19 04 10
The Observatory on Palomar Mountain, our very own national monument and astronomical workhorse is offering tours to the public! If you haven't been there in a while, things have changed.
I remember first going up there with my family years ago and being greeted by... well, nothing much. We called it the Plexiglass Tour because our visit was pretty much nothing more than pressing our face up against a huge window in the visitor's room and trying to make out the Great Scope in the darkness. Being an astronomy enthusiast, it was anticlimactic to say the least.
But things have changed - a lot. Now there are tours which actually take one inside the venerable Dome. Here's what you can expect:
The tours start off at the big back door of the dome with a brief background of the historic building, then moves inside to the ground floor. There you are introduced to the great skeleton of the edifice which is built both to resist earthquakes and to support the hundreds of tons that the complex telescope weighs.
Now upstairs to the main observing floor. And there in front of you is the Behemoth; the famous Hale Telescope on the largest mount you will ever see - both of them works of engineering art. Here you will hear the basic functions of how the colossal telescope is used by astronomers to answer the great mysteries of the universe.
That is usually enough for a nerdy guy like me, but this tour includes a walk up to the inner catwalk of the dome to get the big picture of the whole show, if you can take it all in. But wait - there's more!
Now the tour takes you to the outside catwalk, a viewing pleasure not for the faint of heart. Outside one can get the full-360 view of the mountain and all the other telescopes on the hill. The catwalk itself, although completely safe, almost makes you feel like you are walking on air since it is made of metal mesh.
Come back on in now and all the way downstairs to the point where it all began an hour earlier.
The tours are every Saturday and Sunday from April until October: 11:30 AM, 1 PM and 2:30 PM. They run it on a first-come, first-served basis and the cost is $8. More info can be found here: www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar/tours.html
It is one fantastic day: an inexpensive time with family and friends, full of science and history, surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountain.