Wildfire Threatens Historic Observatory Used by Edwin Hubble

Wildfire Threatens Historic Observatory Used by Edwin Hubble
The Station wildfire in La Canada/Flintridge as seen mid-morning on Aug. 30 by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA's Terra satellite. he area covered by the image is 245 kilometers (152 miles) wide. (Image credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team)

The fierce wildfire burning north of Los Angeles isincreasingly becoming a threat to historic Mount Wilson Observatory, whereastronomers from Edwin Hubble to George Ellery Hale made key discoveries aboutthe cosmos.

Triple-digit heat has fanned the flames of the Stationwildfire, currently the largest fire burning in Southern California. The inferno,which has scorched more than 122,000 acres, according to news reports, camedisconcertingly close to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory over the weekend,but has since move away and begun an onslaught of nearby Mount Wilson, homealso to many of the area's broadcast and cell phone towers, as well as the100-year-old Mount Wilson Observatory.

Founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale, the observatory includesthe 60-inch Hale telescope, the 100-inch Hooker telescope (which saw firstlight in 1917), three solar telescopes, and interferometers (which help measurecelestial details such as star diameters).

The telescopes have been used to make many of the 20thcentury's most celebrated astronomical observations:

In 1906, Hale used solar telescope observations to provethat sunspotswhere areas of lower temperature on the sun's surface. Two years later, he usedthe 60-inch solar tower to detect the sun's magnetic field ? the firstdetection of a magnetic field beyond Earth.

Harlow Shapley located the center of the Milky Way with the60-inch telescope in 1917.

Edwin Hubble used observations made at Mount Wilson to showthat the Milky Way is only one of many galaxies and that the universeis expanding.

To keep the fire from reaching the observatory and thecommunications towers, firefighters have dug fire lines and dumped fireretardant chemicals fromthe air. Despite these efforts, the fire is only about 5 percent containedas is expected toburn for weeks, officials have said.

"This is a very angry fire. Until we get a change inthe weather conditions, I am not overly optimistic. The fire is headed justabout 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 ofyesterday afternoon, the fire had not yet reached the vicinity of theobservatory, 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 asnormal on Tuesday.

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Andrea Thompson

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.