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Bushfire damages Australia's largest observatory

A bushfire burning west of Coonabarabran has destroyed at least twelve properties but officials believe crucial telescopes at Australia's largest observatory have escaped damage.

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Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt might be agnostic but this weekend resorted to his own version of prayer.

As fires swept upon the Siding Spring Observatory in Coonabarabran, Professor Schmidt was taken back nine years and 360 days, to the January 18 Canberra fire storm which obliterated the Mount Stromlo Observatory.

The historical settlement was all but destroyed - losing five telescopes, the library, archives and administration buildings. The Great Melbourne Telescope, built in Ireland in 1868 and modified over its 135-year lifespan, was the one being used by Professor Schmidt as he prepared to begin a groundbreaking digital survey of the southern sky.

Top research facility ... fire rages towards the Siding Spring Observatory.

Top research facility ... fire rages towards the Siding Spring Observatory. Photo: NSW Rural Fire Service

It has taken him most of the decade to rebuild this southern sky survey, using a spanking new custom-built 1.35 metre SkyMapper telescope out at Siding Springs. So it was with a sense of incredulity that he watched on Sunday as fire once again threatened to turn his state-of-the-art equipment into charred rubble.

“I have to admit, I was thinking about that Yogi Berra saying ‘this is deja vu all over again’,” he said.

“It just seemed crazy to contemplate losing it again so close to the 10th anniversary of Mount Stromlo.”

The morning after ... Siding Spring Observatory.

The morning after ... Siding Spring Observatory. Photo: NSW Rural Fire Service

But this time good fire preparation, luck, and maybe even God, were on Professor Schmidt’s side.

Initial reports from Siding Springs on Monday show five buildings had all but burnt down – including the visitor’s lodge, cottages and sheds - but the telescopes appeared to have come through unscathed. The fire’s impact on the instruments will not be known until a technical inspection of the telescopes can be done in coming days.

Keeping in touch with colleagues and friends via Twitter while he monitored live internet footage of the fire’s encroach, Professor Schmidt expressed his relief.

Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt, at the site of the old 50" reflector telescope at Mt Stromlo that was burnt out in 2003.

Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt, at the site of the old 50" reflector telescope at Mt Stromlo that was burnt out in 2003. Photo: Rohan Thomson

 “Did my own version of praying - seems to have paid off. Perhaps there is a God after all,” he joked with fellow wine-maker Tim Kirk, a Catholic theologian who has been trying to “convert” Professor Schmidt.

He knows, from bleak experience, that it could have been much, much worse.

Like most Canberrans who experienced that extraordinary weekend a decade ago, Professor Schmidt recalls the details with clarity.

A kangaroo bounds past the burnt out shell of a historic telescope at Mt Stromlo Observatory. Click for more photos

Remembering 2003: Mount Stromlo fires

A kangaroo bounds past the burnt out shell of a historic telescope at Mt Stromlo Observatory. Photo: Andrew Meares

  • A kangaroo bounds past the burnt out shell of a historic telescope at Mt Stromlo Observatory.
  • Mount Stromlo Observatory burns during Canberra bushfires in 2003.
  • The ANU site controller Gary Thompson looking the melted aluminum  what was a  dome of the Yale Telescope.
  • The Stromlo Observatory was operated by the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics before being destroyed by by the 2003 fire.
  • A  burnt out truck in the Stromlo Pine Forest near Duffy in 2003.
  • A firefighter putting out smouldering pine trees in the Stromlo Forest in 2003.
  • One of many workshops at Mount Stromlo Observatory, that were destroyed in the January 18 bushfires.
  • An aerial view of Mt Stromlo Observatory taken in December 2012.

On the morning of January 18, he was aware of imminent danger to his workplace and knew preparations had been made to fireproof the area as much as possible.

He had friends in Duffy with a young child who he’d offered to take to play with his own sons just in case anything happened.

Foremost in his mind was a young Italian astronomy graduate student he was supervising, Marilena Salvo, who was living at Mount Stromlo studying exploding stars, or supernovae.

When he called her before lunch she seemed calm and said they had been given an hour to evacuate.

But as he drove into Weston Creek things got serious very suddenly.

"The sky literally turned black and suddenly cars were heading out from every direction. I was the only one driving in in that direction. As I started up Warragamba Drive one of the houses in front of me burst into flames."

Mount Stromlo Observatory on fire during Canberra's 2003 bushfires.

Mount Stromlo Observatory burns during Canberra's 2003 bushfires. Photo: Supplied / ACTEW

Professor Schmidt did a hasty U-turn, put his ute into four-wheel drive and sped away – his two sons surprisingly nonchalant as a procession of houses, trees and bushland caught alight.

"At that point I suspected the worst for Mount Stromlo,” he said.

He pulled over to call Marilena, who by this stage was far less calm.

"She said 30 seconds after we spoke, they came in and said ‘you don’t have an hour, it’s now – drop everything and get into the car'."

Marilena would lose all her belongings in the fire but considered herself lucky to be alive - her thesis thankfully unscathed.

Another graduate student Rachel Moody would, however,  suffer the heartbreaking discovery that her thesis had been consumed by flames. While the raw data for her work was backed up – she lost all her calculations and manipulations which would need to be painstakingly reconfigured over the coming months.

That night, as embers rained down on his Sutton vineyard, Professor Schmidt assumed the worst.

He was grateful his friends in Weston Creek and colleagues on Mount Stromlo had managed to evacuate in time and would be rocked by the news that four people lost their lives that day.

But nothing could really prepare him for his return to Mount Stromlo two days later and the sight of the blacked and warped Great Melbourne Telescope.

"It was sort of like going to a funeral. I just felt sick, I had tears in my eyes," he said.

"What really killed me was the library, the most comprehensive astronomical library in the southern hemisphere, was completely destroyed – every single book and so many irreplaceable things were lost and I watched as the burned pieces of paper blew around the mountain.’’

Incredibly, Professor Schmidt’s office had survived the inferno. While the window had been ripped out and the curtains melted, his desk, computer and papers remained unscathed.

The accumulated Terabytes of raw data from the Great Melbourne Telescope was backed up at the ANU’s Mass Storage System - but the scientists had largely lost everything they had been working on.

"It’s hard to say exactly how far it set us back. It probably cost me and everyone else there well more than a year of their life."

Longer still was the wait for a protracted legal battle surrounding the insurance of the Mt Stromlo which was not finalised until 2010.

Even as the case wound through the court system, Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb vowed Mount Stromlo would be rebuilt and work began almost immediately.

Professor Schmidt was just 27 when he arrived at the ANU from Harvard in 1994, as a young and energetic astrophysicist.

Thankfully no natural disaster intervened in his research on supernovae and measurements of the expansion of the universe between 1995 and 1998 when he and colleagues Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess observed that the universe was, in fact, expanding, rather than contracting. They were awarded science’s highest honour in 2011 – the Nobel Prize.

When asked whether there is an upside to the trauma and devastation of losing so much history, data and work in the 2003 firestorm, Professor Schmidt concedes there is.

"The fact is, we now have a much better telescope than we used to. Mount Stromlo has had to build itself from scratch – it is a very painful process but you can make yourself very modern and up-to-date," he said.

"Although you may not have as much as you used to, what you have is better."

He describes SkyMapper as "part of Stromlo’s rebirth from the ashes".

He also attributed its survival from the Wambelong fire over the weekend as testament to new levels of fire preparation and awareness within the observatory community.

Even the Great Melbourne Telescope is heading for a rebirth, having been meticulously disassembled and transported to Melbourne for a painstaking restoration project. The former "giant of science" will be reinstated to its original building at the former Melbourne Observatory site and used for public education.

And the young graduate student who lost her thesis?

Dr Rachel Campbell (nee Moody) is now heading up outreach for the University of Western Kentucky’s Astronomy faculty.

"After all that, we managed to keep her in astronomy, and that’s a really great thing" said Professor Schmidt with a laugh.