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A California wildfire nearly destroyed the historic Lick observatory



Enlarge / Lick Observatory

Bill Dally | Getty Images

On the morning of Sunday, August 16, freak summer thunderstorms rolled into the Bay Area, peppering the ultra-dry landscape with lightning, setting nearly 400 fires across Northern California. Ten miles to the north of the historic Lick Observatory, atop Mount Hamilton near San Jose, one such blaze was closing in, and fast: By Tuesday morning, the flames were 6 miles away. That night, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, made the call to evacuate the facility’s 30-odd residents and staff members, save for the superintendent, Kostas Chloros, who’d stay on to coordinate the defense of one of the world’s most cherished observatories.

It was here that in 1969 astronomers made the first laser lunar ranging, calculating the precise distance to the moon. The observatory has helped scientists explore the structure of the universe, finding the masses of nearby galaxies, as well as black holes and quasars. Its Automated Planet Finder robotic telescope has been instrumental—literally and figuratively—in sniffing out the exoplanets that orbit distant stars.

The approaching firestorm threatened to abruptly halt that legacy. By Wednesday morning, multiple fire-strike teams were setting up on-site—over a dozen engines and around 60 personnel. Here, Cal Fire workers could not only protect the observatory, but stage their efforts to fight fires elsewhere in the area. “From their models and predictions, they knew it was going to hit Mount Hamilton around noontime or so,” Chloros said in a briefing that was livestreamed yesterday.

The view from Lick earlier this month.
Enlarge / The view from Lick earlier this month.

Lick Observatory

The fire reached close to the observatory’s first structures at 3:00 that afternoon, with the facility’s cameras, which are normally trained on the telescope domes and the surrounding mountainside, filming the moment of encroachment. “It starts to create these huge flames—150-foot, 200-foot-high flames,” Chloros said. “The fire did continue on. Basically, it tried to make a whole circle around the mountain.”

In its assault on Mount Hamilton and Lick Observatory, the blaze consumed an unused residence on the property, damaged a few others, and ate through power poles. But Chloros—with his knowledge of the terrain, roads, fire trails, and water supplies—helped direct the movement of Cal Fire crews, who held back the flames, saving the iconic observatory. “This is a miracle, that these folks—with heroic efforts—they were able to keep the structures still standing,” Chloros said.

An unused residence on the Lick Observatory grounds burned up.
Enlarge / An unused residence on the Lick Observatory grounds burned up.

Lick Observatory

(WIRED reached out to Cal Fire, but they were not able to provide comment before press time due to California’s ongoing wildfires.)

Crews are still monitoring the area around the observatory, given that this group of wildfires, known as the SCU Lightning Complex, continues to blacken the region. As of August 26, the complex is only 25 percent contained, and it has so far chewed through 365,000 acres, or 570 square miles. But it appears the biggest threat to the historic Lick Observatory has passed.

Founded in 1888 by real estate mogul James Lick, then California’s richest rich person, Lick was the world’s first mountaintop observatory. “If you go to Paris, the observatory’s in the middle of Paris. If you go to Bologna, the observatory’s in the middle of Bologna,” says Claire Max, director of the University of California Observatories, which runs Lick. “And so this was the first observatory that really took advantage of being at a high site, where there’s both less pollution and less light pollution, and clearer air.”

You might be thinking, “Well, wait a minute. That was 130 years ago—now the observatory is plopped right above one of the most densely populated areas of the US!” How could Lick compete with the likes of the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits far above both light pollution and smog? And it’s true that earthbound telescopes have some disadvantages. “For telescopes on the ground, light traveled through literally billions of light years of undisturbed space, and then in the last hundred kilometers, it gets blurred out by turbulence in the air,” says Max.

Fires burn near Lick Observatory
Enlarge / Fires burn near Lick Observatory

Lick Observatory

The solution is lasers. Lick’s Shane telescope wields an adaptive optics system, which fires a beam into the atmosphere. “Adaptive optics measures the turbulence hundreds or thousands of times a second, and then changes the shape of a special mirror, called the deformable mirror, to take away the blurring,” says Max.

The Shane telescope also has a larger mirror than Hubble: 3 meters compared to 2.4 meters. So if there happens to be a bright enough star nearby your viewing target, Max says, “you can get the same kind of spatial resolution that Hubble gets, because our telescope is more or less the same size, and we’re taking away the blurring of the atmosphere with adaptive optics.”

Not only can the Lick Observatory get astronomers great images—even with all the light pollution and disturbance of the atmosphere above—it’s also more accessible for researchers. “It’s a cutthroat competition to get observing time on Hubble,” Max says. “I don’t know what the fraction of success is, but it’s very low. And then if you do get success, you don’t get very much time to do your observations, because everybody else is chomping at the bit.”

The glaring weakness of a terrestrial observatory, though, is its exposure to earthly disasters like wildfires. Even though Lick’s telescopes appear to be undamaged, crews haven’t yet done an internal damage assessment of the buildings or the instruments therein. These are some of the most sensitive scientific instruments on earth, and they may be coated in ash if their domes weren’t fully sealed. “That’s got corrosive chemicals in it, and it’s also scratchy,” Max says. “So you have to be very careful how you clean your optics off, that you don’t make a bad situation worse—either by letting the chemicals corrode the top layer of the glass or by scratching the glass in the process of trying to get rid of it.”

Plus, these telescopes are powered by extremely precise motors that move the instruments around with micrometer accuracy—that’s a millionth of a meter. Obviously, if you’re staring into a far-off galaxy, you need such fidelity. “Hopefully, the motors didn’t get too gunked up,” says Max. “If they did, we’re going to have to take them all apart and clean them out. I think we probably are OK, because the domes are pretty well sealed, but that all has to be checked.”

If anything needs cleaning or repairing once crews open up those domes, that’ll of course cost money. But there’s also the incalculable cost for science. Many graduate students use Lick for their research, for instance. “They’re on a timeline,” Max says. “They have to graduate by a certain time, they have to get a job by a certain time. So they’re the ones that I want to be sure don’t get hurt by this.”

She credits that critical collaboration between superintendent Kostas Chloros and the Cal Fire crews with ensuring that astronomers would even have telescopes to come back to atop Mount Hamilton. Max says that one astronomer recently told her that Chloros should be knighted for having saved the observatory. “I’m just so grateful, Kostas,” Max adds. “Thank you.”

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NASA delays flight of Boeing’s Starliner again, this time for parachutes



Enlarge / Starliner touches down in December 2019 for the first time.

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA and Boeing announced Wednesday that the first crewed flight of the Starliner spacecraft will now take place no earlier than July 21. This moves the vehicle’s flight, carrying NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, from the previously announced timeframe of April.

The manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, Steve Stich, said the delay was attributable to the extra time needed to close out the pre-flight review process of Starliner and also due to traffic from other vehicles visiting the space station in June and the first half of July.

“When we look at all the different pieces, most of the work will be complete in April for the flight,” Stich said during a teleconference with reporters. “But there’s one area that’s extending out into the May time frame, and this really has to do with the certification products for the parachute system.”

Boeing has conducted more than 20 tests of its parachute system, including dropping the vehicle from different altitudes to test their deployment sequence and how the parachutes perform in different environments to simulate returning from space. Stich said there are no issues with the parachutes, which are installed on Starliner already. Mostly, it is about reviewing all the tests Boeing has done to ensure the parachutes performed as intended.

“It’s just a matter of going through all that data and looking at the data and making sure we’re really ready to go fly safely,” Stich said.

There is one final test to be completed on the ground, he said, of a parachute subsystem that pulls Starliner’s forward heat shield away and sets up deployment of the drogue and then main parachutes. That test is targeted for May.

The additional time needed to complete the review process of Starliner and its parachute system delayed the vehicle’s launch into June. However, at that time, NASA plans to launch SpaceX’s CRS-28 cargo resupply mission, which will tie up one of the lab’s docking hatches. This supply mission is bringing solar arrays to the station that NASA does not want to delay because it would delay planned spacewalks to install them. The lack of a docking port, therefore, pushed the Starliner flight into the second half of July.

NASA and Boeing must also balance schedules with United Launch Alliance, which is boosting the mission to orbit with its Atlas V rocket. The company presently has the USSF-51 mission scheduled for the Space Force this summer and also needs the Space Launch Complex-41 pad for the debut of its Vulcan rocket in May or later this summer.

This will be the third flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The vehicle’s debut in December 2019 failed to rendezvous with the International Space Station after multiple issues, including software problems. After fixing these issues, Boeing flew the vehicle on a second test flight in May 2022. Although there were some propulsion issues with this flight, Starliner docked with the space station, setting the stage for a crewed flight test.

After Boeing completes this critical test flight and NASA certifies the vehicle as ready for operational missions, the company will fly approximately once a year to the space station for regular crew rotations. The first of these operational missions is planned for no earlier than the spring of 2024.

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California wants to build more solar farms but needs more power lines



Enlarge / Westlands Solar Park, near the town of Lemoore in the San Joaquin Valley of California, is the largest solar power plant in the United States and could become one of the largest in the world.

Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty

California’s San Joaquin Valley, a strip of land between the Diablo Range and the Sierra Nevada, accounts for a significant portion of the state’s crop production and agricultural revenues. But with the state facing uncertain and uneven water supply due to climate change, some local governments and clean energy advocates hope solar energy installations could provide economic reliability where agriculture falters due to possible water shortages.

In the next two decades, the Valley could accommodate the majority of the state’s estimated buildout of solar energy under a state plan forecasting transmission needs [PDF], adding enough capacity to power 10 million homes as California strives to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. The influx of solar development would come at a time when the historically agriculture-rich valley is coping with new restrictions on groundwater pumping. Growers may need to fallow land. And some clean energy boosters see solar as an ideal alternative land use.

But a significant technological hurdle stands in the way: California needs to plan and build more long-distance power lines to carry all the electricity produced there to different parts of the state, and development can take nearly a decade. Transmission has become a significant tension point for clean energy developers across the US, as the number of project proposals balloons and lines to connect to the grid grow ever longer.

Existing lines are not enough to accommodate the spike in large clean energy installations, planning new transmission has lagged, and regulators have struggled to keep up with studying and processing all the projects looking to hook up to the grid.

“It’s undeniable that we do need major funding for transmission buildout in California, and frankly, the West, to meet our clean energy goals,” said Dian Grueneich, a former commissioner on the California public utility commission. “The issue is where, how much, when, et cetera, … It’s probably the most complex area there is.”

Compared to other regions, California has been relatively proactive in assessing the grid needs of a decarbonized future, said Rob Gramlich, founder of consulting firm Grid Strategies LLC. But there’s still much work to do.

“It’s a systemic problem across the country. We have interconnection queue process problems in most regions,” said Gramlich. “The problem is more acutely felt in any region that is going faster on the energy transition. And California is second to no one on the pace and ambition of its clean energy transition.”

That challenge could cause particular difficulties in regions of California expecting a big scale-up in renewable energy, like the North Coast, where offshore wind developers are planning projects, or areas of the Central Valley eyed by solar companies and facing a potential downturn in the water available for crops.

“Short of water”

In coming years, more land in California once used for agriculture could host solar. In 2014, the state approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, an effort to reduce over-pumping from aquifers that had caused land in certain parts of the state to sink. The law requires local water managers to submit plans to the state that demonstrate how they’ll keep industries and people from pulling water out of underground stores more quickly than it can be replenished.

California farmers get water for their crops via a combination of underground supplies and diversions from reservoirs, lakes, and other stores managed by the state and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The new groundwater regulations, combined with climate change and other environmental regulations, could lead to a 20 percent drop in annual average water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley by 2040, according to a February analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

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Healthy adults don’t need annual COVID boosters, WHO advisors say



Enlarge / A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center.

A vaccine advisory group for the World Health Organization said Tuesday that, at this point, it does not recommend additional, let alone annual COVID-19 booster shots for people at low to medium risk of severe disease. It advised countries to focus on boosting those at high risk—including older people, pregnant people, and those with underlying medical conditions—every six to 12 months for the near- to mid-term.

The new advice contrasts with proposed plans by US Food and Drug Administration, which has suggested treating COVID-19 boosters like annual flu shots for the foreseeable future. That is, agency officials have floated the idea of offering updated formulations each fall, possibly to everyone, including the young and healthy.

In a viewpoint published last May in JAMA, the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, Peter Marks, along with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock, argued that annual COVID booster campaigns in the fall, ahead of winter waves of respiratory infections—such as flu, COVID-19, and RSV—would protect health care systems from becoming overwhelmed. And they specifically addressed the possibility of vaccinating those at low risk.

“The benefit of giving additional COVID-19 booster vaccines to otherwise healthy individuals 18 to 50 years of age who have already received primary vaccination and a first booster dose is not likely to have as marked an effect on hospitalization or death as in the other populations at higher risk,” the FDA officials wrote. “However, booster vaccinations could be associated with a reduction in health care utilization (e.g., emergency department or urgent care center visits).”

In a press briefing Tuesday, WHO advisors called the benefit of boosting those at low or even medium risk “actually quite marginal” and suggested that countries could roll back offering primary COVID-19 vaccination series to low-risk healthy children and teens based on country-specific conditions and resources.

Context and limits

These updated recommendations “reflect that much of the population is either vaccinated or previously infected with COVID-19, or both,” said Hanna Nohynek, chair of the WHO’s advisory groups, called SAGE for the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. But the advisor’s updated guidance “reemphasizes the importance of vaccinating those still at risk of severe disease, mostly older adults and those with underlying conditions, including with additional boosters,” she added.

Specifically, the WHO’s SAGE considered high-risk groups: older adults; younger adults with significant comorbidities, such as diabetes and heart disease; people 6 months and older with immunocompromising conditions, such as people living with HIV and transplant recipients; pregnant people; and frontline health workers.

For these high-risk groups, SAGE recommended an additional booster six to 12 months after their last, given the current epidemiological conditions. The advisors noted that the advice is “time-limited” for the current situation, not one for annual or biannual shots to be offered in perpetuity. The scenario and overall recommendations could change depending on new, more virulent variants or future declines in COVID-19 spread, for instance.

Already, the United Kingdom and Canada have offered spring COVID-19 boosters to high-risk groups, including older people and those who have immunocompromising conditions. So far, the FDA has not indicated that it will do the same.

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