Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Siding Spring Observatory Survives Fire Threat

By David Reneke

Most of Australia stood mesmerised in January as a fire raged across the Warrumbungle National Park in NSW, which is home to Australia’s world-class optical and infrared telescopes at Siding Spring Observatory.

It was the worst fire in the state’s history, burning 40,000 hectares on a 100 km front.

Ironically it was almost 10 years ago to the day that fires destroyed the Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra. Professional and amateur astronomers around the world held their breath. Could this really be happening again?

The Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) is a working research facility, and as such it has no public stargazing facilities. The Observatory and its surrounds are closed to the general public from 4pm each day. It’s situated inside the rim of a long-extinct volcano, 1165 metres above sea level in the Warrumbungle National Park. There are currently 12 telescopes on site.

The Siding Spring site was selected by the Australian National University in 1962 from many other possible locations because of the dark and cloud-free skies. If damaged it would no doubt be rebuilt in situ.

The familiar giant dome houses the powerful 4-metre aperture Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), which is used extensively by Australian astronomers. It has witnessed a number of major discoveries in its time.

Over the past decade the AAO has pioneered the use of optical fibres in astronomy, and it currently leads the world in this work. In August 2007, during ‘routine observations at the observatory, ANU astronomer Robert McNaught discovered a 10 km wide comet. It was the brightest comet in more than 40 years and was easily visible to the naked eye for observers in the Southern Hemisphere.

In the early 2000s, the AAT completed a survey of more than 200,000 galaxies. By measuring their distance, the survey was able to confirm the existence of dark energy, which led ultimately to the awarding of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics to Professor Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University.

At the time of writing there has been damage to some of the structures on the top of the mountain, including the lodge used to accommodate visiting researchers and a number of cottages and sheds, but it looks as though most of the main telescope buildings only suffering smoke damage.

If the telescopes had been destroyed it would have been devastating for Australian astronomical research, all but ending our ability to continue optical astronomy here. And it would also have affected the Coonabarabran community, many of whom rely on the telescopes for their livelihoods too.

One Way Crewed Mission To Mars

What’s the next great space adventure? Will we go to an asteroid perhaps, or what about a base on the Moon? Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll set off to establish a base on the red planet, Mars.

Mars is the next hardest thing to do after the Moon. It’s a 7-month journey, and any mixed crew would have to be psychologically profiled, almost perfectly, if they were to arrive sane and in one piece.

Such studies have already begun, with disturbing results. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, reports on a 17-month ground-based simulation of a mission to Mars. An international crew of six individuals experienced decreased activity levels and disrupted sleep/wake cycles, suggesting that maintaining circadian rhythms might be crucial to successful interplanetary spaceflight.

David F. Dinges and colleagues used wrist devices to record crew activity levels, sleep/wake dynamics and light exposure throughout 520 days of confinement in a spaceship-like habitat. The researchers also used weekly computer-based neurobehavioural assessments to identify changes in the crew’s activity levels, workload, and sleep quantity and quality.

Test results showed that the crew became increasingly sedentary during the mission, with reduced movement when awake and increased time spent sleeping or resting. In addition, substantial variation in how different crew members adapted to the mission was found, but most crew members experienced either disturbances in sleep quality, altered sleep/wake cycles, or decreased performance due to chronic sleep deprivation.

These problems occurred early in the mission and persisted throughout, and were similar to sleep/wake disturbances recorded in polar expeditions. The study suggests that balancing crew activity levels and sleep quantity and quality while maintaining their circadian cycles might be crucial to spaceflight away from Earth’s 24-hour cycle.

David Reneke is an astronomy lecturer and teacher, a feature writer for major Australian newspapers and magazines, and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Subscribe to David’s free Astro-Space newsletter at www.davidreneke.com