Vin­tage tele­scopes trained on the sun, a his­toric ob­ser­va­tory car­ries on


Steve Padilla rides an el­e­va­tor to the top of the 150-foot so­lar tower te­le­scope. It’s not re­ally an el­e­va­tor — it’s more like an ope­nair bucket, raised and low­ered by ca­bles. This is not mod­ern ma­chin­ery.

The so­lar tower has been op­er­at­ing since 1912. Ev­ery­thing here at the Mount Wil­son Ob­ser­va­tory is vin­tage — or you could just call it old. This was once the most famous ob­ser­va­tory in the world, but now it is a vir­tual mu­seum, the as­tron­omy world’s musty at­tic.

Padilla is 66 and lives alone on this moun­tain, which rises a mile above Pasadena. He rides to the top of the tower to open the dome. Back on the ground, in the con­trol room, he stud­ies the re­flected im­age of the sun — and draws sunspots.

Padilla is sin­gle-hand­edly main­tain­ing a cen­tury-long tra­di­tion of con­tin­u­ous sunspot ob­ser­va­tions on Mount Wil­son. He has no un­der­study.

“We’ve been do­ing these now for 100 years,” he says. “If I wasn’t around, I don’t know who would do them.”

This is a pop­u­lar month for the sun. The Great Amer­i­can Eclipse of 2017, on Aug. 21, will en­trance mil­lions. Padilla, for his part, will trek to Ore­gon to be in the “path of to­tal­ity,” where the sun is com­pletely blocked by the moon. Sci­en­tists across the breadth of Amer­ica will study the sun’s mys­te­ri­ously hot corona as the moon’s shadow rolls across the con­ti­nent.

The sun is sci­en­tif­i­cally in­trigu­ing and ob­vi­ously es­sen­tial to life on Earth — which is why there are so­lar tele­scopes around the world and in space, why the United States is build­ing a mas­sive so­lar te­le­scope on the is­land of Maui, and why NASA spends close to $700 mil­lion a year on he­lio­physics.

And yet it’s easy for an old so­lar te­le­scope to get lost in the shuf­fle. There are three vin­tage so­lar tele­scopes on Mount Wil­son, which is dom­i­nated by the 150-foot tower. But they’re not cutting-edge de­vices and do min­i­mal science. They’re like movie stars who have aged out of the best roles.

With eclipse ma­nia sweep­ing the coun­try, this is an ap­pro­pri­ate time to pon­der the his­tory of so­lar as­tron­omy. A lot of it hap­pened right here. On Mount Wil­son in 1908, as­tronomer Ge­orge Ellery Hale ob­tained ground­break­ing images of so­lar flares and vor­tices.

This hap­pened in an era when the ba­sic na­ture of the sun — “the star in our back­yard,” as as­tronomer Cindy Hunt puts it — was just com­ing into fo­cus. Atomic the­ory, still be­ing de­vel­oped, led to the re­al­iza­tion that the sun is not on fire. It’s a gi­ant nu­clear fu­sion re­ac­tor.

Which is why we’re here. A fu­sion re­ac­tor is ef­fi­cient. The sun can shine for bil­lions of years, plenty of time for life to evolve and maybe, with the right twists and turns, pro­duce a species that in­cludes as­tronomers.

‘Best-kept se­cret’

The moun­tain­top is serene. The metropo­lis be­low is com­pletely out of earshot. Birds flit among the oaks and pines.

“The best-kept se­cret in Los An­ge­les is where Mount Wil­son is,” says Tom Menegh­ini, 70, the di­rec­tor of the Mount Wil­son In­sti­tute.

To get there by car you have to take a nar­row, wind­ing road that’s not for the faint of heart. Menegh­ini says his wife rarely makes the drive with him, and a re­porter rid­ing shot­gun can un­der­stand why — you’re never far from a cliff in the San Gabriel Moun­tains, which were thrust vi­o­lently sky­ward amid the col­li­sion of tec­tonic plates.

Hale lever­aged the wealth of steel mag­nate An­drew Carnegie to build an ar­ray of tele­scopes on Mount Wil­son in the first years of the 20th cen­tury.

“This was the hub of so­lar as­tron­omy for a long time,” says Hunt, who works at the Carnegie Ob­ser­va­to­ries in Pasadena.

The Carnegie Ob­ser­va­to­ries to­day does its as­tron­omy on moun­tains in Chile. In 1986 it turned over op­er­a­tion of the Mount Wil­son tele­scopes to the non­profit in­sti­tute now run by Menegh­ini.

He had spent much of his life run­ning com­mer­cial fish­ing boats in the South Pa­cific. For the past 15 years he’s been bound­ing around Mount Wil­son, much like a kid with a lot of cool toys. He’s a vol­un­teer, with an in­sti­tute iden­ti­fi­ca­tion badge that says “Galac­tic Over­lord.”

The in­sti­tute spon­sors lec­tures and stargaz­ing nights. Stu­dents can use the tele­scopes. Re­searchers can rent the hard­ware for a night. The goal is to keep the lights on, even if the se­ri­ous as­tron­omy com­mu­nity no longer seems to want these his­toric tele­scopes.

“There’s noth­ing we won’t try,” Menegh­ini says. “I don’t want to see it fail.”

In­side one small dome is a beau­ti­ful, vin­tage re­fract­ing te­le­scope with an exquisite lens. Menegh­ini says rev­er­ently, “It’s a Bras­hear — those are as rare as chicken teeth.”

The great white dome houses the Hooker te­le­scope, which was named for a bene­fac­tor.

This is hal­lowed ground for as­tron­omy.

“Oh, if the walls could talk,” Menegh­ini says he switches on the lights in the dome. We go up metal stairs, past a tele­phone that surely dates to the era of silent movies. Then we’re on the main floor with the te­le­scope, which is the size of a school bus. The mir­ror has a di­am­e­ter of 100 inches, and it weighs 9,000 pounds.

We go around the te­le­scope and then far be­low, to a realm of gi­ant gears and, as Menegh­ini points out, “100-year-old so­le­noids and re­lays and wiring.” The vis­i­tor might ini­tially think that some­one had done an amaz­ing job of restor­ing the place to its orig­i­nal, vin­tage feel. More likely, noth­ing here has ever changed.

“It’s like an old stove — it dies in pieces,” Menegh­ini says. Be care­ful not to get grease on your clothes, he adds.

He opens the dome, a noisy process. He tips the te­le­scope for­ward so we can view the im­mac­u­lately pol­ished mir­ror.

In 1919, a young as­tronomer named Ed­win Hub­ble showed up to work here, and with the 100-inch he be­gan study­ing the light from what were then called neb­u­lae.

Or­tho­doxy held that these neb­u­lae were rel­a­tively close. Hub­ble and his col­lab­o­ra­tors dis­cov­ered that they were tremen­dously far away — in­deed, they were sep­a­rate is­land uni­verses. Galax­ies.

Then he dis­cov­ered that they were re­ced­ing from us — that the light was red-shifted, in­creas­ingly with dis­tance. Be­hold the ex­pand­ing uni­verse.

These dis­cov­er­ies en­sured that the 100-inch Hooker te­le­scope would be for­ever famous among as­tronomers. But the field of as­tron­omy can be rather cold­hearted about old tele­scopes, par­tic­u­larly when they’re perched above a bur­geon­ing metropo­lis that’s pol­lut­ing the night sky.

‘Ein­stein was here’

The sun is set­ting, and in the con­trol room of the 150-foot so­lar tower, Padilla presses but­tons to guide the te­le­scope as it fol­lows the sun to­ward the hori­zon.

Ev­ery­thing about this place screams 1970s. There are racks of reel-to-reel tapes in the of­fice. The main com­puter is a 1973-vin­tage Raytheon, and when it failed a few years ago, no one could fix it. Blackand-white photos on the walls show the so­lar ob­ser­va­tory in more glo­ri­ous days. “Ein­stein was here,” a tiny note de­clares, and it’s true.

The te­le­scope still works fine. The sun hits a mir­ror and the beam of light trav­els down the shaft to the ob­serv­ing ta­ble.

The sun, you might think, is a fairly vanilla ob­ject in the sky. It’s the very def­i­ni­tion of pre­dictable: rises in the east, sets in the west, etc. The Aug. 21 eclipse will hap­pen pre­cisely on sched­ule and in the right places. If for some rea­son the moon does not block out the sun that Mon­day, we have a re­ally se­ri­ous prob­lem on our hands.

But the sun is not ac­tu­ally so pre­dictable. The 11-year so­lar cy­cle can be boom or bust. And if you’re Padilla, you see a slightly dif­fer­ent sun ev­ery day.

On this late af­ter­noon, the sun ap­pears ini­tially as a white disk on the ob­serv­ing ta­ble. There are no sunspots, but we can see some struc­ture, like gran­ules, on the face of the sun.

As the sun de­scends, the white disk turns or­ange.

Padilla does a lit­tle demon­stra­tion. He takes a draw­ing of the largest sunspot ever recorded and puts it on the im­age of the sun. It’s a mas­sive splotch — a truly spec­tac­u­lar so­lar storm. Then he puts a big mar­ble on the sun’s im­age. That’s Jupiter. Then he places on the or­ange disk a ball bear­ing, not much big­ger than what you’d fire from a BB gun.

Now the or­ange sun is turn­ing into a red sun. The lead­ing edge (“limb”) is dark red, while the trail­ing edge is blue.

Now we see the shapes of jet air­planes zoom­ing across the im­age — the sun is loom­ing just above the hori­zon.

The sun be­comes squashed, a mis­shapen piece of over­ripe fruit. The im­age fights its way through the Earth’s at­mos­phere. The sun hits a hill on the hori­zon, and we see the out­line of trees, and what’s left of the sun is blood red — and then it’s gone, eclipsed by the Earth.

It’ll be back.


A dome at the Mount Wil­son Ob­ser­va­tory in Cal­i­for­nia houses the te­le­scope Ed­win Hub­ble used to change our view of the uni­verse.


Source: Map­s4News/HERE


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