The Threat to Mt. Wilson

By Julianne Dalcanton | September 18, 2009 12:18 am

Some of you may have followed the threat to the historic Mt. Wilson observatory from the fires in Los Angeles earlier this month. Below is a fantastic time lapse video shot from one of the facilities on the mountain. You can see how close the fire came (though thankfully, the firefighters did a superb job in protecting observatory with targeted back burns to create firebreaks around the site).

As this video shows, astronomical observatories are frequently at risk from wildfires, since both tend to occupy dry remote mountaintops. Indeed, close to seven years ago, one of Australia’s major observatories on Mt. Stromlo was nearly obliterated by the fires that raced through the area:

Thankfully, Mt. Wilson survived this round.

PS. You can find a bit more about some of the ground breaking work that was done at Mt. Wilson along with some terrific old Life magazine photos here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Count Iblis

    Can they still do useful astronomy from there, despite the light pollution?

  • Julianne

    I wouldn’t say it’s the US’s most forefront observatory at this point. However, it does have some excellent capabilities, in spite of its age. The site has superb “seeing” (i.e. how blurry stars look, due to turbulence in the atmosphere), which makes it ideal for interferometry. Interferometry is all about achieving high angular resolution (i.e. as sharp as HST (or sharper!), but from the ground). Such studies currently focus on very bright objects (planets, disks around bright nearby stars, etc), so the light pollution from LA doesn’t matter too much. In addition, LA’s lights are frequently buried under the “marine layer” at night, which helps as well.

  • Meredith

    I love how you can see Venus rise each morning before sunrise!
    …the fires are pretty crazy, too. I’m SO glad the observatory pulled through. Go firefighters!

  • Noadi

    Count Iblis: A lot of what Mt Wilson now does is solar astronomy because it isn’t affected by light polution. They still do night observing but deep space stuff is limited. The really cool thing is that the 60 inch telescope is available for public use for a fee which I would love to do some day.


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