feature
12 mins read 17 Jan 2020

How stronger observatories arose from history’s ashes

Reflecting on the important knowledge, learned from the devastating fires that tore through Mount Stromlo observatory, 17 years ago today.

Large burned telescope covered in rust and soot. Image captured from within observatory dome which is also burned.
Mount Stromlo’s Primary Telescope - 1.8m Reflector as it stands today - a relic of the 2003 fires. Credit: R. Mandow.

The day the fire came

The early days of January 2003 in the southeastern states of Australia started bone dry. The prior three month period between October - December 2002 had received below-average rainfalls, as well as recording above-average temperatures of 1 - 3 degree Celsius. Any moisture still contained within the forests, bushlands and grass fields in the region, in both land and air, simmered away in the summer heat in those blistering days of the new year.

The dry, hot conditions were the perfect brew for several lightning storms to generate on January 8 – lighting which would spark several fires in Namadgi National Park, just to the south-west of Australia’s capital city – Canberra.

The eucalypt forests within the park, themselves a ticking tinderbox following years of drought erupted in flames – fanned by the hot winds billowing behind them. It would be too late to contain the rage of these fires during those initial stages.

Over the coming critical days following January 8, fires emerged in multiple locations in the dense forests surrounding Canberra’s west – including Kosciuszko National Park and the Brindabella Ranges as temperatures continued to climb higher, with each passing noon.

The morning of January 18 was exceptionally ominous.

From early on, hot dry winds lashed across Mount Stromlo Observatory, as burned leaves and ash lifted from neighbouring regional fires and precipitated further south in the outskirt suburbs of Canberra. Later that day, Cabramurra weather station – located 1,440m above sea level – would record temperatures as high as 40-degrees Celsius, coupled with wind gusting at 80 km/h.

At first, the fires rolled over the crest of the Brindabella Ranges before diving into the valley. From the Mount Stromlo Observatory, the roar of heat and sound edged ever so much closer.  Years later, researchers would confirm that it was, in fact, a fire tornado - moving at 30 km/h and with a basal diameter of half a kilometre that thundered across the historic site.

Wide-angle shot showing Brindabella mountain ranges off in the distance with open plains leading to us. Ground is dry and pale yellow in colour.
Looking out to the Brindabella Ranges - the direction from which the Stromlo fire came. Credit: R. Mandow.

“There was no stopping the fires, and not much could do to stop it impacting Mount Stromlo” said Australian National University (ANU) astrophysicist Dr. Brad Tucker, as we walked around the facility – pointing out the length of the fire front as we looked west towards the Brindabella Ranges, now covered in green forests that rise from the pale yellow grasslands in the valley.

“It was headed here and there was no way to get equipment off ” said Dr. Tucker.

When the fires arrived at the observatory, nearly everything in its path ignited. Several historical telescopes, research and engineering workshops, residential properties and heritage-listed buildings were all consumed in the ferocity of the flames – burning at nearly 1000-degrees Celsius. 

Inside one of the enormous telescope domes, materials cooked under the intense heat. Aluminum liquified and oozed to the ground. Glass and mirrors shattered into thousands of pieces. The library, full of the original thesis papers of past-gone Ph.D. students, burnt so fast and hot that the books just ignited on the shelves. When later surveying the damage, the staff noted that upon touch, they puffed into a cloud of ash.

“The 74” telescope was the workhorse of Mt Stromlo, used all the way up until the night before the fires”  said Dr. Tucker about the historical telescope, now left as a former shadow of itself in a room that looks like it was cooked in a furnace.

Looking inside the burnt out dome at the roof. Telescope showing.

Looking at the base of the burnt out telescope.

Close up of the base of the burnt out telescope.

side view of the burn out telescope.

By the end of this day, 70% of pastures, forests and nature parks in Canberra would be reduced to nothing more than cinders. Four lives would be tragically lost and 500 homes would be razed to smoldering ruins.

And one of the greatest scientific facilities in history would forever change how observatories around the world, managed their fire risk.

Whilst the devastating 2003 fires destroyed a large portion of the Mount Stromlo Observatory, the rebuilding and rehabilitation of the site have come a long way since, 17 years after the horrors of that unforgettable afternoon. It’s now a thriving facility, with researchers working in labs, astronomers observing the heavens, young people attending astronomy outreach programs and even a hot-spot for adventurous mountain bikers to challenge themselves over a range of tracks leading up and down the mountain. They’re even pushing the boundaries of new technology with a facility designed to fire lasers at space debris, safely de-orbiting them to burn up in our atmosphere.

One of the most important outcomes after the fires at Mount Stromlo Observatory was the learning of fire risk management. The unfortunate events that caused so much destruction of the facility also provided an opportunity for learning – such as minimum distances between ignition material like shrubbery and the telescopes, or more administrative capabilities such as the responsibility of asset insurance hosted at research facilities.

Sun peeking out over the edge of the old burnt out building that use to house a historical telescope.
Credit: R. Mandow.

“After the fires, the lessons learned here were implemented at other observatories, including our dark-sky site, Siding Spring Observatory.  Siding Spring had its own fire in 2013, and because of the lessons from here, no telescopes or research buildings were lost” said Dr. Tucker.

The Mount Stromlo Observatory

The first Commonwealth building that was constructed in Australia’s new capital, Canberra – was not a federal Government building, nor an official township structure – like a General Post Office.

It was the Oddie Dome – a small observatory containing a 9-inch refractor telescope established on Mount Stromlo in 1911. The observatory pre-dated the naming of Canberra city by a whole two years.

Black and white aerial image of a small observatory dome with a car parked out front. The car is very old fashioned.
The Oddie Dome. Credit: Australian National University.

The Oddie Dome was a prototype – testing the suitability of the site atop of Mount Stromlo to build a larger observatory, but it was also an operating site – measuring the spectra, age, orbits and characteristics of southern hemisphere stars.

In 1924, the Commonwealth Solar Observatory was started and after a few years of site construction, the Mount Stromlo Observatory officially opened in 1928 originally as a solar and atmospheric physics establishment for the Commonwealth Government. It would continue on with these duties through to the Second World War, even serving as an optical munitions facility through to the end of the war.

The institution then changed its name to the Mount Stromlo Observatory’ and began delving into stellar and galactic astronomy, a path that would eventually lead it to obtain world-class status, and in 1957 the observatory joined the newly established Australian National University.

Mount Stromlo Observatory has since become a collaborative partner with global observatories and facilities, participating in programs such as the multinational Gemini Observatory (which allows Australian scientists opportunities to use Gemini facilities such as the giant 8.1m Gemini telescope, the 10m Keck telescope and the 8.2m Subaru telescope in Hawai’i in addition to 6.5m Magellan telescope in Chile).

In the 1950s, the site’s telescope assets increased dramatically – with four new instruments (of major astronomical capabilities) came to the mountain – but as Canberra’s population started to swell – as to did the encroaching light pollution. A decision was made to establish a new dark site – further north near the township of Coonabarabran known as the Siding Spring Observatory.

Old black and white image of the Great Melbourne Telescope.
The Great Melbourne Telescope. Credit: Australian National University.

However, some of the most important telescopes – that tell tales of Australia’s rich history in optical astronomy resided at Stromlo. One of the most notable, the Great Melbourne Telescope (GMT) – a 1.2m diameter refractor – was purchased from the Melbourne Observatory in 1944 and became a powerful workhorse for the Stromlo Observatory.

The GMT was built in Dublin, Ireland and arrived in Melbourne in 1868. Through its history, it helped observe and document southern hemisphere astronomical phenomena that William Herschel had originally noted during his time in Cape Town. Even in the 1990s, the GMT would even help global astronomy teams in the search for Dark Matter.

Devastatingly, it would not survive the firestorm of January 18, 2003.

Many telescopes (like the site’s primary telescope – the 1.8m reflector) would never again see the light from the heavens after fires swept through on that hot January day. Telescopes that would contribute to the human knowledge-base of the life cycle of stars and galaxies would be rendered obsolete, eventually pulled apart and disposed of. Some, like the 1.8m reflector, today remain in situ on the mountain – a somber reminder of what Stromlo had to deal with during the overwhelming disaster.

But today – the site is vibrantly bustling with students and astronomers, ensuring the boundaries of space research and technology are continually being pushed with observation and innovation.

Two small observatory domes, one in front of the other, sitting up a hill on top of the old brick structures.
Credit: R. Mandow.

Three small observatory domes are lined up and off in the distance is a larger observatory dome.
Credit: R. Mandow.

Several small observatory domes now pepper the mountain top, providing an opportunity for students to partake in night time observing of the stars. Up on the higher side of the hill, a larger more commercial-looking facility is being used to research how the site can fire lasers into space from the mountain – causing unwanted space debris to plummet and harmlessly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Wide angle image of a building with several domes far off in the distance, sitting atop a hill covered in bushes and yellow grass.
Credit: R. Mandow.

The Advance Instrument and Technology Centre‘s (AITC) modern architectural design stands out amongst the classically, Spanish-villa style older structures, and even against the observatory domes across the site – and rightly so. The AITC facility, a one-of-kind science, and engineering mega-lab allow scientists to develop, test and deploy spacecraft and instrumentation – through an end-to-end facility.

The facility houses a huge thermal vacuum test configuration volt (cylindrical) and radiation exposure chamber, to mimic the extreme environments of space on equipment or materials, prior to them being sent into orbit. Pyrotechnic, mechanical shock and vibration tests are also conducted, simulating the violent shaking during launch on space assets to ensure they can withstand the journey on board any rocket into space – and then continue to operate once they are outside of Earth’s protective atmosphere.

Cylindrical vacuum chamber mounted on rig and inside large sealed off clean-room.
The Wombat XL thermal vacuum testing structure used to simulate the extreme environments of space . Credit: R. Mandow.

“One of the big things after the 2003 fires was not just to rebuild what we had, but the leadership looked at what we needed to continue to be one of the best places in the world, and that was the AITC” said Dr. Tucker about the AITC.

As Brad and I walk through the corridors between buildings, a 250kg meteorite greets us in one of the buildings, bustling with activity of people coming and going about their business. Looking around I notice a number of other reminders of the wonderful history of Stromlo.

Large meteorite sitting on stand. Meteorite has a chain with magnet attached to it.
250kg fragment of the Henbury Meteorite - which crashed 100km south-west of Alice Springs in 1931. Credit: R. Mandow.

On the wall hangs Professor Brian Schmidt’s Nobel Prize – awarded for the discovery that the Universe’s expansion was in fact accelerating – changing our understanding of cosmology forever.

On a bench, a peculiar small urn sits on the table. Brad opens the lid and offers me a sniff – of which at first I am taken back until he explains to me that it is tradition (since the fires) for graduating Ph.D.’s to burn a copy of their Thesis and commit the remains into the urn.

Hanging by the walls, the original towering clocks used in the Commonwealth’s original time-keeping from days gone past.

Small urn on a table. Next to it are several small oil burner candles made into the shape of a dish telescope.
The ashes of previous ANU student Ph.D. thesis. Credit: R. Mandow.

Framed Nobel peace prize award on wall.
Prof. Brian Schmidt’s Nobel Prize. Credit: R. Mandow.

It’s the perfect last stop for me on my visit to Mount Stromlo Observatory – and gives me a sense of resilience, strength, and adaptation that radiates from this historic site. I say my goodbyes to Brad and head over to my car, passing the huge dome housing the remains of the 1.8m reflector and other mighty telescopes that once resided here. Looking west out to the Brindabella ranges – the direction from which the fires came, I reflect on how the site has rebuilt itself to return to its former glory of advancing the sciences.

Large tree centred in image between two well groomed grassy noles. The tree is casting a shadow towards us.
Credit: R. Mandow.

Important Lessons Learned From That Day

Following the tragedy of the Mount Stromlo fires – global observatories around the world gained knowledge about fire risk management in relation to their own facilities. This included a better understanding of improving fire trails around observatory facilities, and clearing of surrounding vegetation to reduce fuel loads.

Wide ngle shot of an old telescope dome with only the concrete rim remaining after the fires.
Credit: R. Mandow.

Another small, but important upgrade was fitting all the domes and buildings with ember screens – forbidding any airborne embers to penetrate the observatories.

Almost 10 years after the 2003 event, the ANU’s other observatory – Siding Springs – came under threat with bushfires burning uncomfortably close to the facility in 2013. Local accommodation was not spared, but the telescopes, instrumentation, and domes were all untouched, thanks to the learning achieved as a result of the Mount Stromlo fires.

In addition to the physical learning as a result of the disaster, observatories around the world also gained new knowledge on how better to insure assets against natural disasters. In a warming world, where the extremities of the climate serve up unprecedented, and often confronting events – better understanding and capability for observatories (and other science facilities) to negotiate better insurance policies is a new form of strategic commercial endurance.

Sadly, it took a tragic event to learn these important lessons, but in doing so – astronomy facilities became more prepared for the future – something I am reminded of as I write this article, given the extensiveness and destruction of this summer’s fire season across south-east Australia.

Stromlo didn’t fall on that horrific day in January 2003. Stromlo rose from the ashes and lifted every observatory with it.