June 30, 2014

Counting Stars at Mount Wilson Observatory

Usually, when you get to visit an observatory (like at Griffith Park or Palomar), it's during the day – so although you get to appreciate the architecture of the domes and their surrounding structures, you rarely get to see any stars.

And we have so might light pollution in the LA Basin, it's hard to adjust your eyes amidst the street lights and headlights to see the full array of celestial objects up there. Usually you have to out to Joshua Tree or Anza-Borrego to spot the Milky Way, and get some sense of the universe beyond your own navel.

Of the many adventures that I've had since moving to Southern California, only a few I would list as a perception-altering, life-changing "must-do." One of them is a nighttime star party at Mt. Wilson Observatory.

During summer months, the evenings are short, with long hours of daylight, so you drive up the Angeles Crest Highway during the Magic Hour – half the forest bathed in amber glow, and the other half darkened in dusky shadows. You arrive in time to recognize the 150 foot solar tower and the 100" telescope, before reaching your destination: the 60" telescope, which is rarely open to the public, and only available to small, private groups who book months in advance.

You always wonder what the insides of these domes look like...

...and now you get to not only see, but also listen – as it is nearly acoustically perfect (like the Integratron), save for the aperture that reveals the night sky.

We began seated around the massive telescope, peering at each other in red light as our eyes adjusted and the sky darkened. Soon all the lights both inside and outside went out, and the heavens were revealed to us, one sliver at a time, one squint through the eye piece at a time.

Though we spotted Mars and blue-ringed nebulae and even a globular cluster, the most spell-binding, spectacular vision was to see Saturn with its rings, surrounded by its moons, in such sharp definition it was unbelievable. We've all been taught in school about the solar system and the other planets, and we've seen pictures and paintings and other renderings, but it's always been so conceptual – so far away, so intangible – that it's never really seemed real, until we could witness it for ourselves.

And there it was.

And there we were.

And all the troubles of daily life and heartache and money and anxiety and family disappear for a while, as we stare into the sky. We weren't discovering anything for the first time. We merely observed that which was already known. But it was so new to us, so much more than we could ever see through our own bedroom telescopes and amateur astronomy club equipment.

And we were all the way up there, inside a locked Forest Service gate, down a winding, unlit road, in bear country, on a mountaintop 5700 feet above sea level. It's not the tallest peak around, but remarkably remote and preserved and unpolluted for its astronomical purposes, and yet accessible to anyone with a car and a reservation.

Any other Sunday night will pale in comparison.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Mt. Wilson & Observatory

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