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Mount Stromlo: A Phoenix From The Ashes

The historic Mount Stromlo Observatory operated by The Australian National University lies in ruins after a firestorm tore through the outer suburbs of Canberra, 19 January 2003. Australia's national capital was hit by a severe bushfire late 18 January which claimed the lives of at least four people, injured another 150 and destroyed hundreds of homes. AFP Photo by Torsten Blackwood
by Morris Jones
Canberra - Jan 21, 2003
The dry continent of Australia is presently gripped by the problems of a historically unprecedented drought and a horrifying series of bushfires around the nation. The nation's capital city, Canberra, has lost hundreds of homes and several lives in recent days. Blazes continue in other states as firefighters struggle to contain them.

Like most Australians, my thoughts have mostly been with the families who have lost their possessions and their loved ones. But one result of these bushfires is a very personal loss for me, and space enthusiasts around the world.

The historic Mount Stromlo observatory complex is located in the Australian Capital Territory, a small slice of federal land in central New South Wales that houses Canberra and Australia's Parliament. Astronomical observations began at the site in 1911, when the surrounding area was essentially bushland with few inhabitants.

Over time, Mount Stromlo grew to become one of this nation's most prominent scientific sites, and a site that was internationally known for its contributions to research. It was one of the earliest professional-standard observatories in the southern hemisphere, making its contributions valuable to any general surveys of the night sky.

Hundreds of astronomers and scientists have commissioned research or worked in person at the site. But Mount Stromlo was more than a scientific haven. It served far more members of the general public than most research locations can boast.

A visit to Mount Stromlo was an essential part of a general tour of the Australian Capital Territory, whether the visitors were busloads of school students or families making a half-day drive from Sydney.

A trip to Mount Stromlo began with a drive up a winding mountain road amongst tall trees and signs urging you to dip your headlights. Reaching the top of the mountain provided a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside, and a set of beautiful observatory domes.

The whole complex was like a perfect rendition of the history of astronomy and its relationship to the world in general. The nicely aged green copper surface of one of the earliest observatories stood adjacent to a more modern extruded metal dome.

Tour groups would march inside the copper dome, enjoying the serene atmosphere of a quiet enclosed space set amid pure mountain air, and gaze at the fifties-era telescope housed inside it. It was old, but not obsolete. The laws of optics haven't changed in fifty years, and the universe beyond is just as mysterious. The telescope was still in use for professional observation.

Like a tree sprouting new buds as it grows, this old instrument was capped by a modern CCD camera, a clean white coating of thick ice covering its supercooled components.

Other parts of the observatory complex were not as accessible to casual visitors, but the observatory ran an excellent public relations program. Volunteers would conduct tours and slide shows that outlined the history of the observatory and its place in the universe. The gourmet café also turned the site into a trendy social spot for some locals, who would come to sip cappuccinos and enjoy the beautiful views.

Few locations anywhere could boast such an eclectic mix of the old and the new, the private and the public, the historic and the eternal. But everyone who went there found something to appeal to them.

Newspaper photographs of the old copper dome, now reduced to little more than a framework of blackened metal, convey how much has been lost by this fire. But Mount Stromlo, like any other human endeavour, is a Phoenix. It will literally rise from the ashes.

Modern astronomy is essentially a decentralised practice, where astronomers will work with telescopes on other continents, or in orbit above them. Australians who used Mount Stromlo will be able to carry on with observing through other places, including the more powerful instruments at Siding Spring, which is nearby.

Some will have plenty of work ahead of them processing the data that they have already collected. And construction of new facilities will hopefully begin. Mount Stromlo's loss is terrible, but not catastrophic. A fire can destroy an observatory, but it cannot erase the knowledge, the spirit or the inquiring minds behind it.

Morris Jones is a Sydney-based journalst. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Related Links
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Australia's Mount Stromlo Observatory Destroyed By Fire
Canberra - Jan 20, 2003
Australia's Mount Stromlo Observatory located near the nation's capital Canberra has been destroyed by devastating bushfires that have ravaged the city for the past five days. "We are thankful that no staff or students were injured in the Mount Stromlo fire." ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb said today. The Observatory, operated by the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, is one of Australia's leading centres of Astronomical research. The fires destroyed four telescopes, the equipment workshop, eight houses which had been occupied by staff and an administration building.

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