Night in the life of an astronomer

Palomar Observatory guided tours of the famed 200-inch Hale Telescope are offered on Saturdays and Sunday, April-October. Shane Gibson photo
Palomar Observatory guided tours of the famed 200-inch Hale Telescope are offered on Saturdays and Sunday, April-October. Shane Gibson photo

Many see the small structure on the Palomar Mountains as no more than a white speck, but overlooking the valley is actually a 200-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory.

Temecula Valley Astronomers President Mark Baker spends his weekend mornings guiding tours at the observatory, giving insight on the history and inner workings of the largest telescope of its time. He greets the visitors outside of the simple but elegant art deco-style dome, designed by the observatory’s chief architect, Russell W. Porter, in the 1930s. The white exterior of the dome is noticeable even at night, but what the valley does not see is the steel supports, the liquid nitrogen tanks and the 14.5-ton mirror.

As a docent, Baker volunteers to assist tours and set up solar observances, but the bulk of his work is geared towards the evening.

“We can work during the day, but darkness is more of our ally,” Baker joked.

In the last week TVA hosted three “Star Parties” which include presentations and stargazing with telescopes brought by TVA members.

According to Baker, he sets up 5 to 6 of these events at various sites across Temecula, Murrieta, Menifee, Hemet, Lake Elsinore and Perris. Baker’s involvement with TVA began as he and his neighbor both would look out of their telescopes together.

Researchers and other astronomers at the observatory, however, often start their day in the dark. If not sleeping, these nocturnal workers may be found in the day planning, organizing and researching prior to their night observing with the telescope.

With the aid of a trained “Night Assistant,” astronomers on site are given several nights a week to use the telescope. The assistants are the only trained employees allowed to operate the telescope, leaving the astronomers in a separate room to analyze their data.

In the past, astronomers would sit in a chamber near the top of the telescope called the Prime Focus Cage. There they would draw out what they saw and record data from the spectrometer, according to Baker. Astronomers would manually change out the camera and change out photographic plates all night. The Hale Telescope has the cage nearly 14 stories up, but now most astronomers spend their night on call in the Data Room which houses all the in-house computers and monitors, as well as the Remote Observing Facilities. These facilities include video conferencing and computers used in remote observations and interactions. Often observers stay in the room, but some do their work remotely, bringing their data home to analyze.

The telescope operates nearly every night, however it can be deterred when negative weather conditions persist, such as snow, rain, humidity and fog. By opening the dome in these conditions, the faculty risks potentially damaging the aluminum-coated mirror that reflects the detected light. Up in the mountains, conditions tend to be volatile, so the astronomer that night may have to deal with waiting for 2 hours for the fog to clear up, which is difficult when they have to cram in 20 days of work into three days, Baker said.

In a year, 65 days are inoperable due to weather conditions, according to Baker’s estimation. Snow creates a bigger dilemma, because while most of it falls off the sides of the dome, a worker needs to climb up to the top and shovel the snow off before operations can resume.

The telescope itself is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment even after 67 years of operation. Astronomers from across the world come by to use the telescope, which costs around $12,000 a night, Baker commented, and which pales in comparison to other nearby observatories that cost upwards of $100,000 a night to use.

Starting his career as a physicist and eventually gravitating towards astronomy, Baker is now retired and considers himself an amateur astronomer, providing the foundation for work that ends up being published as papers by professional astronomers. They corroborate the data found with his 11-inch telescope or his small spectrometer.

“It is almost easier to be the president of the United States than it is to be a professional astronomer,” Baker said.

In his role as TVA President, he said, “We feel fortunate as a group to positively provide an outlet to those who have an interest. If our goal is to expand into the universe, then we need more interest. TVA spreads awareness about the universe around us and where we fit in.”

In other words, Baker believes the purpose of creating bigger telescopes is to see farther and explore more parts of the universe, but the astronomical effort is hindered by the nation’s lack of outlets that cultivate interest in astronomy.

His work and the work of his peers at the observatory has led to new discoveries.

“Every time we build a bigger telescope, we find things we did not expect to see,” Director Steve Flanders described. “In 1963, we discovered quasars; the key objective for building this telescope was determining the size of the universe.”

In 1959, Edwin Hubble was able to determine the speed and distance of the universe based on observing variable stars bringing cosmology to its modern form. The Observatory’s work also is partially responsible for naming Pluto a dwarf planet. Even after 67 years of service, the astronomers at the Observatory continue to produce groundbreaking work.

Night in and day out, the data generated and the objects found are all the product of the astronomer’s work with the telescope.

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