Saturday, September 27, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

It looks like we had a successful test of the aluminizing system for the 200-inch mirror on Friday. The chamber wont be opened for a while yet though.

Here are some (hopefully) interesting shots for you. The chamber has a porthole-like window on the side and it is possible for the crew to peak in on the action. I was fortunate enough to be able to grab some photos during the action.

The first shows the first of three glow discharges. A small amount of gas is introduced into the chamber and turned into a plasma (ionized gas). The photo was an exposure of over 1 second and doesn't capture the flickering nature of the plasma. It is a beautiful sight.

The second photo looks into the chamber as aluminum is being deposited. Over 200 tungsten wire coils with aluminum melted on to them lie within. Electricity is applied to the coils in pairs. As this happens they are heated in excess of 1,000 degrees and the aluminum is vaporized. Because all of the air has been pumped out of the chamber, creating a vacuum, the aluminum atoms fly about unimpeded. As each hits a surface they stick and gradually lay down a thin layer of aluminum.

In the photo below you can see two of the tungsten coils glowing brightly and another (in the upper right) that has just finished its job but glowing with residual heat.

Below is a movie of the view looking inside the vacuum chamber. I don't think that anyone other than observatory staff has had the opportunity to see something like this before. The photos used to make the movie were all with a hand-held camera and were all taken with the same exposure speed. This allows you to see the coils heat up and fade away as is described in the photo above.


Man the Pumps! In 3D

Man the Pumps! Then grab your 3D glasses because here is a 3D photo of the vacuum pumps that work with the aluminizing chamber for the Hale Telescope's 200-inch mirror. Make sure that your glasses have red on the left.

Stay tuned for some cool shots & maybe a movie looking into the tank from when we did our test fire yesterday.

News & Events

Lots of things going on these days.

The November issue of Sky & Telescope magazine just hit my mailbox. Of possible interest to the readers of Palomar Skies is the article on Hale, Ritchey and Mt. Wilson's 60-inch telescope (which turns 100 years old this year). Also, at the end of the magazine you'll notice that there will be an article on The Journey to Palomar in next month's issue.

Speaking of The Journey to Palomar, they will be having a NASA webcast for students & teachers on Wednesday, October 8. During the webcast they will show off some of the achievements of Hale, the next generation of giant telescopes & a new mission to the Moon.

Friday, October 3rd @ 6 pm I'll be giving a visual tour of the universe at the Starry Nights Festival hosted by the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley, CA.

On October 17th @ 8:30 pm I'll be giving a talk on the history of Palomar Observatory at the Bianchi Planetarium at Cal State Northridge.

UPDATE: (if this works) Here's a radio spot for the Starry Nights Festival.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hale Telescope

No caption, just the view yesterday afternoon.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

SWIFT Uncrated

SWIFT, the new instrument from Oxford, England arrived last week and today it was safely unpacked. All seems to have survived the transit across the pond. Now the real work begins for the SWIFT team as they prepare the instrument for first light in mid-October.

Practice Makes Perfect

In November we will be pulling the 200-inch mirror out of the Hale Telescope and re-coat the surface with a new layer of aluminum. We do this every year and a half to two years. To say that it is an involved procedure is a huge understatement.

So when you have a complex procedure that involves most of the staff working on the most precious thing you have (the 200" mirror) and you only do this every couple of years or so it is a good idea to practice. We've been working a practice session this week.

The way we practice is to take a large aluminum disc, that is the same size as the real mirror, and use it as a stand-in. This dummy mirror will then get enclosed in a giant bell jar. The air will be pumped out and a small amount of aluminum is vaporized and deposited on the surface. The procedure is similar to what we did for our 60-inch mirror, only more so. If you click on the image above to see the larger version you might notice some 14-inch glass photographic plates and some glass slides that have been placed on the disc.

After all is said and done we will be able to examine the glass samples to study the coating that we applied.

To get all of this to happen you've got to lift the 17.5-ton top of the bell jar up off of the dome floor and down over the mirror, or in this case the dummy mirror. Here are some views of yesterday's lift.
From this vantage point you can see into the aluminizing chamber (aka the bell jar). Here's a better look inside:
Inside are over 200 tungsten wire filaments that have had a small amount of aluminum melted into them.

Once everything is together, the pumps begin to work and a day or so later it is time to "fire" and apply the new coating.

Pumps are working as I type and the firing of the coils should happen tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hale Telescope Shakedown

Every once in a while you need to give your telescope a shakedown just to make sure that everything is exactly the way you want it and that it will not move during the night. We gave the Hale Telescope just such a shakedown last week.

And here's a really short movie of the shakedown taken by the Hale Telescope web cam and put together by the good folks at HPWREN.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Palomar in Science Fiction - I

Thanks to Palomar Skies reader George S. for pointing out to me that the Palomar Observatory was featured in Rocketship X-M, a SciFi movie from 1950. The movie stars a very young looking Lloyd Bridges as one of the pilot of the rocket. Hugh O'Brian who plays Harry Chamberlain - an astronomer of the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories.

In the film a crew of five takes off on the first voyage into space with the Moon as their destination. Somehow they end up off course and make it to Mars. Curiously enough as the rocketship decends to Mars the landscape does bear a resemlance to the real Red Planet. Craters and a dry riverbed can be seen.

Of course any hint of the real Mars is blown away as the intrepid explorers are greeted by a thunderstorm as they touchdown on the Martian surface.

Here is a video clip of the Palomar 200-inch telescope in Rocketship X-M.

The Palomar Observatory has appeared in other science fiction movies (and in novels too!). I'll post some clips from other movies in the near future, but if you know of any science fiction films that show the observatory please send me an email or post them in the comments. Thanks!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Number of Dwarf Planets Climbs to Five

Can you name all five dwarf planets? This week the International Astronomical Union announced the naming of the fifth one. Haumea (pronounced how-MAY-uh).

Although its discovery has been disputed, three of the five named dwarf planets (as sizable majority) have been found here at Palomar using the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. The graphic above shows the largest worlds that are known to lie beyond Neptune. Six of the eight worlds have been found using the Samuel Oschin Telescope.

The five named dwarf planets are: Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Makemake & Haumea.

Palomar College Helps to Save the Stars

The Palomar Observatory would like to thank the good folks at Palomar College for a recent improvement to the outdoor lighting at their Escondido Educational Center.

Recently we pointed out to them that they had floodlights that were illuminating the roof of their building and that most upward-directed light (like on billboards) misses the intended target and ends up illuminating the sky. The net result is that the lights contribute to increasing light pollution in the area and represents an unnecessary cost in electricity.

Upward pointing floodlights do almost nothing to provide for the safety and security of people because people are down on the ground and not in the sky where the lights were directed.

We also pointed out that by dimming or removing the floodlights the College will save money on electricity, protect the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and help to preserve dark skies necessary for the continued research operations of the Palomar Observatory.

I am happy to report that the College changed their lighting. Have look at the before and after photos.

Before: Lights for the people and lights pointed skyward.

After: Lights only where the people need them.

Notice that the change in lighting at the top of the building is dramatically reduced, but the lighting in the parking lot remains more than adequate for the safety and security of the staff and students of Palomar College.

Thank you Palomar College.

The cool thing about fighting light pollution is that you can save money and preserve the environment by doing it. So why don't more people and institutions make the change? Sometimes they just need someone to point it out to them. Together, we can fix the problem of light pollution one bulb at a time.

For more information on light pollution, visit the website of the International Dark-Sky Association.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

SWIFT Arrives

It is always a good day when a new instrument arrives at the observatory. Today a big truck pulled up with boxes from England containing the new SWIFT instrument. Built at Oxford, SWIFT is an integral field spectrograph that will work with our current adaptive optics system and its successor, PALM-3000.

What do you do with an integral field spectrograph that is hooked up to an adaptive optics system? Study cool stuff like supermassive black holes at the cores of nearby galaxies, and the dynamics of galaxy clusters at great distances. It will be a while before the SWIFT team arrives and unpacks the instrument and not until next month before it gets time on the 200".

Stay tuned.

Photos from PATS

In Pasadena, CA last weekend was the first annual Pacific Astronomy and Telescope Show. The early word is that over 1,400 people attended the event. It was an amazing weekend of astronomy, shopping, and networking.

Here are a few photos from the event.

BIG thanks go out to Mike & Susan V. (above) for setting up and running the Palomar Observatory's mobile gift shop. I don't know what I would do without them.

Two of the PATS volunteers working the door and handing out nifty 3-D glasses. The glasses were worn for part of Robin & Todd Mason's inspiring talk on G.E. Hale and their new documentary, The Journey to Palomar. Their movie will be on PBS November 10 (check your local listings), but you will not need the 3-D eyewere to enjoy the show when it will be on TV.

Some of the Caltech astronomy gang: Ann Marie, Mansi, Ashish, Michael, Varun, & Thiago. They gave a talk on new research in astronomy taking place that quite literally spans nearly the entire universe.

Joe, Rick & Danny from PlaneWave Instruments posing in front of a sleek looking 'scope.
Reyna, Penny, Mike & Chris, just some of the gang from Oceanside Photo & Telescope.
Last, but not least, Dean from Starizona (located in my home town) shows off the cool hyperstar imaging system where your camera rides in prime focus, just like it does at Palomar.

I didn't manage to catch everybody, and these photos only scratch the surface of what was going on at the event. Mark your calendars because next year's PATS will be held September 26-27, 2009.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Remembering the Past, Forging the Future (Again)

Wednesday night I'll be giving a talk for the San Diego Astronomy Association. It will be just about the same talk that I gave to the Riverside Astronomical Society a couple of weeks ago.

I hope to see you there!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Heart and Soul

Sunday's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the Heart and Soul nebulae. It is another image wonderfully processed by Davide De Martin of from data obtained via the Digitized Sky Survey.

The image above began with Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Schmidt Telescope. Images were made as a part of the Second Palomar Observatory Sky Survey on 14-inch glass photographic plates. Each photo was originally a black-and-white image with either a red, blue or near-infrared sensitive film. The plates were scanned by the Space Telescope Science Institute and made available online for astronomers and others.

Davide has consistently done fantastic work in processing images. In this case he "worked with data coming from 8 different photographic plates taken at Palomar Observatory between 1989 and 1993. " The image above shows a large area of the sky 6.1 x 4.5 degrees.

Be sure to check out for more great images.

Friday, September 12, 2008

And the Emmy goes to . . . . .

On September 6th the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences had its 60th annual LA Area awards ceremony in Hollywood. An Emmy award was presented to reporter Roger Cooper and photographer Brett Wood for their story on "Light Pollution on Mt. Palomar" which aired on PBS station KCET's television magazine Life & Times in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California.

Shown above is Roger Cooper with his wife wife LouAnne.

The Story first aired in April, 2007. A transcript is available here.
Roger and Brett made the trek to Palomar to cover the story of light pollution a month earlier. It unfortunately turned into a rainy evening, which was bad for astronomy, but gave our astronomer, telescope operator and myself a bit more time to explain the problems of light pollution.

Our congratulations go out to Roger Cooper, Brett Wood and the Life & Times team at KCET. We also thank them for taking the time to do a story on light pollution.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pacific Astronomy & Telescope Show

Saturday & Sunday September 13 & 14 will be the Pacific Astronomy & Telescope Show in Pasadena, CA. There will be lots of great presentations, including David Levy, a panel of Caltech astronomers, astronaut Story Musgrave, Robin & Todd Mason of Journey to Palomar, and more. There will be some great vendors there too - including the Palomar Observatory's gift shop.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Palomar's First "First Light"

"First light" is a term astronomers use to describe when a telescope is first pointed at the sky. Seventy two years ago today the 18-inch Schmidt, the first telescope on Palomar Mountain, had its first light as Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky began his survey for supernovae.

The telescope has had a long and productive life having been used by many astronomers to make discoveries of supernovae, asteroids and nearly 50 comets. The telescope has since been retired and will eventually go on public display.

Here are a few unique photographs taken by Earl W. Gray (1899 - 1993). Gray worked at Palomar as a building or structural engineer back when construction was taking place on the mountain. His album of photos was donated to the observatory by his family in 1994.
Here is the dome of the 18-inch Schmidt under construction from earlier in 1936. The next photo is pretty unique. It is a photo of the dome of the 200-inch while it was under construction. What it so unusual is that it was taken using the 18-inch Schmidt. It isn't quite into a sharp focus, but I know of no other photo taken using of one research pointed at the dome of another research telescope.

Yes, the 18" used round film. The observatory bought its film from Kodak and then had to cut it into 6-inch diameter circles.

The photo below was obviously taken on a different date, but shows how the 18" was pointed towards the 200" for the photo above.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Remembering the Past, Forging the Future

I will be speaking to the Riverside Astronomical Society on Saturday, September 6th. The talk, The 200-inch Hale Telescope: Remembering the Past, Forging the Future, will be a mix of the history of the building the 200-inch Telescope at Palomar and current and new research that is underway here.

Speaking of history . . . . I would like to thank our Superintendent and our current and former Chief Engineers for placing some collections of old photos into my hands. I have recently been spending a lot of time scanning photos from the collection of Guenther Froebel, who was an engineer at Westinghouse during their construction of the 2oo-inch telescope. The photos were donated by his son Gunner Froebel back in the 1990s.

Westinghouse did an amazing job of documenting many of the stages of the fabrication of the telescope and its parts. Most of the photos also include the people who actually did the work.

Here is one photo from the collection:

It is from the "last bolt" ceremony held at Westinghouse on April 30, 1937. The bolt was applied to the tube of the 200-inch telescope. Attending the ceremonies were the elder and younger Froebels, Caltech president Robert Milliken and Albert Einstein.

Some of these photos will be presented in my talk on Saturday night and many will eventually find there way here as well.