Spending the night with a 98-year-old Hooker may not sound that appealing to most people, but that’s exactly what I did recently on top of Mount Wilson, visiting what was once the largest telescope in the world.

It had only been a little over a year since I had spent the night with the smaller 60-inch telescope...so when I had the opportunity to finally see the 100-incher, I immediately booked it.

It had only been a little over a year since I had spent the night with the smaller 60-inch telescope, so when I had the opportunity to finally see the 100-incher, I immediately booked it.

It was the largest telescope in the world from 1917 to 1948 until the 200-inch telescope was built on Palomar Mountain 90 miles to the southeast.

The Hooker 100-inch telescope is named after John D. Hooker, who provided the funds for the giant mirror. It was the largest telescope in the world from 1917 to 1948 until the 200-inch telescope was built on Palomar Mountain 90 miles to the southeast.

After 98 years, the 100-inch telescope which could only be viewed during the day via a visitor's gallery, was finally opened to the public for private Star Parties.

After 98 years, the 100-inch telescope which could only be viewed during the day via a visitor’s gallery, was finally opened to the public for private Star Parties.

So I made my way back up the long winding Mt. Wilson Red Box Canyon Road and past the numerous antennas that dot the top of Mount Wilson.

So I made my way back up the long winding Mt. Wilson Red Box Canyon Road and past the numerous antennas that dot the top of Mount Wilson.

For nearly half a century, the Mt. Wilson Observatory was not only the center of the universe for the study of space science, it taught us just how huge that universe was. At the eyepiece of the observatory's then-groundbreaking 100-inch Hooker telescope, astronomer Edwin Hubble made two of the most shocking scientific discoveries of the 20th century: The universe was far larger than anyone imagined and it was expanding.

For nearly half a century, the Mt. Wilson Observatory was not only the center of the universe for the study of space science, it taught us just how huge that universe was. At the eyepiece of the observatory’s then-groundbreaking 100-inch Hooker telescope, astronomer Edwin Hubble made two of the most shocking scientific discoveries of the 20th century: The universe was far larger than anyone imagined and it was expanding.

Those discoveries knocked man from his cherished place at the seat of creation to the status of a middling creature scuttling across the surface of an obscure planet among trillions of stars. They also set the stage for major breakthroughs in cosmology that followed, including the Big Bang theory and the discovery that some force, known as dark energy, is accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Those discoveries knocked man from his cherished place at the seat of creation to the status of a middling creature scuttling across the surface of an obscure planet among trillions of stars. They also set the stage for major breakthroughs in cosmology that followed, including the Big Bang theory and the discovery that some force, known as dark energy, is accelerating the expansion of the universe.

 I was so happy that the amazing Shelly would be our astronomy guru once again.

I was so happy that the amazing Shelly would be our astronomy guru once again. Shelly was once married to Richard Pryor and is Rain Pryor’s mother.

The 100-inch Hooker telescope is a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

The 100-inch Hooker telescope is a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

The interior was much more impressive than the smaller 60-inch that I visited last year.

The interior was much more impressive than the smaller 60-inch telescope.

In order to get to the Hooker telescope control center, you have to climb up three levels...

In order to get to the Hooker telescope control center, you have to climb up three levels…

...past the bathrooms, small kitchen and old telephone...

…past the bathrooms, small kitchen and old telephone…

...each of which takes you back to another time when space exploration and discovery was still in its infancy.

…each of which takes you back to another time when space exploration and discovery was still in its infancy.

Milton Humason, a high-school dropout who worked as a mule driver and then a janitor at the Mount Wilson Observatory, worked his way up to become the assistant of Edwin Hubble, whom he helped to study the spectral redshift of hundreds of galaxies.

Milton Humason, a high-school dropout who worked as a mule driver and then a janitor at the Mount Wilson Observatory, worked his way up to become the assistant of Edwin Hubble, whom he helped to study the spectral redshift of hundreds of galaxies. But these far-away galaxies had low surface brightness, and were notoriously hard to measure. So Humason developed techniques to optimize the photographic exposures and plate measurements. He determined the radial velocities of 620 galaxies, and helped set the distance scale and age of the universe. Much of Hubble’s success was attributed to Humason’s painstaking measurements. For his achievements, Humason was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Lund in Sweden. He retired in 1957, and died in Mendocino, California, in 1972 at the age of 80. ‘Humason’s Hideaway’ is a little spot in the kitchen dedicated to this incredible man.

Mount Wilson Observatory is perched above the Los Angeles basin, above the smog and in a paradoxically ideal location for an observatory.

Mount Wilson Observatory is perched above the Los Angeles basin, above the smog and in a paradoxically ideal location for an observatory.

The very inversion layer that traps pollutants in the L.A. basin is also responsible for the best astronomical "seeing" in the continental United States. This excellent "seeing" was appreciated by late 19th century astronomers and in 1904 led George Ellery Hale to build the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory on the site. 1904-1905 also saw the installation of the Snow Telescope - a device for spectroscopic and spectroheliographic studies of the sun and bright stars. In 1907 a 60" reflector telescope was completed and remains operational to this day.

The very inversion layer that traps pollutants in the L.A. basin is also responsible for the best astronomical “seeing” in the continental United States. This excellent “seeing” was appreciated by late 19th century astronomers and in 1904 led George Ellery Hale to build the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory on the site. 1904-1905 also saw the installation of the Snow Telescope – a device for spectroscopic and spectroheliographic studies of the sun and bright stars. In 1907, the 60″ reflector telescope was completed and remains operational to this day.

Just thinking about how they got the telescopes up the mountain decades before the Angeles Crest Highway was built is a story within itself. The Mount Wilson Toll Road (1891–1936) was an historic roadway which ascended Mount Wilson via a vehicular passable road from the base of the foothills in Altadena. Foot and pack animal traffic became so heavy that in June 1893 the trail was widened to six feet, making two way travel much easier.

Just thinking about how they got the telescopes up the mountain decades before the Angeles Crest Highway was built is a story within itself. The Mount Wilson Toll Road (1891–1936) was an historic roadway which ascended Mount Wilson via a vehicular passable road from the base of the foothills in Altadena. Foot and pack animal traffic became so heavy that in June 1893 the trail was widened to six feet, making two way travel much easier.

As new, larger telescopes were designed for the Carnegie Observatory, an automobile roadway became necessary to accommodate the trucks hauling parts up the mountain. In 1907 the trail was widened to ten feet with most of the work being done by hand with the use of Japanese laborers and mule-drawn scrapers. The road was widened to a full 12-foot roadway in 1917 to facilitate the transportation of parts for the 100-inch Hooker Telescope.

As new, larger telescopes were designed for the Carnegie Observatory, an automobile roadway became necessary to accommodate the trucks hauling parts up the mountain. In 1907, the trail was widened to ten feet with most of the work being done by hand with the use of Japanese laborers and mule-drawn scrapers. The road was widened to a full 12-foot roadway in 1917 to facilitate the transportation of parts for the 100-inch Hooker Telescope.

The 60-inch telescope was big, but it wasn’t big enough to suit astronomer George Ellery Hale. Hale wanted a telescope that could collect more light. So even as the 60-inch reflecting telescope was being built, Hale was looking for the funding for a reflector with a 100-inch mirror. He found it in Los Angeles businessman John D. Hooker, who wanted his name attached to the largest telescope ever built. — with Sandi Hemmerlein.

The 60-inch telescope was big, but it wasn’t big enough to suit astronomer George Ellery Hale. Hale wanted a telescope that could collect more light. So even as the 60-inch reflecting telescope was being built, Hale was looking for the funding for a reflector with a 100-inch mirror. He found it in Los Angeles businessman John D. Hooker, who wanted his name attached to the largest telescope ever built.

Only one glassmaker was willing to attempt the daunting feat of making a 100-inch disk — the same French company that had provided the glass for the 60-inch reflector.

Only one glassmaker was willing to attempt the daunting feat of making a 100-inch disk — the same French company that had provided the glass for the 60-inch reflector.

The reluctance was not without cause: when the 100-inch disk arrived, in 1908, astronomers thought it was worthless. It was full of air bubbles, and some of the glass had crystallized — which meant it probably wouldn’t stand up to the grinding and polishing that would be needed to make it into a mirror.

The reluctance was not without cause: when the 100-inch disk arrived, in 1908, astronomers thought it was worthless. It was full of air bubbles, and some of the glass had crystallized — which meant it probably wouldn’t stand up to the grinding and polishing that would be needed to make it into a mirror.

The glassworks built a new furnace and oven and kept trying, but none of the disks seemed to be of telescope quality. World War I broke out, and the experimentation stopped. Now, no one had time for giant glass disks.

The glassworks built a new furnace and oven and kept trying, but none of the disks seemed to be of telescope quality. After World War I broke out, all experimentation stopped.

Hale, defeated at every turn, went back to the first glass disk. The bubbles might not be close enough to the surface to affect it, he decided. Hale had the glass tested, and his researcher reported back that the bubbles might actually strengthen the glass.

Hale, defeated at every turn, went back to the first glass disk. The bubbles might not be close enough to the surface to affect it, he decided. Hale had the glass tested, and his researcher reported back that the bubbles might actually strengthen the glass. Hale turned the disk over to telescope-maker and astronomer George W. Ritchey. Ritchey and his team, working in the same carefully controlled environment they relied on for the 60-inch telescope, took 5 years to turn the glass disk into a mirror. Once it was installed, the entire telescope weighed 100 tons.

The telescope could be adjusted, like the 60-inch, for both photography and spectroscopy. This photo of Saturn was as good as I could get with my camera.

The 100-inch telescope can be adjusted, just like the 60-inch, for both photography and spectroscopy. I snapped this photo of Saturn using my shitty little point and shoot, so imagine how incredible it would look using a more expensive camera.

Once you ascend into the control center, white light is forbidden.

Once you ascend into the control center, white light is forbidden.

Only red light is used in order to enhance the viewing experience.

Only red light is used in order to enhance the viewing experience.

Albireo is about 430 light-years away from the Earth. When viewed with the naked eye, it appears to be a single star. However, in a telescope it readily resolves into a double star, consisting of Albireo A (amber, apparent magnitude 3.1), and Albireo B (blue-green, apparent magnitude 5.1). Separated by 35 seconds of arc, the two components provide one of the best contrasting double stars in the sky due to their different colors. It is not known whether the two components are orbiting around each other in a physical binary system. If they are, their orbital period is probably at least 100,000 years.

Albireo is about 430 light-years away from the Earth. When viewed with the naked eye, it appears to be a single star. However, in a telescope it readily resolves into a double star, consisting of Albireo A (amber, apparent magnitude 3.1), and Albireo B (blue-green, apparent magnitude 5.1). Separated by 35 seconds of arc, the two components provide one of the best contrasting double stars in the sky due to their different colors. It is not known whether the two components are orbiting around each other in a physical binary system. If they are, their orbital period is probably at least 100,000 years.

 It’s hard to imagine the thrill of standing at the same eyepiece used by Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble to view the night sky.

It’s hard to imagine the thrill of standing at the same eyepiece used by Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble to view the night sky. During our Atlas Obscura star party viewing event, we were lucky enough to view the following objects through the telescope: Saturn, the planet, Messier 92 / M92 globular cluster, Messier 57 / M57 “The Ring Nebula,” Epsilon (ε Lyr) Lyrae “the Double Double,” PK 64 + 5.1, “Campbell’s Hydrogen Star, Alberio, NGC 7009 Saturn Nebula Neptune, Messier 11 / M11 or NGC 6705, NGC 7331, the spiral galaxy, NGC 6826 The Blinking Planetary and Messier 15 / M15 or NGC 7078 globular cluster. The universe truly is amazing. The Observatory is open to the public 10 am – 5 pm every day, weather permitting, and by special appointment. Docent-led tours are also offered during the weekends for a nominal fee or you can download a PDF for a free self-guided tour. More information is available on the Mount Wilson Observatory website.