Sunday, 25 June 2017

Forest Fire might have damaged telescope dome atop Mount Graham

594c6d0052fe5_imageAstronomers fear at least one of the telescopes on Mount Graham sustained heat damage when winds swept the Frye Fire across the highest peaks of the Pinaleno Mountains last weekend.

The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) did not burn, said astronomer Paul Gabor, vice director of the Vatican Observatory.

Heat from the nearby inferno melted some of the sprinkler lines set up to protect the telescope and Gabor is worried that it may have warped the metal enclosure. He also fears smoke and soot may have gotten inside to foul the sensitive electronic and optical systems.

Gabor had scheduled a visit to inspect the damage Thursday, but was told by officials managing the fire that recurring high winds made that trip too dangerous.

The fire, which came within feet of the Vatican Telescope, did not get that close to the Large Binocular Telescope, the biggest and most expensive instrument on the mountain.

“There is no damage of any kind,” said Christian Veillet, director of the LBTO, the international consortium that built the telescope.

Veillet said the telescope has been staffed with a skeleton crew throughout the fire and is being used as a spotting tower by the team fighting the fire.

“The only worry we had, outside of the fire coming too close, was that we could have ashes and smoke going into the enclosure.

“Smoke comes with little particulates and that is not good at all for some of the optics we have.”

It smells like smoke inside the dome, he said, “but there is no ash or debris around.”

Veillet said the observatory did lose weeks of valuable observing time and probably won’t open before the planned monsoon shutdown on July 11. Partner astronomers from Italy and Ohio State University had to leave without performing their observing runs.

vaatEven though fire has already burned through those areas, wind from daily, dry thunderstorms has made the situation volatile, said Cameron Eck, spokesman for the team fighting the fire.

A team of firefighters remains in the high reaches of the mountains to protect summer cabins, a Bible camp and the Mount Graham International Observatory — home to the Vatican’s telescope, the LBT and the UA’s Submillimeter Telescope.

“Their job is to just stay up there in the area and just keep mopping up. We’re staffing that 24 hours a day and will continue to do that until we can say for 100 percent sure it’s safe,” Eck said.

Eck said 831 people are assigned to the fire, with 7 helicopters dropping buckets of fire retardant.

The fire, which started with a lightning strike on June 7, has burned 21,335 acres of forest and was only 10 percent contained as of Thursday.

It came “within feet” of the Vatican telescope on Sunday afternoon. “You couldn’t see the VATT from the (nearby) Large Binocular Telescope,” said Gabor.

Gabor received an emailed picture of the telescope, totally obscured in smoke, with flames visible. It had a message from Kevin Newton, one of three observatory personnel still on the site. “VATT is in trouble,” it read.

When the smoke cleared, the observatory was still standing. Gabor said no one has entered the telescope since then, but said an exterior inspection “showed some evidence of maybe some heat damage to the dome.”

He hopes to visit the site next week with engineers and an insurance adjuster. He said the observatory had been “fire-hardened” to prevent embers from entering through vents, but suspects that smoke and soot may have made it inside. “The moths seem to find a way,” he said.

This is the third time forest fires have threatened the telescopes managed by the University of Arizona on Mount Graham, southwest of Safford in Graham County.

Fire came within 200 yards of the observatory during the Clark Peak Fire in 1996 and the Nuttall Complex Fire in 2004.

The Frye Fire started in the fire scar left by the Nuttall Complex. The presence of downed timber and standing burned trees, combined with the steep terrain and erratic winds, make fighting the fire hazardous, said Eck.

And new fires keep popping up each day with the dry lightning storms.

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