UC Merced students visited Lick Observatory for a tour of the telescopes, lecture on the history of the site, and evening of observing through the historic 36-inch Great Refractor telescope. Prof. David Strubbe brought 14 students to see the site on Mt. Hamilton near San Jose, which is owned by the University of California system. Lick is about 2.5 hours away from Merced up a very winding mountain road. We learned about the astronomical discoveries made there over the past 150 years, saw the newest automated telescopes searching for extrasolar planets, and toured facilities for stellar spectroscopy and maintaining the telescope mirrors. We saw the control rooms used for observing on site (and remotely) by researchers from across the UC campuses. After a beautiful sunset from the mountaintop at 4200 feet, we had a nice clear night for observing with the 36" refractor, led by two docents. Seeing the great telescope in action, everyone got a chance to look through the eyepiece at Albireo ("the UC star" since it is a pair of blue and gold stars), the Ring Nebula, the M15 globular star cluster in Pegasus, NGC 7331, and the Blue Snowball nebula.
Students found it a rewarding experience. "There is something special about seeing astronomical bodies with your own eyes instead of a photo," says chemistry PhD student Warren Nanney. "This trip really solidified why I want to pursue a career in the astronomical field. It was rather eye opening to see the kind of work that astronomers do," says undergraduate physics major Ulyses Alvarado Olvera who is also president of the UC Merced astronomy club. "It was really a unique and charming place to visit," commented physics PhD student Deepak Sapkota, and applied mathematics PhD student Christine Hoffman said, "It is motivating to find out that there is a UC-owned observatory so close." The trip was sponsored by the NASA-funded Merced nAnomaterials Center for Energy and Sensing (MACES).