Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Big Eye Opens

Fifty nine years ago today astronomer Edwin Hubble took the first photos through the 200-inch Hale Telescope. Even though the Big Eye was not yet 100% finished (there was still work to perform on the mirror) it was time for some optical tests.

The first object studied using the Hale was Hubble's Variable Nebula (NGC 2261). The exposure was made by Edwin Hubble from the prime focus observing cage on the night of January 26, 1949. The glass photographic plate was labeled: PH-1-H (Palomar, Hale, # 1, Hubble).

Edwin Hubble began his studies of the nebula that now bears his name at the Yerkes Observatory in 1916. Later it became the first object that he photographed through the 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mt. Wilson Observatory.

The nebula is a fan-shaped cloud of gas and dust known as a reflection nebula. It is illuminated by a young star known as R Monocerotis (R Mon). The star is located in the bright region at the lower part of the nebula which is 2,500 light years from Earth. Hubble noticed that the nebula seemed to undergo rapid variations in its appearance.

Also photographed that night were giant elliptical galaxy M87 (NGC 4486), spiral galaxies NGC 5204 & NGC 3359 and globular star cluster M3 (NGC 5273). Here's a modern modern image of M3 taken with the Hale.

Snow Shots

Some more snow shots from the recent snowfall on Palomar:

With beauty comes danger

Several inches of snow falling from the 135-foot high dome can deliver a dangerous impact.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Winter Wonderland

Winter weather has been pounding Palomar Mountain the last few days & nights. There's been just 5 hours of observing time logged over the last 5 nights - compare that with the 38 hours logged in the previous 3 nights. The photo above shows an impressive snowdrift against the big doors on the dome that houses the 200-inch Hale Telescope. The small entrance door was actually frozen shut this morning. More snow, rain and fog is likely to negatively impact the next several nights.

Of course this kind of weather is bad for astronomy, but good for the forests of Palomar Mountain. After several years of drought and intense fires last fall a little rain or snow now and then can be a welcome sight.

I'll post more snow pics tomorrow if conditions permit.

Monday, January 21, 2008

How Far the Stars?

Here's the open star cluster known as M45 or the Pleiades. This image is a composite from two black and white images taken with the Palomar Observatory's 48-inch (1.2-meter) Samuel Oschin Telescope as a part of the Second Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS II). The images were recorded on two glass photographic plates - one sensitive to red light and the other to blue. The plates were scanned and color combined to produce the image seen here.

The cluster is easily seen this time of year with no optical aid needed at all.

Four yeas ago today astronomers announced a revised distance estimate to the star known as Atlas within the Pleiades star cluster using data gathered by the Palomar Testbed Interferometer. Atlas, according to the findings, is 440 (+/- 6) light-years distant.

The distance measurement was in disagreement with the results obtained by the Hipparcos Space Astrometry Mission, which placed the cluster some 10% closer than other measurements. The Pleiades is the second closest star cluster to our solar system. Having an accurate distance to the closest star clusters is very important as they are used as stepping stones to all the rest.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Thanks for the Memories

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting Ronald Florence, author of The Perfect Machine. It was Ronald's first return to Palomar in more than a decade. We spent a few hours poking around domes and going over what is new and old around here.

His book is a complete history of the building of the Hale Telescope and the Palomar Observatory. As a tour guide and trainer of tour guides at the observatory I have worked hard to transfer much of the knowledge contained within its pages into my head and into the heads of others. Tour groups work their way through the dome as our visitors hear a distillation of the facts and figures, blended with the stories from The Perfect Machine. When it comes to the Hale Telescope its science awes and its history grounds.

Without his wonderful book my job would be enormously more difficult and I am indebted to Mr. Florence.

Thank you.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Don't Stop Believing

The career of George Ellery Hale was one of the most remarkable in all of science. His unrelenting drive and determination brought forth the world's largest telescope four times. First at the Yerkes Observatory where the 40" refractor was completed in 1897.

Hale then moved on and in 1904 founded the Mt. Wilson Observatory. There the first modern research telescope, the 60 ", was completed in 1908. It was followed up by the 100-inch Hooker Telescope, completed in 1917. Edwin Hubble used the 100" to discover the true nature of the "spiral nebulae" (galaxies) and the expansion of the universe.

Again Hale moved on to a bigger project. In 1928 he secured a six million dollar grant to build what would become the Palomar Observatory.

The Palomar story is brilliantly chronicled in the book The Perfect Machine by author Ronald Florence. The book has inspired a TV documentary called The Journey to Palomar, which follows Hale's remarkable path.
TV viewers will have to wait until after the November elections to see The Journey to Palomar on PBS, however a special advance-screening will be held at the University Club of Pasadena on Saturday February 23, 2008.

The event and screening of the film is to help offset broadcast costs for this PBS Special. To sweeten the offer, some valuable extras are included for those who attend, such as dinner and a preview of one of the next giant telescopes on the horizon ($150 donation). The $250 donation level includes the same plus some pretty amazing stuff: a rare tour of the Hale Solar Lab, a behind-the-scenes tour of the Mt. Wilson 100-inch and viewing through the Mt. Wilson 60-inch.

A discount on those rates is being offered for astronomy club members. Those who sign up at the $250 level will get a $75 discount. At the $150 levels, astronomy club members will receive a $25 discount. Plus, all donations are tax deductible.

Full information on the sneak preview and the extras are detailed here, but to get your discount you should call the filmmakers at 310-313-6005.

I highly recommend both the book and the documentary.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Defending the Night

From time to time here I'll be talking about light pollution. It is a problem not just for Palomar Observatory. Light pollution contributes to global warming, bird kills and may even lead to increased risk of breast cancer and other health problems.

I am giving a talk on light pollution next Tuesday (Jan. 15) in Borrego Springs, CA. There is an interest in making Borrego Springs the next International Dark-Sky Community.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Web Eye on the Big Eye

You never know what you might see on the Hale Telescope's Web Cam. Yesterday offered up this impressive shot of the Big Eye.

The good folks over at HPWREN archive images and even make movie clips from them. Here's a link to the animation from the work taking place yesterday.

The view of from the web cam isn't too impressive at night, but it can be pretty magical right at the dome opens in the evening and closes in the morning. I'll share some good shots from those another time.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

2 Stars of Astronomy

Yesterday's edition of Caltech Today reported that Caltech astronomer and former Palomar Observatory director will be named a Commander of the British Empire:

"In her New Year's list of civilian honors, Queen Elizabeth named Richard Ellis, Caltech's Steele Family Professor of Astronomy, as a Commander of the BritishEmpire (CBE) "for services to international science." The CBE is Great Britain's highest civilian honor other than a knighthood, and it is rarely given to nonresident British citizens. Ellis, whose research focuses on galaxy evolution and observational cosmology, will receive the award at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace later this year."

Congratulations to Dr. Ellis!

In other news, Caltech's Mike Brown has received a different honor. He is the subject of a new kids book.
The Planet Hunter: The Story Behind What Happened to Pluto was written by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Guy Francis. I am told that the book follows Dr. Brown's life from and how how his discoveries led to Pluto's "demotion" from the status of planet to dwarf planet.

My copy is on order.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Here Comes the Sun

22 years ago (January 7, 1976) Eleanor "Glo" Helin discovered asteroid 2062 Aten with the Palomar 18-inch Schmidt.

Aten was the first asteroid found that orbits almost entirely inside Earth’s orbit. As such Aten defined a new class of asteroids. Its semi-major axis (roughly the average distance from the Sun) is smaller than Earth's. In mythology Aten is the Egyptian god of the Sun.

Astronomers made radar measurements with the Goldstone antenna in 1995 to determine its diameter (0.9 km) and found that Aten has an unusually long period of rotation - nearly 41 hours.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

World of Strife

Ok, just the other day I told you something about Eris, but today, January 5th, is the third anniversary of its discovery so I'm posting a bit about that event. Mike Brown (Caltech), Chad Trujillo (Gemini Observatory), and David Rabinowitz (Yale University) were and still are running a search for slow moving (i.e. distant) objects in the outer solar system. The search makes use of the 161-megapixel QUEST camera on the Palomar Observatory's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. Data gets transferred from Palomar to Pasadena via the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN).

Dr. Brown and his team actually collected the data for the discovery on October 21, 2003, well over a year before the big find. They fine tuned their software, which culls through the vast amount of data for moving objects. They were in the midst of a reanalysis of the data when this bright, slow moving object turned up.

Can you spot it in these discovery images? It is the moving object just above center on the left side of the image.

The world was officially called 2003UB313, but it was given the nickname of "Xena" - A nice name starting with "X" as in "planet X" or even the Roman numeral "X" for 10, as in the tenth planet.

An official name couldn't come until it status as a planet, Kuiper Belt Object or other was sorted out. It wasn't until 2006 that the International Astronomical Union gave the object its "dwarf planet" status and it was allowed to get a name.

So what does Eris mean?
From Greek mythology, Eris is the goddess of warfare and strife. It is a fitting name as there was plenty of strife in the astronomical community over this world.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Looking Up

Here's a rare shot for your weekend. The 200-inch Hale Telescope open for business under a winter sky - with the lights on in the dome. Once in a while someone needs some light to work on something. Don't worry, moments like this one are pretty rare.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A NEAT Tribute

On January 3, 1981 an asteroid was discovered by Edward Bowell, of Lowell Observatory. It was named “3267 Glo” to honor astronomer Eleanor "Glo" Helin. “Glo” Helin retired from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2002 where she was the principal investigator for the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) program. Long before her work on NEAT, Dr. Helin began her hunt for asteroids at Palomar back in the 1970s using the 18-inch Schmidt telescope. She spent more than 20 years working on surveys to discover asteroids that pass close to Earth

During her career she discovered or co-discovered 863 asteroids and 20 comets.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Targeting a Comet

On this day in 2004 NASA's Stardust mission encountered Comet Wild 2, taking detailed images. Before the mission's closest approach, the comet moved from the daytime sky into the nighttime sky and could just barely be observed with telescopes. Tilted close to the horizon, critical observations of the comet's location and brightness were made using the 200-inch Hale Telescope just two weeks prior to the flyby. These observations helped to target the spacecraft to its successful encounter.

The nucleus of comet Wild 2 as photographed by the Stardust spacecraft.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Look Back

2008 will mark the 60th anniversary of the dedication of the Hale Telescope (1948 - 2008). Over the course of the year I'll be presenting some historical highlights from the observatory's past.

January 1, 1801 —Long before the birth of the Palomar Observatory Ceres, the first asteroid, was discovered by Guiseppe Piazzi. For a time Ceres was thought to be a planet. With the discovery of other asteroids, and the asteroid belt, it was eventually realized that Ceres is better described as the largest member of the asteroid belt.

This same sort of sequence was repeated with Pluto. It was discovered in 1930 and classified as a planet. In the 1990s came the eventual discovery of the Kuiper Belt, a collection of icy bodies in the outer solar system. 2005 brought the discovery of distant Eris, a world larger than Pluto. Eris was discovered using the Palomar Observatory's Samuel Oschin Telescope. Its discovery called into question the planetary status of Pluto.

In 2006 Ceres, Pluto and Eris were re-classified and given a new status —dwarf planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) dropped down to just 8 planets.

Some people are still upset by the IAU's decision to demote Pluto. Others see it as just another step in our understanding of our back yard, the solar system.