Bush fire scare at Perth ground station
8 March 2001Whilst XMM-Newton delves into the hottest places in the Universe, life down on planet Earth can sometimes also be too warm for comfort. Pictures have become available of a bush fire that recently threatened the X-ray observatory's tracking station near Perth. Science operations were unaffected.
ESA's ground station is located 20 km north of the city on the western coast of Australia. Bush fires are frequent in this region in the summer period and February is always the warmest and driest month of the year.
The fires are also called 'wild fires' because strong and rapidly changing breezes can dramatically change circumstances. That was just the case on the morning of 14 February, Valentine's Day, when a blaze was spotted some 10 km from the station.
Fire services quickly intervened but the easterly winds drove the fire forwards. Jumping from the top of one tall tree to another, there was not much to be done. By early afternoon, the front had crossed one dual-carriageway and was approaching the perimeter of the tracking station.
"Nearly 300 firemen had been mobilised, with 70 vehicles," recalls station manager John Holt. The forty staff members present at the time were evacuated without incident.
"In eleven years working here, I have never seen anything like it, and it was pretty scary" recalls one of his engineers. "But we regularly clear the land around the perimeter fence, burning the bushes and scrub land. It was with these fire breaks, and by lighting counter-fires that the fire services came to grips with the situation and saved our station."
By the time it was extinguished, the fire had burnt 2200 acres (900 hectares). Its plume, stretching several hundred kilometers out to sea, could clearly be seen by one of NOAA's Earth observation satellites.
Situated in the Perth International Telecommunications complex, the facility is operated for ESA's Networks Operations Department at ESOC, Darmstadt by the Telstra Corporation. Several large dish antennae track, command and receive signals from various spacecraft, including XMM-Newton. The X-ray mission has two other stations at Kourou, French Guiana and in Santiago, Chile.
Pictures courtesy of John Holt and NOAA.