Orion Nebula (M42) photo by Edwin Aguirre and Imelda Joson.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork.”
— Psalm 19:1
The appearance of a bright comet in the sky is what got both of us to gaze at the night sky. And it was this interest in skywatching that had steered our paths toward each other.
As youngsters growing up in the city, our curiosity about these cosmic visitors led us to search for answers to broad, basic questions such as: What are those points of light in the sky? Why do they twinkle? Why do the Sun, Moon, and stars appear to rise and set? What are constellations? Are there other life forms out there in space?
These questions prompted us to read extensively about astronomy, to observe every clear night, and to build equipment that would help us in our quest for truth and knowledge among the stars. Ultimately, it was our mutual love for astronomy that inspired us to pursue studies in the natural sciences (microbiology and physics for Imelda and geology for Edwin) and later launched our professional careers as science journalists and editors.
The gleaming white dome housing the great 200-inch Hale telescope
at Palomar Observatory in California.
We count ourselves fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit some of the most famous and historic observatories in the world — Palomar, Mount Wilson, and Lick observatories in California; Kitt Peak, the Multiple Mirror Telescope, and Lowell observatories in Arizona; McDonald Observatory in Texas; the Very Large Array in New Mexico; Harvard College and Oak Ridge observatories in Massachusetts; Mont Mégantic Observatory in Quebec, Canada; and the Vatican, Rome, and Arcetri observatories in Italy.
Imelda and Edwin with Palomar Observatory Superintendent
Robert Thicksten at the 200-inch telescope.
We consider these places to be great cathedrals to science, immense shrines and temples to the stars where man tries to unlock the secrets of the Universe. We only read about these sites before in textbooks and encyclopedias, and it’s incredible to think that we were actually touching the very same instruments used by Edwin Hubble, George Ellery Hale, Percival Lowell, Clyde Tombaugh, and the other great astronomers of the past.
An Unforgettable Night
Our most memorable observing experience took place in February 1987, when we were invited to observe overnight at Palomar Observatory, north of San Diego. That evening, we joined astronomer Dr. Peter Barthel of the California Institute of Technology and Juan Carrasco, Palomar’s telescope operator, at the control room for a marathon observing session. Dr. Barthel at the time was using a CCD spectrograph attached to the mighty 5-meter (200-inch) Hale reflector to observe high-redshift quasars — high-energy quasi-stellar objects representing the nuclei of active galaxies billions of light-years away.
Inside the control room for the 200-inch with Caltech astronomer
Dr. Peter Barthel (top) and telescope operator Juan Carrasco.
The following morning, Palomar’s superintendent, Robert Thicksten, gave us a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the entire mountaintop facility, including the 48-inch Schmidt telescope and the 60-inch reflector, where we met astronomer and Space Shuttle astronaut Robert A. Parker, who was also observing the night before. Needless to say, it was a fantastic experience and a dream come true for us two then-budding astronomers!
Astronaut Robert Parker (left) and astronomer Jeff
Hester with Palomar Observatory's 60-inch reflector.
Mont Mégantic Observatory, Canada
Edwin and Imelda at the Observatoire Astronomique
du Mont-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada.
Eighteen years later, in the spring of 2005, we were given permission to use Mont Mégantic Observatory’s 1.6-meter (64-inch) telescope near Sherbrooke, Quebec. We wanted to try to observe the newly discovered McNeil’s Nebula near M78 in Orion. Kentucky amateur astronomer Jay McNeil accidentally caught this nebula during an outburst in early 2004, using a 3-inch Takahashi apochromatic refractor and SBIG ST-10XME CCD camera at his backyard observatory.
McNeil’s Nebula was formed by a young, eruptive solar-mass star, now designated V1647 Orionis, during one of its violent accretion episodes. As gas from the inner regions of the object’s massive circumstellar disk was caught on magnetic field lines and got funneled out of the disk onto the star’s surface, luminous hotspots up to 20,000° Kelvin were created. At the same time, powerful winds emanating from the inner disk created a strong bipolar outflow that cleared away some of the gas and dust enshrouding the embryonic star. This allowed the star’s much-amplified light to burst forth like a lighthouse beacon on a dark, foggy night (see Edwin’s article in the June 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope, pages 114-117).
Mont Mégantic's 1.6-meter reflector equipped with a CCD spectrograph.
Unfortunately, it was very windy that night at Mont Mégantic and Orion was already getting too low in the sky to be accessed by the telescope, so we switched to an alternate target on our list: Gyulbudaghian’s Nebula, in Cepheus. Like McNeil’s Nebula, Gyulbudaghian’s Nebula is a variable cometary reflection nebula that exhibits changes in overall brightness and shape over time. It is illuminated by PV Cephei, the star visible at the nebula’s apex. With the assistance of the observatory staff, we were able to obtain RGB exposures and spectra of the object before retiring for the night in the observatory’s dormitory.
Our journey through three decades of amateur astronomy and science journalism has often been demanding and challenging, but extremely gratifying. We have met people, visited places, and done things that never in our wildest dreams did we think would be possible in our lifetime. It’s been one long, incredibly exhilarating trip. Here are some chapters from that journey which you may find interesting: Comets, Eclipse Chasing, Asteroids & Impact Hazards, Transit of Venus, Edwelda Observatory, Telescope Making, and Sky Gallery. Please feel free to click on any of these links. We hope you’ll enjoy reading about our adventures as much as we did undertaking them!
Palomar Observatory, California
A view of the 200-inch Hale reflector looking toward the east. All photos
are by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
The 200-inch as seen from the observatory floor.
A view of the massive north polar axis horseshoe bearing looking toward
Looking straight up from underneath the horseshoe bearing.
A wide-angle shot of the observatory's cavernous telescope chamber.
At the Cassegrain cage of the 200-inch. The telescope mirror's
aluminizing tank is visible at lower right.
Mount Wilson Observatory, California
Lowell Observatory, Arizona
Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona
Vatican Observatory, Italy
The façade of the Pontifical Palace in Castel Gandolfo,
Italy, where the Vatican Observatory (Specola Vaticana)
is located. All photos are by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
Imelda and Edwin with Father Juan Casanovas, S.J.,
at the entrance to the Papal Palace, which is the pope's
summer residence. Note the palace’s heavy, fortress-like
The observatory’s roof deck showing the dome housing the Zeiss double
Edwin and Imelda with the Vatican Observatory’s Zeiss
The Zeiss double astrograph consists of a 16-inch (40-cm.) f/5 four-element
refractor and a 24-inch (60-cm.) reflector that can be used as an f/4 Newtonian
or an f/13.7 Cassegrain. The telescopes are mounted side by side on a German
The observatory’s 16-inch (40-cm.) f/15 Zeiss
visual refractor on a German equatorial mount.
The twin domes in the Papal Gardens at Castel Gandolfo. The left dome
houses the 26-inch (65-cm.) f/3.7 Schmidt telescope while the right one
houses the Carte du Ciel telescope.
Imelda and Edwin with the Carte du Ciel telescope,
which is a 13-inch (33-cm.) f/10.4 double refractor
on an English mount. This telescope was used in the
Carte du Ciel (“Map of the Sky”) project, an ambitious
international astronomical effort started in the late 19th
century to photographically map and catalog the precise
positions of millions of stars down to magnitude 11 to 12.