Visiting Palomar Observatory

When I was about 10 years old, I had a strange obsession with constellations that I wanted to be an astronomer. Back then, I especially looked forward to going to science and space museums on school field trips. The more interactive they are, the more exciting they seem to me. One Christmas, I received a telescope (similar) from my parents for this reason. With the help of Dad, I loved setting it up on our roof deck back home, especially when the sky’s clear and the moon’s bright. You never know what you’re missing until you observe celestial objects in the sky through a telescope.

Palomar Observatory

When Roan learned this about me, he knew he had to take me to a place he’s heard of that will certainly spark my interest. That white domed structure is the Palomar Observatory. It is an astronomical observatory located on Mount Palomar, about 50 miles northeast of San Diego. The Palomar Observatory is the home of the famous 200-inch aperture Hale Telescope, which was named in honor of the American astronomer and visionary, George Ellery Hale.

The Hale Telescope is considered one of the most consequential scientific instruments of the past 100 years. The “Big Eye” was the world’s most prominent and productive telescope between 1948 and 1993, until Keck 1‘s first light.

The actual telescope is restricted to public, but a viewing deck is available for people like me who wants to admire the beauty of an innovative instrument from afar. Two astronomers waved at us from inside while we were there, and my childhood aspiration came to life! Just imagine how cool it would have been to have this observatory as your ‘playground’.

OK, here’s the most interesting part of how the Hale Telescope came together. The 200-inch telescope disc (made of Pyrex glass) was transported via train rail from Corning, NY to California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA in 1936. Can you imagine how complicated it must have been (back in the day) to transport a 20-ton mirror from East to West Coast? Even more so, they had to transport it further up into the mountains, which is only 6,100+ feet above sea-level.

It is important that the observatory is situated atop the mountains, further away from the city because light pollution washes out starlight in the night sky and interferes with astronomical research. Speaking of light pollution, did you know that not only does it waste energy, it also disrupts ecosystems and it has adverse health effects, too!

The First Research Telescope The 18-inch Schmidt telescope was the first instrument at Palomar Observatory. It saw first light on September 5, 1963 and was Palomar’s only operational telescope until 1949.

We went to the visitor’s center afterwards, and boy, I got sucked into another mini-museum there. I may have spent an hour reading through every new information in the gallery about various celestial bodies, including the galaxy where we belong to, the Milky Way. Can you tell how happy my geeky heart is?

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