Australian Observatory Narrowly Escapes Bushfire

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Smoke billows from a fire near the Siding Spring Observatory in this photograph taken on Jan. 13, 2013.
NSW Rural Fire Service

Telescopes at a global astronomy research hub appear to have survived a devastating Australian bushfire that destroyed nearby homes and damaged several buildings on the site, officials said Monday.

The fire, which raged through the night fueled by hot, strong winds, damaged parts of the Aus$100 million (US$105 million) Siding Spring Observatory some 500 kilometers (330 miles) northwest of Sydney, officials said.

But the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said that although 15 homes were destroyed, aerial surveillance had established that the main Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) "has survived, although it is not known if it has been damaged".

Eighteen staff working at the observatory, which houses 10 operating telescopes run by Australian, Polish, British, South Korean and American researchers, were safely evacuated before the fire struck.

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Monitoring instruments at the main telescope showed temperatures surging above 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit) at the height of the danger.

The inferno was one of 170 blazes raging Monday across New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, where heatwave conditions have scorched some 500,000 hectares (1.235 million acres) over the past week.

The Australian National University, which administers the remote observatory site, said five buildings had been "severely affected or damaged", including lodgings for visiting researchers and the visitors' center.

"An initial visual assessment indicated that no telescopes appear to have received major damage, but the impact of the fire on the instruments will not be known until later today," the university said in a statement.

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The Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO), which operates the four-meter AAT and 1.2-metre UK Schmidt telescope, said both instruments "appear to have escaped major damage" but would be shut down for at least two weeks.

Acting AAO director Andrew Hopkins said it was a great relief for researchers to see that the telescopes appeared intact after bushfires destroyed a partner observatory in Canberra in 2003.

Five telescopes and surrounding buildings were razed when wildfires ripped through the Mount Stromlo facility, forcing the termination of a number of major projects including a digital survey of the Southern Hemisphere's skies.

"The significance of the site is absolutely huge," said Hopkins of Siding Spring.

"The Siding Spring Observatory site is the premier astronomical observatory facility in Australia for optical and infrared observing."

Officials said lessons had been taken from Mount Stromlo, including clearing the undergrowth at Siding Spring and fitting ember screens to all windows to prevent sparks getting into buildings and starting fires.

Rob McNaught, a researcher at the observatory's Uppsala near Earth object survey telescope, was among many site staff who lived nearby and were forced to flee the "massive" smoke plume.

"Many hold fears that their houses are lost," he said. "We heard a lot of hair-raising stories from the last few to drive down the (access) road as it became engulfed in flames."

He said the AAT, one of the world's top telescopes and a key instrument in exploring the Milky Way galaxy and Magellanic Clouds, "should be unaffected as it is a very secure and well defended building".

The Australian wildfires began earlier this month in the southern state of Tasmania, where more than 100 homes were razed.

A firefighter was killed in Tasmania on Sunday while carrying out controlled burning. He was found dead about three kilometers from the main fire front, but the cause of death was not immediately known.