Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton

February 15, 2012

Another year, another telescope trained on another asteroid.  I spent the evening of February 15 at the summit of Mt. Hamilton near San Jose with the 40″ Nickel telescope pointed at (22) Kalliope and its moon Linus.  The asteroid slowly plodded across the camera frame as the hours ticked by from sunset until 1 am.  The weather was clear, if windy.  Most of the observing was supposed to be done remotely from a basement at UC Berkeley, but I had to be checked out first at the actual telescope before I could remotely observe, so away I drove to Mount Hamilton.

The drive to the summit was fantastic: roaring down the Nimitz Freeway followed by about 20 miles of supremely windy roads through fields of dry grass and oak trees with mistletoe hanging from their branches, finishing at the snow-capped summit of Mount Hamilton in the middle of a wilderness preserved.  Mount Hamilton is only 4,200′ feet, but there was enough snow up there to have serious snowball fights, make snowmen… and so close to San Francisco!  Astronomy.  That’s why I was there.  Right.

After using telescopes on three continents in person and in Hawai`i remotely, it’s easy enough to get back in the swing of observing.  Take calibration images.  Check pointing accuracy.  Focus the mirrors.  Learn various quirks of the telescope, such as the guiding system.  Confirm you have your target in the field.  Take data.  Take more data.  Watch the asteroid plod across the sky.  Update the logbook.  Repeat.
Kalliope and its moon Linus had just entered a season of mutual eclipses, where the shadow of one object would pass over the other in the course of a few hours one night.  Seeing the shadow dim the light from the system meant later analysis could use that data to improve what we know about the orbit of tiny Linus and the size of larger Kalliope, named after the muse of epic poetry and her son.
I was the only person in the control room for the night, so it was just me and three monitors, keeping tabs on the asteroid and the telescope’s subsystems while ruminating about Roman mythology, the freezing wind outside, and my bag of dried persimmons.

After observing, I went in to photograph the telescope and its dome.  Built in 1979, Nickel was kluged together with spare parts and was somehow designed to fit in a dome originally made for a much smaller telescope.

Pouring liquid nitrogen into the dewar.

Safety first.

Around 2 am I went off in search of the dorm.  I awoke a couple of hours later to this view.

I walked over toward the main building to find the gift shop and visit the telescope in the daylight.  The observatory was founded in 1888, but a number of buildings show architecture from the early 20th century.

The stairs had star-shaped tread on them.

A seismogram of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The old dorms, Art Deco?

I proceeded down the windy road toward San Jose in the distance, following the obvious signs.

Springtime had come to the mountain; plum trees were in full bloom.

Time to reduce the data…

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