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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 11:35 GMT
Historic Australian observatory gutted
Mount Stromlo Observatory, AFP
The observatory's five telescopes were destroyed

Astronomers are reeling from the loss of Australia's historic Mount Stromlo Observatory, which has been gutted by the bush fires that have raged around Canberra, the country's capital.

"The core of its scientific observations has been destroyed," said Professor Ian Chubb, of the Australian National University, the facility's operator.

Standing on top of a ridge overlooking a pine forest, Mt Stromlo succumbed to the 35-kilometre-long wall of flame that devastated much of the region at the weekend.

I have been to a lot of bush fire scenes in Australia... but this is by far the worst

Prime Minister John Howard
Five telescopes were burnt out, together with workshops, eight staff homes and the observatory's main dome. The damage is estimated to be at least $20m.

David Higgins, an astronomer who has used the telescopes at Mt Stromlo, told BBC News Online: "This is a tragedy. Although some buildings have survived, all the domes and telescopes have been gutted."

Astronomers are particularly upset at the destruction of state-of-the-art detectors being built in the workshops for two of the world's biggest telescopes.

"One of the greatest losses is the detectors being built there for the large Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile; they were the finest ever built," said Mr Higgins.

Historic telescopes

In just a few hours, a third of Australia's world-class astronomy programme was wiped out as Mt Stromlo Observatory went up in flames.

Associate Director of the observatory, Professor John Norris, said the place had been obliterated.

On Sunday, staff were given just 20 minutes notice of evacuation and were removed along the single road that leads to Canberra.

The first telescope on the site was put there in 1910; the observatory itself was established in 1924.

The facility was home to the historic 1.3-metre Great Melbourne telescope. Built in 1868, it was upgraded a decade ago. A larger 1.9-metre telescope was also destroyed.

New discoveries

In recent years, the Gt Melbourne telescope had made pioneering observations of faint objects orbiting our galaxy near its outer edges. These compact objects may comprise a great deal of the unseen mass of the Universe.

Less than a month ago Mt Stromlo started a digital survey of the entire southern sky.

Mount Stromlo Observatory, AFP
The flames swept through the main dome
Aerial pictures of the site confirm the worst. They show that as well as the telescopes, a sophisticated laser ranging facility - used to determine the position of satellites - has also gone.

But most painful for astronomers is probably the loss of Mt Stromlo's workshops.

A spectrograph for the 8.2 metre Gemini telescope in Hawaii, which had just been completed and was due for shipment, has been destroyed. It cost $5m to make.

Canberra fire fighters said that the firestorm was a "once or twice a century event" and that there was little they could do. Four lives have been lost and it is estimated that almost 400 homes have been destroyed.

Astronomers hope the funds can be found to rebuild the Mt Stromlo facility.

Key stories

See also:

20 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
19 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
18 Aug 99 | Science/Nature
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