GSU researchers thankful for efforts to save renowned observatory during California wildfires

During California’s historic wildfires this fall, a Georgia State University research center used by scientists all over the world was just feet from the flames.

The Mount Wilson Observatory in southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains is one of the most famous astrological sites in the world. Some of the world’s greatest scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble, have visited the site to study our universe.

It is also home to GSU’s CHARA Array, six telescopes combined by lasers to create some of the most detailed pictures of stars ever made.

“You can’t build a telescope 300 meters across,” explained CHARA director Theo Ten Brummelaar. “But you can get the same resolution power by doing it the way we do it.”

Channel 2 chief meteorologist Glenn Burns first visited CHARA four years ago while reporting on space weather.

This September the San Gabriel mountains looked very different as the Bobcat Fire burned more than 115 thousand acres. The typically picturesque view of Pasadena from the mountain was nothing but a wall of flames, ash and smoke.

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As the fire climbed Mount Wilson, all but two observatory staff members were evacuated. They took pictures of the fire burning feet away from the historic telescopes and CHARA.

“We were all prepared to watch the place burn,” Ten Brummelaar said.  “It really is only because of the efforts of the firefighters that the observatory is still there.”

As firefighters arrived to help, staff shared the history of the site with them and explained how scientists all over the world use the telescopes today.

“It’s pretty hard to go to the observatory and see it without falling in love with it,” Ten Brummelaar said.  “They all saw what they were trying to protect. And then we’re delighted to try and help out.”

Today there is plenty to celebrate on Mt. Wilson. Only one cabin was harmed by the flames.

CHARA staff learned they’ll receive $7 million in National Science Foundation Grants for a new mobile telescope and to continue its open access program for scientists around the world.

Georgia State Professor of Physics Douglas Gies says the grants and the bravery of California firefighters secure Mt. Wilson’s legacy of revolutionary research.

“They took it to heart and really made sure that it was a place worth saving for the future,” Gies said. “We were very, very grateful to them.”

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