Frequently Asked Questions At Griffith Observatory 

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That’s me in the middle.

As a telescope demonstrator, you’re bound to get asked the same questions over and over. Some are thoughtful and I’m happy to answer, while others can get old really fast.

When is The Best Time To Visit? When is it less crowded?

It’s ALWAYS going to attract a lot of people. There are times when it’s crazy even by normal crowded standards, and there are times when it’s much less crowded.

The spring and summer months have more visitors than the fall and winter months. Once the kids go back to school, there is a sharp dip in visitors, except around holidays.

July 4 is a notable crowded day because people come up in droves to get a view of all the fireworks being shot over the city.

The absolute WORST days to try and visit are between December 20 through New Years. Because everyone is on vacation at the same time with the same curious idea, it can take over an hour to even get up the hill from Los Feliz Blvd, and on the craziest days, I’ve seen people getting turned away at the ENTRANCE to Griffith Park. You have been warned!

Here are other times when it’s less crowded:

  1. Non weekend days are typically less crowded, but I’ve seen exceptions.
  2. Between noon and 3pm, or after 6 pm. A lot of people leave after 6, often times before we even set our telescopes up.
  3. Super Bowl Sunday – most people are at home watching the big game.
  4. On a Monday – when the building is CLOSED!
So…What are We Looking At?

If I’m outside working with the portable telescopes, it’s usually the first thing I get asked by a curious visitor. I cannot tell you how many people get in line without knowing what they’re about to see. Our telescopes on the outside do have lit signs that say what it is, but there’s always those who don’t pay attention.

When the line starts to build up, I will try to remind those waiting in line what they’re in line to see and try engaging them with facts. So you can imagine I’ll get a tad irritated when someone who is not paying attention will ask me, “so…. what are we looking at {again}?”

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It tells you right there!
How Much Does This Telescope Cost?

Inside the dome, it’s fun to point out the cost of the historical telescope. A lot of people who visit love learning the history behind it.

But with the portables outside, many are impressed with the appearance and the technology that they often ask.

However, I know that most who ask “how much?” are not actually interested in getting a scope themselves; so I often like to ask how much they think, or how much they are willing to spend on a telescope before I reveal the answer. Believe it or not, most of the time when I reveal the price tag, their response is “oh that’s not bad!”

How much do they actually cost? Come visit and find out!

Is There A Special Event Going On?

This is a natural question to ask, as it’s not a common sight to see someone set up a telescope outside on a regular basis. We set up and offer free viewing every night it’s “clear.” The reason why “clear” is in quotation marks is because of the wet and rainy winter we had in 2018-2019, thus a lot of us still set up outside even when we know it can be too cloudy.

On select Saturdays, usually once a month, clubs like LA Astronomical Society and Sidewalk Astronomers host a star party on the front lawn for the sole purpose of outreach. They’ll have a wide variety of personal telescopes to show, but then you’ll also see our official scopes outside with them as well.

Who or What Determines The Object You Point To?

I get full reign with the telescope I’m assigned to for the evening, and I can pretty much point it to wherever I want. Very rarely, I’ll get told by my superiors to point it somewhere (the last time was in 2018 when Mars had a historic close approach). Sometimes I just stay on one object the entire time, other times I’ll go through many. Sometimes my fellow colleagues and I will coordinate who views what, other times we all view the same thing whether by choice or circumstance. We love offering variety, but nobody likes having to follow the rings of Saturn! 

It depends on which celestial sights I know are visible during operation hours, the conditions of the sky, and what I feel will be the most interesting to the public. As people literally listen with their eyes, I try and find objects that would look the most inspiring.  But of course, when we’re dealing with cloud cover, sometimes all I’m left with is the moon or a bright star, and if the clouds prove too thick, then all I can do is point to the city below.

Can You Point it To <insert object here>?

That depends on how you ask, the type of telescope I’m using, and how busy the night is. Some are interested in an object that’s not visible in the sky, others are unhappy that two telescopes are showing the same thing.

When I’m working with the historic telescope, it’s a process because I have to stop the line,  account for moving the roof of the dome itself, and then having to manually move the 4.5 ton telescope, and get it precise using the celestial coordinates. I only do this process when I have to or if it’s planned ahead of time. There’s no way I can keep moving that telescope to please everyone.

With the scopes outside on the other hand, they’re all computerized, thus I can press a button and it can automatically go to the desired object within a minute. If the night is very tame, and if there isn’t a line, then I don’t mind. But when there is a continuous long line, unless I am planning on a different object later, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit!

Does the Light Pollution and Haze Affect How Well You Can See?

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The skies above Los Angeles are very bright, and the lights do affect our view of the stars. But if the object in question can shine through the light pollution, we can see the object just fine through the telescope. Bright stars and the solar system objects of course will look fine, but deep sky objects on the other hand are admittedly shells of their true selves with only a few bright enough to qualify as “impressive.”

What we deal with more than anything is the changing quality of the seeing conditions caused by the atmosphere and the levels of haze above Los Angeles. We can get good views as long as the air above is steady and clear. But most nights, the seeing conditions don’t work in our favor, and sometimes we’ll leave popular objects alone if they are too low above the horizon because they’ll look heavily distorted behind the haze.

Has Los Angeles Always Been this Smoggy/Hazy?

Los Angeles is not as smoggy as legends say it is. I’ve worked plenty of days and nights where the view is clear enough to see the ocean and as far as Long Beach from the observatory.

Sure, it’s very obvious when the haze/smog is present, yet many tourists don’t know that the smog used to be much worse during the 1940’s-60’s, where pictures from that area show a much thicker smog. Scientific research, regulations, and efforts that were made starting in the 1970’s have gradually gotten the smog levels low enough to the point where we very rarely get “smog alerts.” Compared to cities in China like Shanghai, our smog levels are nowhere near that level anymore.

Believe it or not, the Los Angeles area has always been naturally hazy due to the inversion layers and onshore flows being blocked by the nearby high mountains. Spanish explorers sailing into San Pedro Bay in 1542 could see the smoke from native villages appear to flatten out from hitting an invisible ceiling. They were so impressed by the sight that they labeled the area “Baya de los Fumos,” or “Bay of the Smokes.”

However, we can all agree that Southern California depending heavily on cars definitely doesn’t help the matter.

Can You Shine Your Laser Again?
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You can see I’m pointing straight to Mars

Rather than use my fingers, some of of us use bright green laser beams as tools to help point at objects in the sky. It’s fun to hear the initial reactions, but many times it becomes more about the laser than actually learning where stuff is in the sky.

There are many times where I’ll give small tour of the sky, showing where the planets are or where they can see familiar constellations. “Any questions?” “Yeah, can you show your laser again?”

One time, I was showing the Summer Triangle, and while I was circling my beam around the three stars, I asked, “what shape do these three stars form?” And the first answer I got was, “a circle!” – clearly he was only paying attention to the green beam.

The other follow up is usually, “how do you get one of those?!” And my answers have gradually gotten more vague.  The last thing we need is more people getting their hands on one and getting sent to federal prison for pointing them at airplanes, or claiming, “but that guy at the observatory told me how to get it!”

Sure, I do get asked my share of good and interesting astronomy questions, but I always need to remember that most who come up are tourists who may be astronomy illiterate. As long as they are given the best experience possible for them, then I have done my job.

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