Mount Palomar Observatory - part 1


If you have a chance, I highly recommend visiting Palomar Observatory, on Mount Palomar, in northeastern San Diego County, about a 75-minute drive from Escondido.


Joan (my bride of 42 years) and I recently enjoyed a rare opportunity to spend the night at the Observatory, with the astronomers and telescopes. I was invited to give a presentation to the Friends of Palomar Observatory, and they graciously offered to put us up for the night at the “Monastery.”







It was a special occasion: Scott Kardel, one Palomar’s key staff members, was leaving for a new job in Tucson. Scott gave the day’s last public tour of the giant 200-inch Hale Telescope. During each tour, a 1/100th scale model is used to explain how the telescope and the dome enclosure work.






One of the kids in the tour group is invited to push the control buttons that put the scale model through its paces. But on this special day, when the lucky 10-year old girl pushed the button, the scale model wasn’t the only thing that moved—the giant dome opened as well. (As in the Wizard of Oz, Jean, the Telescope Operator was just behind the curtains running the real control panel). As the dome’s two 125-ton doors slid wide open, so did the little girl’s eyes. Then everyone got a ride as the entire 1000-ton dome rotated. The mechanism was designed to minimize vibrations that could disturb the telescope, so the motion is so smooth that many of us weren’t sure if it was the dome or the telescope floor that was turning.




Telescope in Sunlight-a rare sight






The dome is 135 feet tall and 137 feet in diameter, so there was plenty of room for a large crowd.




For the finale, we walked out onto the exterior catwalk (not for the acrophobic) to enjoy panoramic mountain views as the dome continued turning to the starting point for the evening’s observations.







After the tour ended, the observatory grounds were closed to the public, and I gave my talk to the Friends and staff.


Happy to say that the Palomar bookstore decided to carry my book, Everyone’s Guide to Atoms, Einstein, and the Universe.






Then it was off to the Monastery for dinner. Palomar Observatory is owned and operated by my alma mater, Caltech, which is rightly proud of its “stellar” reputation in astronomy—they treat astronomers very well.



A resident chef prepares marvelous dinners, and box “lunches” to satiate hungry astronomers’ 3am cravings. We checked in and were issued our key. They had reserved the bridal suite for us—perhaps the only room with a bed for two.




Turns out, the key we received wasn’t our room key, because none of rooms have locks. It was much more important than that. This was the astronomers’ key, opening the doors to all five telescope domes.








In addition to the 200-inch “Big Eye”, Palomar has four smaller telescopes whose primary mirrors span from 18 to 60 inches.






The Monastery is named for the monk-like behavior mandated for all guests. Rules are prominently posted in every room. Since astronomers work at night and sleep during the day, no loud noises or conversations are permitted. Also no showers before 1pm. To prevent interfering with scientific observations, no lights are permitted at night in the corridors or in the rooms, unless the blackout shades are fully closed and locked. Our key came with a small flashlight (that almost worked).


Considerable care is required to open the blackout shades in the morning without waking astronomers who have recently gone to bed. I looked all over but didn’t find “Hubble slept here” on any of the walls. Hubble was the first astronomer to use this great telescope, which was the world’s largest for 50 years.



At dinner, we were delighted to meet the astronomers who were preparing for that night’s observing. They very kindly invited us to join them and watch them as they watched the universe.


All about that in Part 2.


Jean, the Telescope Operator




Best Regards,



Dr. Robert Piccioni
Author of "Everyone's Guide to Atoms, Einstein, and the Universe"
and "Can Life Be Merely An Accident?"