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Looking for a Quick Fix : Scientist Vows to Repair CSUN’s Solar Observatory Before Summer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the survival of Cal State Northridge’s earthquake-damaged solar observatory hanging in the balance, the scientist who runs the facility is considering using some rather unscientific tools--such as a hacksaw or cutting torch--to get it back in business for the crucial summer observing season.

Although the two main telescopes at the San Fernando Observatory appear unharmed, they have not been used since Jan. 17. The Northridge earthquake caused the distinctive metal dome that surrounds them to settle about two inches and come in contact with part of their housing, exposing the main scope to research-killing vibrations.

Now, because there may not be enough time or money for more permanent repairs by the start of the observing season in June, Director Gary Chapman is considering using a hacksaw or a torch to cut away the offending parts of the dome. “Scientifically and politically, we can’t afford to give up the season,” he said.

The response is characteristic of the scrappy facility. Long a shoestring operation, it is one of only about a half dozen university-based solar observatories in the United States, experts say. And most of those are here in California, putting CSUN in a league with solar research heavyweights such as Caltech, UCLA and USC.

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If the two main solar telescopes do not resume operations for this summer’s season, the loss could jeopardize research grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that help support the facility, Chapman said. And that in turn could force the closure of the 25-year-old observatory.

Hidden in a remote area of the mostly dry Upper Van Norman Reservoir, the CSUN facility is used by several astronomy faculty members and a handful of students. Only about 15 of CSUN’s 24,800 students are involved in astronomy, Chapman said, and some use the separate night--or stellar--observatory on the Northridge campus.

Yet Chapman, a CSUN professor of physics and astronomy, has won respect from leaders in the relatively small solar astronomy field as much for the research his facility has turned out as for its ability to survive in an academic environment where teaching takes precedence over research.

“It’s a pretty good place. . . . They have good instrumentation” at CSUN’s observatory, said Hal Zirin, director of Caltech’s solar observatory at Big Bear Lake. Saying such research is easy at a specialized school like Caltech but not at Northridge, Zirin said of Chapman: “He’s kept the place alive. It wouldn’t be there except for him.”

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John Leibacher, until last year the director of the federally funded National Solar Observatory in Arizona and now a project manager there, concurred. “The folks out there at Northridge do some very good science,” Leibacher said, adding that a CSUN graduate now seeking a doctorate in astronomy at UCLA is working for Leibacher’s organization.

The San Fernando Observatory was built by the El Segundo-based Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit organization that does federal research work, in the mid-1960s and formally dedicated on Feb. 19, 1969. Its original mission, never fully achieved, was to devise a way of predicting solar flares, which are explosions of solar radiation harmful to astronauts in orbit.

But after plans for a manned orbiting laboratory did not proceed, the corporation donated the facility to CSUN’s foundation in January, 1976, Chapman said. He worked as a researcher for the Aerospace Corp. from 1969 until coming to teach at CSUN in 1977. Several years later he became the observatory’s director.

Although hidden from easy public view near the interchange of the Golden State and Foothill freeways, non-astronomy buffs might recognize the observatory and its white Big and Little Domes from their appearance in films such as Woody Allen’s 1973 “Sleeper,” the 1980 sci-fi spoof “Galaxina” and the mid-'80s miniseries “Space.”

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Today, the observatory takes solar readings from the ground to help support a NASA satellite and does research for the National Science Foundation on variations in the energy output of the sun and its magnetic fields, which cause sunspots and solar flares. The research aims to help evaluate whether the sun or man-made factors are causing suspected global warming.

With nine telescopes, including the main 24-inch diameter scope in the Big Dome, Chapman estimates the observatory is worth at least $6 million. The university estimated the earthquake damage there at between $260,000 and $335,000, about a third of which is related to a large section of parking lot that collapsed several feet.

Chapman is leaning toward the hacksaw or blowtorch method of emergency repair because the likely permanent repair--using hydraulic jacks to lift the Big Dome structure and resettle its four strut-like legs--could take months. That would cut into the crucial summer season, and regardless, Chapman has yet to get any money for the work.

The facility suffered similar damage in the 1971 Sylmar quake and the Big Dome had to be resettled then too, Chapman said. But the more lasting impact was damage to the nearby Van Norman Dam. That forced the reservoir that surrounded the observatory to be drained, depriving it of the water that helped settle the air and permit better readings.

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Since the Northridge quake, the observatory has not lost much ground in research because the early part of the year is quiet for solar observers and the facility’s other, smaller telescopes outside the Big Dome have continued in use, Chapman said. But with summer approaching, time is getting short.

“We will modify the structure with a cutting torch if necessary,” Chapman said, admitting that he won’t know whether that will solve the vibration problem until he tries. “I would say the window of opportunity is rapidly closing,” he added.


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