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Southern California fire threatens historic Mount Wilson Observatory


Station fire, CaliforniaThe so-called Station Fire, which now covers more than 120,000 southern California acres and is burning largely uncontained, continues to threaten the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory, home to astronomer Edwin Hubble at the time he made his landmark observations of the universe's expansion.

The observatory is currently unmanned due to the fire threat and the attending smoke, but a webcam atop Mount Wilson's 150-foot solar tower has provided observatory managers and concerned observers with a view from the scene. At 12:55 P.M. (Eastern Daylight Time) the camera showed a great deal of smoke but no flames.

At one point, the Station Fire also threatened NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which now appears to be out of harm's way. The lab resumed normal operations today after a partial closure yesterday due to smoky conditions.

According to the Los Angeles Times, authorities had cleared the top of Mount Wilson of fire personnel Monday amid unpredictable conditions but today allowed them to return to fight the fire from the ground.

Fire agencies expressed optimism this morning that the fire would become significantly better contained today, the newspaper reported. Officials were "hoping a concerted effort to hack away tree limbs, cut fire breaks and lay down fire retardant would spare the Mt. Wilson Observatory and a key complex of communications towers used for over-the-air broadcasting by nearly 50 radio and television stations," according to the Times .

Mount Wilson Observatory was founded in 1904 and in 1917 saw the debut of the 100-inch Hooker telescope, featured in our recent slide show of 10 telescopes that changed our view of the universe. Hubble, the American astronomer for whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named, spent his career at Mount Wilson, publishing a number of groundbreaking studies based on his observations there, including the 1929 paper demonstrating that the universe is expanding.


Photo of the Station Fire on Sunday from NASA's Terra satellite: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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