Palomar Observatory

Palomar1Serendipity: A few weeks ago, we were at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and Doug looked at Google Maps to get a sense of exactly where we were in this world. While dragging the map around on the screen of the iPad, he noticed that Dorland was located on the side of Palomar Mountain. Palomar, we soon learned, means pigeon house, though we noticed no pigeons among the rabbits, lizards, deer, and tarantulas. What Doug already knew was that Palomar means observatory.

As Anna’s aunt is fond of saying, what are the odds? How did two space nerd writers happen to end up at a writing residency on the same mountain as an observatory only a few weeks after attending Launch Pad, an astronomy workshop for writers?

Palomar3On the map, Palomar Observatory looked to be very close to our mountainside cabin. We are still not used to mountains and did not fully understand that the proximity was as the pigeon flies. So we decided to reallocate some of our residency time to visit one of the world’s greatest astronomical observatories. It turned out that the very next Saturday and Sunday coincided with the very last days of public access before some maintenance. When serendipity knocks, we answer. Timing matters.

We agreed on Sunday for our field trip, since that would space our breaks three days apart. When we pinned down driving directions, we understood the actual distance by road around the mountain. Public tours were at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. so we set our alarm, the only time we did that during our two-week residency.

Doug drove, and Anna navigated, a division of labor upon which we’d relied for going new places since our days of living in Maryland and negotiating the crazy DC spoke system of streets. When we arrived at in the Palomar Observatory parking lot, Doug wasn’t the only woozy traveler emerging from a car. We’d inadvertently taken the less curvy, less twisty road up the mountain, but it was plenty winding for our sensibility.

Palomar2We bought our tickets. The ticket office, which is also a gift shop, has posted instructions on what to do if you’re bitten by a rattlesnake. We headed to the dome. On the sides of the path, rattlesnake warning signs are posted roughly every 25 yards. Happily, we saw no slithering creatures.

The tour began outside the dome. Our guide directed our attention to an enormous concrete disc near the employee parking lot. Our docents assured us that, despite common lore, the 21-ton disc was not a mooring spot for alien spacecraft. The circular concrete slab had stood in for the telescope’s primary mirror—replicating its shape, size, and weight—to test the telescope during its construction, before the actual mirror had been completed.

Palomar4Before entering the dome, our docent told us about Russell Porter, a Renaissance man who had sailed with arctic explorers, first as an artist and then as an astronomical observer. This architect and engineer designed the Palomar Observatory building as well as the Hale Telescope and Schmidt camera telescope that are housed inside. Porter loathed the architectural design of the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Pasadena and chose, instead, a gleaming white, art deco structure.

The dome went up in 1935-1936. It rises 135 feet into the air, and its diameter spans 137 feet. The rotating top of the dome weighs 1000 tons. Each of two shutters, which pull back so that the telescope can view the night sky, weighs 125 tons. Big. Beautiful.

Then, we went inside.

Continue reading about the rest of our field trip to Palomar Observatory HERE.

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