Saturday, February 28, 2009

GLOBE At Night 2009

Hey, have I mentioned that it is the International Year of Astronomy? Ok, dozens of times. What have you done to celebrate? The best thing you can do is to get out under the stars and experience the universe for yourself.

One way to do that is to participate in the GLOBE at Night Program which takes place from March 16-28. By doing so you can help to promote Dark Skies Awareness, a cornerstone project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009). In many communities the Globe at Night program is being capped with the World Wildlife Fund’s EarthHour event (, which encourages everyone to turn out their lights from 8:30-9:30 p.m. local time on the evening of Saturday, March 28, the final night of GLOBE at Night 2009.

Both activities are easy and fun.

The GLOBE at Night 2009 program is designed to aid teaching about the impact of artificial lighting on local environments, and the ongoing loss of a dark night sky as a natural resource for much of the world’s population. Connie Walker, Globe at Night's director, tells us that “we have now passed the point where more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, which are notorious for being excessively lit or badly lit by artificial lights,” and that “GLOBE at Night is an easy way for people around the world to connect with the increasingly accepted and powerful idea that good lighting saves money, it reduces greenhouse gases by lowering our use of electrical power, it is better for public safety, and it allows everyone to share the wonders of the night sky.”

Wow, you can save money, cut on greenhouse gases and enjoy the sky all at the same time.

The past three years of GLOBE at Night have drawn more than 20,000 measurements of the night sky from people in more than 100 countries, and from 49 U.S. states. For more information, and to learn how to make and report measurements, see

Don't despair if your March is too busy or cloudy for you to participate. You can always take part in The Great World Wide Star Count this October.

Dark-Skies Awareness is one of 11 global cornerstone projects being supported by the International Astronomical Union’s IYA2009 efforts. For more information on a variety of programs including the 3 star-hunting programs, a planetarium show, a presence in Second Life,
and joint programs with U.S. national parks, amateur astronomers and some of the greatest environmental photographers in the world, see

To learn more about IYA2009 internationally, the cornerstone projects, and other activities please visit

Additional information on the U.S. plans and programs for IYA can be found at

Friday, February 27, 2009

IYA Celebration Tonight at Miracosta College!

Tonight Rica French and the good folks over at Mira Costa College are holding a neat (and free) event to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy. Caltech's Michelle Thaller of the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope will be there to give a talk and particpate in a cool image unveiling of spiral galaxy M 101. They will be showing off a six foot by three foot and a three foot by three foot images of the galaxy as captured by NASA's Great Observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

A stargazing party will follow if the weather cooperates.

A flyer for the event is here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Podcast on Sky Surveys

My latest podcast for the 365 Days of Astronomy is up. You can check it out from their site directly or download it via iTunes too.

Error Correction: For some reason in the podcast I said the QUEST camera was 196-Megapixels. It was really only 161-Megapixels. Sorry about that.
Here are some links to go with the show:
Palomar's Samuel Oschin Telescope - Where it all happens

Second Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (aka POSS II) - some details on the second survey.

Google Sky & WorldWide Telescope - two ways to surf the sky from your desktop.

SkyFactory - home of some great images produced from the Second Palomar Sky Survey

High-Performance Wireless Research and Education Network
- The high-speed network that allows astronomers to work remotely, far from Palomar.

Palomar-QUEST Survey - info on the survey completed last fall

Dwarf Planet Eris - Mike Brown's page on the world that "killed" Pluto

Glo-ing Words about Eleanor Helin

In my previous post, I mentioned that Eleanor "Glo" Helin has died. Here are some words from Shri Kulkarni, the director of Caltech Optical Observatories (which includes Palomar):

Dear Colleagues:

I learnt today that Eleanor [3267] "Glo" Helin passed away. Those who have been around or used Palomar Observatory since the seventies and until the mid nineties would have met Glo at Palomar. She was a tireless observer and passionate about asteroids (being responsible for the discovery nearly a thousand minor bodies). She was a big fan of Palomar Observatory and an ardent admirer of Caltech.

Her love for Caltech shows up in the names of many asteroids for scientists at Caltech, JPL and friends of Caltech. A selection follows:
3449 Abell (main belt)
3848 Neugebauer (main belt)
4103 Chahine (main belt)
4597 BruceMurray (amor)
5678 DuBridge
5870 Baltimore (Mars crossing)
8013 Gordon Moore (amor)

For more details about Glo please see

Glo and her husband Ron Helin supported the Observatory financially (to which we are truly grateful).

Those of who you used to know Glo may wish to contact her son Bruce Helin (address in this link)

We at COO are planning a memorial symposium to commemorate Glo's enthusiasm and dedication to the study of asteroids and her love for Palomar. We will announce the details once our plans are clear.


Shri Kulkarni
Director, Caltech Optical Observatories

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Eleanor "Glo" Helin Passes

Sadly, Planetary defense is reporting that astronomer Eleanor "Glo" Helin has passed away:

"Eleanor "Glo" Helin passed away in late January. She was one of the pioneers of the search for Near Earth objects (NEOs) and established and led the NEAT Project at JPL. The NEAT Program discovered hundreds of NEOs, many comets, and 64 Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs). Glo is survived by her son. If you would like to send him a note or card, his address is: Bruce Helin, 210 E. Elm St., Flagstaff, AZ 86001."

Dr. Helin performed the bulk of her work at Palomar Observatory. I will post a tribute here in the future, but readers may now wish to read this 1998 profile of her over at Women In Technology International and her entry at Wikipedia.

Tour de Palomar - II

My view of the race today:

As I was serving with the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tour de Palomar

The 2009 Amgen Tour of California is in full swing and on Sunday February 22nd they will be cycling up and down Palomar Mountain as a part of the final stage of the race.
Here's the official profile of Sunday's "Stage 8" of the race. Yes, the vertical scale has been exaggerated.

Any and all visitors that are planing on coming to the observatory this weekend should expect crowds. Cycling enthusiasts are already descending upon the mountain. As of Thursday evening there were already people who had staked out camping spots (even where there isn't camping) on South Grade Road (aka S-6) and at the summit.

Thousands of people are expected to be on Palomar to watch the cyclists climb up South Grade Road, which happens to be the same road the 200-inch mirror came up in 1947. The road's 7% grade will be a challenge for the cyclists and, because they will be going slower, give fans a longer chance to watch them go by.

Visitors wishing to visit the Palomar Observatory will face multiple road closures on February 22nd. The Amgen Tour of California bike race will cause lengthy road closures on all of the roads leading to the area. It is estimated that South Grade Road (S-6) will be closed for six hours beginning at 9:00 a.m. East Grade Road (S-7) and Highway 76 will also face closures due to the event. Anyone wishing to see the Palomar Observatory, that is not already nearby to attend the event, are encouraged to find an alternate date to visit.

For those far away the event can be seen on TV and on the web at Amgen's site. I am not sure if I will see any of it, as I will be helping out the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department.

For those attending the race, we would like to remind everyone that there is no overnight parking in the observatory's parking lot.

The Show Must Go On

We certainly don't get any astronomy done when it snows. Once the weather clears the snow has to be shoveled off of the dome before it can be opened for a night of observing.

The work is difficult, cold and dangerous (they wear safety harnesses), but the view from the top of the dome is fantastic.

Here are two members of the Palomar day crew as they shoveled snow off of the dome following one of last week's snow storms. Thanks to our Palomar Observatory Superintendent for the photo.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

200-inch in 3D (again)

I have been remiss by not posting any 3D shots since October. So grab your red-blue 3D glasses, click on the image of the Hale Telescope taken earlier today and enjoy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics

I should have posted this earlier, but back in January the new Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics was dedicated on the Caltech campus. The LA Times reviews architecture (who knew?) and they have just reviewed the building. You can read and watch the review here.

The building has been LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. You can read more about the building and Caltech Astronomy here.

Icy Conditions

Yesterday's storm give us snow, rain, & ice. The three combined to make travel conditions very difficult and they kept the observatory closed to the public. Today the roads are still very icy but we are expecting to be able to open to visitors. Be careful out there.

Update: As of 10:30 a.m. it is snowing again.

Second Update: I just found out that we are not open today. Sorry about the late news.

Working on a Dream

February 17, 1939 -- 70 years ago today

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mountain Rescue

The observatory has a helipad in front of the Palomar Testbed Interferometer. From time to time I am asked if our astronomers fly to Palomar via helicopter to come and use the big telescope.

Alas, the astronomers arrive here by car just like the rest of us. The helipad serves as a landing site in emergencies. Our remote location puts us an hour or two away from a hospital by ambulance. A helicopter can cover that distance in just a few minutes.

The Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Departments and law enforcement officials were called into action this morning to rescue someone who had become trapped in the back country last night during a snow storm.

As far as I know everything turned out just fine.

Once again let me remind visitors that our winter weather can be lots of fun, but there are dangers associated with cold and ice. Be careful out there!

Dome Construction: August 5, 1937

August 5, 1937

Friday, February 13, 2009

Be Careful Out There & Goodies in the mail

At the moment we have more snow falling which means that travel conditions will be deteriorating. Yesterday was the best the roads on Palomar have been all week and yet one of the drivers still managed to encounter an icy patch that sent their car off of the road. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Be careful out there. We want our visitors to have visits that are enjoyable, educational and safe.

In other news, we had a nice padded envelope that just came in the mail. Inside were 21 photos from the 1930s on Palomar. Many of them are photos of the construction of the big dome that are new to me. One of the new ones is this picture of the completed open dome sitting on a snowy plain. The view today would be somewhat similar if it were not so foggy. Of course, we seldom have the dome open in the daytime.

Look for some of the dome construction photos to be posted here next week.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Watch the Known Universe

The National Geographic Channel will be showing Known Universe, a three-part special that will air on Sunday, February 15, from 8 to 11 p.m. (Check your local listings for your broadcast time).

The program will feature several people from Caltech: Michael Brown (Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy & Pluto Killer); Sean Carroll (senior research associate in physics); and astronomer Robert Hurt (Infrared Processing and Analysis Center).

Through a combination of current research data, cutting-edge computer graphics, and everyday examples, Known Universe aims to explain "the most mind-boggling aspects of our universe"—from the size of our solar system to the most powerful explosions, and the dynamic relationship among speed, time, distance, and gravity.

The link above has clips from the show and more cool stuff.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The IDA's Model Lighting Ordinance

It has been three years in the making and now the International Dark-Sky Association is ready to unveil their Model Lighting Ordinance. What, you may ask, is a model lighting ordinance? Basically it is a "single ordinance that can be used in every community" that deals with all sorts of lighting issues like glare, light trespass and more.

Every community needs a lighting ordinance. A good lighting ordinance can not only protect views of the stars for citizens and observatories, but should keep bright lights from a business from shining into neighboring bedroom windows. A good lighting ordinance doesn't keep people in the dark, but it can help people make the right choices about lighting and in the process save some money and energy too.

You can read and comment on the proposed model lighting ordinance by visiting the IDA's MLO Public Review page. If you want to read some existing lighting ordinances (who doesn't?), we have some linked on the observatory's light pollution web page.

Observatory is Open

The observatory re-opened this morning. Anyone coming to visit should know that there are still icy spots on the roads, especially in the shady areas. Be careful.

There are also icy spots on the observatory grounds. Watch your step. Thankfully my office is not open to the public as it is currently surrounded by icy fingers of death. Perhaps that I why I was issued a hard hat.

On the astronomical side of things, the weather kept the domes closed for five nights in a row. Last night had some high cirrus clouds but the Big Eye was open to the sky for nine hours.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Yesterday's snow storm was indeed impressive. At times the sleet was coming down with a fury that I have never seen before. The snow and sleet, combined with an intense wind brought tree limbs and trees down knocking out the power more than once. As I write this part of the mountain is still without power, it having been knocked out more than 18 hours ago. The loss of power has also knocked out the phone for all of Palomar Mountain.

During the night the clouds completely cleared, giving us a hard freeze (18 degrees F at my house). While the roads have been plowed they are very icy. The icy conditions will keep the observatory closed to the public again today. We will re-open when it once again is safe for visitors on our site.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Snow Continues

It has hardly stopped snowing since my post yesterday and the observatory has been closed all day today. At last check the roads snow packed, icy, and generally not safe to drive upon.

More snow is forecast for Monday and again later in the week. If you are planning a visit to the Observatory this week, please call (760) 742-2119 to see if we are open or not.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Snow Closes Observatory Again

Last night's storm brought rain, fog, snow & ice. I spent morning at the back end of a snow blower and a snow shovel. As soon as I was "done" Ma Nature decided to turn on the snow again. As a result we are closed to the public for the day.

That's Greg from the Palomar staff working our new snow blower. Even the wet stuff like we got from this storm moves like a dream.

Italian Fashion Meets Palomar Observatory

Hey, if you've been paying attention you know that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. Why not celebrate by fusing of Palomar astronomers with Italian fashion? After all Galileo was both an astronomer and Italian.

Amica magazine decided to do just that by sending photographer Mark Power to Palomar last fall. Mark did a grea jpb capturing Palomar and some of its people in ways that would never have occurred to me. His pictures and an article were published in their February, 2009 issue. Thankfully, I recieved permission to post the article here. How is your Italian? You can find a pdf of the article here. Some of Mark's great photos of the staff and some of the astronomers here are in it.

One of his shots of me is in the pdf and another isn't. The second one, shown below, instead appeared in the table of contents.

Guess which one I like better?

Friday, February 6, 2009

2008's Attendance Numbers

January managed to slip past me without me reporting here on how many people came to visit Palomar Observatory. Our people counter in the stairway of the big dome recorded its highest number ever--118,248. That's significantly higher than the value for 2003 (my first year here) -- 44,733.

Back in July of last year we first put out our first-ever guest book. One of the observatory's docents compiled the where people came from for just the July through December period of last year. Here is what he found:

1 - Visitors came from ALL 50 states, including Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam.

2 - International visitors came from 56 countries and all continents except Antarctica.

Wow! Big thanks to Tom K for going through the guest books to compile this!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mystery Man

Later this month will be the 60th anniversary of the death of Russell W. Porter.

Here is Russell W. Porter (at right) during a visit to the construction site of the 200-inch telescope back in November, 1936.

Porter was a Renaissance man of immense talents. At Palomar he aided the design of the 200-inch telescope and its dome. He is perhaps best remembered for his detailed cut-away drawings of the telescope and its many parts. Most of these were done from blue prints long before the actual telescope was constructed.

One of his drawings shows a person in the prime focus cage, much like the photo of Edwin Hubble posted last week. Porter’s illustration was done nine years before Hubble’s first light trip.

Who it was the Porter rendered in the drawing above has long been a mystery to me. The coat and tie is very Hubbelesque, but the likeness certainly isn't Edwin Hubble.

Porter had a history of putting relevant people into his drawings, so it was likely someone connected with the project in some way. He put Bernard Schmidt into his drawing of the 48-inch telescope at Palomar. Schmidt invented the type of telescope (also called a Schmidt Camera) that bears his name, but he never visited Palomar.

So who is sitting at prime focus in Porter's illustration? Last fall a clue came in the mail. A wonderful bundle of photos and documents that used to belong to James "Jimmie" Fassero, author of Photographic Giants of Palomar. In it is a letter written by Porter where he is discussing observing at prime focus and the drawing above.

"The 'poor devil' you refer to at the prime focus is Burton, who designed the p.f. [prime focus] pedestal It's a pretty good likeness of him. I got him to pose for me."

Porter's letter reveals that the mystery man is Burton and that Burton designed the prime focus pedestal. I still do not have a first name, but checking the blue prints reveals that drawings of many of the parts there were approved by "WDB". Perhaps Burton himself.

If anyone knows Burton's full name or any other information about him, please send it my way.

Finally we recently had another discovery about Burton and Porter. Some of our docents were looking at some old photos on lantern slides when they found a photo of Burton posing as Porter described and drew above.

Here is Porter's drawing and Burton. Side by side.

As always, click to enlarge. The likeness is great ("pretty good" in Porter's words), but I think that Porter may have given him a bit more hair than the photo shows.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dark-Sky and High-Flying Podcasts

Be sure to check out the International Dark-Sky Association's February 2, 2009 podcast from the 365 Days of Astronomy. They have lots of great dark-sky resources available for the International Year of Astronomy.

Speaking of podcasts . . . in another my friend Martin Ratcliffe discusses SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. One of its instruments, FORCAST (Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope), was first used on Hale Telescope back in 2006.

That's FORCAST below, before it was attached to the telescope's Cassegrain cage.