Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Palomar Observatory Tour

I went up to Palomar Mountain to visit the Palomar Observatory with some friends and people from work. Tamara lives on the mountain and arranged for us to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the telescope from her astronomer friend who works there.

Palomar Observatory
The observatory is at an altitude of 5,600 feet on the mountain and it is 135 feet tall. We started out the tour in the large basement below the main observing floor. It is used as storage but it's main purpose is to house the heavy ballasts that support and balance the weight of the large telescope. Our guide then took us through the small offices and showed us the star charts generated by the telescope.

We then went out onto the telescope floor. I had been here before during my six-grade camp but it was much nicer to stand directly under the telescope instead of being trapped behind glass in the small visitor's gallery. We learned that the 200-inch mirror of the Hale Telescope was the largest in the world for 45 years when it first started observing the sky in 1949. We were also told that the observatory was once a listed target for the Soviet Union in the event that they launched a nuclear missile strike. Since it was daytime, the shutters in the dome were closed and the temperature inside was kept very cool to match the nighttime mountain temperature.

The sweetest part of the observatory tour was when they rotated the telescope dome while we were standing on the dome's inner catwalk. The 1,000 ton dome rotates so slowly and smoothly that it appeared to us that the telescope floor at the center was rotating while we stood still. When our guide opened a small door in the dome and let us walk out onto the catwalk on the outer rim, we could clearly see the landscape slowly going past us.

Noah as a Fireman?
Afterwards, Tamara took us on a tour of the small fire station on the mountain where she works as a volunteer firefighter. We had a fun time checking out the fire trucks and equipment. They are mostly used to fight brush fires.