Sunday, May 31, 2009

Palomar Mountain State Park to Close?

It looks like the State of California might be closing Palomar Mountain State Park. You can read here about the possible closures of the 220 of the state's 279 parks. Anybody who is interested in the issue might want to have a look at the California State Parks Foundation website.

Test Fit

The Cosmic Web Imager is a new instrument, built at Caltech, that is coming later this summer for use on the 200-inch Hale Telescope. It will detect and map faint ultraviolet emissions from the intergalactic medium and give astronomers lots of data for testing the standard model of structure formation in the universe.

The instrument isn't quite all together, but a few days ago part of the CWI team came to Palomar to make sure that the finished instrument will be able to be properly installed on the telescope.

Here are two photos from Wednesday's test fit.

All went well and the real instrument should install nicely when it arrives.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Galileoscopes: Going, Going, Gone?

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer is reporting that this weekend may be your last chance to order a Galileoscope. They are only $15 each, which is a real bargain. For those who are waiting for their order to arrive, their website says that they should do so in June.

If you don't know what a Galileoscope is you can read my post about them or go directly to their website.

Stories & Stars

It is time to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy with your kids!

The Western Center for Archaeology & Paleontology in Hemet, CA will present Stories & Stars with Ernest Siva and the Riverside Astronomical Society this Saturday night. So grab your little ones and head on out. It is free. Storytelling will be from 6:30 pm - 8:00 pm storytelling and stargazing will be from 8:00 pm - 10:00 pm.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A New Exoplanet from an Old Technique

Back when I was a kid space exploration was flying high, astronauts were on the Moon, there were big plans for orbital cities and an astronomer had just announced the discovery of a system of planets orbiting a nearby star. It didn’t take much for my imagination to leap forward to my eventual trip into space. I was even sure that things would progress to the point where we would eventually be sending missions to explore the planets in orbit around Barnard’s Star. Alas, just about all of that has evaporated, even the planets.

Barnard’s Star is red dwarf star located just six light years from our solar system. Its small size and close proximity make it a great target to hunt for exoplanets. Back in the late 1960s astronomer Peter van de Kamp announced (see The Myserious Companions of Barnard's Star from Time Magazine's April 25, 1969 issue) the discovery of two planets in orbit about Barnard’s Star. B1, was slightly more massive than Jupiter and had an orbital period of 26 years and B2 was slightly less massive than Jupiter and had an orbital period of 12 years. All of this was pretty reasonable compared to our own solar system and life was good.

Peter Van de Kamp used a technique known as astrometry. The idea is to take very precise images of the star’s exact position relative to any background stars. As a planet orbits about the star its gravity will slightly pull the star toward the planet, making a change in its position. If all goes well a repeatable wobble, directly related to the orbital period of the planet will be detected.

van de Kamp knew that Barnard’s star was small, which was good because that makes it easier for a planet to deflect its position. He also knew that it was close, which was also good because it makes the tiny wobble easier to find. Unfortuately, what he didn’t know was that his technique was flawed. No other survey technique has been able to confirm his observations. Barnard’s Star apparently has no planets.

Planet hunters have not given up and new techniques have arisen. The number of known exoplanets now stands at almost 350. But what of van de Kamp’s method of astrometry? It was all but dead for many years, but two JPL astronomers resurrected it. For a little over a decade Steven Pravdo and Stuart Shaklan have been coming to Palomar to use their instrument called STEPS (STellar Planet Survey).

STEPS, seen above, is a large-format CCD camera that gets occasionally mounted at the Hale Telescope’s Cassegrain focus. The CCD has 4096 x 4096 pixels. The payoff of years of observing, an exoplanet discovery, is a difficult one to make. The elusive wobble that Peter van de Kamp thought he had found is small, just 1 milli-arcsecond in size -- that is the angle subtended by a human hair (about 50 microns wide) as seen from a distance of 30 miles!

I am happy to tell you that Pravdo and Shaklan have indeed found an exoplanet using this technique!

The tiny star known as VB 10 is located 20 light years away in the constellation Aquila and is now the smallest star known to have an exoplanet. The planet, VB 10b, is six times more massive than Jupiter, but just about the same size as Jupiter. Notice in the artwork above that the two are pretty close to being the same size.

VB 10b has a nine month orbital period and is just 30 million miles from its star, that puts it a little closer to its star than Mercury is to ours. See below for the comparison.

This is not Palomar's first exoplanet, but congratulations still go out to Steven Pravdo and Stuart Shaklan on their discovery and for mastering the astrometric method of planet hunting.

You can read more about their find from JPL (it even has a movie) here, or here from Bad Astronomy or even here from

A Work of Art

The Hale Telescope's 200-inch, 14.5-ton Pyrex mirror has been described by some as a work of art. It took the Corning Glass Works years to perfect the casting process and to come up with the correct mixture of ingredients for the glass. Once it was cast it took nearly 11 months properly to cool the molten glass. It was ground and polished at Caltech where it spent 11 and 1/2 years in the optical shop. It required still more work to integrate it into its support system after it got to Palomar and installed into the telescope.

The mirror is a blend of art, engineering and science. And now it has inspired art. Glass artist Mark Peiser has created this piece based on the 200-inch mirror:

Here is what he says about the mirror and his art:
The Palomar Mirror, the largest single glass casting achieved in its time, allowed humanity to look further into the universe than ever before, bringing us closer to an understanding of our existence than any previous astronomical achievement.

By allowing for the development of astrophysical theories of outer space, the mirror itself would give structure and form to the unknown void—it would transform the negative into positive space. At the time, many worried that this transformation would reveal too much, that seeing closer to the origin of time would devalue the human experience, taking mystery away from the cosmos.

And yet, the more we see the more we wonder. The further we explore, the less we feel we know. Yes, the mirror has allowed us to see the rainbow of colors in the stars, to explore island universes, to learn of black holes and dark matter, but this has not led to simplified understanding. Rather, we have seen enough to begin to pose new questions.

Positive space, the known, is a structure from which we can begin to imagine the unknown safely. The negative space, the void, is the place of our dreams, our imagination and adventures. And it is the union of both which adds beauty, awe and mystery to all things.

Sanctuary, (Section 1, Detail 2), an interpretation of the original mirror at 1/2 scale, seeks to capture the mirror in the moment of its agency---the moment the unknown becomes known. As the astronomers say the first time a telescope is used, “At first light.”

The design of the Palomar Disk was defined by physics. The negative space of its structure creates an environment revealing the physics of light. As a glassmaker, I strive to realize such spaces. And as an individual, I seek them as a sanctuary.
This series is intended as an acknowledgment and tribute to all those who have overcome the boundaries of this seductive and unforgiving material.

I think that there may be more coming from this project. I am looking forward to seeing it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

RTMC Round Up

I had a super time at RTMC last weekend. Lots of cool people, scopes & good times. I have lots of pictures. Probably too many to post here.

Here's a shot of the observatory's mobile gift shop and some of the crew who helped to run things.

Olivier from Shelyak Instruments was showing off their Lhires Lite spectroscope which gives a fantastic look at the solar spectrum. I have never seen so many absorption lines! They also have some great stuff for amateur astronomers looking to make an entrance into spectroscopy.

Barry Crist makes all sorts of neat model telescopes, including a 1/200 scale model of the Hale. It was at RTMC a few years ago that I first asked him to start making it. He is working on some models for Mt. Wilson now and he and I were discussing some other model options for Palomar that I hope will come to pass.

Back in the olden days RTMC was all about telescope making. RTMC actually stood for Riverside Telescope Makers Conference. Not many people are making their own scopes these days, but there are still a few every year. My favorite was this Victorian "steam punk" telescope made of mahogany, copper and brass:

There are words written on the mirror cover in French, which translate to "Its full of stars." A nod back to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I was deeply honored to spend some time with Ashley McDermott, seen below.

Ashley is a past winner of the Clifford W. Holmes Award. He told me of the time he visited Palomar as a teenager. The 200-inch mirror had not yet been installed and the concrete disk was in its place. Apparently there were some tests going on at the telescope. The oil pumps were on. Someone was at prime focus. And there was a rope hanging down from the telescope. Ashley, like many teenagers would have, did the obvious. He pulled the rope. This moved the 530-ton telescope (!) and caused much shouting and carrying on by the staff.

At RTMC I gave a talk on the construction of the 200-inch telescope. I showed many of the people, many of whom are long gone, who worked on the telescope and its parts. Ashley attended and repeated this wonderful story for everyone. His rendition of that experience helped to connect past to present. Fantastic.

Monday, May 25, 2009

George Ellery Hale: the Podcast

My latest podcast for the 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts is now available via iTunes and here on the 365 Days of Astronomy site too.

You can read George Ellery Hale's 1922 book, The New Heavens, here from Project Gutenberg or here from Google Book Search.

I have also posted a copy of Hale's April 1928 article in Harper's Monthly: The Possibilities of Large Telescopes.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Google Sky Map

I meant to post this awhile ago, but didn't quite get around to it. Sorry.

Anybody out there have an Android phone that has also tried Google Sky Map? If so, I'd love to hear what you think of it.

If not, be sure to check out the video. I haven't tried this as I don't have an Android, but it supposedly can access data from some of the Palomar Sky Surveys. Pretty cool for a phone. When can I get this for my iPhone?

Friday, May 22, 2009

HPWREN: the Movie

If you are wondering what HPWREN is and why it is important to Palomar Observatory you should watch this short movie. Ok, even if you weren't wondering it is worth your time. Be warned, I am in the movie.

Embedding it didn't work so well, so here is a direct link to the movie.
As I have said before, HPWREN gives us astronomical bandwidth, allowing the astronomers who use the observatory to do things they never could before.

Off to RTMC

The RTMC Astronomy Expo begins today and runs all weekend. I'll be there giving a talk on Sunday morning. Here is the full program schedule.
The weather looks like it will be great. Much better than last year when it snowed!

Photo by Carl Bernhardt
I hope to see you there.

Fire Danger: High

This just in from the Cleveland National Forest: the Fire Use Restriction Level has been raised from “Moderate” to “High.”

Most campgrounds will be open to visitors and campfires are allowed in developed campgrounds and picnic areas with designated fire rings. Open fires are NEVER allowed in remote areas on the Cleveland National Forest.

“We appreciate the public’s cooperation. Fire use restriction levels are subject to change with weather and fire activity on the forest, visitors should still use care and caution when visiting the Forest,” said Brian Harris, Forest Public Affairs Officer.

Forest visitors can check on road access, allowable recreational activities, and what restrictions are in place by going to the forest website and clicking on “current conditions” or by calling the numbers listed below. Please check with the other southern California National Forests to determine what current fire restrictions are in place.

The Forest would like to remind visitors that fireworks are never allowed on the Cleveland National Forest and spark arrestors are always required for all off-highway vehicles, chainsaws, and other equipment.

Visitors are encouraged to check before they go. For a recorded message please call 619-593-2183 or for online information go to

Be Careful out there.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

New Streetlights in Carlsbad

The City of Carlsbad is moving closer to switching out their existing high-pressure sodium streetlights in favor of white induction lights. The San Diego Union Tribune reported here on it last week. It even got a mention in the Carlbadistan blog. A few days ago I posted here about why astronomers love low-pressure sodium lights and how white light can pose problems for the observatory.

Last Saturday night I got the chance to go out and see the new lights that are being considered.

Here are some of the acorn lights being tried out along Carlsbad Village Drive:

Pretty much all Acorn lights are not dark-sky friendly. You can see that their light shines in all directions. It is a small percentage of their light that actually goes downward where people are. Note the light shining upwards on the palm tree. Of course these lights are more decorative than functional. Carlsbad isn't unique in using them. They are quite popular and can be fitted with internal shields which will keep their look the same in the daytime, but direct the light downward at night.

The unique shape of the acorn light makes for an usual looking spectrum.

If my memory is correct, below is a LED streetlight along State Street:

The City has decided not to pursue using LEDs. Maybe that is a good thing. Notice that there is plenty of light that is completely missing the target by shining on the building and trees and not downward to the street.

This is an induction light along State Street:

And some of the existing high-pressure sodium lights:

Which lights are brighter? These last two photos were taken with exactly the same camera settings.

The City has decided to move forward on the plan. Here's a story on it from the San Diego Union Tribune summarizing the plan and the action taken by the City Council Tuesday night. I will be working with City officials to see if we can find the best solution for Carlsbad and Palomar.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Collison in the Virgo Cluster?

Here's a shot of the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies from Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. Click to enlarge. The image was put out as part of a European Southern Observatory press release on giant elliptical galaxy M87. M87 is the round galaxy just about in the middle of the image.

Here's their caption for the image above:

Image of the Virgo cluster of galaxies taken with the Palomar Observatory 48-inch Schmidt telescope as part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87 is seen in the centre, while Messier 84 and 86 are the two bright galaxies forming part of the small group on the centre right of the image. New observations obtained with ESO’s Very Large Telescope have shown that the halo of stars around Messier 87 has been truncated, possibly because of some interaction with Messier 84. The observations also reveal that Messier 87 and 86 are moving towards each other.

You can get a high-resolution TIFF version of the image by clicking here. Warning it is 370 mb! If that is too much for you, you can get different sized jpeg versions here.

Standard Candles

We didn't get a mention, but the folks at Berkeley's Nearby Supernova Factory put out a press release: Cosmology's Standard Candles Get Even Better. IT is cool stuff and worth the read. Much of the work is based on observations obtained using Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope and beamed out via HPWREN.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why Astronomers Love Low-Pressure Sodium Lights

It would be impractical and unsafe to keep our cities and streets completely dark, but it would be great for astronomy. Streetlights are needed and the type that astronomers really like is low-pressure sodium (LPS).

The big advantage of LPS for astronomy is that it puts out a very limited range of color. This limited set of colors can easily be filtered out by astronomers, who then can use the rest of the color spectrum to study the universe.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. Below are two street lights. On the left is a new broad-spectrum (aka white) induction currently being tested by the City of San Marcos, CA. On the right is a Caltrans LPS light over Highway 78.

If you take the light being give off by each fixture and pass it through a diffraction grating (something like a prism that splits light into its component colors) you can see this:

The spectrum on the top is from the white induction light and just below it is the spectrum from the LPS light. Notice that the induction light has essentially a full rainbow of colors, but the LPS has a very limited number of colors. So you can see why it so appealing to astronomers. There is very little color to get in the way of astronomical research.

Here is a close-up of the spectrum of just the induction light (with the light itself on the right):

One of the draw backs to astronomy is the all of the blue light in the spectrum. The short wavelength of blue light makes it more likely to reflect off of the ground and up into the sky. So even if you have a good light fixture that directs all of its light downward you'll get a brighter sky than if you used LPS lights.

The limited color in LPS light does pose a problem for anyone that needs to accurately determine color under just that light source. That, along with potential energy savings, are part of the reasons that many cities are now looking toward new lighting technologies.

The energy savings question is a bit muddled though. Low-pressure sodium is still the most efficient lighting source around. It is about three times more efficient than the best LED lights around these days. But the extra colors in a LED or induction streetlight make them look brighter to the eye than a LPS streetlight of the same brightness. This can allow cities to actually use dimmer lights whithout people even noticing.

It is vitally important that if existing LPS (or even high-pressure sodium) streetlights are replaced with new induction or LED lights that the new lights be of lower lighting levels. Without that the sky will just get brighter for everyone and streets will be over illuminated. In the end we would all lose.

Responsible Nighttime Lighting Podcast

In today's 365 Days of Astronomy podcast (available here from iTunes) Connie Walker & Rob Sparks talk about dark skies and what you can do about it. There are many, many ways to get involved. Take a listen.

QUEST Moves South

Last fall we bid good bye to the QUEST camera which from 2003 - 2008 was the instrument on the Samuel Oschin Telescope. The camera has a new home and a new network to help it transmit data. You can read all about it here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Last Word on Flags at Night

For the last word here (I hope) on lighting flags at night have a look at John Garret's Displaying a flag is patriotic; bad aim is not from his blog. And while we are not in the game of endorsing particular products or companies Flagpole Warehouse offers a variety of solutions for lighting old glory from the top, with the light directed downward. Thanks to Dan B. for sending that link along.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Astronomy for this weekend & next

There is lots of good astro stuff going on this weekend & next in southern California.

Starting tomorrow night and running through next weekend Theater Arts at Caltech is presenting the Life of Galileo. Follow the link for more.

If you are itching to look through some telescopes Explore the Stars may be the thing for you. Telescopes will be set up for free viewing at the National Forest Service's Observatory Campground on Palomar Mountain Friday & Saturday night. Right around sunset on Saturday (~7:45 p.m.-ish) John Garret will give a talk on long term changes in Earth's orbit. Some of his cool graphics and info are already up on his Bright Stars Temecula blog.

Last, but not least the RTMC Astronomy Expo takes place Memorial Day Weekend at Camp Oakes in Big Bear. RTMC is a major gathering of amateur astronomers. There will be observing, talks, astroimaging workshops, food, prizes and a whole lot more. Last year it snowed, but this year warmer weather, clearer skies and less moonlight are all expected.
I will be there and giving a talk on Palomar bright & early Sunday, May 24 @ 9:00 a.m. The mobile version of the observatory's gift shop will also be there in case anyone needs a Palomar t-shirt or other souvenir. If you attend, be sure to stop by the Palomar booth to say hello.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A LEED Gold Certified Glare Bomb

Last Monday night I got the chance to review some new street lights in the City of San Marcos, CA (More on that later). One of our stops was next to a brand new fire station. It pulled my focus away from the street lights. The station has been certified as an environmentally friendly building getting a LEED Gold Certification.

LEED is short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. New building projects can be certified as Silver, Gold or Platinum (the best).

The new fire station got a Gold certification, which is pretty good. I assume that they must have lost some points for the way they have chosen to illuminate Old Glory. As you can see it is what many people call a "glare bomb".

You can see the glare from the light in the photo above. The big problem here is the the vast majority of light here misses the target and much of it ends up in the sky. Light that misses the target is wasted energy and not what you would expect at a building that has received special recognition for being environmentally friendly.

Here's the view looking directly at the flag pole:

Note the shielded, downward directed street light in the distance on the right.

Now let's look 180 degrees in the other direction:

Yes, that is the shadow of the pole and the flag being cast into the sky.

From the International Dark-Sky Association's Outdoor Lighting Code Handbook: “ IDA generally supports the old tradition of lowering flags at sunset.”

Yes, you can lower flags at night. You can also illuminate them from the top down. Both of which would be more environmentally friendly than the practice in place here and better for the night sky.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Over the Moon

Last night I was out reviewing some streetlights that are being tested by the City of San Marcos (more on that later). As I was heading back up the mountain I had the most unusual sight. I was looking down on the rising waning gibbous Moon.

I drove for a bit, found a safe place to pull over and took this shot:

The photo doesn't do justice to the view I had and by the time I took it it no longer quite looked the same. Still I give you last night's moonrise from Palomar. Those are the stars of Scorpius to the upper right of the Moon.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Support Scientific Research in the Fight Against Leukemia

Back in December I told you about Operation SkyPhoto an effort to raise money for young Alexander Thatte, a young leukemia patient who also happened to the son of two physicists from the University of Oxford (that's where Palomar's SWIFT spectrograph comes from). After a long struggle Alexander lost his battle with the disease early this year.

The Alexander Thatte Fund has been created in his memory to support research into causes of infant leukemia and to seek a cure for this devastating disease. It is a very worthy cause. So if you have the money to give, just do it. All donations, even those made from here in the U.S., are tax deductible

Friday, May 8, 2009

Porter Garden Telescopes. As Seen on TV!

Back in the 1920s Russell Porter made a number (at least 53, but the exact number is unknown) of Garden Telescopes. There are several of them in the photo of Porter above. Porter's elegant design made them truly remarkable. Look at the right and you'll see one in an open box. At the bottom is the pivoting base which houses the 6-inch, f/4 mirror. There is no tube for the instrument. Instead the bar that extends up holds the secondary mirror and the eyepiece. The design makes it a classic item to display outside, a sundial and a working telescope.

Learn more about them here and see his patent for the design here.

If you have got the money, they are now being reproduced and sold again (but only 200 0f them) by Telescopes of Vermont. Visit their site for more information on these amazing reproductions. Below is a video on how it is done.

The telescope will be included in a segment of CBS Sunday Morning scheduled to air this Sunday, May 10.

UPDATE: CBS Sunday Morning sends this along:

CBS News Sunday Morning will show you the past and the future of telescopes starting with Galileo's heretical look up at the sky 400 years ago. Correspondent Martha Teichner interviewed astrophysicist Neil De Grasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium and astrophysicist Mario Livio of the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute. She also talked to Fred and Russ Schleipman who have recreated the Porter Garden Telescope. You will find science and art, prose and poetry in this CBS News Sunday Morning story.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hale Prototype

Back in 1935 Captain Clyde S. "Sandy" McDowell, who was managed the Palomar project for a time, decided that a working 1/10 scale model of the 200-inch telescope was necessary. He wanted it as an engineering model for the big scope that was to follow. It was too small to have a working prime focus cage, but the prototype included nearly every other detail (such as working oil bearings) that the final working 200-inch telescope was to include.

They bought one of the 20-inch scaled down replica versions of the 200-inch mirror from Corning and set about to build their prototype.

Here is the support structure, including the horseshoe for the prototype.

The telescope tube:

Captain "Sandy" McDowell with the completed prototype:

Note the piping for the north and south oil bearings.

The Hale Prototype had been mounted into a dome on top of the Robinson Astrophysics Building on the Caltech campus. There it was use for years by Caltech astronomy students. It was eventually traded to Corning Community College, where it forms a centerpiece to their Eileen Collins Observatory.

Last November I had the pleasure to visit Corning, NY and had the chance to finally see the 20-inch telescope.

The weather was about what you expect in western NY for November: cloudy, but I was all smiles at finally seeing this piece of Palomar history.

The prototype & its horseshoe:

One surprise that I didn't expect was seeing the old control panel for the telescope:

The old control panel isn't used, like Palomar they are using computers to operate their telescopes, but it looks very much like some old control panels I have seen on the mountain.

I am glad that this telescope did not succumb to the ravages of time, but I confess that I would really love to have it here on Palomar for use with our public outreach programs. On the other hand Corning is the birthplace of the 200-inch mirror and this prototype, and the good people who operate it, serve as ambassadors for Palomar and all of astronomy. Of course if Corning ever decides to get rid of the telescope my number is in the book.