FirstLight Astronomy Club

33°29.6'N / 117°06.8'W / 1190 ft.

Tour Palomar!

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.

How Well Do You Know Your Neighbors?

There are four planets in the sky this month. Mars is above us in the early evening, Venus is setting in the west at this time while Saturn rises in the east. Jupiter is visible before sunrise in the east for readers who themselves rise before the sun. Let's have a quiz involving these heavenly bodies! (Warning: There may be more than one answer!)

Which of these heavenly bodies is made completely of gas?

Answer: None of these. Although Jupiter and Saturn are often referred to as "gas giants," this is a misnomer. They do have thick atmospheres to be sure, but deep down below the clouds we believe there is liquid, and way, way below that there might be a solid core!

Which show signs of being pounded by giant rocks from space?

Answer: Mars and Venus. Mars has craters - evidence of devastating impacts - all over the place. But Venus is covered with clouds. How can we tell she's been hit? We can use special instruments, instruments which use radar to see though those clouds to the surface, and there we see the craters - a lot of them. Jupiter and Saturn have been hit often, too, but their clouds swallow up the impactors and soon all traces of a hit are gone.

Which can be either a "morning star" or an "evening star"?

Answer: That's a tough one. Of course, Venus can be either. She shines so brightly that when one refers to the "morning star" or "evening star," it is almost always assumed that it is in reference to Venus. But there are others who refer to any of the bright planets, including Jupiter and Mars, which set with the sun or rise with it in the morning, as evening or morning stars. So, this month's evening star would definitely be Venus, the morning star would be Jupiter - for some.

Which will we never see above us at midnight?

Answer: Venus. Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are in orbits outside ours. Venus is on an inside track around the sun. Because of this orbital layout, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars can be on the opposite side of Earth than the sun. So when the sun is directly below our feet at midnight, these planets can be directly above our heads. Not so Venus. Confined to be near the sun, we can see her only near the sun, either following our star at sunset or leading it at sunrise.

Until next time, clear skies!
Temecula Valley High School / Temecula, CA · Some images © Gemini Observatory/AURA Contact Me