Weekend at the Mount Wilson Observatory

Blog entry for March 26, 2006

  I have made a trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory over the weekend. The 60 inch and 16 inch telescopes were reserved for use by students and their professor from Pierce College. I was slated to operate the 16 inch telescope with a fellow operator (we always try to work in pairs).
  However, after monitoring the weather forecast and satellite pictures all day Saturday, it was a tough call on the conditions on the mountain.
   So after getting a flat tire fixed, I packed my gear and clothing and proceeded to the mountain as far as the city of La Canada Flintridge, near the Jet Propulsion Lab in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. I hung out for a while at a coffee shop, again monitoring the weather. The band of clouds and rain were appearing to move toward the east with a clear area behind.  The forecast called for drizzle with clearing later in the night. So after some thought, I made the decision to go.
   The reason I decided to go is that if the students were already on the mountain with adverse conditions, sometimes the docents take them on an alternate tour inside the museum and the 100 inch Hooker telescope. This situation happened last year when a group came from Princeton University.
   The drive up the Angeles Crest Highway was the most treacherous I have made in my ten years of association with the observatory. It was quite foggy in places with poor visibility. So I was very careful driving up that mountain road. As I turned into Red Box Road, I noticed banks of snow on the side of the road and there was “ice” and “chains required” signs set up. At an altitude of 5,000 feet plus, the temperature was just below freezing when it was 75 degrees at sea level at home.
   So I slowly drove the winding road that hugs the side of the mountain peak. I encountered rocks in the road that were the size of mailboxes. These rocks fall off of the mountainsides when ice freezes and expands. When I finally got to the gate I entered my gate code and proceeded into the observatory grounds. I noticed that there were no other vehicles or visitor busses in the parking lot. This indicated that the students did not come up and the session had been called off due to bad weather.
  With no session to run, I had time on my hands so I went to the galley to make my dinner. I made some rice and heated up some canned chili.
  While the rice was cooking and the chili was simmering, I sat at the table and opened a bottle of carbonated water that I had brought up from sea level. It promptly burst into spray all over my face and made a mess on the floor. I forgot how sealed products expand with altitude. Bags of potato chips can pop open sometimes as the air expands.
  So after cleaning up the mess I had made I ate my dinner and did the dishes. I then drove over to the 16 inch dome and entered through the key coded locked door. By this time rain was misting heavily and visibility was poor. I knew not to open the dome in such miserable conditions. I decided to just go in and check my email on the computer that is used to control the telescope. After logging in and tossing some email, I left the dome and drove over to the Library to warm up (the dome is not heated. Typically observatory domes are kept at ambient temperature).
  The library was toasty warm, so I watched a little TV and then laid out my sleeping bag on a couch in the billiard room. I promptly fell asleep. It was about ten p.m.
   At 3:30 am, I woke up and decided to check conditions. I stepped outside and the skies were mostly clear with some high clouds. The rain was gone. So I fired my green laser into the air to check for particulates (small particles in the air that can foul telescope optics). The beam was “clean” so I knew that conditions were safe to open the observatory dome. So I put on thermal underwear, a heavy flannel shirt, a sweater, tweed slacks and heavy socks. Over that I placed on a winter coat and a wool watch cap on my head.
   I drove back over to the dome and went in. I ran through the entire start up procedure for the telescope and dome. The final part of the procedure is to start the telescope control software and connect the software to the telescope. At this point I noticed a problem with the software. So I ran through the backup procedure, which is to operate the telescope with a hand control paddle. I practiced slewing to a few Messier objects in the sky. After a few practice slews, I again returned to the computer and tried an alternate procedure to drive the telescope, which worked. Problems like this can be common, and it is good practice to find alternative methods, lest the session be cancelled for technical problems.
  If the session were for real with clients in the dome, it would have proceeded despite the software problems. So after figuring out the alternate procedure, I slewed the telescope under computer control to a few globular star clusters and finally to Jupiter. After a few minutes of visual observation of the planet with its four larger satellites, the sun started to rise and it was time to close up. I turned the hand crank to close the clamshell dome, and performed the shutdown procedure.
   I locked the observatory door, got back into my truck and drove to the galley to eat breakfast. I made some hot coffee and then I realized that I had neglected to bring any breakfast food with me. So I cooked and ate some more rice.  After cleaning up my dishes, I again drove over to the Library. I again fell asleep for a while on the sofa. At 11 o’clock I packed up my things and left the library. As I turned my truck around on the road, I observed a large deer nonchalantly observing me as I turned around. I forgot that there is a lot of wildlife living on the mountain, from deer to rabbits, squirrels and the occasional bear. It was really something to see that beautiful animal in its natural habitat.
   I drove to the entrance gate and waited for it to open. I passed through and the drive back down the mountain was much easier than the drive up the evening before. When I got back down into La Canada, I went to eat lunch at George’s Pizza Parlor, a popular restaurant among JPLers and Mount Wilson denizens. I had a hot submarine sandwich and some macaroni salad. After leaving that restaurant I went to a coffee shop to kill some time before going to the Altadena Library for a scheduled monthly meeting of the Mount Wilson Observatory Association.
   I arrived just as the meeting got underway. There as some announcements by the club president Don Nicholson, and then the featured guest speaker began his lecture. Dr. Gary Peterson, a Professor of Geology at San Diego State University took his place behind the lectern. His presentation was on the possibility of life elsewhere in the Solar System. I am sorry to say that at times I nodded off during his talk, as my sleep had been sporadic over the past 24 hours. But in the question and answer session afterwards, I was lucid enough to ask him some questions about how he felt about NASA’s publicizing the possibility of life every time they see a hint of water anywhere on planets and satellites. The most recent news release being the report of geysers on the Saturnian moon Enceladus. In his opinion out of all of the places in the solar system (excluding Earth, of course) our best chance of finding life is on Mars. However, according to his research there is no life there now, with the low air pressure and cold dry climate. However, he presented strong evidence that primitive life had existed in the past when flowing water was present on the planet. One indicator is that the current composition of the atmosphere, and the discovery of  water-formed minerals by the Mars Exploration Rovers (see http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/newsroom/pressreleases/20041202a.html).
  After the question and answer session was over, I chatted briefly with two 60 inch telescope technicians about some recent modifications done to that telescope. I then went to talk with Mary Brown, a very active amateur astronomer who is an outreach specialist, Planetary Society member and vice president of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. She has invited me to participate in an astronomy outreach at the Griffith Park Observatory annex on April 1st. I told her that I planned to do it as a Saturn outreach as part of my responsibilities with JPL’s Saturn Observation Campaign, a program that I have been involved with for the past three years. My “boss” at JPL, Jane Jones will be sending me some promotional material to hand out.  As I made my exit from the meeting room,  some other people that had questions about the Orange County Astronomers intercepted me with questions.  By the time I got out of there the library was closing.
  I finally returned home late in the afternoon and that ended my astronomy activities for the weekend. As I sit writing this blog I am still a bit fatigued and messed up from the sporadic sleep cycle that astronomy activities can bring on.
   Finally, you may notice that there are absolutely not photographs in this blog entry. The reason is simple. My cheapo digital camera finally broke and is totally not working. I will get a new one after I get settled into my new job in West Los Angeles.


~ by matthewota on March 26, 2006.

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