installed the world's first astronomical interferometer there and used it to measure the physical size of a star other than the sun for the first time in human history. Edwin Hubble (pictured on the right using the 100" telescope) used it to produce the law which bears his name and to prove that the universe is expanding (which has been nicely summarized by Joe).

Today the LA Times is reporting that the Mount Wilson Observatory may be destroyed by wildfires. As of 2:15 Eastern time today, the Station fire was only a half mile from the observatory. Fire crews on the ground and in the air have been working furiously to save the historic and still operating observatory, but the situation looks dire. Below is a sequence of photos from the observatory's webcam looking towards the fire before it cut out Sunday evening.
It would be an enormous tragedy to lose this historical and still powerful scientific tool. My prayers today are with the fire crews at Mount Wilson.


Update: As of 9 AM EDT the fire appears to have burned all the way around the observatory thanks to the heavy use of fire retardant dropped in my fire crews. It appears that for now at least the observatory is safe. Three cheers for the fire crews!


  1. My thesis advisor lives close enough to the fires that he can see them. (He lives out that way because he has a joint appointment with Caltech and his wife works with JPL.)

    He says the fire looks crazy at night. I sure hope we don't lose Mt. Wilson.

  2. I hope as well that it will not be destroyed !

  3. I remember school field trips to Palomar as a kid. It would be a shame to lose Mt Wilson, which I'm sure has seen its share of school kids. It's a piece of history that has inspired countless children to pursue science.


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