Siding Spring Observatory narrowly escapes major damage during wildfire

A heatwave in New South Wales, Australia last week pushed daytime temperatures to as high as 42 degrees Celsius (108 Fahrenheit) and triggered a series of wildfires. One of these, the Wambelong Fire, burned through portions of the Warrumbungle National Park and threatened the Siding Spring Observatory where a large share of the astronomy in Australia is conducted.

The NSW Rural Fire Service did a heroic job protecting the observatory infrastructure, and while over forty structures were lost in the fire, including the astonomers' lodge just hundreds of feet from the telescopes, initial assessments show that none of the site’s telescopes were lost. The impacts of heat, smoke and ash, however, have not been fully determined.

Aerial view of the Siding Spring Observatory Astronomers' Lodge destroyed in the fire.

Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) has owned and operated the 2-meter Faulkes Telescope South (FTS) at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia since 2005. The telescope which achieved first light in July of 2004, has been heavily used for exoplanet microlensing studies, supernova characterization and near-Earth object research, with over 100 peer-reviewed papers relying on data from the telescope on an annual basis. The telescope has also been a staple for high school and undergraduate astronomy programs around the world.

Temperatures at the LCOGT site reached 50 degrees Celsius (122 F) on the day of the fire. For a time, the webcams at LCOGT were being used by the fire service to monitor the fire. A compilation of the webcam images shows the intensity of the fire. Power to the site was lost when Two new dome enclosures, each ready to house one of LCOGT’s new 1-meter telescopes were undamaged. Although the schedule for electrical and communications work has been delayed for as much as a month due to the fire. The installation of two 1-meter telescopes at Siding Spring will complete LCOGT’s 1-meter southern ring network of eight telescopes. Three 1-meters are operating at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile and three more 1-meters are en route to the South Africa Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) outside Sutherland where a team from LCOGT will meet up with them in mid-February.

Burned earth reaches within feet of the Faulkes South enclosure.

This network will be the first true robotic and homogenous southern hemisphere observing network, enabling scientists to schedule many kinds of observations that are nearly impossible today with existing observing programs, EACH grounded in just one or two locations. LCOGT promises to keep astronomers in the dark.

The southern 1-meter network is being developed in partnership with Scottish Universities Physics Alliance/St Andrews University. LCOGT owns the network and telescopes and a majority of the observing queue; St. Andrews has a significant share of the total network observing queue at their disposal.

With sites, hardware, optics, and software designed from the ground-up, LCOGT plans to consolidate the southern 1-meter network and ensure their partners, including St. Andrews and their host site users, are no less than thrilled with the capabilities and performance of the system and the data. Following this, a northern network of seven 1-meter telescopes is planned, and an accompanying global homogenous network of 22 0.4-meter telescopes for use in science program follow-up, education, and citizen science projects will be added at the same distributed observatory sites.

Las Cumbres Observatory extends their sympathy to those who have lost their homes and valuables to this tragic fire.