A wildfire has destroyed four buildings at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona—and while the observatory's dozens of telescopes appear to be safe, scientists fear the smoke and heat may have seriously damaged the equipment. The observatory southwest of Tucson says personnel had already been evacuated when the Contreras Fire crested the ridge where telescopes are located early Friday, Tucson.com reports. Crews worked to protect the structures, clearing brush around domes and other infrastructure but support buildings including dormitories for researchers and students were lost.
Astrophysicist Dr. David Schlegel tells the New York Times that if there is extensive damage to the equipment, it could "pause the progression of cosmology for years to come." Schlegel works in the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument program, which uses technology assembled from 600,000 custom-0rdered parts. "Likely, there will be smoke damage or infiltration of dust into the telescope and instrument," he says, but halting operations for a few monhs to carry out repairs "would be way preferable to having to start over."
The fire, which was started by a June 11 lightning strike, has burned more than 18,000 acres and it could be weeks before scientists can return to the observatory. The observatory is run by the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, aka NOIRLab, Gizmodo reports. "We’re cautiously optimistic that the worst may have passed for Kitt Peak National Observatory, but fire officials warn that the mountain is at risk for another week," the lab said in an update Satuday. (More observatory stories.)