Friday, February 19, 2010

James Lick Observatory, 2-17-10

I like to go up to the Observatory a few times per year. Usually it’s on the bike, in a painful and epic, full day, 6,000 feet of climbing scorcher. But sometimes it’s also nice to drive and be able to chill up there a little longer. After all, it’s a 45 minute drive, translated to the bike it’s nearly 2 hours of pedaling just up Mt Hamilton. Of course, I have to do things the hard way, starting from home and going first over Silver Creek Road, then over Quimby Road, then meeting Mt Hamilton Road about 1/3 of the way up and climbing the last 11 miles to the top of the world. Well, the top of the South Bay, which is pretty much the world, right? Right? So to drive up there means I have more time and energy to walk around and really see everything, or at least more of it.

Anyway, the other day turned out a little different. My regular schedule going up there is pretty simple. Check out the visitor’s center, look at the artwork, wander the gift shop, and take the tour, then head up the road to the other public area, the 120 Inch Shane Reflector. Sit down in there for a while, look at the info posters, watch the video.

Well, as I was watching the video, a guy came in and asked if we wanted to see the inside. I probably looked like I had just won the lottery. I have always had kind of a hidden love for sciences especially Earth sciences like Astronomy, so to see the inside of one of the most advanced, as well as famous, domes on the planet was pretty awesome.
So, he brought us in the employee only door, and the mini tour started. We started out on the control room, a small room with several computers, and he explained what each station did, and who worked where. The remote station, where you can control and use the telescope from anywhere in the world, the laser station that controls the Adaptive Optics/Laser Guide Star Program, and the various control stations around. We left that room and walked around the main room with the telescope in it, and he explained a lot of the things they do, how they do it, and some of the equipment they use. The multiple types of lenses they can switch in and out, the laser system riding side saddle to the main telescope used for sort of cheating the atmosphere that normally interferes with light traveling here, the computer systems, the pros and cons of all these things. I won’t get technical, if you want that, go to the website:

He then asked if we wanted to see what they called the “Fallout Shelter”. I had never thought of this before, even having been there all the times I had, but this dome was built in the late 50’s, the height of the Cold War, so it had a fully functional Nuclear Fallout Shelter in the basement. Seriously.

Of course, they only use it for storage and work these days, but it was pretty neat. The big project right now is preparing the 120 inch mirror, and the equipment required, for re-aluminizing. So, they had a de-compression chamber basically right below the telescope, on the first level of the basement. There was a guy inside carefully hanging aluminum pieces all over the place. This site is the re-aluminizing of the Palomar 200 inch reflector, but it will explain a little of what the hell I’m talking about without getting long winded here.

Anyway, the tour continued. He brought us further down, into the depths of the sub basement, and past a sign that read “Fallout Shelter beyond this point”. It was sort of starting to feel like an episode of Lost. He showed us the grinding stone for the 120 inch mirror, and several other things, including one of the things they used back in the day. You see, in order to take photo plate images, it would took a long time of exposure, so they would have to keep the telescope moving along with the stars. So, they would have some lucky dude in this bucket looking thing, up near the top of the telescope, keeping everything lined up. All night long.

Under that, he pointed out some of the remnants of the Cold War era Fallout Shelter. Tanks of water, a water purification system, and food rations in buckets, the expiration dates reading probably from the 60’s.

Then, I had a triple take. On the wall, in the back of the room, was something very large behind the ride-in bucket. I couldn’t tell what it was, it may have just been art on the wall, but either way, it was a large octagon with a design in the middle. Large, like probably 20 or 25 feet across. I couldn’t see the whole thing, but coupled with the fact I was in a Fallout Shelter built in the 50’s (it had the feel, you know?) with food and water rations all over the place, and then I see the massive Dharma Initiative looking thing on the wall… Awesome.

Anyway, we left there and headed back up, and he showed us another telescope attached to the side of the larger dome, one of the pieces he personally worked more with, as well as the control room for that. The Coude Auxiliary Telescope, or CAT system. The control room for the CAT system was pretty neat. A couple computer stations here and there, but not what you would expect. Most of the telescopes on the mountain could be controlled by computer, but not this one. He flipped a switch on a large computer rack setup, and up come the guidance system, all manual. You had a joystick looking thing that was used to slowly aim it where you wanted, instead of just typing coordinates into the system.
We then went outside, and chatted about the history of the place, what each telescope could do and what they were used for, as well as what it’s like to live up there. Just as I always expected: Absolutely, without a doubt, incredible. His house, which he pointed out, had a 180 degree view of the massive valleys and peaks to the North of Mt. Hamilton. Amazing. He showed us the other buildings, some still used, some long abandoned, full of Asbestos and lead. The leaky pool, next to the Rec Center, which they refer to as the Wreck Center.
We then chatted about San Jose’s plan of changing out the street lights from the low light sodium vapor lights to more energy efficient, but much brighter, LED lights. It really is a great idea, which would save a lot of money, after the initial installation costs, as well as energy, which is what we want.

However, the LED lights give out a lot more light. That means the folks that have been doing research for the good of all mankind on top of Mt. Hamilton for over 120 years, would be severely hampered in their work. The more light pollution they get from the Valley Floor, the less they can see.

But also, it has damaging effects for all of us city dwellers as well. Do you like to be able to see the starts at night? Do you even wonder why we in San Jose can see the night’s stars, and cities like Los Angeles can’t? That’s why. Because of the low light streetlights we use. So, soon we will join the ranks of other large cities and loose something really cool.

But, I digest. The tour itself was amazing. It was simply a matter of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. The main building tour got out, and we walked instead of drove up the road to the 120 inch telescope building, and arrived just before our guide, who was bored while waiting for some computer programmers to do some work on something, who knows what. From the inside of the main telescope room, I could see the others folks from the main building tour arrive, but they didn’t get what we got. So, to the guy that was gracious enough to give us an incredible extended tour, by a scientist, not a tour guide, thank you! I’ve been going up there since I was a kid, and it never gets old. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet, and now it just managed to get a little bit more personal. Thanks!

I just love that stuff!