Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles, Travel

Owens Valley Astrophotography Adventure

Our February adventure had an astronomical theme – we went to Owens Valley, California.   The husband had been here many times thanks to his work on the LEDA project but this was my first time – and the first time his visit didn’t require a transcontinental flight followed by a 5 hour drive.

We picked President’s Day weekend and set off at a civilized 10am.  Our first stop was still in Pasadena – at Samy’s Camera Shop. This is a fabulous store packed with absolutely everything you could possibly want as a photographer.  As someone who grew up in a house with a darkroom, it was strangely fun to see boxes of photographic paper on the shelf.  We picked up a roll of 200ASA film and got the nice man to load it into my Nikon FE. I also packed my camera clamp which I would use instead of a tripod.

We set off up the 210 North and turned off at the nasty 5/210 junction along the 14 then the 395 towards Bishop, CA.  Along the way we stopped at Lancaster and spotted a donut shop in an otherwise sketchy looking shopping center.  Sugary Donuts turned out to be an excellent find.


Back on the road we found ourselves leaving civilization and heading into the mountains.  Near the turn off to the 136 we spied a Visitor Center (the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center) so we stopped to stock up on maps and eat our donuts.


Just before we arrived in Bishop we turned up the 168 towards Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory. We had been given a key to the LEDA facility (a tricked out shipping container) so my husband was able to show me all the work he had done for the two years we were in Boston.

The LEDA telescope is an array of 251 antennas like the ones below, arranged over a wide area, with another 5 different type of antenna spaced around the edges.  These antennas work together to produce a picture of the sky – but not a normal picture – one taken with radio waves.  The scientists are hoping to ‘see’ what the universe looked like soon after the first stars turned on after the Big Bang.  Their ‘first light’ image is here:

Other telescopes on the site

After all this excitement we headed to our hotel in Bishop (Creekside Innmy review here).

Once it was fully dark we got back in the car and headed back to the Observatory.  After only a mild amount of swearing and dropping parts in the sand we hooked up the camera to its clamp, and clamped the clamp to a handy fence post. We opened the shutter and waited. It was at this point we realized it wasn’t exactly warm outside…

I pointed the camera at Orion/Taurus/Pleiades wide field.  Then I pointed it at the North Star.  Then we switched locations and got some foreground telescope action happening.  Exposures were all less than 10 minutes (we didn’t time it). [Later, I got the film developed and scanned at Samy’s, then rinsed the images through Photoshop on ‘auto correct’].

Pointing at the North Star
Pointing at the North Star
Pointing north-ish
Pointing north-ish

The next day we drove up towards the Bristlecone Pine Forest.  We drove up from 4000ft to something like 8000ft, saw a bit of snow on the road, and caught glimpses of some spectacular views.  The vista at the top was breathtaking and the car smelled hot. Along the way I used up the last few frames of the roll of film, and found it interesting to compare the same shot taken with the digital camera and the film camera.

On our way home we tried to get lunch at the Copper Top BBQ place (somewhere my husband and his colleagues ‘discovered’ when it first opened a couple of years ago) – but the line was more than an hour long…

For those interested, here is a recent article about Owens Valley and its dust issue:


Question: When was the last time you got a roll of film developed?


Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles

Observing night at Mt Wilson

Last week we were treated to a fabulous evening at Mt Wilson Observatory.  Michael Long invited us to join a group of JPL interns and LACC students on an observing session on the famous 60-inch telescope.


We left Pasadena at 5.35pm and we met Mike and the others at the gate in plenty of time before the 6.30pm kick-off.


Once everyone had arrived we drove in convoy through the gates.  It was only a short drive along narrow one-way roads before we arrived outside the domes.

The evening formally began with a tour of the ‘most famous telescope in history’ – the 100-inch.  This frankly massive telescope was used by Hubble to discover that the universe is expanding, and that there are many different types and shapes of galaxies outside of our own.  Let’s not forget these discoveries were made in an era where it was commonly believed the Milky Way was the entire universe.

We all spent far too long on the catwalk taking photos and admiring the sunset and soon it was time to head over to the 60-inch.


Mike warned us as we were walking not to wander off too far in the dark.  Hazards include mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bears, as well as steep drop-offs.


The program observer for the night was Nick, a very knowledgeable man who told us he’d been doing these tours for over a decade.  When we arrived on the observing platform he already had Mars lined up.  We were given another safety briefing, warning us about the 150V DC lines running around the edge of the dome (protected of course) and the truck wheels that move the dome.  Interacting with either of these would not be a good plan.  We were advised to stay in front of the semicircle of chairs and all would be well.  Keeping out of the way of the telescope when it was being slewed was also a requirement, since ‘the telescope won’t even care as it knocks you over’.

Nick showed us how to look through the telescope. The eyepiece was on the Cassegrain focus, and we would often need to use a big stepladder to get to it.  We were free to step on any blue-colored part of the telescope, and to focus the eyepiece to suit ourselves.  We were asked not to press any of the inviting red backlit buttons near the eyepiece though.

So, to Mars! We lined up and took turns to climb the ladder to the eyepiece.  Mars was a smallish fuzzy red blob and I imagined I could see a faintly darker section of the disk.  I also imagined that it wasn’t a completely round.  Checking this website later and it looks like I was right – it did have a slight phase on it!


Then, as Mars began to set, Nick quickly shifted the telescope to Saturn. This was easily the most spectacular object of the whole night (when isn’t it?). Everyone uttered ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as they saw it.  It was yellow and featureless, and we could see the amazing rings.  Viewing with slightly averted vision revealed the Cassini division in the rings.   I could also clearly see four of the moons. I tried to take a photo with my phone but it was quite hard to line up the camera with the pupil!


At this point the temperature in the dome started to drop noticeably and complimentary hot chocolate was very tempting. The skies darkened as people went back for a second look at Saturn.  This was nearly the last picture of the night for me as my camera battery died and my phone wasn’t up to the job.

The next object we saw was M13, a globular cluster.  It seemed small compared to the more familiar-to-me southern hemisphere Omega Cen, but individual stars were clearly visible.  Then, the Cat’s Eye nebula was lined up by Nick.  This is a planetary nebula – a dying star surrounded by shells of it’s own blown-off gas.  Spectacular.

We saw Epsilon Lyrae next, known as the ‘double double’.  Four stars in total, two sets of two.  It seemed that the two stars that made up each binary were equally separated. Very nice indeed.

As Nick moved the telescope in an orderly way across the sky our next object was M57 – the Ring Nebula.  This is a similar object to the Cats Eye nebula but much fuzzier. There was no obvious central star.

Alberio, another double star swiftly followed. This pair of stars is a wider binary than each of those of the double-double.  One was clearly white, and the other clearly yellow.

The last object for us of the night was Campbell’s hydrogen star – a Wolf Rayet star.  This was another fuzzy one, but very small, even with the magnification boosted from 300x to 500x.  We could just make out a faint red tinge to the glow.

And then it was time for us to leave – it was only 11pm but one of us had work the next day!  The JPLers and LACCers had the telescope until 1am and I’m sure they saw many more fabulous objects.

I would highly recommend an observing night at Mt Wilson.  While the price may seem steep, once it’s divided by 10-15 people, it’s excellent value for money.  Not only do you get to look through a telescope that was once the largest in the world, and was used to make unprecedented discoveries about the universe, you get a spectacular view of Los Angeles on the drive back down the mountain!


For more information, here’s the Mt Wilson Observatory website:

Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles

Griffith Observatory

Climbing a giant hill in 90F heat: sounds like a brilliant idea…

We had a day’s reprieve from house-hunting last Saturday so we decided to go to the Griffith Observatory.


We actually tried to go there a few weeks ago but were confounded by the lack of parking.

Griffith Park is only a few miles from our hotel in Burbank so we saw it as an easy target for our first excursions as tourists. We decided to skip the carpark and leave the car at the bottom of the hill. We were assured (by apparently much fitter friends) that it was a mere stroll to the Observatory from there.

Unfortunately the weather last weekend was Hot. By 10am it was 90F (32C). But no matter; we were going to do this.

We drove to the appropriate spot near The Trails café (apparently a good place for star-spotting) and parked on the road.

Once out of the car we found there was a surprising lack of signage, and several trails to choose from. After some time walking up and down and consulting Google maps we eventually decided on a path.

I had erroneously assumed the path would be shady, since the hill is covered with trees. But no – I was quite open to the blazing sun, and pretty steep. After about 15 minutes we were breathing hard.

Luckily at our first shade/rest break we turned around and saw this!


As we got closer to the top we started getting better views of the city below and the Observatory above.



By the time we staggered onto the plaza where everyone else was just getting out of their air-conditioned cars, probably 30 minutes later, we were quite hot.

We immediately found some shade and after a couple of minutes climbed the stairs to “The telescope”. The Telescope turned out to be The Zeiss 12’ Refractor which is apparently used on public observing nights.


The Observatory is free to visit so we headed into the relative cool of the exhibit space.


In the first hall there were, among other things, Galileo’s first telescope (the original? It wasn’t clear), a good display showing refracting and reflecting telescopes, and a steerable model of a (the?) telescope and dome.



We then headed down a long corridor decorated with ‘astronomical jewellery’ showing the timeline of the universe. It only mentioned the bits relevant to human existence though, so there were 5 billion years of blank wall space. This seemed strange, or good, depending on what you were trying to communicate I suppose.


We investigated the Gunther Depths of Space exhibit (big models of planets!) then retired to the surprisingly empty café to recharge. Then we faced the long hike back down the hill to the baking hot car.

Does anyone else see the colours in the clouds on the left?
Does anyone else see the colours in the clouds on the left?