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Wildfires Threaten Historic Mt. Wilson Observatory

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in Southern California, the Bobcat Fire is still burning through the Angeles National Forest. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports that it's threatening the Mount Wilson Observatory, home to some of the most historically important telescopes in the world.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: This week, flames from the Bobcat Fire got as close as 500 feet from the observatory, which is perched atop Mount Wilson. Tom Meneghini, who operates the lookout's 18 telescopes, is monitoring the site via webcams.

TOM MENEGHINI: You never know. I'm watching a plume of black smoke come up now. And until they can get water on it, I'm just waiting for them to get a helicopter over there to douse the thing.

DEL BARCO: Meneghini, the executive director of the Mount Wilson Institute, says firefighters are stationed below, ready to save the observatory like they did in 2009. So this is not the first fire to threaten the observatory, founded in 1984 by solar astronomer George Ellery Hale. A few years later, he installed a 60-inch telescope, at that time the biggest in the world, says Meneghini.

MENEGHINI: On the 60-inch, Harlow Shapley determined that our solar system was not at the center of the Milky Way.

DEL BARCO: Astronomer Edwin Hubble went even farther, using a bigger telescope - 100 inches - that was installed at the observatory in 1919. Meneghini says with this telescope, Hubble proved the existence of distant galaxies. And he found the universe was still expanding.

MENEGHINI: The Big Bang says everything blew up, and then everything started coalescing into stars, quasars, galaxies and so forth. And the force of that whole event is still going on. Matter is all flying apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF COSMIC SOUNDS)

DEL BARCO: Artist Jeff Talman played cosmic sounds for a concert inside the 100-inch telescope dome last year. Scientists and students continue to use Mount Wilson's instruments. They and thousands of star-gazing visitors are hoping the fire doesn't destroy this space for contemplating the universe.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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