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Monday, 14 January 2013

Lucky escape for Australia's premier optical observatory

As bush fires continue to rage in many places in the Eastern states of Australia, a wild fire in the Warrumbungles National Park threatened the Siding Spring Observatory site which is located inside the national park. Fortunately it appears that although there was some damage to a few of the structures and the lodge used by visiting astronomers, the main telescope facilities survived. Some photos of the fire and resulting damage are shown in this SMH article.

The historic Mount Stomlo observatory in Canberra was severely damaged by bushfire in the 1950s, and completely destroyed by another bushfire a few years ago , so one wonders whether some more preventative clearing of vegetation surrounding these facilities is warranted? These observatories are situated in national parks (since remote, mountain-top locations free of light pollution tend to be found in wilderness areas that are now national parks), so the removal of native vegatation is tightly regulated and usually impossible (aside from national park facilities, roads etc). But, given there are only a handful observatory sites occupying a few hectares of land within Australia's 895,000 square kilometers of national park, surely clearing a few hundred metres around facilities worth many million of dollars (just the main 3.9m AAT telescope at Siding Spring observatory cost almost $16m in 1973!) is justified under any reasonable cost-benefit calculation?

Now that this fire has already burnt out about 40,000 hectares of national park, perhaps it is a good chance to keep clear a slightly larger buffer zone around the observatory, in preparation for 'next time'...

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