Palomar Observatory

Palomar Observatory

Palomar Observatory is a privately owned observatory located in San Diego County, California, 90 miles (145 km) southeast of Mount Wilson Observatory, on Palomar Mountain in the Palomar Mountain Range. It is owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The observatory currently consists of four main instruments: the 200 inch (5.08 m) Hale telescope, the 48 inch (1.22 m) Samuel Oschin telescope, the 18 inch (457 millimeter) Schmidt telescope, and a 60 inch (1.52 m) reflecting telescope. In addition, the Palomar Testbed Interferometer is located at this observatory.


The word palomar is from the Spanish language, dating back from the time of Spanish California, and means pigeon house (in the same sense as henhouse). The name may be in reference to the large shoals of pigeons that can be seen during the spring and autumn months atop Palomar Mountain or reminiscent of an old pigeon-raising facility built there by the Spaniards.

The Hale Telescope

This 200 inch (5.08 m) telescope is named after astronomer George Ellery Hale. It was built by Caltech with a 6 million dollar grant from the Rockefeller Institute, using a Pyrex blank manufactured by Corning Glass Works. The telescope (the largest in the world at that time) saw "first light" in 1948. The American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble was the first astronomer to use the telescope for observing. The Hale Telescope is operated by a consortium of Caltech, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Cornell University.

The Hale Telescope has been used to discover hundreds of asteroids, and its tenth-scale engineering model was used to discover at least one minor planet, (34419) Corning . This scale model resides in Corning, New York, home of the Corning Glass Works (now Corning Incorporated).

Ronald Florence wrote a history of the instrument's construction, The Perfect Machine, ISBN 0-06-018205-9. Richard Preston wrote a critically acclaimed nonfiction novel about the Hale telescope and the astronomers who use it, called First Light.

Other telescopes and instruments

  • A 60" (1.5 m) f/8.75 telescope. It was dedicated in 1970 to take some of the load off of the Hale Telescope. This telescope discovered the first brown dwarf star.
  • The 48" (1.22 m) Samuel Oschin Schmidt Camera. The dwarf planet Eris was discovered with this instrument.
  • A 24" telescope completed in January 2006.
  • An 18" (0.4 m) Schmidt camera. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was discovered with this instrument.
  • The Palomar Planet Search Telescope, a small robotic telescope dedicated to the search for planets around other stars.
  • The Palomar Testbed Interferometer which allows for very high resolution measurements.

Palomar Observatory Sky Survey

The Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS), sponsored by the National Geographic institute, was completed in 1958 (The first plates were shot in November 1948 and the last in April 1958). This survey was performed using 14 inch² or (6 degree)² blue-sensitive (Kodak 103a-O) and red-sensitive (Kodak 103a-E) photographic plates on the 48 inch (1.22 m) Samuel Oschin Schmidt reflecting telescope. The survey covered the sky from a declination of +90 degrees (celestial north pole) to -27 degrees and all right ascensions and had a sensitivity to +22 magnitudes (about 1 million times fainter than the limit of human vision). A southern extension extending the sky coverage of the POSS to -33 degrees declination was shot in 1957 - 1958. The final POSS consisted of 937 plate pairs.

J.B. Whiteoak, an Australian radio astronomer, used the same instrument to extend this survey further south to about -45 degrees declination, using the same field centers as the corresponding northern declination zones. Unlike the POSS, the Whiteoak extension consisted only of red-sensitive (Kodak 103a-E) photographic plates.

Until the completion of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), POSS was the most extensive wide-field sky survey ever. When completed, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey will surpass the POSS in depth, although the POSS covers almost 2.5 times as much area on the sky. POSS also exists in digitized form (i.e., the photographic plates were scanned), both in photographic form as the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) and in catalog form as the Minnesota Automated Plate Scanner (MAPS) Catalog.

Current research

One of the current ongoing research programs at Palomar is the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking program.

This program makes use of the Palomar Quasar Equatorial Survey Team (QUEST) Variability survey that began in the autumn of 2001 to map a band of sky around the equator. This search switched to a new camera installed on the Samuel Oschin Schmidt telescope at Palomar in summer of 2003 and the results are used by several projects, including the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking project. Another program that uses the QUEST results discovered 90377 Sedna on 14 November 2003, and around 40 Kuiper belt objects. Other programs that share the camera are Shri Kulkarni's search for gamma-ray bursts (this takes advantage of the automated telescope's ability to react as soon as a burst is seen and take a series of snapshots of the fading burst), Richard Ellis' search for supernovae to test whether the universe's expansion is accelerating or not, and S. George Djorgovski's quasar search.

The camera itself is a mosaic of 112 Charge-coupled devices (CCDs) covering the whole (4 degree by 4 degree) field of view of the Schmidt telescope, the largest CCD mosaic used in an astronomical camera when built.

Clearest Images

In September 2007, a team of astronomers from the US and the UK released some of the clearest pictures ever taken of outer space. The pictures were obtained through the use of a new "adaptive optics" system which sharpens pictures taken from the Palomar Mountain Observatory. The resolution attained exceeds that of the Hubble Space Telescope by a factor of two.


Public access

The Palomar Observatory is an active research facility. However, parts of it are open to the public during the day. Visitors can take self-guided tours of 200-inch (5.08 m) telescope daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is a visitor's center and a gift shop on the grounds.

The observatory is located off State Route 76 in northern San Diego County, California, is two hours' drive from downtown San Diego, and three hours' drive from central Los Angeles (UCLA, LAX airport ).

Although the surrounding area is mostly undeveloped, there is a big hotel and casino approximately 15 miles (24 km) from the observatory.

In pop culture

The band Wellwater Conspiracy's 1997 debut album, Declaration of Conformity, contains a track entitled "Palomar Observatory." It is the last track on the album and completely instrumental. It is likely the track title was chosen by singer/drummer Matt Cameron, who grew up in San Diego near the observatory. Also, Canadian band The Rheostatics 11th track from their effort Whale Music is entitled Palomar. The song depicts a man named Palomar on the top of a mount, cleaning his lenses with saline waters. Palomar assembles his kaleidoscope in his lonely observatory. The song is an extremely visual characterization of a man on a mountain and his relationship with his best friend, a dog.

Italo Calvino's 1983 novel Mr. Palomar, which features a man reflecting on how he observes the world, is named after the observatory. Palomar is mentioned in the first episode of season 2 of the X-Files: Little Green Man. Mulder intimates that an elf (i.e. alien) crawled through the window of Hale's billiard room and told him to build the observatory.


Much of the surrounding region of Southern California has adopted shielded lighting to reduce the light pollution that would potentially affect the observatory.

See also


  • Florence, Ronald (1995 September). The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092670-8.
  • (1966). The Construction of large telescopes. International Astronomical Union. Symposium no. 27, London, New York: Academic Press.

External links

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