A Star-Seeker's Guide to a Journey Into Outer Space


Palomar / All photos: Sandi Hemmerlein

Learn how the first photos of a planet were made in this clip.

You might not think of Southern California as being very interplanetary, but when it comes down to it, Houston and Cape Canaveral have nothing on us.

Besides the fact that we now have our very own Spaceport in Mojave, for a century we've been at the forefront of space exploration through our various observatories, satellite dishes, and probes that have gone off into the great beyond to try to find whatever truth is out there.

And our very own Caltech helped fund the research that has just led to the latest groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves, proving yet another aspect of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Einstein himself was even a visiting professor at Caltech in the early 1930s.

Whether or not you want to believe in extraterrestrial life, you can't deny that the scientific discoveries made in our own backyard have shaped the way we understand the expanding universe around us. And amazingly enough, with a little advance planning, you can visit many of those historic sites -- many of which feature hiking trails in addition to their telescopes and astrophysical paraphernalia. 

Jet Propulsion Laboratory
If you're a hiker, you might have walked right past JPL along the Gabrielino Trail in the Upper Arroyo Seco, where it sprawls across the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. In conjunction with Caltech, this is where space-bound robotics (like the Mars Rover) are designed, built, tested, and remotely operated. If you go to their open house or to any of their regular free public tours, you get to see the In Situ Instrument Laboratory, where duplicate models of rovers are placed in laboratory-controlled environments that are nearly identical to space to make trial runs over rough terrain or out of space sand. JPL is an active space exploration facility run by NASA, but it's also a museum. Its exhibits include a 50% scale model of the Cassini, whose 2004 mission was to orbit Saturn, study its rings, and release a probe towards Saturn's largest moon, Titan. There's also a sample of a moon rock and of Aerogel, the lightest solid in existence. Even if you don't know a thing about unmanned space vehicles, it's cool to take a peek into their control room, the JPL Space Flight Operations Facility.



Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex
Thirty miles outside of Barstow in the Mojave Desert, you can take a journey from the desert to the stars at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex. Like JPL, Goldstone is also run by NASA and focuses on unmanned spacecraft, the "interplanetary robotic space missions" that tell us more about the world around our planet. Built on 52 square miles on Department of Defense land in the the Mojave Desert, it's far enough from nearby cities to remain uncluttered by competing transmissions. Any NASA spacecraft mission that's flown past the moon -- even to the edge of the solar system -- was probably aided by one of their giant radio satellites in some way. Their radar observations can include a variety of rovers, probes, and even asteroids. If there's something out there to be seen, or communicated with, Goldstone will be the first to know. However, Goldstone is primarily just collecting the data. Everything that comes in is sent to JPL and analyzed there. If anything seems amiss, JPL deals with it. And it's all extremely top secret, though they do welcome public tours with restricted photo opps.

Mount Wilson Observatory
With all of these mountains bringing us to higher elevations in Southern California, it's no wonder our gazes turn upwards. At almost 6,000 feet above sea level, Mt. Wilson Observatory has a long history as a research facility, and is still operated by the Mount Wilson Institute under an agreement with the Carnegie Institution of Washington. It also hosts a number of public events and docent tours that lead you past their three solar towers that were built to study the magnetic pull of the sun. 

But the main attractions at Mount Wilson are the 60-inch telescope and the 100-inch "Hooker" telescope, the largest telescope in the world from 1917 to 1948 that was recently opened to the public for the first in nearly a century. You can hike along the Sturtevant Trail to Echo Rock and imagine Albert Einstein walking those same paths because, of course, he did, when he visited in 1931. It was a marvel that the 100-inch telescope was even built decades before the Angeles Crest Highway, when the only way to get to the top of Mount Wilson was via the Mount Wilson Toll Road. The inside of the 100-inch is presently more or less unchanged from the days of astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble, the "pioneer of distant stars" whose discoveries revealed the expansion of the universe. If you attend one of their public star parties at either telescope -- or join one of the star parties hosted by other private groups -- you see dwarf planets, globular clusters, nebulae, and extra-galactic worlds.

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Palomar Observatory
Located on Palomar Mountain in East San Diego County, Palomar Observatory is most famous for housing the 200-inch Hale Telescope, the largest effective telescope until 1993, and a title it took over from Mt. Wilson's 100-inch "Hooker" telescope. George Ellery Hale's predecessors typically made their telescope mirrors out of fused quartz, but since mirror casters couldn't use it to manufacture a mirror that big, Hale approached Corning Glass Works in Upstate New York to make one out of a relatively new material at the time: Pyrex.

It took Corning a couple of tries, but they managed to succeed in casting a mirror with the necessary purity and smoothness, and far less distortion than the previous 100-inch telescope. Moving the behemoth across the country and up the mountain ended up becoming quite the spectacle. Although it's the most famous, the 200-inch telescope isn't the only one atop Mount Palomar. There are actually a total of three telescopes, which have been responsible not only for spotting the first brown dwarf star, but also the existence of dwarf planets, initiating the discussions which led to Pluto getting kicked out of the solar system. You can see the inside of the 200-inch during daytime tours, but there are currently no opportunities for the public to look through the telescope at night.

The Carnegie Observatories
Also founded by Hale is the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, a premiere center of astronomical research for over 100 years. Here, astronomers were able to not only measure the age of the universe, but also discover dark matter. And now that we know that the universe is expanding (thanks to the discoveries made at the 100-inch at Mt. Wilson), scientists at Carnegie Observatories are trying to calculate how fast. They share their findings with the public via regular lectures, and for more than a dozen years, they've opened their doors to the public for an annual open house event. There, you can ask astronomers your most pressing questions, look through a solar telescope, peruse the solar plate collection in the Hale Library, explore a working machine shop, and learn about their Giant Magellan Telescope Project in Chile. As you walk through the original 1912 office building, you might encounter someone developing a new instrument, someone studying the history of the early universe, and another discovering a new class of extra-galactic objects.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory
Unlike Mt. Wilson or Mt. Palomar, which were primarily scientific research facilities, the observatory in Griffith Park has always been used for public education. Beyond the Observatory's famous Art Deco exterior visible from many of the hiking trails around Griffith Park and various vantage points around Old Hollywoodland -- the interior houses more than just the planetarium shows. Intricate ceiling murals depict classical celestial mythology above an entrancing Foucault Pendulum, whose swaying back and forth remains constant while the Earth turns beneath it, causing the pendulum to knock down a series of pins every few minutes. The Tesla Coil's high voltage, lightning bolt-like display is demonstrated hourly, spectacularly, and loudly. And anytime there's an eclipse or other celestial event, the Observatory is the place to go. It may not be under the darkest of skies, but it brings together both professional and amateur astronomers that want to share the experience, even if you don't know which end of the telescope is up.

You can catch free star programs at community-oriented events hosted by UCLA at their small planetarium, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy at the various park properties they manage, and Los Angeles Astronomical Society at both Griffith Park and Garvey Ranch in Monterey Park, where they'll demonstrate how to make your own telescope so you can explore space literally in your own backyard.


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