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Eye on Sky Closes : Telescope at Mt. Wilson May Have Had Its Last Look at the Heavens

Times Science Writer

The 100-inch Hooker Telescope on Mt. Wilson, the dominant instrument in astronomy for 30 years, closed down Tuesday night, a victim of budgetary limitations, light pollution and obsolescence.

Several efforts are under way to reopen the scope at a later date, but so far none has produced a formal proposal, according to George W. Preston, director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

“There should not be an air of finality” cast over the closing, Preston said, insisting that he will “continue to take the optimistic view” that the historical instrument can be saved. Several other instruments, including a 60-inch telescope, will continue operating for at least several months.

The Carnegie Institution, which built and owns the observatory, announced a year ago that the facility would be closed July 1 unless a suitable scientific organization could be found to take over the costs of operating and maintaining the instruments there. The cost of running the facility, situated in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, has been estimated at about $750,000 a year.

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Carnegie also owns Las Campanas Observatory in the Chilean Andes, one of the premier astronomical centers in the world and a competitor with Mt. Wilson for the institution’s funds.

Competition among astronomers for viewing time at major observatories is intense, but the scientist who drew the last slot at Mt. Wilson elected to devote his time to ceremony rather than science.

Jeff Marcy, an astrophysicist, has been studying celestial masses that are too small to be labeled stars as part of a search for planets outside our solar system, a popular quest among astronomers today. He decided, however, to turn the big scope on the star Capella on Tuesday night.

He said before the event that a handful of people at the observatory would hold a private ceremony, make a few speeches, read a few poems and then look through the scope at Capella, which was the first object observed by the scope when it opened for business in 1919.

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As for the future, Marcy said, “We’re all fairly hopeful that within the next six months some group will come out of the woodwork” to fund continued operation of the observatory.

“It’s up to the rest of the world,” he said.

Among those interested in taking over the observatory is the Mt. Wilson Research Corp. for Solar and Stellar Physics, founded for that purpose by George C. Roberts, 48, a local businessman and astronomy buff. Roberts has been trying to line up the funding to keep the facility open, along with the scientific support to give it credibility.

Preston said several other groups have expressed interest, and Carnegie has demonstrated “a willingness to accept proposals.”

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Moments of Glory

For decades, the 100-inch scope allowed astronomers to study the universe more deeply than any instrument anywhere in the world. Astronomer Edwin Hubble used it in 1925 to prove that the universe consists of billions of galaxies rather than one, and there have been many other moments of glory in more than half a century of service.

But, the world of astronomy has undergone vast changes since the first instrument was placed on Mt. Wilson in 1905, and other parts of the world, equipped with modern facilities, lend themselves to better viewing with less light and air pollution.

Preston said the scope will be “mothballed” for now, and its 100-inch lens will be cleaned and coated for protection.

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