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Fire forces scientists to halt research at Mt. Wilson Observatory

September 2, 2009 |  2:12 pm

Researchers who have waited as long as a year to spend time at the Mt. Wilson Observatory have shut down their work or will have to reschedule their observing time because of the mammoth fire in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Hal McAlister, director of the observatory and head of an experiment that uses six telescopes to measure the shapes and sizes of stars, said his team had to shut down all its work. As many as 40 different projects were underway.

“Some people had waited a year to get observing time,” he said.

They will have to be rescheduled now, but McAlister was philosophical about the inconvenience.

“Losing observing time is a small problem compared to losing the observatory,” he said.

Mt. Wilson is the site of some of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th century. Using the 100-inch Hooker telescope, Edwin Hubble discovered that the Milky Way was just one galaxy among billions. He also showed that the universe is expanding, a key piece of evidence leading to the formulation of the Big Bang theory.

McAlister, a professor of astronomy at Georgia State University, was on his way to his classroom Monday when he heard that firefighters had pulled out and ordered his staff to leave as the fire drew near to the mountaintop at 5,700 feet.

He was so worried that he was unable to teach his class. “I’ve been teaching 32 years and I’d never lost it like that,” he said.

Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist at UC Berkeley, said his team was also ordered off the grounds with the fire’s approach. They had been using three telescopes on mobile trailers to watch changes in the star CIT 6, Townes said. 

Edward Rhodes, a USC astronomy professor who manages the 60-foot-tall solar observatory, the oldest instrument at Mt. Wilson, said his team manager had to pull out so quickly that it’s unclear whether he had time to stow the telescope’s two main mirrors to protect them from ash and dust.

-- John Johnson Jr.