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A night at Lick Observatory

The Lick Observatory is a working astronomical research institute (optical, so big telescopes!) administered by University of California.

It sits atop Mt Hamilton, about an hour’s drive from San Jose, California. The observatory was found and funded by James Lick, a most interesting fellow, and completed in 1887. Although he died just before the original buildings were completed, his remains are placed under the main observatory. This is the original telescope’s housing

You can see the red light emerging from the window. Inside, while in use, the observatory is lit with red light as it allows you to see (so you don’t trip up on things!), but it doesn’t harm your night vision. Here is the original telescope.

This is a 36″ refractor; you look through it like a camera lens. At its time it was the largest refractor in the world, and even today it is the second largest of this type of telescope. Here’s a shot of it in normal light, with the roof closed.

Telescopes are now primarily reflectors (Newton invented these originally) which are large concave mirrors which focus the light so it can be views. Reflectors are easier to build for large sizes, so are the main technology in use today for astronomical telescopes.

Here is the bottom end of the main ‘scope

The photos were taken on one of their visitor nights; they give you a history of the observatory, including a presentation about James Lick (he really is a fascinating guy!), and you get to look through both this telescope and the 1 metre reflector.

Next to the ‘scope, is the control desk. We are talking real technology here, it has dials and no digital read-outs. The structure of the ‘scope is wooden, its wonderful.

We looked through the ‘scope at a Globular Cluster (a blob of, oh something like a million stars) that is one of many clusters that orbit our galaxy (which is composed of billions of stars). At this stage, we don’t seem to know too much about these globes of stars, so they are quite a fascinating subject, and one that is being studied here I gather.

The Lick Observatory has a “Friends of Lick” group; Like many public institutions its funding is being cut, so it needs funds. The visitor nights are a night worth spending if you are in the area and very reasonably priced.

Here are some views from Mt Hamilton (the location of the observatory). This is the view south, with Monterey Bay to the left

And the view to the west (and a bit north), with the cars heading back down the mountain and San Jose city in the distance

52 Comments Post a comment
  1. I live in SF and these photos are gorgeous! Cheers!

    19 July 2012
  2. Congrats for being on freshly pressed. I browsed at your blog. Love your pix, particularly the post on sf.

    19 July 2012
  3. love this article ! I would love to be with you

    19 July 2012
  4. Gran noche!!!

    19 July 2012
  5. thank you for this. 🙂 you sound like you are really fascinated by James Lick and his contribution… wonderful photos of the giant telescope and the sky at night… 😉 keep on writing and regards.

    19 July 2012
  6. good posts!

    19 July 2012
  7. I would love an overnight stay there
    Thanks for sharing

    19 July 2012
  8. Alyssa #

    I’ve never been to an observatory before. It would be a wonderful experience to visit one someday. Congrats on making this post to freshly pressed, by the way. 🙂

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    19 July 2012
  9. APOML #

    Amazing. How was the image in the scope? Just bnw?

    19 July 2012
    • we looked at a globular cluster – it was like little bits of diamonds on a black cloth, but far away.

      19 July 2012
  10. I just stuck with wonder. Very beautiful…

    19 July 2012
  11. Great post, it’s really interesting and you have some cool photos.

    19 July 2012
  12. I did like the book “Seeing and Believing” by Richard Panek. Gives a good grounding to astronomy. You have a beautiful place there. I don’t believe many would have the same access to such useful and historic places. Thanks for the post and congratulations on the fresh press.

    19 July 2012
  13. Thanks for this look into a fascinating place! I love looking at old scientific instruments, especially ones that can still be used. I’m glad the observatory has these public evenings. I’m going to an all-day, all-night weekend for amateur astronomers on Saturday. People bring home made scopes as well as store-bought ones. There are talks during the day and viewing all night — or as long as you can stay awake. I’ve wanted to go for the last several years, but something always got in the way, so I’m really excited to finally be going!

    And now, I think I’ll google James Lick!

    19 July 2012
  14. Thanks for giving me a view of something I never knew existed. The study of astronomy fascinates me and you have been ably given me an insight into the mechanics and some history too. Great photos in a very difficult light condition.

    19 July 2012
  15. Sorry for the lousy grammar. leave out “been.”

    19 July 2012
  16. Nice! Cool set of snaps! 🙂

    19 July 2012
  17. Needle Lady #

    Awesome! I grew up below the Observatory and used to visit often. Thanks for the reminder of home.

    19 July 2012
  18. Alhamdulillah

    19 July 2012
  19. I am a huge fan of observatories! Not only because of the fascinating sights through the telescopes, but the remote locations are often very picturesque!

    19 July 2012
  20. Just beautiful! Thanks for the natural pick me up!

    19 July 2012
  21. What a great sight! Adding it to the never ending list of things to see and do.

    19 July 2012
  22. The Lick Observatory is a fun place at night. The parking lot fills with people and their telescopes… but the drive back home through the winding narrow mountain roads is an adventure! Thanks for the post.

    19 July 2012
  23. Very interesting post, and congrats on being freshly pressed.

    19 July 2012
  24. That is so cool!

    19 July 2012
  25. Nice Article

    19 July 2012
  26. Bamola #

    I love observatories. The first one I went to was in Wakayama, Japan. There I saw the rings of Saturn. From that moment on my life was changed forever. It is my goal in life to visit other observatories especially The Mauna Kea Observatories (Keck).

    19 July 2012
  27. Astronomy was my favorite subject in college (the professor taught it without the math). Would love to visit this telescope. You’ve inspired me to find one in my own area. 🙂

    19 July 2012
  28. Great post! I love telescopes and observatories, but rarely get the chance to visit any. It’s nice to have a vicarious visit.

    19 July 2012
  29. ajriley1791 #

    Great post! Amateur astronomy is a hobby of mine, I hope to have a camera equipped for astrophotography in the near future, it’s something I really want to get into and add to my night sky experience.

    19 July 2012
  30. NS #

    Lovely. I loved the second pic..

    19 July 2012
  31. That is a pretty amazing looking telescope. That red lighting is an interesting idea as well; if i remember right soldiers use something like that to keep their lights from being visible from a distance

    19 July 2012
    • The red light is used as it doesn’t affect your night vision, so your eyes remain sensitive for star gazing

      19 July 2012
  32. Thank you for the look inside.

    20 July 2012
  33. Great photos! What a fantastic place. It was a trip to the Lick Observatory that got me into stargazing.

    Given the time of year, the globular cluster you saw was probably M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. If the stars of the major constellations are visible (not totally washed out by light pollution), it’s probably possible to see it in binoculars, although it will just look like a fuzzy star. It’s awesome in telescopes, and especially awesome in the Greak Lick Refractor. Instructions on how to find it are here.

    Clear skies!

    20 July 2012
  34. Great pics. I’d love to look through one of those.
    The last time I did, I was about 8 years old and can vaguely remember the rings of Saturn.

    20 July 2012
  35. Looking Amazing

    20 July 2012
  36. Amazing photos, we actually thought we were there with you! Very cool post!!
    Great Eye!

    The Eye

    20 July 2012
  37. Thanks for letting us have a peek!

    20 July 2012
  38. That’s pretty awesome. I guess we forgert in this age of robot telescope space probes and digital data that it’s still possible to sit down and actually look through a really big telescope! What a wonderful experience.

    20 July 2012
  39. nazarioartpainting #

    Amazing photos. I will love to be visit someday.

    20 July 2012
  40. insanely awesome..!! i wanna go here!!

    20 July 2012
  41. Never been there before, but sure looks interesting to pay a visit from the inside.

    21 July 2012
    • Yes, the visitors night is really terrific, fantastic to look through this scope (and a metre reflector one as well)

      21 July 2012
  42. Fascinating pics & great info! Love!

    21 July 2012
  43. Reb #

    I’ve visited but only during the daytime when I was a kid. I’d love to go back at night, what a view! (both of the stars and the city!)

    22 July 2012
  44. Hevel Löwen #

    Reblogged this on The Realm of Wonder and commented:

    22 July 2012
  45. Sean Ramprashad #

    Wonderful posting of a true gem of our valley!

    At night, lit by the dim lights, the old 36 inch refractor can inspire images straight out of a Jules Verne novel… the iron work on the dome and under the movable floor, the crypt which is the resting place of James Lick, and the nautical wheels on the scope …

    For public viewing, see the Music of the Spheres nights at
    and summer visitor nights at

    There is also a big event to be planned in September where you get to meet some of the big names in astronomy (e.g. Alexi Filippenko). I hear it should also have music and a BBQ.

    22 July 2012
  46. I’ve always been fascinated by the night sky. Thank you for the information and the great pics. 🙂

    22 July 2012
  47. Reblogged this on doodlejuice.

    23 July 2012

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