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