In September 2018, Mum came to visit, and among our adventures (including to Hawai’i) we spent a Saturday afternoon at Mount Wilson Observatory, in the mountains behind Los Angeles.
Mount Wilson is a historic center of astronomy and the place where astronomers discovered that the universe was bigger than just our Milky Way galaxy. The observatory was founded in 1904 and it still has some working telescopes today.
We drove up the Angeles Crest Highway, winding through the mountains, and arrived at the Cosmic Cafe where we bought our docent-led tour tickets ($15 each) and met our guide, Bob. There were about 15 people on the tour, which began at 1pm.
150ft Solar Tower
Our first stop was the 150ft solar tower – one of two solar towers that are just visible from Pasadena. The solar tower was used, you guessed it, to make observations of the sun. It has a lens and a mirror at the top of the tower which projects the light of the sun into a scientific instrument called a spectrograph at its base.
Bob took us into the base of the tower to meet a staff member who had been with Mt Wilson for over 40 years. He showed us an image of the sun projected onto a screen – and a tiny sunspot was visible. He showed us a comparison with the largest ever sunspot from 1947, compared with the size of Jupiter and the Earth. Inside the control room, much of the original equipment was still in place.
Our next stop was the telescope that was once the world’s largest: the 100-inch Hooker telescope. “100-inch” refers to the diameter of the primary mirror that collects the light to allow astronomers to do their science (the biggest telescopes today have mirrors 10 meters in diameter – close to 400 inches). Bob showed us the underside of the 100-inch mirror blank: its production was difficult and the final glass disk is actually full of bubbles due to flaws in the process used to cast it in 1908.
We explored all parts of the telescope and dome, including seeing a drawer of blueprints for the telescope and going under the main floor to see the telescope pier (the concrete structure that holds up the telescope) which also seemed to be a storage area for huge miscellaneous pieces of metal.
The best bit for me though was when we got to go outside on the catwalk of the dome to see some great views.
By this point, the 2-hour tour had been going 2.5 hours but there was more to see and no one wanted to leave. We headed over to the 60-inch telescope, also once the world’s largest telescope, with a stop along the way to a spectacular viewpoint.
Inside the 60-inch, another guide, Tom was getting ready for a public observing night. Tom slewed the telescope for us so we could take a look at the mirror – it was a much clearer piece of glass than the 100-inch.
Our tour finished after 3hr 15 mins. No one was complaining!
More to see
Going to Mount Wilson means climbing to 5700 ft, and naturally the views of the city are spectacular along the way.
This was probably my third or fourth visit to Mount Wilson, having been lucky enough to come on private tours and an evening observing session as well. I highly recommend a visit, or even getting a group together for an evening session.
In May 2018 we were invited to watch the launch of an Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus capsule that was carrying an experiment that J worked on at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. This experiment, a tiny “cubesat” called CubeRRT, would be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) by private company Orbital ATK from Wallops Island, Virginia. We would be VIP guests, along with a select 200 others. We were determined to be there, no matter how inconvenient it was going to be to travel to the East coast for a weekend!
The launch window was 3 days, at very specific times of the middle of the night. The first launch window was in the early hours of Sunday, May 20. To minimize time off work, we initially planned to fly to Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday morning, drive up to the launch overnight, then fly back on Sunday. No hotel, no sleep. Thankfully, on Thursday, May 17, the launch was pushed to the early hours of Monday, May 21, so we rapidly changed our travel arrangements.
Thus, on Saturday, May 19, we flew from Burbank to Baltimore BWI (changing in Phoenix), arriving after dark. We spent the night in the Holiday Inn airport hotel.
It was a hot and sweaty morning as we drove down to Chincoteague, Virginia, a well-known tourist destination. The drive took a couple of hours and the scenery along the way was verdant.
On arrival we went to the town’s community center to check in with the launch people. After lunch at the nearby Sea Star Café we came back for the 2pm briefing by Orbital ATK. Everyone was upbeat and there was lots of chatter in the hall as friends and colleagues found each other and said hello.
At the briefing, we heard from a variety of VIPs, including the CEO of Orbital and the new NASA Administrator Jim Bridensteine, about Cygnus’s resupply mission. The Cygnus capsule separates from the Antares rocket at the appropriate altitude and continues up to the ISS bringing supplies for the astronauts, as well as scientific experiments (such as CubeRRT). It later takes away the trash (and burns up in the atmosphere).
After the briefing a member of the CubeRRT team the produced the best mission swag ever: a specially-commissioned case of CubeRRT beer!
At around 4:30pm we headed to our hotel – the Comfort Suites. We had dinner at the highly-recommended Bill’s PRIME Seafood and Steaks. Then, since we were technically on vacation, we sampled the local ice-cream place, Island Creamery, where we got a “single scoop” each, which turned out to be more like half a pint. It was delicious!
With that, we tried to have an early night, turning out the light at 7:30pm. Very soon, our 1:00am alarm went off.
So very early Monday morning, we walked in the darkness back to the community center, arriving at 1:45am as instructed. This time the hall was filled with bleary eyed people, some dozing. Some of J’s collaborators had pulled an all-nighter so were more awake than us.
We sat around for over an hour until we were shuffled onto different buses according to US citizen status. Our bus was dark and quiet and soon snoring could be heard. The bus didn’t move for another 30 minutes but then we set off in a convoy with a police escort. We really felt like VIPs at this point!
It was about a 20-minute ride to the launch viewing area and we got there at about 4:00am. In the marquee tent everyone fell on the coffee and donuts that were lavishly spread on several tables. There were TVs showing a live feed from the launch.
We headed outside into the darkness to see the rocket in real life, several miles away across the water, lit up with massive floodlights. The launch veterans had already set themselves up on the small set of bleachers with a good view of the countdown clock. We novices just hung around on the grass and used phone apps to monitor the time. The voice from the control center was broadcast over loudspeakers.
(Apologies for the poor photos – we were traveling hand luggage only, so no tripod, or long lens)
At this point, after all this effort, we still didn’t know if the launch was going ahead. There were two 5 minute windows this early morning. It soon became clear that the first window was scrubbed.
Then, after what seemed like no time at all, the voice from mission control was starting a 10-second countdown. It was about 4:45am. When he got to zero we all held our breath and nothing happened. Then about a second later there was a flash of light from the launch pad. The rocket took off exactly like in a cartoon and everything went really bright. The rumble of noise from the rocket came after about 10 seconds and was rib-cage shaking.
The rocket quickly entered the low cloud deck but we could see it peeking in and out. After the initial cheer we all stood in open-mouthed silence, watching it the whole way up until it reached orbit, a process which apparently took about 5 minutes, but seemed like only 10 seconds. When mission control announced the separation of Cygnus from the Antares rocket there was another cheer – the launch was a success.
With nothing else to see outside, we all crammed back into the tent and champagne and cake was passed around. Several people gave speeches, which we couldn’t hear over the hubbub.
Then it was time to head back. The chatter on the bus was animated and people were replaying the launch on their phones. We said goodbye to J’s colleagues then went back to the hotel, walking in the door at 6am as the sun was rising.
We had a short nap then packed up and hit the road back to Baltimore, back to Burbank via Phoenix, and got home in Pasadena at 10:30pm on Monday night, absolutely shattered.
Like our total solar eclipse adventure, this was a lot of traveling for a short event, but it was well worth it, and to be invested in its success made it even more special.
Back in January this year, my husband, Jonathon, and I traveled to Socorro, New Mexico, so that he could give a talk at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). This was a new state for me, so I was keen to see what it had to offer.
We flew into Albuquerque on a Thursday afternoon and picked up a car. It was already late when we arrived so we didn’t hang about and drove south to Socorro, about an hour away.
Jonathon had been talking up the food at Socorro Springs, and it didn’t disappoint. We refueled on pizza and beer then headed to the NRAO guest house on campus via Walmart for some supplies for breakfast.
The guest house was perfect: spartan but comfortable, and very quiet.
Next morning it was cold and grey outside. I stayed in the guest house, working, while husband gave his colloquium.
In due course it was time for lunch and I met everyone at Frank & Lupe’s El Sombrero. It was serving authentic New Mexican food, and I found the menu a little opaque! To save time, someone ordered for me and I found myself eating something delicious and full of chillies.
That afternoon we were given a tour of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) correlator. I know this already sounds boring, but bear with me. The VLBA is a global network of giant radio dishes which collect signals from space from telescopes around the world. The correlator is the important bit of computer kit which takes all the signals and smushes them together to make one coherent signal. Amazingly, data from telescopes all over the world are mailed here on tape drives and correlated using the computers in this building on the UNM campus. The scientific results are spectacular (e.g. “Astronomers Detect Orbital Motion in Pair of Supermassive Black Holes“).
Once we had finished in the correlator room, our host, Frank Schinzel offered to drive us down to see the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), about an hour east of Socorro.
So along we drove, through terrain that was desert-y but somewhat green, hilly but not mountainous, until we reached a huge plain and saw our first VLA dish (technically, antenna). Each is 25 meters in diameter and steeply curved.
Because we were with Frank we were lucky enough to get the VIP tour – the first stage of which is to get very up close and personal to one of the antennas. Periodically each of the 27 antennas goes into “the barn” for maintenance.
We climbed up the outer staircase and went through painted white doors, stepping over ledges and hard pieces of metal, before scaling a ladder to emerge through a hatch into the bowl of the antenna.
We were instructed not to step in the middle of the panels, but keep to the joints. Standing more than a view feet up from the center of the bowl was nearly impossible and our perspectives were skewed by all the white around us.
Next stop on the tour was the site of the Long Wavelength Array (LWA), a project my husband worked on while we were in Boston. It consists of a bunch of funny looking antenna in the field and a trailer full of computer bits which is the loudest place in the world.
Frank stepped into the trailer to do some tinkering and we tried not to become submerged in the cold mud layer beneath our feet. The sunset was magnificent as we left the LWA for a quick stop at the small but impressive visitors center.
As it was already late, Frank drove us back to Socorro in time for drinks and dinner and conversations with more people from the university. We were well and truly ready for bed that evening!
The next morning we had a few hours to spare before heading to Albuquerque airport, so we decided to go for a “hike” (walk) in Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. This, coincidentally, holds another array that is part of the LWA.
We had a look in the excellent visitor center, complete with stuffed animal nature displays, then got a map from the guides then headed off on the hike.
The rain in the distance was a little worrying but it didn’t approach. The fresh air and the calmness was a welcome relief. Though we didn’t see any wildlife to speak of, we appreciated the geological formations, including a fault line!
The scenery on the drive back to the airport was spectacular, with snow capped mountains and puffy clouds.
I’m happy to check off another telescope from my list! Hope we’ll be back one day.
I use the word “2017” in the title of this post, because I have a feeling we’ll be seeing another total solar eclipse one day. We had such a fantastic experience with this one, on August 21, 2017, that I think we may have become official eclipse-chasers.
Planning for this trip started earlier in the year with the thought that, of all the states on the path of the eclipse, Idaho was most likely to have clear weather. I spent a decent amount of time looking for accommodation in the path of the totality but found only a Super 8 for some many hundreds of dollars. Eventually I found a double suite at the Riverside Hotel in Boise, ID, which was about an hour’s drive from the center line of totality.
Thinking we were super clever, we found $50 flights to Salt Lake City, and figured we’d drive the 4 hours up to Boise and save ourselves $200 per head each way. Having booked that, time passed, and slowly the hysteria about the traffic started to build and we were panicked about whether we were going to be able to make that drive due to all the traffic. So we changed our flights to come in the day before and booked an airport hotel in Salt Lake City.
Meanwhile, I signed up for the Eclipse Megamovie project, and committed to taking photos of totality. I got myself a 70-300mm lens for my Nikon D3300 camera, and a paper solar filter, and started practicing. The hardest part turned out to be focusing on the sun, because you can’t look through the viewfinder (eclipse safety) and it’s really hard to see the screen on the back of the camera in daylight. The key turned out to be zooming in on the “live view” screen to see the edge of the sun. Later on, closer to the eclipse, some sunspots showed up, and focusing on them was a lot easier. If it hadn’t been for the Megamovie forums I’m not sure I would have figured this part out.
On the appointed Saturday, August 19th, we flew in the morning from Burbank to Salt Lake City, picked up a rental car and checked into the Courtyard Marriott at the airport. We had an early night, having decided that we needed to get up before sunset to beat the traffic.
On Sunday we had a 4:15am alarm, and drove to our traveling companions’ hotel at just after 5am to pick them up. Yes, our friends Vikram and Emma were crazy enough to join us on this eclipse adventure. We drove through the darkness, and just before sunrise saw the thin crescent moon rise – we knew the next morning the new moon would mean the eclipse!
We changed drivers at some random gas station, and for the rest of the drive Vikram decided to regale us with “interesting” “facts” about Idaho he had just found out from The Internet. “Did you know,” he would say, “that Idaho has the third largest seated statue of Lincoln?” (probably true), and, “Did you know that the Fosbury Flop (high jump technique) was invented in Idaho?” (not entirely accurate), and later, “Did you know that Idaho only has three dry-cleaners” (not true). Arguing about these nuggets certainly passed the miles.
We arrived in Boise early – around 10am – and of course, were too early to check in, so a quick google search revealed a “good” place for breakfast, walking distance from the hotel. We passed gas stations, empty lots and rental car lots, when we finally found the Capri Restaurant attached to a motel. We were not inspired by its looks but when we saw the line outside, we knew we’d come to the right place. It was absolutely packed but we got a seat in about 10 minutes, and had drinks and breakfast in front of us within 15 minutes. It was absolutely delicious, and just what we needed.
Breakfast at Capri Restaurant
None of us went hungry at the Capri Restaurant
Then we decided to walk into town to see what was what. We found our way to the State Capitol Building and went inside to find marble as far as the eye could see. We explored the empty senate chamber and the house chamber and admired the stars in the ceiling of the dome.
State Capitol Building
Inside the State Capitol
Suitably cultured we started back towards the hotel, stopping at a brewery tap room that had opened its doors for the first time just days before, and had some beer. Then it was back to the hotel to check in. I spent the rest of the afternoon checking camera settings, filling the car with fuel and generally running around.
After dinner we discussed our plan of action for the next day. We were going to head to the town of Weiser, ID, on the Oregon border which was completely prepared for an influx of eclipse viewers. As we talked I got worried about parking and emailed everyone on the helpful website parking list to see whether they had space. Two people replied 10 minutes after we went to bed.
The next morning, Monday, eclipse morning, our upstairs neighbor’s alarm went off at 4am. My husband was awake and so we woke Vikram and Emma. I paid someone in Weiser $50 by Paypal to secure our parking place, and we got on the road by 4:45am, panicked by the thoughts of traffic. We even forewent our planned McDonald’s breakfast stop.
It turned out we need not have panicked – the road was clear and we were parked by 6am. It also turned out there was acres of street parking and we didn’t need to pay. However, our parking host gave us some excellent local knowledge – firstly about a open coffee shop, and secondly about a great viewing spot. It turned out the local knowledge was worth the money on its own.
Once we parked, we found coffee and checked out Memorial Park which was full of vendors setting up booths. We partook of their $5 eclipse breakfast while the local news filmed, then wandered over to our chosen spot on the edge of town – the Park Intermediate School, arriving just in time to see the sun rise at 7am and hear a cockerel crow. We decided this was our spot, so returned to the car to collect my excessive amount of camera gear and supplies, and walked it all over (because it was $25 to park at the school).
Eclipse breakfast at Weiser, ID
Sunrise at our eclipse viewing location in Weiser, ID
I spent the next couple of hours taking practice shots of the sun, trying to perfect the focus point on the camera. A few more people joined us on the playing field, but it wasn’t very crowded. Then at 10:10am, the eclipse started. I had all the timings to hand thanks to my a handy app (Solar Eclipse Timer App). I started taking photos, and as the sun got further eclipsed we noticed some phenomena in the environment.
With 30 minutes to go, the app told us to pay attention to the temperature – it had indeed dropped – the sun didn’t feel scorching on our skin. Then we started to notice the shadows becoming sharper and the light becoming just plain weird. Vikram discovered he could see individual hairs in his shadow, prompting him to exclaim that he had “eclipse hair”. We made many pinholes to view the eclipse, and I kept taking photos.
Eclipse set up in the near empty field
Pinhole projection – courtesy Vikram
At around 11:20am, with a few minutes to go we noticed it getting considerably darker and cooler. The light was so strange that I started to feel a bit disoriented. Then my 5 minute alarm went off and I set up my little camera to record video. Then my two minute alarm went off and it was getting noticeably dark. A cockerel crowed nearby. In due course, Vikram spotted the shadow on the western horizon and the sun was just a sliver of gold on the back of the camera.
Then, at 11:25:19am, we reached totality.
Nothing could prepare me for the sight of the black hole in the sky where the sun used to be. People were yelling and pointing. The corona round the sun became visible, and was actually very bright. We noticed the horizon was a sunrise/sunset all around and the sky was definitely not black. The corona revealed itself to be at least two solar radii, with distinct features. I made sure to take all of this in before turning my attention to the camera.
With the solar filter off, I started on my prepared plan but I soon I realized I needed to work faster – stop the camera down more rapidly to get to the slower shutter speeds that would capture all the features of the corona, while remembering to pause to let the camera vibrations die down. I got about 3/4 through my range of shutter speeds before my app announced there were seconds to go before the end.
And then the light started to come back, people were yelling again, I kept clicking the shutter then we had to put the filters back on – the camera and our eyes! The light seemed to get brighter faster than it went dark, though of course it wasn’t, and my husband heard the confused cockerel crow again. After a few minutes people began to come over to each other to talk about their experience. One person wanted confirmation it was only 30 seconds long. It was 2 minutes 6 seconds.
Soon after, people began to disperse. I wanted to capture the whole eclipse so I put in a fresh memory card and kept taking semi-regular photos while trying to get content and photos to my work to post on our social media channels. At this point we noticed that things on our picnic blanket were damp with dew.
By 12:48pm the whole show was over. It was really hot again and so we packed up and lugged all the gear back across town, still high on the experience of totality.
Getting home was another challenge in itself, but that evening we celebrated a successful total solar eclipse and started thinking about the next one in Chile in 2019.
About a year and a half ago my husband and I were lucky enough to accompany an astronomer to Palomar Observatory as he set about installing a new instrument on the 200-inch Hale telescope.
The astronomer who invited us, Gregg, is a professor with the energy of three people, and the talking speed to match. Gregg and his colleague, Leon, along with a few other astronomers and engineers were at Palomar to install an instrument designed to search for low mass planetary bodies in the outer solar system.
Although I’ve since been lucky enough to visit Magellan, Gemini, and Cerro Tololo in Chile, and I’m working on the project to build the next great telescope, at the time this was my first visit to a working optical observatory. My husband is a radio astronomer, so he was equally at sea.
We arrived from Pasadena late on Friday night, driving up Palomar mountain in complete darkness, and met Gregg outside the dome of the 200-inch. Our eyes had adjusted for only a few seconds when we saw the spectacular sky. Gregg however, was not happy. They had just spent the day installing the instrument, but now they couldn’t start observing because of the humidity.
This was lucky for us however, because we got a quick tour of the inside of the telescope dome – the adaptive optics lab, the control room, and after checking behind approximately ten identical doors, the pool table. Gregg then took us up several flights of stairs, along corridors, past the giant telescope, through a heavy door and outside onto the catwalk. Once we became accustomed to standing on a see-through gantry, we looked at the horizon and saw the marine layer of clouds sitting over San Diego. This is what was causing the humidity problem. But not one to stand still for a second, Gregg got out his camera and tripod and took a bunch of photos of us with the Milky Way in the background.
Then, all of a sudden, the catwalk started moving – the dome was rotating! We headed inside to discover that the humidity had dropped below the required amount, and now they were turning the dome to various angles to the wind to dry it off in the gentle breeze. It would be unfortunate, after all, for a big drip of moisture to land on the 5-meter wide mirror.
An hour later, the telescope operator pronounced the dome to be sufficiently dry and started the procedure to open it. At once the control room was a flurry of activity. Four astronomers huddled around the control system, changing settings, asking the support astronomer to move to different stars as they tried to adjust focus. Once everyone was happy, they asked for the telescope to be moved to M22 – a globular cluster. The stars filled the field and the focus was adjusted some more. The “seeing” was sub-arcsecond, which is remarkable but also not surprising: there is a good reason the Palomar Observatory is located where it is. The image on the screen was very clear but things were not working to the astronomers’ satisfaction.
By 3am, with the instrument still not working, my husband and I were finding it hard to stifle yawns. The rest of the team were already tuned into the night cycle, so Gregg took pity on us and drove us down to the Monastery. We stupidly crept about trying not to make any noise before realizing it didn’t matter because everyone was at the telescope. We slept behind blackout curtains in a comfortable bed surrounded outside by a very peaceful forest while the astronomers worked until dawn to debug their problem.
We were up around noon, and after having a very quiet breakfast in the communal dining room we went for a walk on the site. We saw inside the 200-inch dome from the ‘tourist’ side and checked out the small but impressively informative visitor center.
Later in the afternoon we headed down to the dining room and met up with everyone again for coffee. The discussion was of continued issues with the instrument – they had not been able to solve the problem last night. We were treated to the story of how the original version of the instrument was designed and built in only a few months, and how for some parts it was simpler to use a Canon camera lens and an amateur telescope, and how 24 hours before the instrument was due at Palomar it was sitting in 100 pieces on the floor of the lab in Pasadena.
To pass the time before dinner, Gregg took us up on the catwalk of the 200-inch again to see the view in daylight. Tourists below us asked “how do we get up there?” “Sorry,” we called down smugly, “you can’t”. Then as dinner time approached Gregg gave us a tour of the other telescopes on site, trying to remember what key opened what telescope dome and giving us a rapid history lesson at each one.
Looking down from the catwalk of the 200-inch
Up close with the dome
View from the catwalk
Sunset.. but clouds are not good!
Discussion at dinner was of giant telescopes, and what they would mean for the future of astronomy.
Once it was dark, we all headed back to the 200-inch. I brought my film camera and tripod ready for a night of long exposures and star trails. But, all was not well in the control room. Something still wasn’t working, and as the evening began, the astronomers continued to debug their system – one person on Skype in Pasadena, another at the prime focus right at the top of the telescope, the third in the control room.
At this point Gregg suggested that my husband and I should take this opportunity for a visit to the prime focus. For an astronomer geek this is just about as exciting as it gets.
We went up from the internal catwalk in the world’s slowest “elevator” until we were 17 meters above the priceless mirror (luckily with its cover on). Leon and his colleague switched out cameras and used an alarming number of cable ties to secure everything into position. Aluminum foil – light-tight and excellent for keeping things dark – was used in abundance.
Back down in the control room, we sat around for a while, then decided to make the most of the ‘free’ time while debugging continued to go outside take some star-trail photos. We set up and were out for what seemed like an age (probably a couple of hours), looking at the stars, and spotting the occasional meteor or fireball.
Cold and with sore necks from looking up, we headed back into the telescope, having luckily remembered where the door was, which while it never moves, is also is never in the same place relative to the opening of the dome. The mood in the control room was jubilant – the problem had been fixed and they were taking real data. Soon, the music was cranked up, and celebratory refreshments were passed around.
That evening I reflected how lucky we were to have such an opportunity to visit what was once the world’s largest telescope, to have an instrument builder take his time to show us everything and involve us in his work. As is required now and again, when the day to day of work seems so far removed from what we are ultimately trying to achieve, this visit rekindled my passion for astronomy and reminded me why we strive to build giant telescopes: to enable astronomers to do their magic and push the frontiers of human knowledge.