Sept. 4, 2009
Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
University Relations, Science Writer
ATLANTA - The director of Georgia State University's Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) and the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles is at the mountain and is assessing the state of the observatory and the university's six-telescope array.
Speaking by phone at Mt. Wilson, Harold McAlister said that the threat to the mountain and the historic observatory where the expanding universe and other galaxies were discovered has significantly lessened, though the mountain is not completely out of the woods yet.
"Things on the mountain are pretty great. It's looking better," McAlister said. "There's been a lot of discussion about Mt. Wilson being saved, and we are well prepared until fires are out. But there's still a possibility that something could creep up here. The firefighters are prepared and determined."
Firefighters have performed major work with backfires to keep the wildfire from spreading, as well as clearing ground cover. Tree limbs near observatory structures were also cut.
Major structures on the mountain top, including the CHARA Array and other telescopes, are undamaged. The observatory has power and normal landline telephone service, and Internet service has been restored, but it is unclear as to when normal operations and research will resume.
McAlister is posting updates and photos in a blog at www.mtwilson.edu/fire.php.
Georgia State's CHARA Array is a six-telescope optical/infrared interferometric array. It is among the most powerful facilities of its kind in the world for studying stars and stellar systems. Mt. Wilson is also home to astronomy projects of the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and the University of California-Berkeley.
The multi-million dollar array - which has a resolution capability 200 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope - became fully operational in 2005. Light from each of the six telescopes is transported through vacuum light pipes to a central laboratory, where a complex system of mirrors move under computer control to match the paths of each beam to an accuracy of better than one-thousandth of a millimeter.
Scientists using the array focus on the measurement of stellar diameters, shapes, surface temperatures, masses, distances and luminosities. The array has the most powerful capability in the world to resolve these details, and can see structures equivalent to the angular size of a nickel 10,000 miles away.
The first image made of a sun-like star - Altair - was produced in 2006 at the array in collaboration with the University of Michigan.
The Mt. Wilson Observatory is currently in a capital campaign to raise funds to renovate the century-old historic site. Tax-deductible donations to aid in recovery can be sent to The Mount Wilson Institute, Fire Recovery Program, P.O. Box 1909, Atlanta, GA 30301-1909.