A Visit to Palomar

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending my niece’s wedding. It was a delightful event held near the beach in San Juan Capistrano, California. I was pleased not only to be part of my niece’s special day and meet my new nephew, but to spend time with my brothers and their families as well. On the way back to New Mexico, we decided to make a side trip to see the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mt. Palomar.

Hale Dome

It’s rare for me to visit observatories during my vacation time from Kitt Peak National Observatory. Much as I like astronomy, the whole point is to get away from the day-to-day routine just like anyone in any other job. However, Palomar is a special place. When it was built in 1948, it was the largest reflecting telescope ever built and it held that record up until 1976. Because it was built in 1948, the Hale looks very much like a battleship. In its ArtDeco dome, the telescope seems like something that belongs in a steampunk or dieselpunk story.

Although built in 1948, the Hale telescope is still active today. Among its achievements, it was used to determine an accurate distance to the Andromeda Galaxy. It identified the optical counterparts to the first quasars. Today, it is one of the few telescopes that has successfully imaged planets around other stars. William Fowler, using data from the Hale telescope is the man who figured out how stars synthesize heavier elements from lighter ones. Years later, after he won the Nobel Prize, I would enjoy a beer with Dr. Fowler at the Capital Bar in Socorro, New Mexico.

Hale Telescope

The Hale Telescope’s primary mirror is 200 inches in diameter, or just a little over 5 meters. The telescope is owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology, which means only CalTech astronomers or their collaborators get a chance to use the facility. The Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope was built with Federal funding to give all astronomers an equal chance at access to a similar telescope. So, the two observatories are definitely cousins of a sort. In fact, one of Fowler’s collaborators, Dr. Geoffry Burbidge, was Kitt Peak’s director from 1978 until 1984.

I recently signed a contract for a new horror novel called The Astronomer’s Crypt. The observatory in the novel isn’t real, but rather an amalgam of observatories I know from around the Southwest. That said, it really struck me that Palomar has a lot in common with my fictional Carson Peak Observatory. Like most observatories, they’re in remote locations. There are small towns nearby, down the long, winding road away from the observatory. There are even nearby Indian casinos, like the novel’s Sacred Portals Casino! What’s more, the primary telescope in The Astronomer’s Crypt is a 5-meter, just a smidge smaller than the Palomar 200-inch! Also, like Palomar, the mountain has few telescopes. The Hale only shares the mountaintop with two other active telescopes. The 5-meter in The Astronomer’s Crypt only shares its mountain with one other telescope.

Hale Stairway

Also, as far as I know, there are no bodies buried in or near the Hale 200-telescope, but it does have a cool stairway worthy of good horror movie!