Friday, December 28, 2007

Your Own Virtual Hale Telescope

Everyone wants their own 5-meter telescope, right? Well now you can have the Hale Telescope for your very own - at least in virtual form. Selden Ball has created a wonderful Hale Telescope add-on for the free space simulator program known as Celestia.

This impressive add-on will let you control the telescope and many features inside the dome. What can you do? View the dome and telescope from any angle, open and close the dome, turn the adaptive-optics laser on and off, open and close the telescope's mirror cover, raise and lower the dome crane, move the Coudé flat into and out of place, and a whole lot more!

Selden has more features planned for a future version, but in the meantime, if you don't already have it, download Celestia (Celestia v1.5.0, prerelease 4 or later) and then visit Selden's page to get your own Hale Telescope.

Have fun!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Good Planets are Hard to Find

TEDI, the TripleSpec - Exoplanet Discovery Instrument saw "first light" on the 200-inch Hale Telescope last night.

The Hale is nearly 60 years old and observers are still building new instruments to keep this venerable telescope in the modern era. To the best of my knowledge TEDI is the first instrument fielded specifically for finding planets that orbit cool stars. It is in the commissioning phase now, but the observing program to come will survey the smallest dwarf stars - those classified as M, L and T.TEDI was created to work with Cornell's near-infrared Triple Spectrograph. The TripleSpec arrived at Palomar just last fall. TEDI was developed with the Cornell team and people from Space Sciences Lab at the University of California, Berkeley and Lawerence Livermore National Lab. Hunting for exoplanets isn't something new for Palomar. Little Sleuth has found several, including what is currently the largest known exoplanet, while the Palomar Testbed Interferometer is involved in a search of its own. The Lyot Project, coming to the 200" in the spring, will add the power of adaptive optics to the search.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Shot in the Dark

Earlier this week astronomer's announced that they had found yet another mysterious gamma-ray burst. NASA's Swift satellite detected GRB 070125 last January in the constellation of Gemini and sent its alert to ground-based astronomers.

Palomar's 60-inch telescope was one of the first to respond. The 60-inch, and indeed the entire observatory, is linked into the
High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN). HPWREN enabled the message from Swift to be received, allowing the automated 60-inch telescope to quickly measure the fast-fading visible-light afterglow of the GRB. Data was then sent away from Palomar. Measurements prompted observations with the giant 8-meter Gemini North telescope and the 10-meter Keck I telescope, both located in Hawaii. Astronomers were able to determine the distance to the GRB - 9.4 billion light-years distant.

Astronomers are interested in things like the peak brightness of the burst, how fast it fades, its distance and what type of galaxy it is located in. Measurements indicated that this burst was likely produced by the collapse and explosion of a massive star. These stars "live fast and die young" and are expected to be found in a galaxy where new stars are being produced, yet deep images from Keck failed to find any signs of a galaxy. This means there shouldn't have been that type of star where the burst was seen.

So where did this burst come from? Maybe a faint tidal tail, produced as galaxies collide, is lurking too faint for even Keck to see. Maybe our understanding of this type of GRB is flawed. Deep searches with the Hubble Space Telescope hope to answer the question soon. Stay tuned.

Welcome to Palomar Skies

Welcome to Palomar Skies a blog with news and information about the Palomar Observatory. Postings here will cover current research, history and events taking place at the observatory.