Monday, March 30, 2009

Happy Birthday Bernhard Schmidt

Today is Bernhard Schmidt's birthday. There is no better way to celebrate than by reading this post over at Today in Astronomy.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Earth Hour from Palomar Mountain

Earth Hour 2009 from Palomar Mountain:

As my family and I were checking out the stars above (that's Orion above the tree and Taurus to the right) we were also looking for any signs of dimming in the lights below Palomar Mountain.

As you can see their wasn't much sign of people turning their lights out on any large scale in San Diego, Escondido, Vista, San Marcos, Oceanside, or just about anywhere in San Diego County.

That is a lot of light. A lot of wasted energy. A lot of sky glow. Thankfully the observatory is not located in the middle of all of that.

There was one major source of light, located near the base of Palomar Mountain, that did dim their lights during last night's Earth Hour event. Harrah's Rincon Casino. (It seems they even participated in Vegas.)

Have a look:
That is Harrah's near the lower right of the image above and below. Their 21-story hotel stands tall above the surrounding buildings. The shot above was taken during Earth Hour. The very bright "Harrah's" signs on top of the hotel and at the entrance are turned off.

In the shot below, after the end of Earth Hour, the lights have returned to their normal status. You may need to click and enlarge the images to notice much of a difference.

You can also see Valley View Casino in these shots too. It is the bright, but mostly astronomy-friendly low-pressure sodium lights, group of lights to the top right of the dead tree. They clearly did not change their lighting.

There are several other casinos in the Palomar area, that I could not see from my vantage point. I wonder if they participated in Earth Hour?

It is my hope that events like Earth Hour will gradually take hold and show people that there are many unneeded lights that are on all the time (many are even on during the day!). Turning them off will save energy and show people that life at night can be safely maintained without excessive illumination. If that comes to pass people will be able to enjoy the night sky in all its glory from where ever they live. Personally, that's why I support organizations such as the International Dark-Sky Association.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tour the Hale

Our weekend tours of the Hale Telescope begin again in one week.

Taking one of these tours gives you an inside look at 200-inch telescope. The tours take about an hour and explain how the telescope was built, how works, who uses it & more. This is your chance to see the Big Eye in person.

These tours are held on Saturdays & Sundays during the months of April through October. Tour tickets are sold in the observatory gift shop the day of the tour on a first-come, first-served basis. No prior reservations are taken. Tour times are 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tour tickets are $5.00. The tour is not recommended for children under six years of age.

Remember that the dome is kept at nighttime temperatures. It is best to bring a warm layer or two, especially in early spring.

Many of these tours are led by our volunteer docents. We are always in the market for more people who want to help tell Palomar's incredible stories. Are you interested in joining the team?

Earth Hour is Tonght!

Don't forget that Earth Hour is tonight (Actually it is already "tonight" in time zones well east of the Pacific - so it has already begun). To participate just dim or extinguish your necessary lights from 8:30 - 9:30 p.m. It is that easy.

You can follow Earth Hour on Twitter as the event moves around the globe.

Tonight is also the last night to make observations for Globe at Night.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Surveys, Novae and more

I haven't talked much about actual research news in a while. . . . . I'll be giving much more info on that side of the observatory from time to time.

Last December I mentioned that Mosiac, the new camera in the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope, had achieved first light. It was installed for the new Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) observing program. Their initial shakedown of the camera, data transfer, etc. is nearly complete and their first results are coming in.

Expect to hear a lot more about PTF here soon.

In other news, the Palomar 60-inch telescope is being used for a program called Palomar 60-inch Fast Transients In Nearby Galaxies (P60-FasTING). They just discovered a nova in spiral galaxy NGC 2403.

To give you some eye candy, here's a near-infrared shot of NGC 2403 taken with the 200" a few years ago.

Finally, former Caltech astronomer Avishay Gal-Yam (now with Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel - a PTF partner) was able to use old images from the Hubble Space Telescope to identify the location of a star before it blew up. The supernova, known as SN 2005gl, seems to have been too young to blow up in that fashion. Findings like this one, where observation and theory do not agree may seem like just what astronomers do not want to find. Actually, they are great, because the new observations pose a mystery that needs to be solved. Anytime you get unexpected results you always end up learning something. That's the point.

Around the World in 80 Telescopes: 1 Week Away

We are just under one week away from the Around the World in 80 Telescopes event. You should be able to watch the webcast on the 100 Hours of Astronomy website, or on their channel on You can also keep up with the event on twitter.

If you have a question you want answered during Palomar's segment, you can leave it here in the comments to this post or email me

The National Science Foundation has a story on the event that gives Palomar a nice mention and has some good photos too.

Adaptive Optics Podcast

My podcast on adaptive optics is now available over at the 365 Days of Astronomy website. Of course you can get it on iTunes too.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is of the Kuiper Belt Object known as Orcus. Orcus was discovered using Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope in 2004 by Mike Brown (Caltech), Chad Trujillo (Gemini) and David Rabinowitz (Yale).

Mike Brown recently posted on his blog, Mike Brown's Planets, that he is looking for suggestions for a name for the moon of Orcus which is currently officially known only by its catalog number: S/1 90482 (2005). Follow the links to see what it is all about and why Orcus is being called the Anti-Pluto.

75 Years Ago Today

75 years ago today, the first 200-inch mirror blank was cast at the Corning Glass Works in Corning, NY. The casting was unsuccessful as the ceramic cores on the underside of the mold broke loose and floated to the surface. I posted about this last year, but today I have some wonderful things to share.

Word got out prior to the casting and a great many spectators came to see the crew handle the molten glass to as they worked to fill the mold. Have a look at the photo and you can see just how close the crowd was to the crew.

Time Magazine's on-line archives has the story, Pouring Day, as it appeared in their April 2, 1934 issue. Be sure to check it out.

Here is the Corning Evening Leader from March 26, 1934. Be sure to click on it to enlarge and read the articles.

It is interesting to me that one of the sub headlines reads "Glass Works Officials Believe Efforts Have Been Successful" yet next to it is an article "Plan To Cast New Disc If Necessary". Of course the casting was not successful and the officials, namely Dr. George McCauley who was in charge of the project, knew that they would need to try again.

They went ahead and gave the big disc a rapid annealing. When it came out of the annealing oven it looked like this:

Not a pretty site, is it? While the disc was still molten the workers attempted to remove the ceramic cores that had floated to the surface. With plans underway for a second pouring, it was decided to re-melt the first pouring in an attempt to salvage it. Alas, during that process the disc was cracked.

So what do you do with a 20-ton failure? Put it on display and hope people come to see it. It became the first center piece of what is now the Corning Museum of Glass.

Last November I had the opportunity to visit, spend some time in the Corning Incorporated research archives and to finally touch the first 200-inch disc.

Of course Corning triumphed in the end. The second pouring, attempted 8 1/2 months later, was successful. That disc is still in use nightly at Palomar.

The failed disc is an impressive display at the Museum of Glass. Here are a few more shots to round out the post.

The front side of the disc:

The front side as viewed from below:

The back side of the disc:

Special thanks to Kris in the Corning archives for all the help she gave to me during my visit and for answering my many questions over the years. The old photos and the newspaper are a small part of the vast collection in the Corning archives.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Eyes on the Skies

In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy the European Southern Observatory has produced a movie and book known as Eyes on the Skies. Follow the link and you can watch the whole thing in HD.

It explores the many facets of the telescope — the historical development, the scientific importance, the technological breakthroughs, and also the people behind this ground-breaking invention, their triumphs and failures. It is presented by Dr. J, aka Dr. Joe Liske, a professional astronomer from the European Southern Observatory and host of the Hubblecast video podcast. The DVD runs for 60 minutes and contains subtitles in several languages.

The second episode, Bigger is Better, is embedded below. It follows some of the story of George Ellery Hale, the development of Yerkes Observatory (note to narrator: Yerkes is pronounced "yer keys") Mt. Wilson and Palomar.

The show is freely available for TV broadcasters and for public events carried out by educators, science centers, planetariums, amateur astronomers etc.

Update: I had posted a link to the video via YouTube, but it is no longer available. In addition to the link above, you can also, find the video here on Hulu.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Around the World in 80 Telescopes

Have I mentioned that it is the International Year of Astronomy? Oh yeah, about 1,000 times.

There is some seriously cool IYA stuff coming just around the corner. April 2 - 5 is the 100 Hours of Astronomy event, a four day, round-the-world star party. Click on the link and find a star party near you. Then go out and look through some telescopes. Its just that easy.

Embedded within the 100HA event is Around the World in 80 Telescopes. It is a 24-hour live webcast event that will take place from the control rooms of research telescopes located around the globe. Included in the mix will be . . . . . you guessed it . . . . Palomar Observatory.

Most people have no idea what happens during the night at a research observatory. The expectation is that astronomers are looking through telescopes – a concept that is 100 years out of date. The Around the World in 80 Telescopes event will give people an inside look to what really happens by letting them take their own trip to observatories located across the globe (and in space too).

Scheduled to participate are observatories in 15 countries—spanning every continent (including Antarctica), and 11 observatories located in space.

The final stop in this around-the-world tour of observatories will be Palomar Observatory, run by the California Institute of Technology. I will be hosting Palomar's segment and along with the astronomers using Palomar’s 200-inch Hale Telescope that night we will be answering questions and explaining the research underway that night.

Palomar Observatory’s participation in the event is only possible through its high-speed data connection provided by the High-Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN). HPWREN provides 155 megabits per second (OC-3 capacity) terrestrial microwave links that network Palomar Observatory to the rest of the world. This high-speed connectivity is essential for current and future research programs at Palomar, but it also provides the necessary bandwidth to allow for this and other live broadcasts to take place from the observatory.

The live webcast will begin on 3 April 2009 at 02:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (09:00 UT) with the telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, before moving westwards around the planet. The event ends on 4 April 2009, 02:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (09:00 UT). Palomar Observatory’s portion of the event is scheduled to begin at 1:40 a.m. PDT on April 4th. The live video webcast will be available on the 100 Hours of Astronomy website at

Here's to You Mr. Robinson

A while back I posted about the new Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Astronomers and staff are now occupying the new building. Of course that means that the old building, the Robinson Astrophysics Lab, is being vacated. I visited on Wednesday looking for interesting relics that may eventually go on display here at Palomar.

I didn't manage to get any photos, but thankfully there are some over at the Pasadena Daily Photo blog. If you are reading this around on or around March 20 you'll see the posts. Anyone finding this later should specifically check the posts for March 18, March 19 (with a great photo of a bust of George Ellery Hale), and March 20. In reading the comments of one of the posts I found that the Pasadena Permit Center is named for none other than G. E. Hale. I had no idea.

The Robinson Astrophysics Lab was named for Henry Robinson, who was an L.A. businessman and a member of the Caltech board of trustees. Robinson provided an endowment for the operation of the Palomar Observatory and even negotiated the deals to make the initial land purchases for the observatory.

The building will have its interior remodeled and will be occupied by Caltech Geology become the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science where people will "address the complex issue of global climate change from a wide range of disciplines".

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Light Pollution News.

I have posted about this before, but here's a reminder that the Globe at Night program is running now through March 28th.

Also, the International Dark-Sky Association has a new logo that encapsulates the whole message that's found on my license plate frame: Stars up. Lights down.

I think that just about everybody knows the answer, but you might enjoy watching Does Las Vegas Care About their Light Pollution?

Just Shoot Yourself (Photographically)

I can't tell you how many times I have helped some of our visitors by taking their photo in front of the dome. A photo of yourself and friends in front of the dome is a nice souvenir to bring back from a visit to Palomar. Unfortunately there isn't always someone around to help with a photographic emergency.

The Palomar day crew has come to the rescue by installing two camera posts that will make it easy for our visitors to photographically shoot themselves in front of the dome.

Just place your camera on the post pointed toward the dome, set the timer, hit the shutter and go. Its that easy.

I decided to try it out this morning just to make sure it works. Here I am as snapped from the far post. It is located near where the visitors path crosses a staff service road.

The second post is close to the dome and a great place to assemble large groups.

See it there to the left of the path?

Keep in mind that your mileage may vary. I shot these with my wide-angle lens. Also the camera platforms are level, but Palomar Mountain isn't. I wanted the dome to look pretty in both of my shots, so I propped my camera up a bit with my wallet.

More Prescribed Burning on Palomar

For the rest of this week the National Forest Service is continuing its prescribed burn in the Fry Creek Campground area on Palomar Mountain.

As you can see from this photo, taken yesterday afternoon from just behind the 200-inch dome, the burning is pretty close to the observatory. Unfortunately the smoke and ash has severely limited the observing during the last two nights. On the other hand, the burning will ultimately make the observatory a safer place and may prevent a much larger disruption of astronomical observations in the future.

Visitors heading to Palomar Mountain this week should be on the watch for the NFS crews. Please give them your courtesy. Also, be aware that smoke can sometimes drift into the roadway limiting visibility.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Don't Panic!

If you are anywhere near Palomar Mountain today you probably noticed the smoke plume. For me the view is giving strong memories of 2007's Poomacha Fire.

The good news is that this is not a wild fire. The National Forest Service is performing a 20-acre "prescribed burn" in the Fry Creek area.

Unfortunately, it is still rather close to the observatory and the smoke is likely to have a major impact on observing tonight.

Here's the view from the 60-inch telescope around noon today:

Even from well off of Palomar the smoke plume is rather impressive as you can see in this photo from around 4 p.m.

Alas, these are low quality shots captured from my phone. :(


Look at what my daughter pulled out of a cereal box the other day:

Yes, Pluto. Thankfully she gave it to me. It is a great addition to my office.

Pluto has been getting a bad rap since the IAU demoted it from planet to a dwarf planet. It still is a pretty interesting place. If you are interested you should read 10 Things You Don't Know About Pluto from the Bad Astronomy Blog.

If you want to learn more about the world that helped to demote Pluto, you should visit Mike Brown's website on Eris.

Just a couple of weeks after the IAU made their big vote in 2006, Tom Jarrett was observing on the 200-inch Hale Telescope when he photographed Pluto (arrowed) next to a trio of stars that strongly resembles a certain mouse that Pluto the cartoon character is associated with. Coincidence?
For anyone who is looking to learn more about the mythical "Planet X", I strongly recommend this resource.

By the way, today is my 6th anniversary of working here at Palomar Observatory. It has been a good ride so far. I am honored to be here and look forward to continuing to expand our public outreach programs.

Model A's Visit Palomar

A couple of Saturdays ago we had the Santa Anita A's car club here for a tour. Afterward we let them pose their 1930s-vintage cars by the dome.

Photo by Mike Vergara

Their visit reminds me a bit of this photo from the late 1930s:

Here is the car in full resolution:

If you know what type or year the car is feel free to drop me an email or post a comment.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Death of a Star on Nat Geo

I was remiss in pointing out that Palomar's Hale Telescope was shown briefly (& mostly for eye candy) last night on Naked Science: Death of a Star on the National Geographic Channel.

The episode chronicles the discovery of the long tail of the star Mira that was found by Chris Martin of Caltech and Mark Siebert of the Carnegie Institution using the UV Galex satellite.

It looks like the show will be repeated on Sunday March 15 @ 2 p.m. As always, check your local listings.

Here's a clip:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Science Fiction with Accurate Astronomy

Another installment of Palomar in Science Fiction will be coming before too long. In the meantime you might want to take advantage of some free SF that features a wide "range of astronomical facts and mind-blowing concepts." Just visit Diamonds in the Sky. There you can read the short stories while you are online or download them to your hand-held device and read 'em while you are on the go.

The effort was supported by the National Science Foundation. Your tax dollars at work.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dutch Treat

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Langenhuysen of the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory located in the Netherlands. They have an old 25-meter radio telescope that began operations in 1956, but recently fell into disuse.

The good news is that the "C.A. Muller Radio Astronomy Station" foundation ("CAMRAS" for short) has brought the telescope back into working order! You can even see a live data stream from the dish, which is currently acting as a transit scope. It is wonderful to see old instruments come alive again.

Robert was kind enough to send me a copy of the CAMRAS newsletter that details some of his visit to Palomar. Be warned the newsletter is written in Dutch.

Here's Robert & I from the newsletter:

According to Babelfish the caption reads:

"Scott left me also vestiges see from the time of the construction of this telescope. Just like at us in Dwingeloo lie in the field still pieces concrete from that time. In the case of Mt Palomar it goes mirror that made for a disk reinforced concrete for the size of Pyrex the glass as a dummy weight served."
Computer translations aren't all that great, are they?

Robert tells me that the CAMRAS website will soon be available in English as well as Dutch and that the facility will be available for people wishing to use a 35-meter radio telescope for their own research projects. How cool is that?

In case you were wondering, our concrete dummy weight is located right next to the dome of the Hale Telescope and can be seen here. It is the same size as the 200-inch mirror and it weighs the same as the mirror and the mirror cell.

Exoplanet Hunter to be Honored

Last week the National Science Foundation announced that former Caltech astronomer David Charbonneau will be awarded the Alan T. Waterman Award in May.

Dave has been a leader in the field of exoplanets and here at Palomar he established the now retired 4-inch Sleuth telescope which found a few exoplanets of its own.

Be sure to check his photo from National Geographic Magazine.


Last June I posted a little bit about the Galileoscope that was unveiled at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific meeting. I am happy to announce that the Galileoscopes are finally ready to order.

It is no exaggeration to say that the telescope changed everything: Galileo's discoveries literally revolutionized our perception of the universe and Earth's place in it.

The Galileoscope is a perfect way for many, many people to participate in recreating one of the major events in the history of science - Galileo's observations through his small telescope. After all, anyone with a telescope can see what Galileo saw.

But not everyone has a telescope, especially in less developed parts of the world. To enable more people in more places to personally experience the wonders of the universe, we've developed a remarkably inexpensive, very-high-quality, easy-to-use refractor. With this new instrument, called the Galileoscope, children and adults can learn how telescopes work and repeat for themselves the spectacular observations made by Galileo beginning in 1609. (Here's a detailed description of the telescope.)

The Galileoscope comes as a kit with simple instructions for no-tools assembly in 5 minutes or less. Its achromatic optics include a 50-mm-diameter objective lens of focal length 500 mm, an eyepiece of focal length 20 mm (magnification 25x), and a 2x Barlow lens (yielding 50x when used with the supplied eyepiece). The Galileoscope accepts almost any optical accessory that has a standard 1¼-inch (31¾-mm) barrel, and it attaches to virtually every tripod made or distributed anywhere in the world. (A tripod is not included with the kit; you'll have to supply your own.) You get all this for just U.S. $15 each plus shipping, or U.S. $12.50 each plus shipping for orders of 100 or more.

That's right, $15 (plus shipping) will get you or your favorite kid a telescope that is actually better than the one Galileo used to change our perception of the universe. Not bad.

We'll soon be ordering a bunch of these at Palomar for some educational programs that we'll be running.

Friday, March 6, 2009

San Diego Science Festival

In case you haven't heard the San Diego Science Festival is now in progress. There will be events all month culminating in Expo Day on Saturday, April 4th.

The SD Science Festival's Expo Day will take place in San Diego's Balboa Park on April 4, 2009 from 10:30 AM - 6:00 PM. According to their website:

There will be 200 different organizations creating over 300 different hands-on activities. Check out music performances, solve puzzles, build structures, look at the teeny tiny! Best of all, learn about the science all around you as you explore.

I will be there showing off some cool stuff about Palomar Observatory and giving everyone a chance to safely view the Sun. Be sure to attend. It should be a blast.

Earth Hour Commercial

I don't know much about insurance, nor would I recommend any particular company, but Esurance is supporting Earth Hour, a world-wide energy conservation program that takes place on March 28th. In the program people are asked to dim and turn off unnecessary lights for just one hour.

The net result is less energy used, less greenhouse gasses produced and darker skies. In many places people are even encouraged to go outside to see the stars during the event - a cool thing to do, especially during the International Year of Astronomy.

Check out the Esurance commercial about Earth Hour: