Motors whirred as a gleaming white dome slowly opened, allowing one of the premier solar telescopes in the world to track the magnetic fields and exploding flares of the sun. In a few hours, computers would translate that data into detailed video and pictures of the sun's turbulent surface.
Images captured weeks earlier already graced the monitors in a darkened control room at the Big Bear Solar Observatory. They revealed mysterious displays of dancing and flashing lights hovering between bubbles of solar plasma.
But Varsik, 57, will probably not be leading that research. The $6-million telescope completed in 2009 is already being eclipsed by a much bigger solar telescope under construction in Hawaii. Over the next five years, it will gradually shift to a new primary mission: operating as a test bed for new technology destined to be used elsewhere.
Around the country, many older solar telescopes are being shuttered to pay for a new generation of space-based observatories and the $360-million facility under construction atop Maui's Haleakala Crater.
"In solar astronomy, as well as other areas of science, the cost of doing business has gone way up," said Dale Gary, a solar physicist and director of the Big Bear telescope. "The only way to make that work is to shut down smaller operations or change their missions."
With a 1.6-meter primary mirror, the Big Bear Solar Observatory is — for now — at the forefront of solar astronomy.
Adding to the instrument's precision is its location. The scope is built at the end of a jetty extending 800 feet into Big Bear Lake. Being surrounded by water reduces atmospheric convection.
Each day the sun shines, the telescope produces photos and video of solar activity that should help scientists make better predictions of the strength of solar storms associated with sunspot cycles.
The telescope was built with grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology operates it on a $2-million annual budget largely funded by the federal government. Its staff of 15 — including about a dozen researchers and visiting scientists — have been investigating the complex dynamics of sunspots and seething plasma flows with unprecedented resolution.
This is the type of work the Big Bear scientists most enjoy, but their priorities are already shifting. Their facility will increasingly serve as a test bed for cutting-edge instrumentation technologies that will be used at the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii, which is set to begin operations in 2019. That means some of the astronomical research positions now in Big Bear may be replaced by engineering jobs.
Such floods of charged plasma particles can disrupt the network of global positioning system satellites, knock out communications to transoceanic flights, fry sensitive satellite equipment in orbit and expose astronauts to dangerous doses of radiation.
They can also darken cities by overloading grids with electricity. A solar storm in 1989 knocked out power in Canada's Quebec province for more than nine hours and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage.
In 1859, a solar storm quieted the communications technology of the day: the telegraph.
Giant solar facilities, including a 150-foot tower atop Mt. Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, have deteriorated into "backwaters that have become hard to support," lamented UCLA astronomer Roger Ulrich, who is struggling to keep the facility in operation.
The Mt. Wilson magnetograph — an instrument that makes detailed observations of the sun’s magnetic fields — was shut down in 2013, a year after its tower received a new coat of paint funded with a $1.5-million grant from the NSF.
The ultimate fate of both telescopes remains uncertain, although efforts are underway to hand off control to groups of community colleges, private donors and other agencies. The instruments were inaugurated in the 1960s and 1970s when unusually intense solar storms were bombarding the atmosphere with radiation potentially harmful to satellites and astronauts.
Valentin M. Pillet, director of the National Solar Observatory in Boulder, Colo., said he feels the loss as well.