At present, the Observatory is closed to the public as a public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please see our visiting Palomar page for current/additional information.
Palomar has contributed groundbreaking research and discoveries to many and varied fields in astronomy. Some of the first breakthroughs achieved at Palomar were cosmic distance and expansion measurements (a.k.a. measuring the “size” of the Universe). Hundreds of supernovae were discovered with the Schmidt telescopes. The identification of distinct stellar populations of different age and elemental composition was first done by astronomers using the Hale Telescope. The first quasar, 3C 273, was discovered here, as well as the first undisputed brown dwarf, Gliese 229B. The famous fragmented comet that collided with Jupiter in 1994, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and a number of transneptunian objects, including Eris, that triggered the revision of planet definition and the demotion of Pluto as a planet were also discovered with Palomar telescopes. Please visit our museum in the Greenway Visitor Center or watch the accompanying short video playlist for context and discussion on these and other Palomar discoveries.
Today, Palomar Observatory’s survey programs with the Samuel Oschin Telescope are extremely prolific in the discovery of transient events. In recent years they have detected thousands of new supernovae and cosmic explosions, novae and cataclysmic variable stars, flaring young stars, as well as nearby fast-moving asteroids. For up-to-date information on news related to Palomar Observatory, including recent discoveries, please visit our website’s news page.
Yes—Palomar telescopes have been used for science almost continually since 1936 (there were interruptions during the World War II years). This is over a decade prior to the dedication of the Hale Telescope in 1948. Astronomers use Palomar telescopes roughly 300 nights a year (given typical losses to inclement weather, maintenance, and new instrument development). The Observatory’s only scheduled holiday closure is on December 24 and 25. This slideshow gives a brief explanation of the research and observations being undertaken on the Hale Telescope during the current week.
The Hale Telescope continues to offer modern instrumentation and provides important "sky access" for astronomers at Palomar partner institutions (Caltech, JPL, Yale University, and NAOC). Even for Caltech astronomers who also have Keck Observatory access Palomar telescopes such as the Hale provide unique and competitive resources that are difficult to duplicate elsewhere.
The Hale Telescope is a reflector, that is, a telescope whose primary optical element is a curved (paraboloid) mirror—there are no lenses in the telescope itself. The Hale primary mirror is 200 inches (5.1 m) in diameter, weighs 14.5 tons, and is made of Pyrex. Its polished surface, covered with a thin layer of aluminum, is concave. The mirror's thickness varies between 19 ⅝ inches (49.8 cm) at the center and 23 ½ inches (59.7 cm) at the outer edge. The mirror, placed at the lower end of the telescope truss, is held by a steel cell and protected by an iris-like cover that opens during observations.
The 200-inch (5.1-m) Hale Telescope was the largest aperture operational telescope in the world for about 45 years until Keck 1 came online in 1993. It was still among the largest monolithic (one-piece mirror) reflectors until the end of the 20th century—both current fabrication technology and road transportation constraints limit single mirrors to being just over 8 m or 26 ft per piece. Larger aperture telescopes use multiple mirrors acting as one.
Because the mirror is a paraboloid (f/3.3, focal length 660 inches or 16.76 meters), light comes to a focus near the top of the telescope at what is known as the prime focus. A camera or scientific instrument can be placed at prime focus, or a secondary mirror to reflect the light back down through a hole in the primary mirror to what is known as the Cassegrain focus (f/16, focal length 3,200 inches or 81.3 meters). Two additional light paths are also possible—by using additional mirrors, light can be directed into the coudé focus (f/30, focal length 6,000 inches or 152 meters) or to an instrument in the east arm of the telescope. Cassegrain focus commonly operates at f/9 through the use of a corrector lens.
The Hale Telescope was designed and built so that astronomers could “ride” the telescope and image their target objects from the prime and Cassegrain focus cages. There was a third observation point at the coudé focus in a room near the south end of the telescope. Looking through the Hale was possible at these three locations, though research was done by light-collecting instruments such as photographic cameras and spectrographs, not by eye. Riding the Hale Telescope became less of a necessity with the development of modern electronics and CCD technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since the early 1990s, all incoming light is collected by electronic instruments placed at the telescope foci while astronomers observe from a nearby computer room.
The mirror’s coating is aluminum, about 3 to 4 millionths of an inch (75 to 100 nm) thick. That requires only about 1/6 ounces (5 grams) of aluminum. Aluminum reflects about 90% of incident visible light.
Every night when the dome shutters open, the telescope and mirror are exposed to the sky. Over time dust, leaves and even bird or bat droppings may make the mirror surface dirty. The mirror is cleaned and recoated on average every 18 to 24 months and the entire process takes about a week. The video above shows the recoating process (turn on CC for commentary).
This question is not easily answered. A more careful way to ask this question is, how faint can the Hale Telescope see? Astronomers describe brightness in units called magnitude, which counterintuitively increases as the source gets fainter. An intrinsically bright faraway object like a quasar at apparent magnitude 13 is easily observed with the Hale, while a nearby small and intrinsically faint asteroid at apparent magnitude 25 may not be detectable depending on conditions.
From Earth, the brightest Venus can appear is magnitude −3. The well-known stars Arcturus, Vega, and α Centauri A all have magnitudes of near 0. The average observer looking at the night sky under very good conditions and away from urban areas can see stars as faint as magnitude 6.5.
In hours of exposure under ideal conditions, the Hale Telescope has observed objects as faint as magnitude 25—4 trillion times fainter than what the average human can see with the unaided eye. For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope’s faintest observed object has magnitude 31.5 as measured in the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) in weeks of exposure time.
At any one time and with current instruments at prime focus, the Hale Telescope has a field of view of approximately 18.5 arcminutes on the side. This is about 50% the area (solid angle) of the full moon.
That said, the portion of the sky accessible to the Palomar telescopes over the course of the year is the whole northern celestial hemisphere and the equatorial regions all the way down to -33° in declination.
Yes—the horizons are getting brighter and brighter every month. But, within 45 degrees of the zenith, the sky is still in relatively good condition. Also, we have been emphasizing studies that examine the sky at near-infrared wavelengths where light pollution is not a problem. Visit this page for more on light pollution.
No, the Hale Telescope operates only during nighttime hours.
Yes—since 2010 astronomers have had the option of conducting their observations remotely from the Caltech campus in Pasadena CA while the telescope is operated locally by Palomar staff. Most partner research institutions also have suitable remote observing facilities on their campuses.
A charge-coupled device (CCD) is a silicon-based semiconductor light detector. CCDs were first used in optical astronomy in the 1970s, and since the 1980s they have largely replaced older photographic methods in professional astronomy due to their far superior light detection efficiency. Today, similar CMOS detectors can be found in most modern cameras, computers, or smart portable devices, and are commonly described by their size in pixels count. At Palomar, the largest CCD detector system is installed on the Samuel Oschin Telescope. It has sixteen 6k × 6k pixel CCDs—that is 576 million pixels, covering 47.7 square degrees of sky. With current astronomical CCDs, an image can be ready for display on a computer screen just tens of seconds after finishing the exposure. Scientists do not typically view real-time images or video from the telescope.
The 200-inch mirror and instruments are supported by a steel equatorial mount, which allows for east-west and north-south motion. Moving this 530-ton telescope must be done precisely if astronomical observations are to be possible at all. For slewing (rapid movement) it uses two small motors: a 3-hp motor for right ascension and a 1-hp motor for declination. For tracking (following Earth’s rotation during observation) it is moved by a 1-hp step motor—this replaced the original 1/12-hp tracking motor after almost 65 years of continual use. The Hale Telescope is kept in perfect balance. As such, when instruments are changed the balance of the telescope must be adjusted.
The motion is transferred to the telescope by specially-built gears that drive the telescope as it points from low in the sky to high, and move it from east to west. The gears are 14' 5" (4.4 m) in diameter and weigh 10 tons. The teeth on the drive gears were meticulously ground to make the movement of the telescope smooth and precise. Anticipating that the gears might wear out over time, a spare set was made. The spare gears hang on the wall on the lowest floor of the Hale dome, below the floor that you see from the Visitors Gallery. No teeth were made on the spare gears—if the spare gears are needed the teeth will be ground at that time. Nevertheless, from the late 1940s until today the spares have not been needed.
The motion of the telescope is smooth thanks to the use of oil bearings (mechanical bearings would get flat spots over time, and instead of moving smoothly the telescope would have irregular movements). When the telescope is in use, it floats on a thin film of oil about 15 thousandths of an inch (0.4 mm) thick. Hydraulic pumps push the oil into the space at the bottom of the telescope's horseshoe mount. This was one of the many innovations in the design of the Hale Telescope.
The telescope fixed mount has never moved a significant amount in its history, even with seismic events. But the telescope right ascension yoke and tube typically do move relative to the fixed mount as a result of seismic events, and the telescope mount design and control system can accommodate these motions (e.g., as clutch system slip and zero-point changes).
About four minutes.
Although the lighting gives it the look of copper, the inside wall of the dome is made of aluminum.
Adaptive optics systems measure and compensate for distortions caused by Earth’s atmosphere—known as seeing, what makes stars twinkle—to deliver sharp images comparable to those produced by space telescopes from a ground-based facility.
PALM-3000 is the adaptive optics system for the Hale Telescope. The heart of the system is a deformable mirror with 3388 actuators that rapidly change the mirror shape. The reflective surface is adjusted in real-time, up to 2000 times a second, to correct for atmospheric distortions and refocus starlight into sharp images. PALM-3000 brings the optical power of the Hale Telescope closer to its diffraction limit by producing images typically 10–20 times sharper than seeing-limited instruments.
In addition to the Hale, there are two other telescopes at Palomar Observatory: the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope and the 60-inch telescope.
The Samuel Oschin Telescope is one of the most productive survey telescopes ever built with a dozen completed surveys since the 1950s. The wide-field imaging capabilities of this telescope (it has a usable field hundreds of times larger than that of the 200-inch Hale Telescope, see question 9 above) makes it ideal for conducting systematic surveys of the sky. In recent years, the Samuel Oschin Telescope has been used to scan large regions of the sky to search for transient events—objects that change apparent brightness and/or position—such as fast-moving Solar System objects, variable/pulsating stars, flares, novae, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts and other stellar explosions. It currently operates robotically, scanning the skies nightly and returning a wealth of astronomical data.
The 60-inch telescope was built to take some of the demand off of the 200-inch Hale Telescope. Like the Samuel Oschin Telescope, the 60-inch also operates robotically. In addition to being used for follow-up observations of potentially interesting astronomical phenomena first detected by sky surveys or by other telescopes, the 60-inch is a platform for testing new instrument technology.
While these telescopes aren’t open to the public, you may use the VR Tour to “virtually visit” these locations.
Access to Palomar telescopes is based on your standing with a Palomar project or partner constituency (e.g., Caltech, JPL, NAOC, and Yale). Visit the observer FAQ page for more on the the telescope time application process.
The Observatory is looking for individuals who are interested in joining our docent group. A candidate does not need to be an astronomer or an expert on the subject of Palomar Observatory to apply. A willingness to learn and to work with Observatory visitors is all that is needed. Applicants chosen for the docent program will receive all the training they will need: including information on the current research and history of the Palomar Observatory, basic astronomy, working with the public and more. Selected docents may be invited to occasional evening visits at the Observatory as a part of their training, giving them the opportunity to see Palomar's telescopes and astronomers in action. Read more on how to become a docent.
The Friends of Palomar Observatory offers you an unique opportunity to connect to the active research mission and scientists of the Observatory. As a Friend you will:
Please refer to our Friends page for more information and application form.
The heart of the Palomar Observatory community is its staff—a team of administrative, technical, maintenance, service, and telescope support professionals that ensure smooth day-to-day operations and effective instrument performance. Roughly two dozen staff live and/or work at the Observatory. Please check the Caltech Human Resources jobs postings page regularly for employment listings.
No need for permission and it is free as long as the media is for educational or non-commercial use. Images/multimedia should include the credit line Palomar Observatory/California Institute of Technology unless otherwise stated in the file's metadata or its caption. It is your responsibility to investigate additional conditions and/or obtain permission to use images/multimedia not credited exclusively to Palomar Observatory and the California Institute of Technology. Please find guidelines and information here.
Many historical Palomar-related images and documents are available through the Caltech Archives. The Huntington Library too has related media. If there is a particular image you are looking for that is not at the Archives or the Huntington, please contact sbf [at] astro.caltech.edu.
Commercial use of Palomar Observatory media is possible; requests for use are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Requests for commercial use should be submitted to Caltech Media Relations.
No—Palomar Observatory is owned and operated by Caltech (the California Institute of Technology).
About 2,000 acres.
George Ellery Hale, chairman of the Observatory Committee, wanted the telescope to be located: (1) within a day’s drive of the offices in Pasadena; (2) on a mountain that faced the Pacific Ocean; and (3) in a relatively quiet seismic zone. After six years of study and testing, the Observatory Committee found that seeing conditions on Palomar Mountain were comparable to conditions found on other mountains in the area.
Palomar Observatory is roughly 5500 ft above sea level.
Yes—recently we upgraded the Gift and Book Store's online portal. There you can find official Palomar Observatory merchandise and products for the astronomy/space enthusiast in your life. Shop comfortably and securely with us 24/7 at store.palomar.caltech.edu.
Yes, there are a number of excellent books dedicated to various aspects of the Observatory's history and science. The following is a short list of our main go-to sources. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, and specific details on Palomar science and engineering may be better addressed in contemporary sources such as scientific publications or popular magazine articles—Caltech E&S, Life Magazine, Popular Science, Scientific American to name a few. See also the reference sections in the chronology and personalities pages.
Unfortunately no—we have a few webcams online but none show the view through the telescope.
We do not answer general astronomy questions. Here are a few links that may help:
Questions? We've answered many common visiting, media, and academic questions in our public FAQ page.