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Mount Wilson Observatory

Original Airdate August 27, 2014

Steve Padilla: Well, today is kind of a special day. It’s now 28 years since my first day on the job. Going up the bucket can be a little bit scary. The wind causes the bucket to sway from side to side. This is Mount Wilson Observatory and I draw sunspots. A sunspot is a dark area on the sun, its most notable feature is that it has a strong magnetic field. The reason a sunspot looks dark is its cooler than the visible part of the sun that we call the photosphere. The magnetic fields in the sunspots can become twisted and result in solar flares. That’s what affects the earth in the case of a very strong eruption you can have more intense aurora activity – disruptions with communications, even huge failure with the power grid. This telescope has been in operation since 1912. Things look pretty quiet this morning. One of the first things you do is get the mirrors lined up to track the sun. It’s got a motor drive that slowly turns to compensate for the earth’s rotation, but you have to manually set the mirrors. There’s a certain style you might say to how things were built in the beginning of the 20th century. It’s something that catches your eye and captures your imagination and I think for anyone who can appreciate that, it’s like going back in time.

When I first came here I was just fascinated with history of the place. Just captivated by everything up here. You can almost imagine those early astronomers just by walking around here, and when the opportunity came to get a job here, I went for it. That was November 1, 1985. And here we are, my last working day for UCLA. Funding for research has become so hard to get these days. Our staff gradually was cut down to just myself and another observer.

There’s a few high, thin clouds going by. How good the drawing comes out depends on how patient you are at picking up little fine details. The fine details are there momentarily even though we’re seeing the image moving around and going in and out of focus. We can concentrate on what we’ve seen in those sharper moments. This is our model for the planet Jupiter. Then we have planet earth, much smaller. Then we have a photograph of the very largest sunspot group ever recorded here – 1947. It’s a mix of art and science. By studying the sun it gives us clues to how very distant stars work. In the longer the observations continue, the more valuable the data.

I guess I’ve been doing it so long. I feel like if I don’t get a drawing each day, something is kind of missing. It was started in 1917. So I hate to have to stop doing that because well, there’s no one else to do it. Tomorrow, I’ll come in and do the same thing today, but I won’t be earning a living. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to continue voluntarily. I hope until some funding does come back at least I’m going to give it my best shot.

Tour a 150-foot solar tower overlooking Los Angeles at Mount Wilson Observatory, a facility dedicated to the continued study of astronomy and solar observations.

The observatory was founded by George Ellery Hale in 1904. It is known for its vast collection of historic 60-inch telescopes that are able to capture stunning views of star clusters and the wonders of the galaxy.

Solar observer Steven Padilla has worked at Mount Wilson Observatory since 1985. But over the past few years, there was been a dramatic shortage of researchers due to the lack of funding for research, which means he was cut, too.

Padilla is an expert at drawing sunspots, which he says are much cooler than the visible parts of the sun. On his last working day at the observatory, Padilla shares with us some of his most detailed sunspot drawings and telescopes that have been in operation since 1912.

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