The San Fernando Observatory

The San Fernando ObservatoryIn the 1960s, crewed military missions in space were becoming increasingly probable. Although the Dyna-Soar (an early Air Force manned space plane) had been cancelled, development of a Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was proceeding under Air Force direction. A major concern was space radiation, particularly energetic particles emitted by the sun during periods of high solar activity. Forecasting such events seemed important, and Aerospace began research in ground-based solar physics. The heart of this research was an investigation of temporal changes in the magnetic field on the solar surface to find correlations between such changes and outbursts of energetic particles. The research was to be centered in the San Fernando Observatory, located on a peninsula jutting out into the Van Norman reservoir in the San Fernando Valley, owned by the Department of Water and Power (DWP), near the intersection of the I-5 and I-405 freeways. (Two side notes: First, the condition which gives rise to smog in the San Fernando Valley—a stable atmosphere—also resulted in pretty good “seeing,” especially since the flow of air from the isothermal water surface surrounding the telescope was laminar. Second, arranging the details of the occupancy of this site by Aerospace had some of the aspects of negotiating a treaty, as DWP has some of the characteristics of an independent state.) The instrumentation at the observatory included a state-of-the-art, 24-inch telescope and spectroheliograph configured to make high-resolution time-lapse images of magnetic field structures on the sun. Next came the formation of a relationship with the Air Force’s Air Weather Service so that operational predictive capability could be incorporated into the Air Force’s solar observing network and the San Fernando Observatory.

The observatory reached what might be referred to as interim operational and research capability in 1969. However, on February 9, 1971, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake—commonly called the 1971 Sylmar earthquake’struck the area. Damage to the facilities and instrumentation was severe. Repairs began, and the observatory returned to operation, but the loss in momentum and research could not be recovered. The financial burden on Aerospace of operating the observatory was too high, as the costs consumed an appreciable fraction of Aerospace’s fee. Attempts to broaden the base of support were not successful. Aerospace transferred the observatory to the Physics and Astronomy Department of the California State University at Northridge, where it continues to serve for research and education. Drivers on I-5 can see the mushroom-shaped dome of the observatory a short distance to the west of the freeway. (The dome-shaped observatory structure made a cameo appearance in the 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper. Although this movie was made while the observatory still belonged to Aerospace, to the great disgust of the staff, no one was invited to the premiere!)

Back to the Spring 2010 Table of Contents

To main article: The Aerospace Laboratories: 50 Years of Science in Support of National Security Space

To sidebar: Initial Technical Programs in 1960–1964, Technical Programs in 2010