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Palomar Mountain's Observatory Campground: A vantage point with universal appeal

Amateur astronomers and the merely curious gather in the inky darkness above the Palomar Observatory in northern San Diego County to gaze upon heavenly bodies.

September 27, 2009|Jordan Rane

It's not the kind of gear you'll see lying around any old campground on a Saturday: a 10-inch Meade LX200-ACF telescope with a GPS receiver and Smart Drive; a Carbon Fiber Schmidt-Cassegrain with an 80ED refractor hard-wired to a laptop for precision imaging; and a 300-pound, 25-inch Newtonian scope perched on a Dobsonian equatorial platform with a kid-friendly stepladder.

But this isn't just any Saturday or any campground in the woods. It's the most astronomically happening public car-camping event in Southern California. It's star party weekend on Palomar Mountain.

"It's a bit like a monthly reunion with tens of thousands of dollars of equipment sitting around," says Eddie Belford, an amateur astronomer from Vista gearing up for another meeting under the stars at Palomar Mountain's Observatory Campground in the Cleveland National Forest.

"I think it's gonna be a good night," he adds, scrolling through some computer images of the Veil Nebula taken during an earlier star party. "As soon as the sun hits the hilltop, all of that haze is gonna drop, and hopefully we'll get a decent marine layer."

Mark Carter, Belford's astronomer buddy and a builder and musician from Dana Point, is sorting through his celestial files on a laptop connected to an equally serious-looking 10-inch scope that can spot something 400 million light-years away, give or take, on a good, dark night. "That's why you want that marine layer," Carter says. "It acts like a light shield from below."

Belford and Carter's campsite setup would have blown Galileo's mind, with its automated scopes, computer imaging stations, a plasma lamp and Jethro Tull faintly thumping in a pine-studded alpine setting often likened to the Sierra. Clearly, this is the way astronomy was meant to be practiced.

If we come back that night, they tell me and my 7-year-old son, Jackson, we'll see "some really cool stuff." Planets. Nebulae. Globular clusters. Double stars. Supernova remnants. Maybe even a few distant galaxies -- marine layer permitting. In other words, stuff we'd never see in the muted skies of L.A. in a million light-years, even if we owned a telescope (we don't) or had a clue about what a supernova remnant is.

Sponsored by the Forest Service and run by local astronomy enthusiasts, Palomar's "Explore the Stars" program began about 15 years ago when a ranger at the Cleveland National Forest saw it as a great public outreach opportunity in one of the nation's most hallowed star-gazing spots, the Palomar Observatory and its 200-inch Hale telescope (formerly the world's largest) just two miles up the road from the campground. One weekend a month, from April through October, amateur astronomers from San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties set up shop in the Observatory Campground's north end (a "light-free zone" after 9 p.m.) and invite the scopeless public to have a look through their fancy equipment, learn about what's out there beyond our light-soaked cities and marvel at the unfathomable.

"It's a great opportunity for people without telescopes or much astronomy background to get a taste of it," says star party organizer Bob Nanz, an Escondido-based astronomy buff with the weekend's biggest telescope apparatus -- one that requires a ladder for viewing.

"Sometimes more than 200 people show up at these things," says Nanz. "Other times, it's a little quieter, like this weekend. You never know what you're gonna get. Should be good tonight, though -- especially if we get that marine layer."

With several hours of summer daylight left before star-party time, Jackson and I set up our tent, stove, firewood and Coleman lantern in a less light-restricted corner of the campground. We watch a harried woodpecker mom swoop in and out of a tree hole above our picnic table to feed her fussing kids. And, of course, we prayed for a good marine layer tonight (a first for both of us).

Then we hike two miles up a pleasant, forested trail to the Palomar Observatory -- a large, white, spherical building perched near the summit that's open to the public during the day. The private, Caltech-operated grounds offer a small, interactive astronomy museum and a limited-access, self-guided tour of the Hale telescope building, where serious work continues from dusk until dawn most nights of the year.

Back at the campground, as night descends on Palomar Mountain, the star party kicks off with an impromptu "sky tour" led by Steve Short of the Orange County Astronomers organization. The sun is down. A sliver of moon is up. So is Saturn. Very soon the hemisphere is a gorgeous mess of burning stars, curiously named constellations (A lion? Really?) and the odd hurtling satellite. Our marine layer prayers have been answered.

"Was anyone here disappointed when Pluto was demoted to dwarf-planet status?" Short asks the group of about 40 silhouettes, young and old, staring up at the sky.

There's a collective groan. Turns out every family camping here tonight was devastated when they heard that news.

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