One of the things I try to do on every military annual training is do something to further my personal education. Some of the places that my annual training takes me is more difficult than others to find something new to checkout. Having been to California multiple times, I wasn’t expecting to do something new. However, when a trip to see the Hale Telescope with a colleague was proposed, I was interested from the prospective that it was definitely something new and I might learn something. The trip was not planned or my idea but, boy am I grateful for the experience!
A member of my team had waited 40 years to see the Hale telescope. An astronomy lover to the core, he mentioned his life dream of seeing this telescope and spoke with passion about its history and ground breaking research. Not to mention, its location was both unknown and intriguing, I was quick to tag along.
Located approximately 70 miles northeast inland from the San Diego coastline, the Palomar planetarium, the home of the Palomar telescope (aka the Hale telescope) is located at 5500 feet above sea level on Palomar Mountain. The drive away from the city and up the winding roads of the mountain were awe-inspiring. The vegetation was interesting, the air crisp, and the drive beyond scenic. The views down into the valley as we wound up the mountain was exceptional. What a view!
The mountains and valleys were full of Orange groves, tree nurseries, and Indian reservations. The climb was steep leading to the planetarium. The roadside had its fair share of bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, casinos, and every wineries. What it did not have was police officers to monitor traffic or gas stations. The mountain roads are apparently a favorite attraction to motorcyclists wanting a daring drive. The Palomar National Forest graced the mountain top with beautiful sights, though the flies were a little too happy up there.
And then we arrived at the top of the mountain, to the home of the Mount Palomar Planetarium (the Hale Telescope). The gift shop had many books on stars and space. I found myself wanting to buy them all; however, in the end, I just noted titles for our space study, which will likely be next year.
As a former lover of space, I felt reignited by the pictures and stories. Almost enough to change science plans for this year. I reminisced back to my youth which included a telescope, star gazing with dad, and building a black hole out of paper masquerading for my 7th grade science project (it went all the way to the state science fair. Imagine dragging that around) Nevertheless, it was amazing and I still had not been in to the telescope tour!
The Hale telescope, as its known, was designed by George Ellery Hale in 1936. It has a 200-inch mirror that was made by Corning Glass Works in 1936 out of Pyrex due to its properties that make it expand and contract less than regular glass. The second world war delayed the telescopes completion until 1948. The mirror was stored from 1945 to 1948 in Pasadena, California. (Read more of the story of the mirror here. It’s amazing!)
The planetarium is owned by Cal Tech and several universities utilize it. It’s strictly a research facility so there are no star shows and light movies but we got to go into the planetarium and stand 2 feet from the telescope and look at it and see a working model of how the dome moves. ( Yes, this cement beast is as tall as a 9 story building, weighs 500 tons, and rotates for maximum viewing. And all this rotates on only 1/5 horsepower engine. Read more here about its design and engineering. Totally amazing!)
It was a little chilling in there, as the temp is very well regulated as to not fog the mirror and not cause issues with indoor/outdoor temperature changes when the telescope is opened to the night sky (thus the Pyrex…I mean you can take your Pyrex lasagna tray from the freezer to the oven without issues so obviously his is helpful would the telescope and temperature regulating). Pretty cool stuff!
The volunteers that give the tours are very knowledgeable and stay around afterward to answer questions, which was great. I feel fortunate to have been able to take this field trip. If you have an aspiring astronomer in your family, consider visiting one of the Hale engineered telescopes, they are located at Palomar Observatory, at Mt. Wilson Observatory, and at McDonald Observatory. I can’t wait to incorporate this into our studies and, hopefully, take my kids up that mountain in the near future to see that telescope. Truly amazing!