Big Bear Solar Observatory reopened Monday November 3 after a six-day shutdown cause by California’s wildfires. Mandatory evacuation mean the center’s director Philip Goode had to leave his home on Big Bear Lake and return to New Jersey, where the observatory is managed by the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark. But no harm came to observatory staff, property, or equipment.
Goode, distinguished professor of physics at NJIT and director of the school’s Center for Solar Terrestrial Research, is due to return to Big Bear on Monday, Nov. 10.
The closing cost the observatory a chance to capture several days of dramatic solar activity.
“We missed observing some major solar flares, including some of the biggest ones in history on October 29,” said Haimin Wang, the center’s associate director, “but other than that we lost nothing at all.”
The observatory is in Big Bear Valley, a resort and ski area. It is located in the San Bernardino mountains, about two hours east of Los Angeles. New Jersey Institute of Technology took over the management of the observatory in 1997 in an agreement with California Institute of Technology. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. military, and other agencies fund the observatory.
Flames that got within five miles of the observatory forced the staff to leave on Tuesday morning, October 28. The observatory’s telescopes, Web cam, and Website were all shut down, Wang said. The dome was closed to protect telescope mirrors from ash and harmful particles. Only one observatory staff member who is also a volunteer firefighter stayed on.
But after the wind shifted on October 31, and cold wet weather arrived, firefighters began to get control of the flames. At 8 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 2, local officials announced that residents could return to their homes.
The Big Bear telescopes and Website resumed operating the following day, Wang said.
“The sky is very clear now, no smoke,” he said.
The six-day shutdown was not the longest, he said. In past years earthquakes have twice closed the observatory for periods of weeks.
The observatory is normally one of the world’s best daytime locations for viewing the sun. The area gets more than 300 days of sunlight a year. The cool lake surrounding the observatory absorbs heat that can cause haze or image-distorting shimmer.
The facility has three telescopes. The largest, 26 inches, was originally build for a Skylab mission that was later scrapped. The other telescopes are a ten-inch instrument for viewing the sun in white light and a telescope that uses a special spectral wavelength suited to viewing the sun’s magnetic fields.
NJIT physicists working at the Big Bear site and its sister facility, the Owens Valley (California) Radio Observatory have recently made news with observations on solar flares. Press release. Other recent findings include observations on the sun’s magnetic fields.
To see real-time solar observations and Big Bear’s Web Cam, click here.