Monday, June 30, 2008

Tunguska Remembered

100 years ago today a small asteroid or comet fragmented and exploded in the atmosphere above Siberia. Everything directly below the explosion was incinerated while trees were flattened for hundreds of square miles around the event.

This account is from the June 2008 issue of Scientific American:

June 30, 1908, 7:14 a.m., central Siberia—Semen Semenov, a local farmer, saw “the sky split in two. Fire appeared high and wide over the forest.... From ... where the fire was, came strong heat.... Then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few yards.... After that such noise came, as if . . . cannons were firing, the earth shook ...”
More information is at the link above and here from JPL.

An explosion like the one that occurred at Tunguska would be a disaster beyond all measure if it happened today over a large population center. Astronomers using telescopes at Palomar and elsewhere are working to discover new asteroids and uncover any threats that might be out there. Luckily there is no known asteroid headed for certain impact with Earth.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Happy Birthday Dr. Hale

George Ellery Hale was born on 140 years ago today. We should all try to live by his motto:

Make no small plans. Dream no small dreams.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

New Instrument. New Planets?

Project 1640, a new instrument for the Hale Telescope has arrived. With this new instrument astronomers hope to actually photograph exoplanets--planets that orbit other stars.

The instrument was built by the American Museum of Natural History and the Institute of Astronomy at University of Cambridge. It has only just arrived at Palomar. Today's big event was to make sure that it would properly attach to the telescope and its adaptive optics system. Over the next week and a half the instrument will get fine tuned in preparation for first light.

The new instrument can be seen at left on its cart prior to its fitting test earlier today.

Once it is up and running it will use adaptive optics to correct for distortions in the atmosphere and then a coronagraph which will shield the bright light of a star allowing for the direct photography of an exoplanet. Lots more information is at the Project 1640 link above, but it is certainly worth the time to visit

Stay tuned for updates after the instrument gets some telescope time.

Remembering a big day for Public Outreach

Yesterday, marked the three year anniversary of the 2005 Palomar Observatory Open House. By some estimates we gave tours of the 200-inch Hale Telescope to more than 4,000 people - all in one day. As you can see in the photo above (taken by Caltech's Robert J. Paz) the line to get in reached epic proportions. It was heart warming to see so many people show up to visit Palomar.

At the open house we kicked off our Friends of Palomar Observatory program where members now get inside tours, talks by astronomers and some evening viewing programs (sorry, not through the 200-inch telescope).

If you want a tour of the Hale but missed the Open House of '05 and are not a member of the Friends of Palomar Observatory - don't despair. We give tours for the general public on most Saturdays (May - October) at 11:30 a.m. & 1:30 p.m. For a small fee ($5 for adults) you can get an hour or more guided tour of the Big Eye. Space is limited and the tours almost always sell out. More information on the Public Tours is here.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Light Pollution on the Radio

Light pollution was featured yesterday on National Public Radio's Marketplace Morning Report. You can listen and read the transcript here. An estimated $10 billion is annually wasted in illuminating the night sky. That's a tremendous amount of tax payers dollars down the drain and an enormous contribution to greenhouse gases. The problem is the easiest form of pollution to fix and the only one that I know of where you'll save money in the process.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Cosmic Showing

If you are in Southern California sometime from June 21 - August 3 you should visit the "Capturing the Cosmos: a Personal Journey" exhibition of astrophotos. The images were all taken by my friend Dennis Mammana. If you aren't familiar with his work check out his website and the gallery of his images at The World at Night website.

I am sure you will agree that he has taken some amazing images. The showing will be in the OPT Underground gallery in Oceanside, CA. All of the images in the show will be available for purchase and a portion of the proceeds will go toward the Wounded Warrior Project.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Have you heard the news? Pluto is the defining object for the other round ice balls of the outer solar system. The new IAU-approved term for such objects is Plutoid. Read all about Plutoids in this post from the Mike Brown's Planets blog.

Cool stuff.

Friday, June 13, 2008

More from the IDA Annual General Meeting

The second full day of the annual general meeting of the International Dark-Sky Association brought a wide-range of sessions. Paul Bogard previewed his anthology, Let There Be Night - Testimony on Behalf of the Dark, which is due out this fall. Of big news to some: the long-awaited Model Lighting Ordinance is finally expected to be out this July.

Perhaps the most interesting talk to me was by Dr. Rubin Naiman, a sleep specialist. According to him, light at night is the single most overlooked factor in sleep disorders and an astonishing 76% of American adults have at least 1 symptom of a sleep disorder. 40 millions American adults have insomnia. Lights at night are not the only factor here, but they certainly do not help people to have a good night sleep.

One of the cool things that conference attendees got was the Bulbrite Dark Sky fixture-within-a-fixture. It is a great way to retrofit a fixture without having to buy a new one. It is energy efficient and dark-sky friendly.
Finally, at the end of the IDA meeting it was time to bid farewell to Dr. David L. Crawford, founder and executive director of the IDA. Dave and his wife Mary have put their hearts and souls into the IDA for two decades. The legacy of their work will be with us for years to come. Now many of the rest of us know how to implement intelligent lighting that is good for human health, the environment, astronomy, and more.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The IDA Turns 20

This week the International Dark-Sky Association is holding its 20th annual meeting. Yup, the IDA has been fighting for your right to see the night sky since 1988.

Sunday featured board meetings, section meetings and an evening excursion to Kitt Peak National Observatory to join their Nightly Observing Program. It made for a long day, but everyone had a fantastic experience there. Palomar may have a similar program some day, more on what is developing soon.

Today's meeting featured a morning heavy on information on lighting technologies and LEDs. Did you know that 20% of global electricity consumption comes from outdoor lighting? Imagine the energy savings that could come from more efficient and intelligent use of outdoor lighting.

You've probably seen those USA or World at Night photos that come from the Defense Meterological Satellite Program. Chris Elvidge from NOAA spoke about NightSat, a proposed satellite that could study light pollution and have many more applications. On that site is an amazing video of images of city lights taken from the International Space Station. It is certainly worth a look.

The day ended with a short talk by author Timothy Ferris and a screening of his movie Seeing in the Dark. I think they are re-running this on PBS this week. Check your local listings. You'll be glad you did.

Are you a member of the IDA? You should be. Find out how to join and by just about all you will ever need to know about outdoor lighting at

Quark Stars?

One story from the AAS meeting that I haven't had the time to post about concerns the announcement from some Canadian astronomers that a few recent, superluminous supernovae may have marked the creation of some quark stars.

Not everybody agrees with the idea, but it would certainly be interesting if true. What's the connection to Palomar? On of the supernovae was co-discovered with the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. Read all about it here.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Hale Turns 60

Sixty years ago today, June 3, 1948, the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain officially became the Hale Telescope.

The project was announced twenty years earlier. It spanned both the Great Depression and World War II. The effort of building the telescope also outlasted its creator, George Ellery Hale. Hale raised the funds, picked the mountain, and hired the people to create the dome, the mirror and the telescope itself. His health eventually prevented him from overseeing every little detail and he passed away in 1938 - ten years before the completion of the project.

Hale's story is chronicled in a film, Journey to Palomar, which will be shown on PBS on November 10th. Check your local listings for the exact time.

Nearly 1,000 people attended the dedication. This photo, taken from the reviewing stand, looks out into the audience that had been invited for the ceremonies. An article published in the August 1948 issue of the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific described the events that took place.

Dedication does not always mean completion. Work continued after the echo of the speeches had faded from the dome. It wasn't until early 1949 that the telescope had "first light" and November 1949 until regular observing began. Next year we will celebrate the anniversary of the telescope coming into use along with the International Year of Astronomy.

Monday, June 2, 2008

More Tales from the ASP & AAS Meetings

Today was the first day of the combined ASP & AAS meetings (It was just the ASP over the weekend). I managed to miss most of the science talks in favor of attending more sessions on next year's International Year of Astronomy. At least 111 countries are planning to be involved in the celebrations. Like the next Hollywood movie coming along, it has a trailer. You can watch it in various formats and sizes (including HD) here.

All kinds of events are going to take place. One of them, 100 Hours of Astronomy will combine a worldwide round-the-globe live star party and live webcasts from the world's professional observatories. This event will take place April 2 - 5, 2009. It should be one heck of a star party.

Gemini Observatory's Peter Michaud & Janice Harvey presented on an interesting project that we may persue to promote all of the astronomy going on in the San Diego area. Plans are way too early to discuss, so as I am fond of saying: Stay tuned.

On hand today were the good folks from Interstellar Studios who are producing a documentary, 400 Years of the Telescope. Look for the show next year on PBS and hopefully in your local planetarium. They filmed at Palomar last summer and will return as they make another round of filming to produce an IMAX version.

The day ended with a public talk by Dava Sobel, the author of Galileo's Daughter. She gave an engaging and moving talk, and I highly recommend her book.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tales from the ASP Meeting

A big goal of the IYA 2009 campaign is to get as many people as possible to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the universe. A great way to do that is to actually look through a telescope. To make that goal easier, legions of amatuer astronomers will be running star parties all year long. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific in cooperation with the Night Sky Network will be providing training materials on selected observing themes for each month of the year.

Even cooler than going to a star party is having your own telescope, and the knowledge of how to use it to see the Moon or Saturn. One of the things being worked on to bring a great many telescopes to the people is the Galileoscope. The Galileoscope is a small inexpensive telescope that is actually better than the one Galileo used. With it people should be able to reproduce Galileo's observations of the night sky.

Of course Galileo had an advantage over most of today's astronomers - dark skies. Connie Walker of the Globe at Night program moderated a session on dark skies. Lots of great information in the session, but the beauty of the night can speak for it self. Check out the gallery of amazing photos over at The World At Night to see why dark skies matter.

One of my favorite things from the session is this fantistic, yet simple, demonstration (follow the link & scroll down to "Paper Plate Education") on the advantages to shielding streetlights. It is so elegant.

Often overlooked is light pollution in a different, non-visible, region of the EM spectrum - radio. The folks at the Green Bank Radio Telescope have a website, Quiet Skies, on protecting radio wavelengths for radio astronomy. Teachers take note, there's materials available for middle & high school students.

Oh yeah, I also got to meet Johannes Kepler. How cool is that?