For the first time in a month, the night sky over Monterey Park was relatively clear.
In the darkness of the city’s Garvey Ranch Observatory, Gary Fine bent to look into a telescope eyepiece. The view skyward extended far beyond the eucalyptus trees of Garvey Ranch Park.
From this suburban vantage point last week, through the smog and the lower atmosphere brightened by city lights, Fine soon saw what the half-dozen others around him had been marveling at: the planet Jupiter and four of its 16 moons, known as the Galilean moons.
Jupiter appeared as a cream-colored object encircled by two faint bluish bands of clouds, dwarfing four crisper-looking spheres, the moons. Moments earlier, one of the moons had been eclipsed from view by this, the largest of the planets.
“Oh, how beautiful,” said Fine, an astronomy teacher at the Pasadena Alternative School. His voice softened in childlike amazement as he repeated the phrase: “How beautiful.”
Each Wednesday night at the observatory owned by Monterey Park and operated by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, professional and amateur stargazers gather to socialize and to marvel at the universe and its heavenly bodies.
For a city, any city, to have an observatory is “very, very unusual,” according to Tom Dorff, president of the astronomical society, based at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. Although numerous Southern California colleges and research facilities have telescopes, Dorff said, Los Angeles and Monterey Park are the only cities he knows of that operate observatories.
“This little facility has such tremendous potential, and it’s really the best-kept secret since the Manhattan Project,” said Dorff, 51, a bear of a man who is a Norwalk-based tree trimmer and once was a rodeo cowboy.
The reason there is an observatory set on a hillside in a suburban setting goes back to when real cowboys could see the Milky Way unobscured by city lights and smog.
In the 19th Century, Garvey Ranch covered the area between what today are San Gabriel Boulevard in Rosemead and Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park. The ranch’s founder and the namesake of one of the city’s main thoroughfares, former Pony Express rider Richard Garvey, had an interest in astronomy, which he passed on to his son, Richard Jr., according to Leonard Normand, the city’s parks and recreation director.
In the 1940s, the younger Garvey started to build a private observatory next to a former ranch bunkhouse, but before he could install a telescope in the 2-story turret, he died in a car crash in Mexico.
Because there were no heirs, the city eventually acquired the land, according to Normand, and converted the rolling hillside into a park and the bunkhouse into a museum and community center. In the early 1960s, a group of local amateur astronomers formed the Monterey Park Astronomical Society and, with the city’s blessing and financial help, opened the observatory in 1966.
But the local society’s membership dwindled and, 2 years ago, city officials persuaded the region’s oldest group of astronomers (founded in 1926), the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, to operate the observatory. The two groups became one when the Monterey Park Astronomical Society merged with the Los Angeles society.
“This is the place to come if you have questions about astronomy and if you want to ask them in an informal setting,” Dorff said. There is no time for that at the 350-member society’s monthly meetings at Griffith Park, he said.
At last week’s gathering in Monterey Park, the observatory’s cluttered workshop was filled with people, many of them wearing the Los Angeles society’s official silky blue, baseball-style jackets with their names embroidered in gold. As many as 50 members and visitors attend the Wednesday meetings from 7:30 to 10 p.m., Dorff said.
In the workshop, Charles Chinzi, 74, a member of the Los Angeles group since 1958, leaned over a homemade glass-grinding machine. He was instructing two students in the craft of telescope optics.
Near Chinzi was a huge, unpainted metallic box on wheels, a head taller than Chinzi. Inside was a 31-inch telescope that the members made in the workshop. They named the telescope for Clyde W. Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, who helped the group acquire the mirror for the powerful, homemade device. Soon, Dorff said, the group hopes to locate the telescope at the society’s observatory in Ventura County’s Lockwood Valley.
Monterey Park’s telescope is a 7 1/2-inch-diameter “research-grade telescope,” Dorff said. And although the Monterey Park observatory’s exterior and adjoining building were refurbished last summer, he said improvements need to be made.
Still, Dorff said, “where people would go to Griffith Park Observatory and wait an hour to look through the telescope, they could come here and see the same objects after a 10-minute wait.”
And society member Timothy J. Thompson said the image seen with the Monterey Park telescope is clearer, though smaller, than what is revealed by the one at Griffith Park because of the type of optics used.
As Thompson spoke, he stood in darkness next to the telescope, surrounded by fellow society members.
Thompson is a Duarte radio astronomer who uses radio frequencies in his research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. He also is a member of the lab’s SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project.
Thompson, whose training is in physics, said he knows less about visual astronomy than most of the people at the observatory. “Every once in a while, it’s good to look at these things with your eyeball,” he said. “You look at them, and it allows you to have some sort of psychic connection, if you will. You can’t do that with quantum mechanics.”
Nearby, Joe Hernandez was taking his first look ever through the observatory’s telescope. A 15-year-old sophomore at Mark Keppel High School, he had walked the three blocks from his house to the silver dome that had intrigued him for several years.
And to no one in particular, member Czernic Crute observed that Jupiter is 350 million miles away. Then he asked Thompson for verification. “Jupiter?” Thompson asked. “It’s approximately 376 million miles away. I have a more accurate number on the bulletin board downstairs.”
Thompson added: “It takes 33 minutes to cover that distance. So what you are seeing right now is Jupiter 33 minutes ago. If you want to see what Jupiter really looks like right now, you must come back in 33 minutes.”
As his listeners laughed at this, Thompson and others began talking about a collection of about 600 stars in the Milky Way known as the Sword of Perseus, which Crute had sighted.
The conversation about the stars echoed in the darkness of the observatory. The only illumination came from street lights whose yellow glow filtered through the dome’s opening.
“Why do you think there are stars?” Hernandez asked innocently.
“I don’t think the question altogether makes sense,” Thompson said. “I can tell you how stars come to be, as a mechanical process. But the philosophical questions as to why they come to be is not answerable. There are as many answers to that as there are churches in the valley.”