Friday, September 21, 2007

Lick Observatory trip, Part 1

Life is weird. One year when I was a kid we went to Colorado Springs on our family vacation. We went up to the top of Pike's Peak one day and went to the Cheyenne Mountain zoo the next. That was back in the late '80s . . . I hope there weren't any particularly important breeding programs at Cheyenne Mountain back then, considering it was sitting on top of NORAD and was (and might still be) the Zoo Most Likely To Be Turned Into Fallout.

Anyway, then we stayed a few days with some friends who lived in Colorado Springs. They'd lived there for years. Turned out that in all that time, they had never been up to the top of Pike's Peak. And the guy was a park ranger and his wife was a school teacher!

Which is worse, having something cool right on your doorstep and never checking it out, or having something cool on your doorstep and not even knowing it exists? I can't be too hard on those folks, because I've been in the UC system for six years and I never knew that the Lick Observatory (the first and AFAIK only entirely* UC-run observatory) even existed until a few weeks ago.

* UC is a managing partner on the Keck telescopes (schwing!) and has its fingers in a bunch of other astronomical badassery, including the upcoming Thirty-Meter Telescope, whose appellation rivals the Big Bang for sheer unironic literalness.

Lick Observatory is up on Mount Hamilton above San Jose. The photo below shows the view from the summit looking off to the northwest. The light-colored expanse in the upper left is the south end of San Francisco Bay. Lick was the first mountaintop observatory in the world. Up until it opened, all of the world's observatories were located in the same cities as the universities that ran them, or, if they were privately operated, at the operator's place in the countryside (like Herschel's 1.26-meter monster).

Last Saturday we took two dozen students from UCM up to Lick. It was fully awesome. They have seven domes up there, and six telescopes. The oldest dome was built in 1881; the newest was just completed and is currently waiting for the Automated Planet Finder, a robotic 2.4-meter reflector, to be installed.

The open dome in the photo above was completed in 1886 and houses the 36-inch refractor, which you saw a bit of in the teaser and about which you will see much more in an upcoming post. The dome on the right is at the other end of the building. That's the dome that was completed in 1881. For it's first century of operation it held a 12-inch refractor, but since 1979 it has held the Anna L. Nickel 1-meter reflector.

The view looking east. The shadow of Mount Hamilton is thrown onto the next range over by the setting sun. Which also brings and end to this post. Next up: the 3-m Shane reflector.

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