The amazing story behind Palomar Observatory

Cast a cold eye on heaven

I saw the Messier 87 photons while standing in the metal cage which hangs from the underbelly of the 200-inch Hale telescope.
  • I saw the Messier 87 photons while standing in the metal cage which hangs from the underbelly of the 200-inch Hale telescope.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

I keep envisioning this photon from the Messier 87 galaxy.

I know it's unscientific to think about photons — the smallest physical units of light — as individuals, however I have no trouble with the image. The galaxy where the photon of my imagination is born — M87. they abbreviate it — contains several hundred billion stars, and from the tumultuous inferno of one of them my photon is hurled into icy space

The concept of building the telescope on Palomar Mountain reportedly was born when Alfred Einstein sailed into San Diego Bay in 1931.

The concept of building the telescope on Palomar Mountain reportedly was born when Alfred Einstein sailed into San Diego Bay in 1931.

I see it speeding through the universe at 186.000 miles per second, passing bloated red giants and throbbing pulsars and lacy nebulae, like some infinitesimal Marco Polo. It travels for fifty million years, and when it finally approaches this homely solar system, only a sprinkling of other photons from M87 still accompany it; so few that their combined light is too dim for human eyes.

The Corning Glass Works had poured the giant piece of Pyrex in 1934 and had allowed it to cool for two years.

The Corning Glass Works had poured the giant piece of Pyrex in 1934 and had allowed it to cool for two years.

But my photon arrives at precisely the right moment; it slices through the earth's atmosphere at a point over the northern section of San Diego County and there it plunges down to a cold, open dome which caps a lonely mountain peak. Then for an instant it glows on a television screen like a celebrity alone in a spotlight, to be counted and analyzed and admired.

Horsehead nebula

Horsehead nebula

Hale Observatories

After thirty years, strange and wonderful things still enter the Big Eye of Palomar. I recently saw what the Messier 87 photons looked like while standing in the metal cage which hangs from the underbelly of the 200-inch Hale telescope. I had traveled out to Palomar and up the corkscrew road that leads to the observatory because I had wondered if age was beginning to dim the Big Eye. If you’re not an astronomer, it’s a reasonable question to ask.

Jupiter satellite Ganymede

Jupiter satellite Ganymede

Hale Observatories

I knew that in the three decades since the greatest telescope on earth first gazed at the heavens, astronomy had changed drastically. Scientists now cup their collective ears to the universe with radio telescopes which can pick up ghostly murmurs across the light years. NASA satellites right this moment are speeding toward Jupiter, and astronauts have probed into space from space itself. But here at home the lights of San Diego grow brighter every year, and the pollution which blankets Southern California continually thickens. How soon will the Big Eye be blinded? I had wondered.

If you go back and read the San Diego Union articles which first announced plans for the 200-inch telescope, it seems even more anachronistic, something part of a simpler, earlier era. Those first stories shared pages with short references to a German politician named Hitler; the ads show people tootling around in funny black automobiles. The concept of building the world's biggest telescope on Palomar Mountain reportedly was born when Alfred Einstein sailed into San Diego Bay as part of a world cruise in 1931. Officials from the California Institute of Technology drove down from Pasadena to greet the father of relativity, and while here, they eyed the North County mountain for the first time as a possible observatory site.

They had been contemplating building a new telescope for several years. The one hundred-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory then was pushing its thirtieth birthday and Caltech’s astronomers ached to double their glimpse into the universe. , Furthermore, they found themselves looking upon increasingly light-polluted heavens from Mount Wilson, where the city beneath the observatory was mushrooming. So, armed with six and a half million dollars in money from three Rockefeller funds. Caltech officials first surveyed sixteen different sites in Southern California, but Palomar’s pristine solitude exerted the strongest attraction. Apparently, so did the lures of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, which had been laboring to sell the location since Einstein's visit. By mid-1934, Caltech had fingered Palomar as its top choice, but only, the university officials wheedled, if county taxpayers would pay for part of the land and for construction costs for the Highway to the Stars.

In return, San Diego could expect astronomic glory, they promised. “It would be a great honor and privilege to the citizens of San Diego to have it (the telescope) within the boundaries of their county, for its advertising qualities would be of immense value," one official touted. The final go-ahead came after a secret luncheon meeting of the county supervisors and Caltech’s representative August 6, 1934, at the Hotel San Diego. “This observatory will do much to attract worldwide attention to San Diego.” one supervisor explained after the unanimous vote of approval. “Famous scientists will come here to view its wonders. The result of their research into unexplored regions of the sky will be broadcast to the world from San Diego . . .

Political squabbles — over which side of the mountain the road should climb, and where the county should get the money to pay for it — continued for months, but the monumental task of constructing a half million-pound telescope in a mile-high wilderness eclipsed them. Sixty-five county prisoners, serving terms for desertion, petty theft, and similar violations, began hacking their way up the mountain slopes by the end of 1934, and by the outbreak of war in 1941 the observatory building stood completed. The 200-inch mirror which gives Palomar its punch caused more headaches. The Corning Glass Works had poured the giant piece of Pyrex in 1934 and had allowed it to cool for two years, but it took Caltech technicians eleven more years after that (including a hiatus during the war when the unfinished mirror was stored safely underground) to grind and polish it to perfection. Dedication finally came on June 3, 1948.

From the beginning, the telescope (named after astronomer George Hale) was slated for sophisticated use. though some scientists did figure it would work on fairly straightforward tasks like mapping the night sky more extensively and settling the nagging question of whether canals really did slice through the Martian terrain (as they appeared to do). Other astronomers, however, were counting on the Big Eye to tackle brain-numbing problems such as determining the relative abundance of the chemical elements in different kinds of stars, of studying long-period variable stars that had been too faint at their minima for the Mt. Wilson telescope, or gauging whether the universe was actually expanding. No one ever envisioned astronomers peering for hours through the tube itself; the telescope was always intended to be more of a Big Camera than a Big Eye.

Almost immediately, discoveries started making their way into the popular press as well as the scientific journals. In the early 1950s, measurements on the telescope confirmed that the Andromeda galaxy (nearest to the Milky Way) was twice as far away as had previously been thought, a revelation which staggered the scientific world since it implied that much of the universe was also twice as far away, many stars were twice as large, and everything was much older than originally believed. The Big Eye also spotted new dwarf stars, new galactic explosions, and it reached other more technical scientific milestones. But although the scientific achievements materialized, other expectations for Palomar faded away. Astronomers originally had wanted a flying field at the observatory (“. . . in order to rush to Pasadena, Washington, and New York plates which are expected to reveal . . . stars that have been obstructed for centuries”), but the mountaintop today remains free from the buzz of any flying machines. An elaborate physics lab was actually dedicated and outfitted at the same time as the rest of the observatory, in the expectation that important analytical work would be done there, but now the former lab merely houses the observatory billiard table.

Today the unspoiled observatory grounds and the variety of living quarters still could serve as a set for a 1940s movie. Only the great dome of the 200-inch telescope seems to pulse with life and to reflect a succession of remodelings. Many changes have been instituted here over the years. Astronomers who must use the “prime focus” at the top of the giant instrument still spend long hours in the dark cold (insulation constantly maintains the inside of the dome at night temperatures so as to not disturb the sensitive equipment with temperature changes), but much of the work with the Hale telescope now can be remotely controlled in the “data room,” a warm, cramped compartment built into one wall of the dome. This afternoon five pale young men are jammed into the data room; they glance at a television screen where the fifty-million-year-old photons from M87 have been dancing. The photons look like the electronic “snow” which can cloud ordinary TV sets, except that each of these white spots is being recorded on magnetic tape, to be laboriously studied. This particular crew of astronomers hails from University College in London and they mention that they’re looking for a black hole (a conglomeration of matter so dense that its gravity pulls in even light itself) in Messier 87. They say it as casually as if it was a good hamburger spot that they’re seeking.

Wisecracks tinged with heavy British accents whiz around the room like sparks from a comet’s tail, and the unceasing thrum of rock music from an AM radio blots up any remaining trace of peace. The group also is working with super-sophisticated electronic equipment which they will take back to England with them; great bundles of multicolored wiling snake around the small room like psychedelic spaghetti. The men explain that they’re counting the photons sprinkled down by the distant galaxy because they hope to correlate its brightness with what they know of its mass (a discrepancy could indicate the presence of the black hole). Then, giggling, someone shows off a snapshot tacked to a bulletin board, an electronic image of the galaxy. The camera aperture has accidentally shown up as a dark splotch in the center of the white fog of stars, and someone has neatly labeled the picture “Black 'ole in M87.”

The London group arrived on the mountain only about two weeks ago and stormy clouds have obscured the astronomers’ observations several nights. The Englishmen must leave the next day, however, for Maarten Schmidt (soon to be the observatory’s new director) and Ollie Ulfbeck, a Danish astronomer, will arrive to use the telescope’s image tube spectrograph. They’ll be there for just two days, and then another California scientist will arrive to take his place on the Big Eye. Palomar doesn’t need to drum up any business, Taras Kiceniuk tells me briskly. Instead, Caltech’s unending struggle is to somehow fairly dole out time on the 200-inch to the international hordes of scientists begging to work with it.

Kiceniuk is one of the observatory’s permanent residents. As the superintendent, he keeps all the elaborate machinery running and he shepherds the eleven staff families who live and work in the buildings scattered around Palomar’s various domes. A quick-thinking man with a huge head of shaggy gray hair, Kiceniuk isn’t an astronomer himself (he holds a master's degree in engineering from Caltech), but his knowledge of Palomar’s astronomic activities seems encyclopedic. Today he ruefully glances up at the thick gray heavens. Clouds persistently bedevil observations, he says, and this year's unprecedented rainfall has already blacked out the Big Eye more than usual. But when I ask him about air and light pollution. Kiceniuk dismisses the predictions of disaster almost perfunctorily.

At the observatory’s mile-high elevation “smog isn’t really a problem," the superintendent asserts. “Usually it just has a very modest effect. In fact, smog can be accompanied by very, very steady air. which actually improves the observation conditions.” Good viewing conditions depend far more on the tranquility of the air above the observatory than on its freedom from foreign particles, Kiceniuk says. He compares looking at the stars to reading a newspaper on the bottom of a swimming pool. No matter how clear the water is, if it’s moving, you can't read a word. Perched on a mountain peak right next to a coastal plain, the air over Palomar is as placid as a millpond.

“Light pollution can be a disaster in the case of places like Mount Wilson,” Kiceniuk concedes, “but even there nothing ever becomes truly obsolete.” As the sky above the Los Angeles observatory has grown ever brighter. Mount Wilson astronomers have merely tailored their experiments to accommodate the conditions, he says; they use a variety of very accurate techniques to subtract the amount of land-based light reflected in the sky. “Of course the job gets harder and harder, and it’s not good to make it more difficult than it has to be, but it’s not like they’ve had to shut the place down.” And compared to Mount Wilson, Palomar becomes as dark as an inkwell after the sun sets.

Kiceniuk puts the threat of light pollution in perspective by pointing out that earth-based artificial lights still only contribute about twenty-five percent of the nonstellar light in the night sky above Palomar. The rest comes from a natural source known as air glow. “So we’ve got a long way to go before man-made sources are equal to the natural ones," he says.

Still, the growing light pollution does disturb Palomar’s astronomers. They say that over the years, the glow from Los Angeles has sliced about forty-five degrees off the darkness to the north, while San Diego’s lights now contaminate about thirty-five degrees of sky above the southern horizon. In response, local astronomers (both from Palomar and from San Diego State University’s observatory at Mount Laguna) have lobbied the county and pushed for laws like those which have been adopted in other areas, laws to control the design and operation of artificial lighting. In January of 1976 they gained a step in that direction when a revision of the county general plan included a resolution that the county would act to minimize the impact of light on the observatories. Little has actually been done to implement that policy, although county planners finally are trying to find ways to quantify light pollution, preliminary work which may eventually benefit the observatories. “If the board of supervisors suddenly went insane and decided to build a baseball stadium on the foot of the mountain, then we’d definitely have problems.” Kiceniuk says. “Certainly if the 200-inch was in the middle of Los Angeles you could not do the same kind of work that we can do here. You’d end up not doing the faint cosmological work. But presumably, we can keep things from getting that far out of hand.”

Kiceniuk piles into his four-wheel-drive pick-up and bounces over the wooded path to the smaller dome housing the forty-eight-inch Schmidt telescope. Here H. Alton Arp is doing the kind of faint-light work that Kiceniuk is referring to, but this afternoon he’s broken away from the scratch of calculations before him to chat with a group of visiting students from northern California. A big, rumpled-looking man with a mustache and graying hair, Arp is a staff astronomer for the Hale Observatories and a cosmologist — he specializes in trying to decipher the origins of the universe. For more than ten years Arp has been rocking the astronomic world by challenging the notion that everything began with one big bang. Today he's working in the tidy office on the dome's first floor, and a classical symphony floats in the background.

A student asks him what he’s doing these days.

“I’m looking for quasars.” Arp says simply. With his hands in his pockets, he leans against a counter.

“New ones?”

“Yeah, new ones.” Arp replies.

He leads the young people up the flight of steps to the telescope, where the air temperature hovers in the forties. This dome has no cozy little data room. In fact, until just a few years ago the working astronomer had to lay down on a mangy blue cot and manually control the telescope as it followed the patch of sky he was interested in (now the telescope is outfitted with an automatic guidance system). Compared to the gargantuan 200-inch Hale, the Schmidt looks more like an overgrown cannon pointed up at its metal dome. Its wide-angle lens brings a broad slice of the heavens into sharp focus, compared to the 200-inch’s narrow field of vision. The room around the smaller telescope is scrupulously clean, but cluttered. A coil of cable lays on the scratched, sheet-metal-gray floor; an old pink vinyl armchair stands among stepladders which look like a herd of grazing giraffes. Yet here Arp conducts his intergalactic hunt — a safari leader plopped down in the middle of a thrift shop.

He explains to the students that he’s using the forty-eight-inch telescope’s camera to take color-sensitive photographs which reveal spots rich in ultraviolet light. Then he is analyzing those spots' spectra (characteristic bands of color) using the spectroscopes attached to the 200-inch telescope to determine whether the suspicious areas are indeed quasars (star-like objects whose spectra are abnormally shifted toward the red). A little smugly, he mentions that he’s been looking for and finding the quasars around peculiar galaxies, a “coincidence” which supports his side of the cosmological controversy now raging. Most of the students seem familiar with that controversy, but Arp expounds on it for them.

He recalls how his own iconoclastic position’ originated in the very office where he is now working, on one stormy night in 1966. When rain had lashed against the mountaintop and the clouds had prevented use of the telescopes, Arp had withdrawn to the office to work on some calculations. At the time, he had been studying abnormal galaxies, clusters of stars unlike our own peaceful Milky Way, ones which instead seem to be furious cauldrons of primeval, elemental disturbance. Arp had sat at the old, scratched desk, trying to correlate such galaxies with radio sources, when he realized that the radio waves seemed to be coming from near the disrupted-galaxies rather than from the center of them. He’d bolted to the library to check some further data when it dawned on him that perhaps the radio signals were coming from quasars — quasars located close to the disturbed galaxies rather than light years beyond them as most of the astronomic world had assumed them to be. Arp unveiled his theories at a talk at Caltech, and the shock waves from them still are rocking cosmologists today.

Arp’s theories overturned not only the long-held assumption about quasars, but also the existing explanation for the origin of the universe. Based on previously established formulas, astronomers had reckoned that the quasars' red-shifted spectra indicated enormous distance from the earth; they were red-shifted so much that they looked like they were among the most distant objects in the universe — with only one problem. The quasars also were too bright to be that distant, a mystery which the astronomic world had tabled. But Arp’s work at Palomar had convinced him of another explanation. Quasars weren't really that far away, he announced; instead, they were only about as far away as one would expect them to be from their brightness. Although distance correlates with red shifts in most cases, Arp hypothesized that the quasars’ red shifts could be explained By something else — they could be explained if the quasars were newly created matter, something hitherto unknown to the world of science. Arp speculated that the violently disturbed galaxies were vomiting out the new matter like madmen spitting out bile.

It would mean that the universe hadn’t been created with one gigantic isolated bang two times 10 to the tenth degree years ago (“Because things just don’t work out that neatly, anyway,” Arp tells the students), but that the big bang was still being followed by a series of isolated, little bangs. It would mean that galaxies still are being created and evolving — still being ejected in compact form out of other disturbed galaxies.

For a propounder of such radical theories, Arp seems remarkably modest, almost self-effacing. He tells the students that he can empathize with his colleagues who recoil at his propositions; he went to the same schools they did, and learned the same fundamentals that he is now turning upside down. But Arp is an experimenter first and foremost; he makes it clear that he thinks science must begin and end with experimentation, and the experimental data, he asserts, cries out for a new theory.

How much time does Arp devote to telescope work? a student wants to know. The scientist ticks off the days he spends at observatories all over the world. “But the big struggle is to get time on the 200-inch," he says. “I’ll maybe get twelve to eighteen nights on it, but then there's always the threat of weather problems.”

The note of frustration in Arp’s voice punctures my inflated concerns about the Big Eye. Arp (and his fellow cosmologists) are still wrestling with a problem which Palomar’s builders had hoped to answer, and the staff astronomers are still scrambling for time on the monolith like children vying for rides down the only slide in the playground. It’s not just time on the Hale telescope that’s precious, says Kuceniuk, the observatory’s knowing superintendent.

He says all the observatory’s five telescopes, even the two old small ones, are in heavy demand; the larger telescopes boast long waiting lists. “You just have to understand that telescopes never are made obsolete in the sense that larger telescopes can do something that the smaller ones can’t do anymore,” he says. The heavens are so vast, the problems are so complex, the demand for mountains of statistical data is so strong that there's no end in sight to the tasks that any good telescope can handle, he claims. Furthermore, observatory directors have poured so much money in the form of auxiliary equipment into the Big Eye that Kiceniuk can still boast that it has the state-of-the-art image-detecting system. “The auxiliary instruments have made it effectively ten times as powerful as it was to begin with.” he says.

Thus, even though the Russians in 1972 announced the completion of a bigger telescope (with a mirror about three feet larger than the 200-inch’s). Palomar's staff astronomers seem to sniff at comparisons between the two. They say neither the Russian telescope's optics nor its location are as good, and the instrument undoubtedly lacks most of the critical auxiliary equipment. Kiceniuk bridles, however, at bald comparisons of that nature. “To be precise, you have to think of it in terms of saying, ‘Well, if a particular astronomer was on the 200-inch, and the weather conditions were perfect, and everything was going just right, then could he see more than he could see if he had been on another telescope under similar conditions?’ And then maybe you can say this one is better. But it’s really kind of like talking about hi-fi sets. It’s very difficult to objectively rank them.”

What about the radio telescopes? I ask him. Haven’t they threatened the dominion of the opticals? “No, because they really most often work together as a team.” he answers. “And many astronomers end up spending time working on both.”

Maybe one threat does loom on the horizon. Arp’s eyes gleam at the prospect of telescopes orbiting in space. Skylab had one for a while, and the astronomer says NASA’s planning the first major permanent one for about 1983. He practically drools when he talks about sightings free from the rippling blanket of atmosphere and the atmospheric light; sightings in the full blast of ultraviolet radiation. But Arp says even an orbiting observatory won’t place any lead slug over Palomar’s Big Eye.

“There'll be only a few space telescopes for a long time to come, and there’ll be so many programs and so many people competing to get on them that they’re not going to put the land-based telescopes out of business." Kiceniuk is even more complacent. “You just look at what’s always happened in the past.” he says. “Whenever we get a new device, it always just raises more questions than it answers.”

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