Mount Wilson telescope turns 100

It's been a century since the Mount Wilson Observatory arose almost 6,000 feet above Pasadena. Cutting-edge astronomy happened there before technology, development, and environmental changes made its original 60-inch telescope a relic. Southern Californians can still use it to sample the stars. KPCC's Molly Peterson made a pilgrimage.

Molly Peterson: For people who revere the night sky, the original observatory on Mount Wilson is a chapel. On a warm evening, Tom Metagini powers up the dome and the telescope.

Tom Metagini: Those are the original bulbs, ballast bulbs. I think those bulbs were hand blown by Thomas Edison himself. Here. Let me throw this and you'll see why they call it the Frankenstein panel.

Peterson: Metagini is an accountant, with an eye for detail. Tonight he's an astronomer, grazing his hand over the scope's huge heavy lens. It was once the largest on Earth – crafted from glass used for champagne bottles in France.

Metagini: That was the only place in the world that could pour that much glass. You know, in a mold, 5 feet across, 60 inches, it's 11 inches thick and it weighs 1,800 pounds.

Peterson: He also admires Mount Wilson's location above the smoggy L.A. basin.

Metagini: We're the first landrise off the Pacific Ocean so that as the air comes off the Pacific, the L.A. inversion layer, it comes just very gently up and over this landrise here.

Two ranges back, the air's all chewed up, stars are twinkling, and that's why they put this telescope on Mount Wilson because of that laminar condition.

Peterson: He'll operate the scope on this evening, with Shelley Bonus, another volunteer here. Bonus adores star history – especially here.

Shelley Bonus: Most of these beginning instruments were brought up here to the observatory on the backs of mules. The roads hadn't been finished yet. So these were great pioneers.

Peterson: She saw her first stars in a Bronx cemetery. Her father, a World War II navigator, pointed out Orion's Belt. That night, she says, the skies captured her soul.

Bonus: We're made out of star stuff. So when you look up you're looking at part of yourself, and we're still trying to understand what that is. You can never get bored with astronomy.

Peterson: Now Bonus is one of several enthusiasts who bring that experience to amateurs who rent Mount Wilson's 60-inch scope.

Philip Beitleman: How far away is this object? Whoa. Happy birthday to you.

Peterson: Philip Beitleman's family signed up this night. Sandwiches and a cake are spread on a table, alongside a giant urn of coffee. Given Beitleman's excitement, he can skip the caffeine.

Beitleman: When my children were growing up we always used binoculars and telescopes to spend time together up in the mountains, so to have access to the Mount Wilson observatory for my 60th birthday was just a major, major surprise and treat.

Peterson: Beitleman says he's never been good at picking out constellations. Shelley Bonus says that's understandable in Southern California.

Bonus: In the wintertime, if you can see Orion, you are lucky.

Peterson: Blame light pollution – the spooky orange glow from the city. A century ago, the 60-inch telescope let astronomers see fainter groups of stars in other galaxies – globular clusters. Bonus is sorry they're lost now in the urban dazzle.

Bonus: If Madonna was a constellation she'd be wearing globular clusters to the Grammys, they're spectacular!

Peterson: She remembers one power outage, decades ago – Angelenos called Mount Wilson to find out if something bad had happened to the planet.

Bonus: They panicked because the electricity was out and they had never seen so many stars and they thought something had exploded. Now that's heartbreaking. Because the beauty of the night sky wasn't something they expected!

Peterson: Light pollution isn't new, but it's getting worse. So enthusiasts like Bonus spread the night sky gospel where they can. California is thick with stargazing clubs; some own land in dark sky country. Metagini says you don't need membership or a telescope to take in a spectacular sight.

Metagini: Mount Pinos is the place to go. On any given clear weekend night you'll find maybe 50 to 80 amateurs out there who are happy to share their telescopes with you.

Peterson: That destination, near the L.A.-Ventura County line, is a good plan for summer and fall. In winter, Bonus says there's no shame sticking closer to home. You can use a $10 map of the night sky – called a planesphere – and a red flashlight.

Bonus: Your head tilts back for a reason – look up!

Peterson: She says all you really need is your eyes. It's your call whether to turn off the lights.

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