Note: this was originally written January 20, 2003. Please see the end of this writeup for more recent information on the status of Mount Stromlo Observatory. --Grz

Mount Stromlo Observatory was in the top tier of Australia's observatories for conducting astronomical research, and one of the finer optical observatories in the southern hemisphere. Based upon news reports from Australian news services, it appears that the entire observatory -- all telescopes, along with several engineering workshops, libraries, and administrative facilities -- were completely destroyed on January 18, 2003 by the out of control brushfires currently burning around Canberra. Although thankfully no one appears to have been injured in the Stromlo fire, the observatory is by all accounts a total loss. At least four people have died and hundreds are injured in greater Canberra as a result of the firestorm. (Please see Canberra bushfires, January 2003 for more details.)

Mount Stromlo Observatory first took root in 1910 with the construction of its first telescope, though it was slow to grow due to World War I and the relatively slow growth of the Australian capitol. The observatory proper was established in 1924 with the construction of an observatory dome and staff offices. However the oldest instrument on-site, the 50-inch Great Melbourne Telescope, was constructed in 1868 and later moved to its current home. The GMT was substantially upgraded in the 1980s and 1990s primarily to serve the MACHO Project which searched for dark matter in our Milky Way Galaxy. Recently, it was also put into service to search for small, faint objects in our solar system. Research was also conducted with a 74-inch telescope, and other smaller instruments. All of the instruments appear to have been destroyed, though some of the offices and libraries may have survived. Hopefully this is the case as Stromlo certainly must have had substantial and irreplaceable data and image archives onsite.

The observatory was also the site for a major astronomical instrumentation design and fabrication center. Its latest projects were to build instruments for the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. A sensitive spectrograph had recently been completed at a cost of over AUS$6 million and was nearly ready to ship when fire destroyed the laboratory and, presumably, the instrument itself. Stromlo engineers were to begin construction on a second Gemini instrument designed for astronomical imaging shortly.

As with many observatories around the world, Mount Stromlo also served as a teaching center, both for students of ANU, and for students, postdoctoral fellows, and scientists worldwide. As the largest university-run observatory in the southern hemisphere, it filled a unique role in training young astronomers for their future career, and was a highly-regarded program around the world. Stromlo also played a role in the science education of the local community as well, with a visitor center for non-astronomers. Last, but not least, the site also served as a popular banquet facility for greater Canberra as well as a cafe known as "Red Belly Black," both owned and run by Simon Robinson. Apparently a banquet was just being laid out in the 26-inch telescope dome when the fire hit, and his business has been completely devastated. Robinson has been beset by a second tragedy, namely the loss of his home in nearby Duffy to the fires. At least two of the astronomers who worked at Mount Stromlo also lost their homes.

The loss of the observatory is inconsequential compared to the deaths of four people, the injury of hundreds more, and the loss of hundreds of homes around Canberra. However, the destruction of Mount Stromlo Observatory is a tragic and historic loss for Australia National University, for Australia, and for the global astronomical community. It comes as a personal shock for me, since I've had friends in residence there, and the bulk of the observational data for my dissertation came from the MACHO Project -- Stromlo has played an important role in modern astronomy. My thoughts are with the observatory staff and all the people of Canberra affected by the severe fires at this time.

Update July 13, 2003:
ANU have announced plans for the reconstruction and development of the Mount Stromlo Observatory. The plan will include construction of one new telescope at each of the Mount Stromlo and Siding Springs sites, with the Siding Springs telescope to be controlled remotely by observers on Stromlo. The ANU will also restore the 23-cm "Oddie" telescope, an important part of Mount Stromlo's heritage. Plans also include reconstruction and restoration of the Administration Building, which was on Australia's list of Heritage sites. Finally, new staff offices and housing will be built, and the Advanced Instruments and Engineering Facility will be built to replace the Engineering workshops destroyed in the fire. Public outreach will also be expanded to include a new Virtual Reality theater.

Several news pages, including
Thanks to sneff and Orpheum for additional information.