Sunday, September 6, 2015

Intergalactic Reflections at Mount Wilson's 100-Inch Telescope (Updated for 2017, Upon Its Centennial)

[Ed: Photos added 7/29/17 5:16 PM PT]

When I spent the day wandering around the Mount Wilson Observatory grounds back in 2011, I was photographing a lot of the domes without really knowing what they were or how they were significant.

But when I saw a photo of Albert Einstein standing on a bridge in front of one of those domes, I thought, This place is important.

circa 2011

I found myself in the same exact position as where that historic photo from 1931 was taken, in front of the Mount Wilson 100-Inch telescope, and although I didn't fully understand its impact, I snapped a photo to commemorate the moment.

circa 2011

At the time, the historic telescope was only available for scientific research and experiments—not open for public nighttime viewing—but it could be viewed during the day via a visitor's gallery. I didn't think I'd ever be able to peer into the skies above through that behemoth.

But after 98 years, Mount Wilson Observatory finally opened the doors of the 100-Inch "Hooker" telescope (named after the guy who funded its mirror) for nighttime viewing earlier this year.

And there I was, back up at those radio towers...

...getting ready to view objects in the sky with even greater clarity than I had through the 60-Inch...

...without necessarily grasping what they are, where they are, or why they're momentous.

So, besides Eistein's well-documented visit, why is this place important?

First of all, it's a marvel that it was even built. In 1917, decades before the Angeles Crest Highway, the only way to get to the top of Mount Wilson was via the Mount Wilson Toll Road, a 19th century wagon road that had become popular with pack animal teams and hikers alike.

The toll road was widened to 12 feet to accommodate the freight carriers heading up the mountain in 1917, with big pieces of the 100-Inch Telescope dome building that would be assembled at the top.

This National Mechanical Engineering Landmark is so huge, you pass three landings as you climb the stairs to the top.

circa 2017

Lots of relics remain.

...and then, once you're under the dome, climb one more level to get to the Hooker telescope control center...

...which is more or less unchanged from the days of astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble...

circa 2017

...who, at the helm, changed the way we looked at the Universe.

Using the 100-Inch Telescope, which was the largest in the world until George Ellery Hale's 200-Inch telescope opened at Mount Palomar in 1949...

circa 2017

...Hubble became known as a "pioneer of distant stars," establishing once and for all the mind-blowing premise that the Universe was (and is) expanding.

circa 2017

And that expansion is accelerating over time.

circa 2017

Moreover, we are not alone in it: the Milky Way is not the only galaxy in the cosmos.

circa 2017

And, using a powerful telescope to gaze into the night sky, we're able to actually witness, document, and measure these extragalactic worlds, thousands of light years away.

I suppose it's hard to believe, until you look through a telescope like that yourself, and see the red gaseous rings and double stars and dwarf planets and moons—objects that just look like white dots to the naked eye (or even through binoculars) but explode into a variety of shapes and colors and rings and halos.

Albireo, 430 light years away from Earth, located at the beak of Cygnus, the swan constellation, and one of the points on the Northern Cross

A twinkling sky might actually be swirling. And one white dot might actually be two stars—one gold and one blue, several lifetimes apart from each other.

Because so much of what's out there is so far away, and it takes so long for the light to reach our eyeballs, it's possible that whatever objects you can see through that telescope might not actually exist anymore.

But still, I couldn't help wondering if there might be something looking back—at my galaxy, at me, at my iris in the eyepiece—from the distant future. How far can we look out beyond our own galaxy until we eventually find ourselves gazing back at...ourselves?

Related Posts:
Counting Stars at Mount Wilson Observatory
Photo Essay: Mt. Wilson & Observatory
Under the Milky Way Tonight, and Every Night
Open Letter to the Universe