Kitt Peak telescopes undamaged from wildfire

Firefighters have so far been able to protect the telescopes on Kitt Peak in Arizona from being damaged by a fast burning wildfire that began a week ago.

In a statement, NOIRLabs, which manages Kitt Peak Observatory for the National Science Foundation, said a crew of firefighters are working on the summit with multiple engines. Hydrants have been tested, and fire hoses deployed to defend the observatory’s buildings, they said, adding firefighters are dropping “large amounts” of fire retardant on the southern end of the observatory in an effort to slow the fire’s advance.

On Thursday, firefighters cleared a line of trees and brush below the peak’s southern ridge, an effort that was “mostly complete” by the evening, said NOIRLabs. Firefighters also cleared the area around individual domes, as well around “critical infrastructure,” and around flammable propane tanks. In some places, ground crews started backfires to create fuel breaks, officials said.

Firefighters are continuing to remove brush on the slopes, and have spotters watching for hot-spots.

That this point it appears the telescopes are safe, as the fire teams allow the fire to burn out.

Wildfire reaches Kitt Peak National Observatory

A wildfire has crested the peak and reached the Kitt Peak National Observatory, threatening a number of telescopes there.

Around 2:00 a.m. MST Friday morning the fire, contrary to the expectations of the firecrews, crested the southwest ridge where the Hiltner 2.4-meter Telescope, McGraw-Hill 1.3-meter Telescope, Very Long Baseline Array Dish and UArizona 12-meter Telescope are located. Because of the ongoing nature of the situation, it is currently not possible to assess whether any damage to the structures has occurred. We will report any damage as soon as possible.

Based on this report, however, it does appear that officials expect several of these telescopes to be damaged by the fire.

The status of telescopes the NSF is getting rid of

Back in 2012 the National Science Foundation (NSF) proposed that it cease funding a slew of older, smaller telescopes in order to use that money to fund the construction and operation of newer more advanced facilities. This article, focused on the fate of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, provides a nice table that shows the status of these telescopes.

The options were either to find new funding, be mothballed, or even demolished. It appears that most of the telescopes in question have found new funding and will remain in use in some manner. The one telescope that has apparently failed to obtain any additional funding from others is the McMath–Pierce Solar Telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona, which when built in 1962 was the world’s largest solar telescope, an honor for which it is still tied.

In 2015 I had written an article for Sky & Telescope about how these budget cuts were effecting the telescopes on Kitt Peak. At that time the people in charge of McMath-Pierce were hunting for new support but were coming up short. Almost two years later it appears that their hunt has been a failure, and the telescope will likely be shut down, and possibly demolished.

It will be a sad thing if McMath-Pierce is lost, but I am not arguing to save it. If its observational capabilities were truly valuable and needed by the scientific community than someone would have come forward to finance it. That no one has suggests that the money really can be spent more usefully in other ways.

On the road

On Thursday and Friday I will likely not be able to do much posting, as I am heading up to Kitt Peak to watch an amateur astronomer do overnight observations using the 2.1 meter telescope on the mountain. I will also be taking a tour of the numerous facilities on the mountain top. All of this is in connection with an article I am writing for Sky & Telescope.

I am unsure if I will have internet service there. If I do, I will continue to post. Otherwise I will return Friday afternoon and pick up from there.

Update, Friday mid-day: I am back. Though I had access to the internet, I was too busy with other business to post. A lot of news stories since yesterday, so there will be a lot of posts in the next few hours.