In the aftermath of the massive Contreras Fire, researchers are returning to Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) to assess the extent of the damage to its telescopes. Astronomers watched the fire anxiously from afar, wondering what it might mean for the observatory’s 20 optical telescopes and two radio telescopes. The fire itself, which began with a lightning strike on Baboquivari Peak in the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation, ultimately decimated nearly 30,000 acres before being contained. It is also part of a larger patter of recent wildfires that have threatened vital space research here on Earth.
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While space telescopes, like the recently operational James Webb Telescope, make headlines, telescopes on Earth remain important scientific tools. KPNO is managed by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab), which operates many projects, including the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope on behalf of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) survey and the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope in partnership with several universities, NSF, and NASA. The observatory, just 55 miles outside of Tucson, Arizona, is also a beloved site for public science education.
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KPNO’s fate serves as a wake-up call, showcasing how extreme weather inhibits scientists’ ability to study space from Earth. As of July, officials are still evaluating the fire damage. According to a recent statement from NOIRLab, the extent of the damage to the telescopes is as yet unknown, but “A great deal of remediation and repair need to occur before science teams and other personnel can safely visit.” As governments worldwide fail to curb climate change, massive wildfires pose a growing risk to observatories like KPNO. In the past three years alone the SETI Institute almost lost The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) to the Dixie Fire, the Lick Observatory narrowly withstood the SCU Lightning Complex Fire, and the Mount Wilson Observatory weathered the Bobcat Fire. Wildfires also flood earth’s atmosphere with particulate matter that can remain suspended for months, obscuring the stars for casual stargazers and serious researchers alike.
A Growing Issue For Space Research
The ability to look into the night sky and see the stars is something that humans have long taken for granted, but as wildfires become both more common and more destructive, it will be increasingly difficult for people on Earth to witness popular celestial events like eclipses and meteor showers. A report released earlier this year by the UN Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal warns that wildfires are expected to become more frequent for the remainder of the century, becoming 14% more common by 2030, 30% by 2050 and 50% by 2100. In a destructive, mutually enforcing loop, human-driven climate change both increases wildfire risk and is driven by the emissions released by wildfires themselves.
Space research, while vulnerable to the threats of wildfires, is also crucial to their prevention and management. Wildland firefighters often rely on NASA satellite imagery to assess the scope of fires and plan on-the-ground defenses, and employees in various departments of NASA contribute to projects dedicated to modeling fires in an effort to better understand where and when they will start and how they will behave. As observatories like Kitt Peak National Observatory are increasingly at-risk from wildfires, they may also be the best hope for limiting wildfire destruction.