Visiting California’s Palomar Observatory

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This week I decided to widen my horizons and go somewhere different, an observatory.  Not just any one but a real working research facility.  I went to San Diego County to visit Palomar Observatory.

I could tell you all about my adventures trying to find this place but why spoil the surprise. You’ll discover just how out of the way it is when you visit. You don’t need me babbling about it.  Let’s just skip to the observatory itself.

There isn’t a lot of hullabaloo about the place.  From the carpark one can’t really see the visitor center or the gift shop.  I headed for a likely building and was rewarded by my lucky guess.  The interior of the visitor center is small and dark. Was this because it was a weekday and not many visitors were expected?  The exhibits are mostly lighted poster displays explaining the significance of the observatory.  Some very famous people have been involved with this facility: George E. Hale who came up with the idea in the first place, Edwin Hubble who now has a telescope named for him, and Maarten Schmidt who worked in the early 1960s when the term quasar first came into being.  How about George O. Abell, who used survey data from Palomar in his cosmology work.  I have had his astronomy textbook in the house for years!  These are only a few I could mention.  Palomar Observatory visitor center
In the center of the room is a display about Eleanor Helin. In the early 1970s she worked on comets and asteroids discovering and cataloguing hundreds of them.  There is a copy of the log book with notations she made while observing one night in 1976.  It is a reference to the first asteroid discovered in the inner solar system. Imagine having to make all those entries by hand!  She spent her entire career at Caltech and later the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on Near Earth Objects.Palomar Observatory log bookHer 18-telescope is also on display as part of the Eleanor Helin Exhibit in the visitors center. I should note that this observatory isn’t like a trip to the famous one in Griffith Park. This isn’t an area designed to entertain children.  Caltech operates these telescopes (there are three) as a working research facility.   Astronomers today continue to discover and survey the distant galaxies.  In keeping with this “real science” notion, the exhibits deal with science and show scientific instruments like this stereoscopic microscope used by Helin.Palomar Observatory display case showing stereoscopic microscope

Once I finished exploring the visitors center, I was ready for the big exhibit, the one thing I definitely didn’t want to miss. I headed outside into the bright morning sunshine and walked up the hill to the 200-inch Hale Telescope.  The bright white structure is a short walk from the visitors center and you can see it in the distance as you stroll along.  It seems impressive, but up close it’s huge!Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory

I climbed up the stairs to the visitors gallery.  The view wasn’t spectacular.  The gallery is a small glass-enclosed room with fluorescent overhead lights.  The telescope is on the other side of all that reflective glass!  The inside of the dome is lighted, but not very brightly.  It was very difficult to get a any shot, much less a good one.Interior of Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory I do have one suggestion as to how to fix this. Guided tours are available on the weekend. There is a small charge for the tour and tickets are sold on a first come, first served basis. There’s no doubt about it.  I will have to schedule another visit…on a Saturday. I want a good view next time.


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