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Ten great observatories in the West

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It's a great time to go star gazing.

No, we're not talking about the surgically enhanced, overly-pampered celebs who only make appearances at award ceremonies and DUI court hearings.

We're talking the other heavenly bodies that are visible in the sky this month, like Saturn's rings and Mars.

With warmer weather and clearer skies, now is the best time to view distant celestial objects that shine through the darkness and put all of our earthly problems into perspective.

But you don't have to be an astronomy buff or know the difference between a binary star and quasar to enjoy the sky's eternal light show.

Private and government-owned observatories across the country offer access to some of the country's most powerful telescopes. Astronomy experts are usually on hand during public sessions to answer even the dumbest questions.

Here is a list of 10 observatories that open their telescopes to the public:

Mount Wilson Observatory. This working observatory at the summit of Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains is home to one of the world's largest telescopes accessible to the public.

Visitors can tour the observatory every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from April 1 to Nov. 30. However, to peek through the 60-inch reflecting telescope (measured by the diameter of the mirror that reflects the light from the stars to an eyepiece) you must make a reservation and pay a fee.

Groups no bigger than 25 can reserve the telescope from dawn to 1 a.m. at a cost of $800, or from dawn to dusk for $1,500. For more details, call (626) 440-9016 or go to the observatory’s website.

Big Bear Solar Observatory. This solar telescope sits on an island in the middle of Big Bear Lake to reduce the image distortion when the sun heats the Earth. (With the proper telescope filters, you can stare at the sun, despite what your mother told you.)

Observatory workers are in the process of installing a new 1.6-meter solar telescope; an opening date is pending. Donation: $2. For updates and more details, call (909) 866 5791 or go to the website.

Griffith Park Observatory. Just a few miles from the iconic Hollywood sign, the Griffith Observatory offers the public free access to Zeiss, a 12-inch refracting telescope, believed to be the most-used telescope in the world. (Refracting telescopes are measured by the diameter of the glass that refracts the light to an eyepiece.)

Since the telescope was installed in 1935, more than 7 million people have looked through the Zeiss.

For more details, call (213) 473-0800 or go to the website.

Lowell Observatory. A mile west of downtown Flagstaff, Ariz., the Lowell Observatory is one of the oldest facilities of its kind in the nation.

Visitors can peer through the Alvan Clark 24-inch refracting telescope, an instrument so powerful that it was used at the turn of the century to look for life on Mars.

The public viewing program runs from June through August, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fees: $6 for adults and $3 for youngsters.

For more details, call (928) 774-3358 or go to the website.

Lick Observatory. The Lick Observatory stands on the 4,213-foot summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose.

On six Friday nights during the summer, the observatory allows the public to look through two of its biggest telescopes, the 36-inch Great Lick Refractor and the Nickel 40-inch Reflecting scopes.

Because of the popularity of the program, only 200 people a night are chosen by a computerized lottery to take a gander through the telescopes.

Experts will speak each night to explain the sights seen in the telescopes. To submit your name, go to the Lick Observatory website. For more details, call (408) 274-5061.

Kitt Peak Observatory. At the summit of Kitt Peak, 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Ariz., the Kitt Peak Observatory claims to hold the largest collection of research telescopes in the world.

Visitors can look through only three of those telescopes, a 20-inch and two 16-inch reflecting telescopes.

The program operates nightly, except from July 15 through Sept. 1. A staffer will be on hand to guide the group, which is limited to 46 people per night. Fees: $39 for adults, $34 for students, seniors and those in the military.

For reservations, call (520) 318-8726 or go to the website.

McDonald Observatory. At a visitor's center near the base of Mt. Locke, outside of Ft. Davis, Texas, the McDonald Observatory hosts star parties on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturday nights.

Star parties are informal gatherings where science and astronomy geeks really let their hair down. The views of the sky are exceptional because of the unusually dark skies in this part of the country.

During the special party events, visitors can look through two telescopes, a 22-inch reflector and a 16-inch refractor. Fees: $10 per person. For more information, call (877) 984-7827 or go to the website.

Mount Graham International Observatory. In the shadow of the Mount Graham International Observatory in Safford, Ariz., Eastern Arizona College operates a visitor's center called the Discovery Park.

From this building, visitors can look through a 20-inch reflecting telescope and examine several exhibits that explain the origins of our universe -- free of charge.

The Discovery Park operates 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, but the public can only look through the telescope on Saturday evenings, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

For more details, call (928) 428-6260 or go to the website.

Jack C. Davis Observatory. This observatory on the campus of Western Nevada College in Carson City, Nev., is one of the most technically advanced facilities open to the public.

The three telescopes available for public use are fitted with cameras and computers and are connected to a large overhead TV screen so large groups can view the stars and planets at the same time.

The observatory is open to the public every Saturday after dark. Free of charge.

For more details, call (775) 445-3240 or go to the website.

Goldendale Observatory. This observatory, on a hilltop north of Goldendale, Wash., is owned by the state of Washington but run by volunteers.

The public is invited to look through several telescopes including a 24.5-inch Cassegrain telescope inside a 2,100-foot dome facility.

Spring and summer public sessions run from April 1 until Oct. 1, Wednesday through Sunday, 2 to 5 p.m. and from 8 p.m. to midnight.

For more information, call (509) 773-3141 or go to the website.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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