Wildfire Threatens Historic Observatory Used by Edwin Hubble
The fierce wildfire burning north of Los Angeles is increasingly becoming a threat to historic Mount Wilson Observatory, where astronomers from Edwin Hubble to George Ellery Hale made key discoveries about the cosmos.
Triple-digit heat has fanned the flames of the Station wildfire, currently the largest fire burning in Southern California. The inferno, which has scorched more than 122,000 acres, according to news reports, came disconcertingly close to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory over the weekend, but has since move away and begun an onslaught of nearby Mount Wilson, home also to many of the area's broadcast and cell phone towers, as well as the 100-year-old Mount Wilson Observatory.
Founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale, the observatory includes the 60-inch Hale telescope, the 100-inch Hooker telescope (which saw first light in 1917), three solar telescopes, and interferometers (which help measure celestial details such as star diameters).
The telescopes have been used to make many of the 20th century's most celebrated astronomical observations:
In 1906, Hale used solar telescope observations to prove that sunspots where areas of lower temperature on the sun's surface. Two years later, he used the 60-inch solar tower to detect the sun's magnetic field ? the first detection of a magnetic field beyond Earth.
Harlow Shapley located the center of the Milky Way with the 60-inch telescope in 1917.
Edwin Hubble used observations made at Mount Wilson to show that the Milky Way is only one of many galaxies and that the universe is expanding.
To keep the fire from reaching the observatory and the communications towers, firefighters have dug fire lines and dumped fire retardant chemicals from the air. Despite these efforts, the fire is only about 5 percent contained as is expected to burn for weeks, officials have said.
"This is a very angry fire. Until we get a change in the weather conditions, I am not overly optimistic. The fire is headed just about anywhere it wants," Mike Dietrich, incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service told the L.A. Times.
Updates on the observatory's website say that as of yesterday afternoon, the fire had not yet reached the vicinity of the observatory, though one of the observatory's power lines has been knocked out.
"There was no word about proximity, direction, etc. or, indeed the level of threat to the Observatory," one update stated.
After closing for the weekend and Monday, JPL re-opened as normal on Tuesday.
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