Friday, February 29, 2008

Monster Telescopes

Waiting in the mail yesterday was the April (!) issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. The cover features TMT in an article entitled "The New Monster Telescopes". Jonathan Lowe's article gives a great overview of the TMT, GMT and E-ELT projects.

Casey Reed provided some great illustrations to give a sense of scale for the projects, but what really caught my eye was this one (above), with the shadow of a monster (for the monster telescopes in the article) on a dome that very much reminds me of the dome for the 200-inch. :)

Monday, February 25, 2008

You are Invited

You are invited to participate in the Globe at Night program. It is a free and easy way to help measure light pollution. You don't need any special knowledge or fancy equipment. All that you need to do is find the constellation of Orion and count the stars you can see there. If you can't find Orion, the Globe at Night website can teach you where and what to look for.

Participating in Globe at Night is a great excuse to get out and enjoy the night sky. Last year there were over 8,400 measurements made from 60 countries. Be sure to add your observations into this year's program it is easy and fun.

Can you find Orion in this photo?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

In the Shadow of a Giant

George Ellery Hale died 70 years ago today. From Ronald Florence's The Perfect Machine:
A few days prior to his death he felt well enough to be wheeled outside. He looked up at the sky and said, "It is a beautiful day. The sun is shining and they are working on Palomar."
While Hale missed seeing the completion of the mighty 200-inch telescope, his vision and determination made the telescope a reality. That's why it has carried his name since 1948.

Hale's shadow looms large even 70 years later. Modern-day astronomers are poised to begin a new project that would have made him proud, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

The TMT will have almost 36 times the light-gathering power of the Hale Telescope and will push astronomy into a new era of giant telescopes. Design work and site selection are still underway, but big things are coming. As Hale said:

Make no small plans. Dream no small dreams.

There's nothing small about the TMT. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Punisher

Just a short post today. Four years ago today 90482 Orcus was discovered using the Palomar 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. Orcus (aka 2004 DW) is a Kuiper Belt Object with a 247-year orbit. In mythology Orcus was the punisher of broken oaths.

Here's the discovery images:

More information is available from Wikipedia and Chad Trujillo's 2004 DW page.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Speaking of Fritz Zwicky and Supernovae . . . . .

I mentioned earlier this week that Fritz Zwicky used the Palomar 18-inch Schmidt to make the first surveys of the night sky. Dr. Zwicky's hunt for supernovae (exploding stars) began on September 5, 1936 but he didn't catch his first supernova until five months later. On February 16, 1937 he discovered a supernova in spiral galaxy NGC 4157, located in the constellation of Ursa Major.
NGC 4157 is shown above with Zwicky's 1937 supernova arrowed.

According to his article published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific:

From September 5, 1936, until the end of May, 1937, about 300 photographs were obtained covering as often as possible the Virgo cluster of nebulae as well as its northern and southern extensions into Coma Berenices, Canes Venatici, Ursa Major, Hydra, and Centaurus, respectively. In addition, some of the nearby nebulae, such as the great nebula in Andromeda, Messier 33, 51, 80, 81, 101, NGC 55, 247, 253, 2403, 2366, 4236, IC 342, 1613, etc., were frequently photographed. It is estimated that, in the period mentioned, between 5000 and 10,000 nebular images were carefully searched for new stars.
Before anyone knew what a galaxy was it had been the convention call them "nebulae". Today the word "nebula" refers to a cloud of gas in space. At the time of his writing Zwicky knew that the "nebulae" he was referring to are all what we call galaxies. Edwin Hubble's discoveries about galaxies was less than a decade earlier and the term was a holdover from that previous age.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Birthday Fritz Zwicky Part II

Recently I have had the honor to correspond with Dr. Barbarina Zwicky, the daughter of Fritz Zwicky. In honor of the occasion of his 110th birthday she has sent to me her words to mark this day. Thank you Barbarina!

In Memoriam Fritz Zwicky 110th Birthday

Fritz Zwicky was a scientific prophet, who pronounced the amazing theory of Dark Matter, Dunkle Materie, more than 80 years ago, which was rejected during his lifetime. His genius and stunning theories still benumb the senses of the scientific community and challenge their professional expertise. History tells us that prophets are rejected and persecuted during their lifetime, only to have their theories and prophecies confirmed after their passing. So it is with my father, who endured persecution during his lifetime only to have his theories be accepted and verified years later. Literary assaults against him became as common as grains of sand, but were equally as unstable, holding no structure, thus becoming dissolute with the tide and time. My father’s theories continue to withstand any challenge and hold true, and remain forever as restorative truth against a such egregious and errant compass. It was in fact, the scientific community that hindered important advancements in astronomical discovery for decades, by rejecting the very concepts of my father’s super theories that they now so readily embrace. There is no doubt, that his scientific work and super theories encompass some of the most important work in astronomy today.

Supernova, Haupt Nova, was his coinage and he was the first to conduct a systematic search for Supernovae without the aid of computers and modern technology, and yet he holds the record for discovering the most supernovae as an individual. He was the pioneer of the sky survey technique and documented thousands of galaxies in the Catalogue Of Selected Compact Galaxies And Of Post-Eruptive Galaxies, The Red Book, Zwicky Galaxy Database. The introduction identifies my father’s methodology: “I consequently engaged in the application of certain simple general principles of morphological research, and in particular the method of Directed Intuition that would allow me to predict and visualize the existence of as yet unknown cosmic objects and phenomena.”

He was research director at Aerojet Engineering Corporation (1943 - 1949) and he developed some of the earliest jet engines. He holds important patents in Jet Propulsion, Two Piece Jet Thrust Motor, Inverted Hydro Pulse, Ram Jet and Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1949 for his wartime efforts. The Zwicky Lunar Crater and Zwicky Asteroid 1803 are named in his honor.

The Friendly Guide To The Universe, by Nancy Hathaway, captured my father’s essence. Harvard astronomer, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, wrote an obituary in the May 1974 issue of Sky & Telescope that equally identified his true persona with sagacious and kind insight.

I was the youngest daughter of three daughters, and was as such, particularly blessed. Fritz Zwicky was a great father, concerned, kind, caring, generous and great fun. There was always great conversation during our long lunches in Switzerland, accompanied by much laughter in our house. I was able to travel the world with my family and meet many of the world’s greatest minds. I particularly remember the Delos Conference, Greece, when I accompanied my parents and embarked on a wonderful ocean journey. The ship’s passenger list encompassed the world’s Who’s Who, among them, Arnold Toynbee, Buckminster Fuller, and Margaret Mead. I cherish a sterling silver baby cup from Andrew Haley, Founder of Aerojet Engineering Corporation with Theodore von Karman, and President and Chief Counsel of American Rocket Society, which he had engraved to me with a beautiful dedication. The birthright privileges are many, but so also are the burdens. I continue to encounter a core resentment against my father’s genius and this often translates into a lack of recognition and a failure to interpret the true meaning of his work. Many self-appointed experts seek recognition for their “expertise” regarding my father’s work, while failing to mention him as pioneer of the discoveries. My son, Christian, has pledged to follow the same path of rectifying the injurious inequity against my father, and those who seek credit for his work will continue to be exposed, as the future generation now gives voice in his defense. My father stated: “The fact that, except for some outstanding exceptions like George Ellery Hale, the members of the hierarchy in American Astronomy have no love for any of the lone wolves who are not fawners and apple polishers was made clear to me and to my independent friends on many occasions. Thus credit for my discovery of the first dwarf galaxies would have been lost for me if the following statement by Dr. E.P. Hubble had not appeared in THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY 52, 486 (1941).” The letter describes the matter of why nomenclature is so important. My father further notes that: “Many in American Astronomy appear to be free to appropriate discoveries and inventions made by lone wolves and nonconformist, for whom there is never any appeal to the hierarchies and for whom even the public Press is closed, because of censoring committees within the scientific institutions.” Not all are propelled to rectify such injurious inequity in the sciences. However, by enjoining in a joint venture with commissioned journeymen, the Herculean effort will be successful to correct this deficit, thus restoring conciliation to an astronomer’s memory and safeguarding his rightful place in history.

Dr. Barbarina Zwicky, h.c.

Happy Birthday Fritz Zwicky

February 14, 2008 marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky. His amazing scientific career is relatively unknown to the general public, but he remains a giant in the astronomical community.

Zwicky came to Caltech in 1925 and was a faculty member there for more than 40 years. He was a member of the staff of the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories until his retirement in 1968. He also worked as the research director Aerojet Engineering Corporation from 1943 to 1961.

Telescope operator Ben Traxler worked with Zwicky, Hubble, and all the astronomers from the early days at Palomar. Traxler remarked that Zwicky’s “very fertile intellect was busy at all times” and his research efforts certainly confirm that.

In an article titled “Idea Man” published in 2001 Stephen M. Maurer wrote that Zwicky will be “remembered as a gifted observational astronomer who had discovered more supernovae than everyone else in human history combined. Today, Zwicky’s reputation is bigger than ever, except that now astronomers think of him as a theorist. When researchers talk about neutron stars, dark matter, and gravitational lenses, they all start the same way: ‘Zwicky noticed this problem in the 1930s. Back then, nobody listened . . .’”

That’s right, supernovae, neutron stars, dark matter and gravitational lenses. Those are all active topics of modern astronomy that Zwicky was exploring more than 70 years ago. Much of his thinking in those areas was brought about by his work with the wide-angle 18-inch and later the 48-inch Schmidt telescopes at Palomar. The Schmidt telescope was a brand-new concept in astronomy that made it possible to photograph wide areas of the sky quickly with little distortion even on the edge of the field of view. It was Zwicky who brought Bernhardt Schmidt’s invention to Palomar and the world.

Starting in 1936 Zwicky used the 18-inch Schmidt to make the first rapid survey of the heavens, mapping out hundreds of thousands of galaxies. With it he also began his searches for exploding stars known as supernovae (With Walter Baade he even coined the term “supernova”), discovered that galaxies come in clusters and obtained the first evidence for dark matter. His searches for supernovae were extremely fruitful, having discovered more than 120 of them during his lifetime – at the time that was more supernovae than all other astronomers combined. He was the first to suggest, and correctly so, that a supernova marks an ordinary star’s transition to a collapsed, super dense object known as a neutron star.

Fritz Zwicky passed away in 1974. He received many honors during his lifetime. In 1949 he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by president Truman, for his work on rocket propulsion during World War II. The Royal Astronomical Society presented him with their most prestigious award, the Gold Medal, for "distinguished contributions to astronomy and cosmology", acknowledging his work on neutron stars, dark matter, and cataloging of galaxies. Zwicky was also honored by having an asteroid (1803 Zwicky) and a lunar crater named for him.

Today’s astronomers are still following in Zwicky’s footsteps. Palomar’s 48-inch Schmidt (since renamed the Samuel Oschin Telescope) is used nightly to survey the sky, hunting for supernovae, gravitational lenses and more. Astronomers have found a renewed interest in Zwicky’s concept of sky surveys. Entire giant telescopes are about to be built for that purpose. Beyond his observational work Zwicky’s theoretical advances laid the foundation for modern astrophysics, which owes him a great debt.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Top of the World

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to again visit the top of the dome for the 200-inch Hale Telescope. The atmosphere was remarkably transparent and I managed to snap a few quick photos as I panned around. Here are two hastily assembled panoramas from the visit. Be sure to click on them to enlarge the view.

From left to right in the first shot are the snow covered peaks of San Gorgonio and San Jacinto; the ladder and lightning rod on top of the dome; and the dome for the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope with Palomar's High Point beyond that.

The second panorama is immediately to the left of the first. The Warner Springs area is in the valley with the San Ysidro Mountains beyond. Between the domes for the 18-inch Schmidt and 60-inch telescopes lies the Mendenhall Valley with in the background Volcan Mountain beyond. The ridge on the right, behind the 60", is part of Palomar Mountain.

As soon as I get the chance to put them together I'll post the rest of the view.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Road Show

If anyone is interested. I'll be giving a talk for the Orange County Astronomers on Friday, February 8th @ 7:30 p.m. What's on tap for the talk?

"In honor of its sixty year anniversary, Scott Kardel of Palomar Observatory will outline the future of this astronomical workhorse on the mountain.

In this era of large and giant telescopes the old "Big Eye" on Palomar continues to be used nightly. Astronomers continue to build new and innovative instruments for the Hale, keeping it in the forefront of modern astronomy. New instruments that have just arrived and will soon be coming will bring advances in adaptive optics, new exoplanet discoveries, and allow the Hale to detect and map emission from the intergalactic medium."

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Science News from the Past

Science News, the weekly news magazine of science has a cool timeline feature with stories from the past. They just posted some information dating from 70 years ago this week.

In their January 29, 1938 issue. they reported that "The dome for the great 200-inch telescope on Mt. Palomar is practically finished structurally, and California Institute of Technology engineers can now breathe easier while completion and installation of equipment take place under its shelter during the next couple of years. By February 1, the dome itself will be complete."

Friday, February 1, 2008

Say Goodbye to Palomar

After a combined 47 years of service to the observatory Mike and Barbara Doyle are saying goodbye to Palomar.

Mike served mostly as an electronic technician before moving up to assistant superintendent. During my brief term of service here I have known him to be a dedicated and vital part of the Palomar team. He has provided great support and advice to myself and the observatory's public outreach program.

Barbara has worked in the observatory's accommodations for the astronomers, known as the Monastery, and also has been the powerhouse behind the observatory's gift shop. She has professionally greeted and explained the observatory to many thousands of visitors over the years.

I join the entire Palomar staff and our team of docents in wishing them well in their new venture. They will certainly be missed but their hard work, commitment to doing things right and friendship will linger with us for some time to come.

On his last day with the observatory, as he had done many times before, Mike climbed deep within the mighty Hale Telescope. This last time it wasn't to keep the ol' gal running, it was for the memories and the photo op. :)