Mt Wilson may burn

August 31, 2009

Smoky moon 1 Aug 31 2009

I took these moon pictures about an hour ago. The sky over my house is covered with clouds of smoke, and when they part the moon is dim and red despite being high in the sky.


The San Gabriel Mountains that separate the LA basin from the Mojave desert are on fire. The Station Fire, which has burned more than 100,000 acres and shows up quite nicely from space (images above and below modified from Wikipedia), is approaching Mt Wilson and firefighters on the ground had been pulled out; the fire will be fought from the air from here on. I’m glad they got the firefighters out–those slopes are wicked steep, roads are few, narrow, winding, and treacherous, and I can’t see how people on the ground could do any more good. Two firefighters have already died fighting this fire, and my heart goes out to their families.

Station Fire from space

Obviously I hope the observatory doesn’t burn down. It is hard to convey how big a loss that would be for science. On the practical side, the 100-inch Hooker telescope is still one of the world’s big guns, and losing it would put a lot of researchers in the position of having hard-earned time on a nonexistent telescope.

Taking the longer view, Edwin Hubble used the Hooker telescope to demonstrate conclusively that “spiral nebulae” are other galaxies–and, therefore, that the Milky Way is just one of many “island universes” and not the whole shebang. He also discovered that other galaxies are moving away from ours, and that the farther out they are, the faster they are receding. This is the telescope with which Homo sapiens learned that the universe is expanding. We probably don’t pay as much attention to that fact as we should–and it would be a tremendous loss for future generations to lose the observatory in general, and that scope in particular.

I took the pictures with a point-and-shoot camera and binoculars, BTW. I’ll tell you all about it some time when my gut isn’t in knots.

Smoky moon 2 Aug 31 2009

Almost immediate UPDATE: hourly reports on the fire here, interactive map here, hat tip here.


  1. Skies here in AZ have been cloudless for a few days, and the humidity is way down. Tuesday night I was able to get about an hour of observing in. I went outside to do some woodworking, one of my other pursuits, and instead grabbed my 8×32 binoculars. I caught the crescent of the moon on the way down. Wanting a sharper view I went back and got my 10x50s. The moon looked nice, and several features popped out with the longer shadows (though I’d have to sit down with a moon map to figure out what they were). So I moved to Jupiter. Actually I caught Jupiter with the 8x32s first, and could make out 2, “maybe 3” moons. With the 10x50s I could definitely pick out 3, and I think that’s all that were visible. I usually use a tripod as with both these binoculars I can’t hold them steady enough for my taste, at least not the 10x50s. But, I was at a good spot to rest on the top of my block wall for the moon, and prop against a gate for Jupiter. I found this was steady enough to separate the moons, and to make sure I wasn’t just seeing more due to the shakes.

    I went back inside and brought up Stellarium (recommended!), and verified 3 moons visible. I also remember reading in last weeks Sky & Telescope email that an asteroid was visible. I pulled up that article, found it was Juno, but could not tell from the star chart where to look (and I don’t see near that many stars in my sky!). So, I queried Stellarium, and found it. I didn’t know if it was high enough in the sky to see from my vantage point, but I figured I’d give it a shot.

    Several trips in and out and I got to what I think was the correct area of the sky. I may or may not have seen Juno. I’ll try again some night, hopefully this week, and later so it’s up higher. I also scouted out Uranus and Neptune, which are in between Jupiter and Juno. I picked up a faint fuzz of light that should be Neptune, since Sellarium didn’t show any star as being there, and I picked up a star configuration that included Uranus, but I didn’t go back outside to make sure (when I got back to the computer to double check where it was, and realized I’d actually seen it, I moved on to other things).

    Not all of these can be seen without some aid, but I was using binoculars that are fairly commonly owned. And maybe we can get the author of this column to tell us how to get to those objects without having to keep going back and forth to the computer – Turn Left at Jupiter? 😉


  2. […] saw a lot of burnt trees on the way in, from last fall’s Station Fire, which at one point threatened the observatory. The trees by the gate had some light charring down near the bottoms of their trunks, but they […]

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