Observatory trip preview: A night on Mt. Wilson

August 19, 2009
View from the Mt Wilson towercam.

View from the Mt Wilson towercam.

One of the perks of living in California is being close to several nice observatories. When I lived in Merced I got to visit the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton above San Jose. A few months ago I visited the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, which is just a fantastic and beautiful place to tour, not least because it’s free. But the gleam in my eye has been a visit to Mt. Wilson (image above from UCLA’s Towercam; go here for a regularly updated Towercam picture).

The Mt. Wilson Observatory was founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale, and for almost half of the twentieth century it was home to the largest telescopes on Earth. The 60-inch telescope was the world’s biggest telescope when it saw first light in December, 1908. It held that title until November, 1917, when it was eclipsed by the 100-inch Hooker telescope, which is also at Mt. Wilson. No larger telescope would see first light until January, 1949, when the monster 200-inch (5 meter) Hale telescope started operations on Mt. Palomar.

The 60-inch telescope as it appeared when my grandfather was born.

The 60-inch telescope as it appeared when my grandfather was born.

The 60-inch telescope is no longer used for research. Instead, ordinary citizens can rent it for $900 a night and spend the evening observing the heavens with what is, as far as I know, the largest telescope in the world still used for visual observations (image above from here; image below from here). Usually an astronomy club will get a couple dozen people together and everyone will chip in to cut down on the cost of the trip. The Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers are going tonight, and they had a few extra slots available, sooo…

The 60-inch telescope as it appears today.

The 60-inch telescope as it appears today.

…I’m going with them!

And I’m FREAKING OUT!! I have gotten to look through the 36-inch Great Lick Refractor on two occasions, and both times the views were absolutely unbelievable. The 60-inch reflector at Mt. Wilson has almost double the resolving power and almost three times the light gathering ability as the Great Lick Refractor, so I don’t even have a reference standard for how awesome this will hopefully be. The only dark cloud on the horizon would be, well, a dark cloud on the horizon–the PVAA group has already gotten clouded out once this year. But currently the skies and the forecast are both clear, so with any luck I will have the mother of all observing reports up in a day or two. Stay tuned!


  1. I wished I could look through the 36″ refractor! Lucky you. Awesome write out you have here on Mount Wilson, I’ve always wanted to visit an observatory up in the mountains!

  2. […] Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers spent Saturday night observing with the 60-inch telescope up on Mount Wilson. A really excellent night on the mountain is a Goldilocks affair–you need enough of a marine […]

  3. I have 2 boxes of original slides from Mount Wilson and Palomar dated from 1909, photographed in light of hydrogen, bought in a Miami exhibition. Where can I find out more about these. The projector came with them.

  4. Ps, where could I find the historical value of these. Harry

  5. Hi Harry, sounds like quite a treasure trove you have there! You should probably get in touch with people who are interested in conserving the history of both observatories. Good places to start would be here for Mt. Wilson and here for Palomar. You might also get in touch with the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, they have several members who are docents at Mt Wilson and who are active in documenting the history of the local observatories (i.e., I know of at least one LAAS member who is planning to write a book about the history of Palomar Mountain). Contact info for the LAAS is here. Good luck!

  6. Dear Matt, Many many thanks for your email, I shall try all the leads you gave me. Yes, it is a treasure hoard, irrresistable, the pics are so truly amazing! Wish I could take it back to Portugal, my main residence to show my camera buff friends, its just as well, it belongs in USA.and USA history.

    Once again, many thanks,


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