4/1/16: He Drew the Sun for 40 Years, but now his Telescope is Dying

2016-04-01 | Karen O'Neil

Wired_Scoles_2016Most mornings, Steve Padilla rides in an open-air elevator to the top of the 150-Foot Solar Tower at Mount Wilson Observatory, in the mountains just east of Los Angeles. When he opens the dome, sunlight beams in. Padilla aligns two mirrors in the century-old telescope, sending a reflection of the Sun toward a lens. Downstairs, a 17-inch image of the star appears on a piece of paper

Padilla catches a ride back down in the elevator and stands before the paper. It’s time to draw.

All day, Padilla will sketch sunspots, adding his drawings to an archive that stretches back to 1917—the longest consistent record of solar activity. This has been his routine for 40 years. “In a way,” he says, “you could say these drawings are a little daily work of art.”

And so, on top of this mountain, he sits like wise man of old, a knower of stars, a person apart. And also a volunteer. In recent years, Mount Wilson Observatory’s funding—and particularly the money for the 150-Foot Solar Tower—has waned. Padilla stayed after the money left, in April 2014, because this telescope, and this mountain, are his life. “I had so many years here, I didn’t know what to do if this is all over now,” he says.

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