Simon Robinson inspects the charred remains of Canberra's historic Mount Stromlo Observatory. The observatory was destroyed by a disastrous brush fire on Saturday when more than 400 houses were razed and four people died.

fire ruins Big Isle
telescope plans

An instrument was destroyed
that would have put studies
at Mauna Kea far ahead

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> A forest and brush fire in Australia has destroyed an astronomical instrument under construction which would have put the Gemini North Telescope on Mauna Kea in the forefront of certain infrared astronomical studies.

The $3 million Near-infrared Integral-Field Spectrograph, under construction since 1999 at Australia's Mount Stromlo Observatory, was six months short of completion and installation on the Gemini North telescope, said Gemini spokesman Peter Michaud.

The instrument would have been used to study the area around black holes at the centers of galaxies and to study star formation elsewhere.

"It's quite a blow," Michaud said. But the loss for Australia was far worse.

The fire killed four people and destroyed 451 homes on the outskirts of the capital, Canberra.

On Mount Stromlo, just six miles from Canberra, at least four telescopes and several buildings were destroyed.

Although the telescopes were small by Mauna Kea standards, they were capable of sophisticated studies, said Warrick Couch, the Australian project scientist assigned to the seven-nation Gemini observatory.

The 50-inch Great Melbourne Telescope, built in 1868, had been rebuilt to search for "machos," massive astrophysical compact halo objects, or in simpler terms, "failed stars," Couch said.

The destruction was a "terrible loss," he said.

Australian know-how was recognized in the decision to have the infrared instrument built there, said Gemini spokesman Michaud.

The desk-size instrument was designed to have the ends of a large bundle of fiber-optic cables pointed at incoming light, Michaud said. Each fiber would gather and analyze infrared light from a specific object or a specific area in a rather wide field of view, he said.

As many as 200 objects could have been analyzed simultaneously, he said.

Gemini already has an instrument that can do that with hot objects like the sun that emit visible light. The instrument that gathers infrared light would have allowed astronomers to view celestial objects that are merely warm, about the temperature of a human body or the planet Earth, he said.

The effectiveness would have been magnified by the 26.5-foot-wide mirror of the Gemini telescope and instruments that can smooth out the twinkle of incoming star light, said Gemini instrumentation director Doug Simons.

Since the instrument in Australia could not be insured, new money will have to be found to build a replacement, Michaud said. Up to five more years will be needed to build a new one. And since technology has changed during the time the first instrument was being built, it will also have to be redesigned.

"It would have been the first of its kind," Simons said. Now the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile will be the first late next year, he said.

Gemini Observatory

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