Visiting BLAKE ESTES, Mount Wilson Observatory
Intro & Interview: Diana Wehmeier/Estevan M. Guzman/Azul Pinochet Barros
At an altitude of 5,715 feet, overlooking the city of Los Angeles, stands the Mount Wilson Observatory. Looking up from the foot of the mountain this place might not seem like much. However, the mountain top is home to a great collection of dozens of telescopes, including two with a 60 and 100 inch reflectors that have directly contributed to expanding our current understanding of the Universe. It is one of the few open gates that the people of Pasadena have to the stars. Even though Mount Wilson is engulfed by the city, reaching the summit is no meek task as it takes almost an hour to get to by car (or in our case, by uber). When we finally reached the entryway we were warmly greeted by Blake Estes, one of the main telescope operators of the observatory who is fortunate enough to call this place home.
Our excitement to be at such a unique place was only matched by that of our host. The only person in a bad mood was our uber driver who would now have to spend a full hour driving back down without fare, phone reception, or internet. Understandably, this might be the last time he logs in Mount Wilson as his drop off destination. As for us, the PLASMA team, the experience was so breathtaking that all we could think of at the end of our trip was when we would come again.
By the time we had reached the summit, the setting sun had begun to paint the sky with vivid hues reminiscent of the masterpieces of Caspar David Friedrich. The darkness of the night soon overtook the sky, revealing a vast tapestry of sparkling rhinestones beneath it – the city of Los Angeles. Quite a sight to behold, but the most beautiful treasures still awaited us inside the observatory. Exploring all the rooms and corners of this place was not just exciting, but incredibly humbling. How many people can say that they’ve touched Edwin Hubble’s original locker? The same place where he probably kept his groundbreaking notes about the inner workings of the cosmos… and his sandwiches. This, along with the much anticipated, buzzing thrill to image the night sky kept us going in spite of the cold weather. By the end of our time there we had captured a wide variety of galaxies, stars, constellations, and more, including the familiar Horsehead nebula.
Mount Wilson Observatory – A History
In 1904, the American astronomer George Ellery Hale founded the Mount Wilson Observatory with the financial support of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. That same year, Hale brought the Snow Solar Telescope from the Yerkes Observatory in southern Wisconsin to the sunnier, steadier skies of Mount Wilson to continue his studies of the Sun. He also brought back a small cadre of Yerkes scientists and engineers. This marked the beginning of what would later become one of the world’s leading astronomical research facilities.
In its first decade and a half, Hale’s strong research focus on the Sun earned the place the name of “Mount Wilson Solar Observatory”. It was here that he founded the new field of astrophysics (commonly referred to as the “new astronomy”) which sought to understand the inner physical processes of the Sun and other distant stars. During this time, Hale and his colleagues developed new technologies to extract the information encoded in the light from distant astronomical objects. Each new answer brought new questions, and each victory brought new challenges.
Soon after the world’s largest telescope of its time (the 100 inch reflector) went into service in 1919, the observatory’s research interests shifted towards stars and nebulae. This new direction of study led them to drop the word “solar” from the name. This was the same telescope that Edwin Hubble used to make his great discoveries – that we are just one of many galaxies in an ever expanding Universe. It led directly to the current understanding of our origins, the Big Bang model.
This November, the 100 inch device will be celebrating its 100 year anniversary. It is remarkable to think that a century after its instalment, the field of astronomy has expanded across the globe and even made its way past our atmosphere into space. All with telescopes possessing a level of detail and resolution previously thought unimaginable.
“Honestly, I didn’t even think I’d be here. I thought I would have my own observatory about 20 years from now, let alone the full set up!” – B.E.
PLASMA: Do you take these astro-pictures for scientific reasons?
BLAKE: Some of them. It all started out a long time ago with me getting a telescope so I could see comet tails, planets, and the Moon. I had a crappy telescope at the time, but it was always so interesting. I mean, other hobbies that I had came and went. I did coin collecting for a while and it’s like, well, what do you with that after a while? Haha. But the telescope, it always really stuck with me.
PLASMA: Have you always had this interest in capturing space through the telescope?
BLAKE: Yeah. Way back when I would get a couple of them from garage sales and started learning the night sky and looking for different objects. Seeing if I could find them. At the time, back where we lived, I could start to see the Milky Way from my driveway before they started building houses.
PLASMA: So, whatever money you had was always telescope money?
BLAKE: Haha, pretty much. It’s funny, back when I was 16 my dad left me some money before he passed away from cancer and, well, it was funny because people were saying “ok, so you’re gonna get a car, right?” and I was like “nope, I just want a giant telescope”, and they were like “what?!”. It was even funnier because, as a kid, I would go to this place called Scope City. They had this show room where they had this blue model and also the earlier version of the one I showed you earlier which had grey carbon fibre. I remember going in there one day and telling one of the guys who worked there “one of these days I’m going to come in here and I’m gonna buy that telescope!” and he was like “haha ok kid!”. And so, on my birthday I go in there and tell the guy “well, Michael, today is the day” and he’s like “what?”. I say “I’m here for the scope!”. For a while he thought I was joking until he finally realized I wasn’t haha.
PLASMA: What is your actual job here at the observatory?
BLAKE: Right now I pretty much do everything here from basic electrical work and pipes to building things. Just because they’re looking for somebody to do that right now. But eventually they want to train me to be completely in charge of the 100 inch and the 60 inch telescopes. I’ll know every nut and bolt, how to fix everything on there, etc. And then, occasionally when the telescope breaks I have to go all the way and climb to the top of that dome too hehe.
PLASMA: And what are we going to observe tonight? the Moon and what else?
BLAKE: Today we’ll probably be able to see a couple of galaxies.
(PLASMA group laughs in the background out of sheer joy and excited disbelief!)
PLASMA: How old is this (the 60-inch) telescope?
BLAKE: The “little one” is over 100 years old. I was actually using this one to shoot footage for Cosmos.
PLASMA: What! Really?!
BLAKE: Yep. For the show we had decided to look at Neptune and Uranus. I was showing how to process those types of images because they’re very tricky to get. Uranus and Neptune are very small and very faint so it’s quite difficult. When I processed the photo I noticed there was a white kind of smudge and I said “oh, that’s unusual” because normally there’s nothing there. It’s just a solid line between the equatorial belts and there was this little bump and I said “it’s possible that this is a storm and that this is one of the few times that this has ever been seen!”. So we decided to wait another hour, take data and then flip the frames back and forth to see if it moved. It was possible that it could’ve just been a processing artifact. But sure enough it did move and they actually confirmed it with the Hubble Space Telescope, which was kind of neat.
“There’s a great book about the history of Mount Wilson and other great observatories that came before this one called “When We Discovered the Universe”. It’s a wonderful book and I really need to read it hehe.” – B.E.
full article published in PLASMA magazine 5