Palomar Observatory

By Jean Strauber, Travel Editor

Last week I took a trip to the Palomar Observatory with a group from Los Angeles Valley College. The trip was arranged through Good Times Travel. I want to say, to begin with, how impressed I was with their tour director Dustin Bordagaray. It was an early morning sojourn. We met at Valley College at 7:10 a.m., boarded our coach and found out that our assigned seats are given out in order of booking your tour. The cost is $79. About an hour-and-a-half out we stopped at Tom’s Farm Stand.

The site began as Tom’s Fruit Stand and Sweet Shoppe. You’ll also find The Home Store, the Craft Fair and two restaurants — Tom’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers and Senor Tom’s Mexican Restaurant. But at the early morning hour that we were there only the Craft Fair and the Fruit Stand & Sweet Shoppe were open. A number of us bought snacks. We re-boarded the comfortable motor coach and were on our way.

Palomar Observatory
Palomar Observatory

We passed the San Antonia de Pala mission and the Pala Casino and Resort as we sped along the highway. I was so impressed with the appearance of the Pala Casino and Resort that upon my return home I made reservations for a visit. We continued through the rolling hills of the Pauma Valley, passing ranches with horses, llamas, sheep and goats as the bus drove along the climbing highway to the top of the mountain and the observatory resting in the Cleveland National Forest.

When you first enter the grounds of the observatory you’ll stop at the Greenway Visitor Center and Gift Shop, where there is a small museum filled with photographs taken by the telescopes at the Palomar Observatory. One photograph shows the Showmaker-Levy comet slamming into Jupiter and some show galaxies millions of light years away. Absolutely awesome. You’ll find an exact replica of Isaac Newton’s first reflecting telescope and a Warren Tome Standard, a vibrating wire astronomical clock that helped astronomers to keep accurate “star time” for years.

Across from the gift shop are the Weber Picnic Grounds, named after Gus Weber who was one of the workmen on the mountain in the 1940s. He planted the giant sequoias and California incense-cedars that tower over the Visitor Center. When picnicking or strolling on the path to the observatory you might hear an acorn woodpecker’s loud laughing call. Palomar’s other woodpecker is the Nuttall woodpecker. You might be lucky to see a few of the native band-tailed pigeons, from which Palomar derives its name. Do stay on the walkway for you might find rattlesnakes lurking beneath the western bracken ferns that blanket the meadow.

Our bus driver drove some of us to the Big Dome while others chose to stroll along the path. We were greeted by one of the astronomers who works at Palomar, Steve Clark. There are quite a few astronomers here, some from Cal Tech and others who are visitors from universities from around the world. Accommodations have been built to house these visitors because the astronomers make their observations during the night. Besides the astronomers who greet visitors, there are volunteer docents who escort visitors around the Big Dome. The dome is kept at night time temperature to protect the mirror.

Clark related the history of the making of the mirror. He shared with us how one man, George Hale, was instrumental in getting the funds for the telescope but did not live to see the fruition of his dream to build the world’s largest telescope. Hale’s motto was “Make no small plans, Dream no small dreams.” He was the one that built the 100- inch Hooker Telescope at Mt. Wilson in Pasadena.

Some surprising facts about the telescope that I learned (and I’ll only relate a very few so you’ll be piqued enough to make the trip to Palomar) are:

1) The mirror is made of Pyrex glass (yep, just like the Pyrex baking pan you have in your cupboard).

2) It took nearly a month to melt the glass needed for the mirror, and the cooling period was about 10 months.

3) The mirror was in Cal Tech’s optical shop for 11-1/2 years partly due to World War II.

4) There are now cameras that take photographs of what the telescope sees in the night sky. The astronomer sits in a room on a comfortable chairs, turns on his computer and is now able to view the night sky. He directs the telescope operator to move the telescope this way and that, depending on what he wants to observe that night.

5) Biggest surprise of all was that the telescope operator is not an astronomer.

After about an hour -hour and half (there were lots and lots of questions) we re-boarded the bus and took off for the Lazy H Ranch in Corona and our included lunch. It was then a short drive to the San Antonio de Pala Mission where we visited the historic chapel and the grounds. We boarded our bus and were on our way home.

You might be interested in knowing that Good Times Travel, which coordinated this tour for LA Valley College, is also offering a trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory with an included Picnic Lunch on September 20, 2011. You’ll enjoy a docent-guided tour of the observatory atop Mt. Wilson (elev 5,700’), hear about the major discoveries that have taken place and learn about their current ongoing projects. You’ll also be provided with a box lunch. The tour cost $75. For more information, please contact Good Times Travel at (714) 848-1255.

By Jean Strauber

Entertainment Writer

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