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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.

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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...

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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