Trip to Palomar Mountain

I asked young Fred if he knew what a telescope was. He responded, “It’s something you look through to see things wiggling in a drop of water.”

When I said that was a microscope, he asked “Aren’t they the same thing?”

After I described the difference, he gave a good summary: “Okay. One helps you see tiny things that are up close; and the other one helps you see big things that look tiny because they are far away.” I laughed, and said, “You got it.”

Mount Palomar, August 2016

Mankind has used both microscopes and telescopes to help us understand more about life, and that leads us to today’s Reflection on Life.

“When we go see mom today, is there anything else you would like to do?”

When Carol asked that question four years ago, I responded, “I’ve wanted to visit the observatory at Palomar for years. It’s about forty miles from Mom, so let’s go early to Palomar Mountain, then visit mom afterwards.” And so we did.

The Spanish name “Palomar” means “place of the pigeons” or “pigeon roost”; for in the early 1800s, Spaniards found multiplied thousands of band-tailed pigeons on the mountain.

The nearest town to the observatory is Rincon, California. Its altitude is 1,030 feet above sea level. But make sure your car is in good condition because you will drive up a steep, narrow, winding road to an altitude of 5,616 feet. It is sixteen miles by road, but almost one mile straight up.

The Palomar Observatory

There, gracing the mountaintop is a glistening, white dome: the Palomar Observatory operated by the California Institute of Technology, known as Caltech.

George Ellery Hale conceived of the idea and wrote about it in 1928. The Rockefeller Foundation gave $6,000,000 toward the project, and the Corning Glassworks company created the 200-inch object that would become the primary mirror. Originally weighing twenty tons, Corning had a railway flatbed modified to transport it; and it took sixteen days to safely ship it from New York to Pasadena, California.

Receiving it on Palomar Mountain in April of 1936, Caltech personnel spent thirteen years cutting, grinding, and polishing the mirror. Finally weighing about fourteen tons, the concave mirror was installed and the telescope was put into operation in January of 1949. American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble (after whom the Hubble telescope was named) was given the honor of being the first person to use the Palomar Telescope.

The observatory operates several telescopes: the 18-inch Schmidt scope, the 48-inch Samuel Oschin scope, a 60-inch scope, and the 200-inch Hale telescope which was the largest in the world for 45 years. The Gran Telescopio Canarias (Great Canary Telescope on the Spanish Canary Islands) is largest now, with a 409-inche mirror, which is 34 feet in diameter.

Using the Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain, we’ve discovered many things, among which are millions of distant galaxies and quasars, and we’ve studied the structure and chemistry of intergalactic clouds.

Jean Mueller, the first woman hired as a telescope operator at Palomar Mountain in 1985 (also the first woman to operate the Hooker telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles), discovered over 100 supernovae by studying Palomar data. A supernova is the explosion of a giant star with the resultant brightness of about ten billion suns.

Several recent projects – among many – include studying near-Earth asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects, star formation, planets in other solar systems, and black holes.

The Observatory up close

Because of light pollution, the observatory has reduced its major operations, shifting more work to the Hubble Space telescope. Prior to the covid-19 pandemic, the observatory was open every clear night of the year except December 24 and 25. Sections of the Palomar Observatory were open to the public during the day where visitors could take self-guided tours daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Guided tours of the dome and portions of the observing area were available Saturdays and Sundays from April through October. I strongly recommend a visit to the site, and you will be amazed at what you learn. Information is available at the Observatory’s web site: http://www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar/homepage.html and http://www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar/visitor/.

I find it interesting that Job 9:9 and 38:32, written over 3,500 years ago, names Arcturus, Orion, Pleiades, and refers to nearby astronomical bodies. Psalm 8:3-4a tells us that Almighty God created the vastness of the seemingly infinite cosmos, but also reveals that God is concerned about mortal humanity. Scripture says, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

Think of it: the ultimate Supreme, Sovereign God is concerned about finite, mortal man; and you don’t need a telescope to find Him, for He’s only a prayer away.