Canberra fire destroys historic observatory

One of Australia's most devastating firestorms has destroyed more than four hundred homes and an observatory which was established in the 1920s.
Written by Jeanne-Vida Douglas, Contributor
SYDNEY--On Saturday, Jan. 18, a devastating firestorm raged through Canberra and its outskirts. More than four hundred homes, and multiple businesses were destroyed, along with the historic Mount Stromlo observatory, which was established in the 1920s.

Preliminary estimates of Mt Stromlo's losses stand in excess of AU$20 million (US$12 million)--four telescopes, equipment workshop, eight staff quarters and an administration building succumbed to the blaze.

However, the observatory's legacy, millions of units of data collected as part of its research over the years, has been salvaged thanks to a comprehensive disaster recovery plan implemented by the Australian National University's (ANU) information division.

According to Peter Young, head of the computer section at Mt Stromlo, the data created at the observatory was divided into two separate groups. Research data collected by the telescopes--as part of national and international studies--was channeled directly to a large StorageTek 9310 Powderhorn library, referred to as a 6000-slot data silo, located at the ANU's central Canberra campus. Administration and research data held in the observatory's administration center was backed-up at regular intervals and stored in two separate locations remote from the facility.

As the fires approached on Saturday, Young managed to complete a final backup.

"The administration building, which contained our computer facilities, was largely undamaged...it held all of our computer servers and equipment. At the moment, we're in the process of transporting most of that gear to the university," Young said.

Although we lost a large computing facility located in the 50-inch dome, the data was untouched, he added.

While the loss of the physical infrastructure comes as a blow to the observatory's research efforts, Young points out that the ability to recover the information means its staff will be able to continue with their research while the center is either rebuilt or relocated.

Bob Gingold, who leads the university's supercomputer facility, said the disaster recovery plan had enabled the observatory to continue to provide its information resources to astronomers all over the world, essentially creating what may prove to be the world's first "virtual observatory".

"By re-establishing the data access down at the ANU, and offering the information over the Internet to people across the globe, we're enabling much of the observatory's work to continue," Gingold said.

Alongside the Powderhorn library, the StorageTek equipment at the university's supercomputing facility consists of eight T9840 tape drives, four T9940 tape drives, two Redwood tape drives as well as a tape and disk storage area network. In an effort to assist university and observatory staff in the recovery process, StorageTek has offered a further 9730 tape drive on loan.

However, Young points out the observatory will ultimately need more than data access in order to resume its scientific endeavors.

ZDNet Australia's Jeanne-Vida Douglas reported from Sydney.

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