What is Lick Observatory?

Lick Observatory's Mission

Lick Observatory is owned and operated by the University of California. It is a major site in the University of California Observatories (UCO), which is responsible for its operations. Since 1888, Lick has provided UC astronomers with access to world-leading optical-infrared observing equipment. Lick serves astronomers from all eight UC astronomy campuses (Berkeley, Davis, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Irvine, and Riverside) and two national laboratories (Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Lawrence Livermore Lab). Lick users range in age from undergraduates to the most senior and eminent astronomers in the University of California. At any given time, over 100 observers are pursuing science programs at Lick.

Lick also serves as UC's chief testbed for developing new instruments and new technologies for optical astronomy. For example:

  • Lick perfected deep-space astronomical photography in the early 1900s, which dominated astronomical discoveries until the 1960s.
  • Lick then developed the first digital detector in 1971, which revolutionized astronomy by replacing photographic plates.
  • Lick achieved the first laser bounce off the Moon in 1969, measuring the distance precisely for the first time.
  • Lick pioneered the Doppler radial-velocity technique for finding extra-solar planets, which led directly to the recent revelation that the Galaxy is teeming with other solar systems.
  • Lick conducted one of the first successful robotic searches for supernovae (exploding stars). For a decade it was the world's best, and it still continues.
  • Lick developed the first laser-guide star for adaptive optics. Adaptive optics (AO) removes the blurring by the Earth's atmosphere from astronomical images and permits ground-based telescopes to see as sharply as though in space. Features being tested in the current Shane AO system at Lick will be adopted by giant telescopes elsewhere to permit them to see 10 times sharper than Hubble Space Telescope at a fraction of the cost.

Lick also has a mandate to communicate the knowledge and thrill of astronomy to students and to the public at large. Thirty-five thousand adults and children visit Mt. Hamilton annually. The Summer Visitor's program features lectures by renowned astronomers and permits visitors to view the cosmos directly through the 36-inch Great Refractor. The Music of the Spheres concerts soothe heart as well as mind. The Main Building features eye-catching, informative exhibits, and hosts teacher-training workshops for K-12 teachers.

Early History

Lick Refractor

Lick began operations in 1888 as part of the University of California. It was founded by a bequest from James Lick, real-estate entrepreneur and California's wealthiest citizen. Lick's gift of $700,000 was the largest philanthropic gift in the history of science and would amount to $1.2 billion today, if measured as a fraction of GNP. The Great Refractor was the world's largest telescope of the time. It predated electricity, and its 14-ton rising floor was a miracle of ingenuity that relied only on water- and wind-power. Beautifully preserved, the refractor is a not-to-be-missed jewel of 19th century technology that needs to be seen to be appreciated.

Some discoveries and "firsts" from Lick

  • Astronomical photography was perfected on Lick's Crossley telescope, which, starting in the early 1900s, was the first to reveal the innumerable galaxies in the cosmos far beyond our Milky Way.
  • The Lick eclipse expedition to Autralia in 1922 was the first scientific measurement to convincingly verify Einstein's theory of General Relativity.
  • In the 1930s Robert Trumpler discovered the existence of dust grains in interstellar space between the stars, which we later know is the stuff from which rocky planets form.
  • In the 1950s, Lick astronomer George Herbig identified stars in the process of being born and pioneered their study.
  • In the 1990s, UC astronomers Geoff Marcy and Steve Vogt perfected the precision radial-velocity technique for finding extra-solar planets around other stars using the Shane telescope. With data from Lick and Keck observatories, they found hundreds of extra-solar planets, leading to the discovery that our Galaxy is teeming with extra-solar systems.
  • Starting in the late-1980s, detailed measurements of the properties of exploding stars (supernovae) by UC astronomer Alex Filippenko were crucial to the development of methods to calibrate them. This contributed substantially to the 1998 discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe, probably driven by mysterious "dark energy." Subsequent studies of supernovae, many of which were found at Lick with the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope, led to greater confidence in the acceleration, and this discovery was honored with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

Forefront research continues with further measurements of exploding stars, matter accreting onto billion-solar-mass black holes at the centers of galaxies, and the new Automated Planet-Finder telescope, which is dedicated to finding potentially habitable planets around the nearest stars.