Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Lagoon Nebula

I just found a vintage photo of one of my favorite astronomical objects, M8--the Lagoon Nebula.

The photo was one of the old Palomar PR shots, but my copy has been laying in a file drawer for quite sometime. Here it is, fresh from my scanner:

The image was taken using the 200-inch Hale Telescope at prime focus and it is remarkable that this was the world's best in 1961 (when it was copyrighted by Caltech). Of course pictures like this one were shot on glass photographic plates or, eventually, color film.

Flash forward to today where amateur astronomers now have equipment that rivals or exceeds what the professional astronomers were using 45+ years ago. The good thing is that the professionals also have much better equipment and still have the big telescopes. So they continue to put out some amazing stuff.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Seventy Years Ago Today

Seventy years ago this month the first parts of the 200-inch telescope began arriving on Palomar Mountain. Here are shots from October 28, 1938 as the horseshoe and other parts made their way up that mountain and were lifted onto the observing floor.

You can see more of this in The Journey to Palomar. We still have some seats left for our screening in the dome on Sunday, November 2nd.

Talks & News

I'll be speaking about Palomar Observatory this weekend at Nightfall in Borrego Springs, CA. Borrego Springs is a wonderful dark-sky site. This weekend should be perfect for observing with little interference from moonlight.

Later in November, I'll be speaking at the fall meeting of the American Physical Society's New York State Section. The theme of the meeting is "A Century of Optics and Materials." I'll be presenting a look back at the telescope and the role that Corning Glass Works played in producing the mirrors for Palomar. Included will be some of the discoveries made at Palomar, what is going on now and a look at future large telescopes like the Thirty Meter Telescope. Its sort of an early kick off for the International Year of Astronomy. I am really looking forward to the trip and my first chance to see the first, failed, 200-inch Pyrex disc that was cast by Corning.

In other news, the new Palomar Transient Factory observing program, scheduled to begin later this year, is an international collaboration. It got a mention today in the Hindu News.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Re-aluminizing Again

If you've been following the blog, you've seen the results of re-aluminizing before when the Palomar crew re-coated the 60-inch mirror back in August. They just completed re-coating the 72-inch mirror for the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope.

Because of the design of a Schmidt Telescope (also called a Schmidt Camera) it has a mirror that is larger than the glass corrector plate at the front. And because the size of a telescope is determined by the opening that lets in the light, this telescope is called a 48-inch telescope even though it has a larger mirror.

All that aside, I give you another beautiful example of before and after photos of a telescope mirror. The crew does good work, don't they?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Poomacha Fire Anniversary

One year ago today the Poomacha Fire broke out at the base of Palomar Mountain. The fire consumed over 49,000 acres and many homes in the area. While one of the observatory's employees did lose his home in the fire, the observatory and all of the homes on the top of Palomar Mountain were saved due to the tremendous efforts of the many firefighting crews that worked on the blaze.

Thank you firefighters.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

See The Journey to Palomar at Palomar

You may already know that The Journey to Palomar will be broadcast on PBS on November 10 (check your local listings as stations will vary when they show it).

Before it is shown on TV, there will be an opportunity to see the film here at Palomar. The film will be shown on the observing floor under the Hale Telescope itself. The screening will be held on Sunday, November 2nd @ 1 p.m. Follow the link for the details.

All of the proceeds for the event will go toward a new wave of public outreach to take place here at Palomar. We have a new Outreach Center and the opportunity to install a historic telescope for the general public to view through.

Yes, you'll eventually get the chance to look through the same telescope, a 10-inch refractor, that Edwin Hubble is looking though in this photo (pipe optional). The big scope in the photo, the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope, will continue to be used for astronomical research, but the 10-inch refractor is no longer needed to guide the bigger one. The plan is to use the Outreach Center for all kinds of cool stuff including looking through this and other small telescopes.

Check out the trailer for The Journey to Palomar below and be sure to attend the screening if you can or at least watch the show on TV.

Sci Fi Science on TV

Look for Palomar Observatory on Sci Fi Science on Science Channel. If I recall correctly the topic of exoplanets will be discussed and you may be seeing the Palomar Testbed Interferometer, the Sleuth telescope and myself.

The show will air Sunday October 26 at 9:00PM Eastern and Pacific/ 8:00pm Central. As always it is a good idea to check your local listings.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Count the Stars!

From October 20 - November 3 you can take place in the Great World-Wide Star Count an activity that let's just about anyone contribute to science and help understand the impacts of light pollution. From the GWWSC press release:

Bright outdoor lighting at night is a growing problem for astronomical observing programs around the world. By searching for the same constellations in their respective hemispheres, participants in the Great World Wide Star Count will be able to compare their observations with what others see, giving them a sense of how star visibility varies from place to place. The observers will also learn more about the economic and geographic factors that control light pollution in their communities and around the world.
Join in the count for fun and science.

If you want to know more about light pollution be sure to pick up a copy of the November issue of National Geographic. Their cover story, The End of Night - Why We Need Darkness will certainly open your eyes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


We've got photographers from an Italian magazine and a major U.S. publication here this week. I think that they are capturing some interesting stuff that will nicely show off the observatory and some of what we do here.

We'll see the results of their efforts a few months from now. In the meantime one of my humble shots was chosen as HPWREN Image of the Week. It shows our 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope and its primary mirror which has just been pulled to be re-aluminized.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On the Road Again . . .

I'll be on the road giving a talk on the history of building the Hale Telescope this Friday night at 8:30 p.m. at the Bianchi Planetarium at Cal State Northridge.

Here's a photo that will be in the show. It was taken back in 1936 by Earnest A. Whichelo, the manager of Consolidated Western Steel, as one of the welders paused to have his photo taken. CWS was the main contractor who built the dome for the 200-inch telescope.

The photo comes from a collection of photos donated to the observatory by Cindy Johnson, daughter of Earnest Whichelo. We thank Ms. Johnson and the others over the years that have returned parts of Palomar Observatory's history back to us. Each photo is a treasure and reminds us of the tremendous work done by the people who made the Hale Telescope what it is.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Artist Signs His Work

The 200-inch mirror spent 11 and a half years in the Mirror Lab at Caltech. During its time there the opticians removed 5 and a half tons of glass from the big disc in the process of turning the disc's flat surface into a parabola.

In October, 1947 it was announced that the work had been completed and the opticians took time to pose with the glass giant. From left to right is Alexander Shepherd, Robert George Smith, Blake Mitchell, Cecil Harvey, Arthur Brown, Marcus H. Brown, William Hawes, Melvin Johnson and Lewis Brown.

In the center of the disc is a full-sized replica of the first reflecting telescope ever built, constructed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1671.
After the mirror was crated up and transported to Palomar (a story for another day) it was discovered that Marcus H. Brown, the chief optician for the project, had done what many artists do - he signed his work. Here is his signature, put onto the 200-inch mirror 61 years ago today.

Samuel Oschin Telescope in 3D

Here's a 3D view of Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

SWIFT Installed: the Movie

As promised here is the time-lapse movie of the inaugural installation of the new SWIFT spectrograph. You'll see the adaptive optics (AO) instrument is installed and then some computer racks are installed into the Hale Telescope's Cassegrain cage. SWIFT then comes out onto the observing floor and then it is mated to the AO unit and the telescope.

A 104 mb higher resolution version of this time-lapse movie is available here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

SWIFT Installed

The newest instrument on the Hale Telescope, Oxford's SWIFT Spectrograph, has been installed. Tonight is its first night at Palomar.

The top photo shows SWIFT on its handling cart just before it was mated to the adaptive optics instrument in the Hale Telescope's Cassegrain cage.

In the second photo the instrument has just been installed. The next step is to cable everything up and then check out the system. They have two nights for the commissioning and a couple of science nights afterward.

I took many photos of the instrument being installed. Expect a movie soon.

Sky Above. Clouds Below.

Here's the view from Palomar Mountain this morning, just before sunrise. Low clouds have blown in from the coast as they often do. This produces beautiful views as one looks down on the clouds and has the added benefit of also masking the city lights.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Goodbye to QUEST

Tuesday, September 30 was the last night for the QUEST camera on the Palomar 48-inch (1.2 meter) Samuel Oschin Telescope. The 161-megapixel camera was installed in the spring of 2003 and saw a successful career here at Palomar.

The camera took images that covered four degrees on a side and was used to hunt for a variety of objects including near-Earth asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects, supernovae, quasars and more as a part of the Palomar-Quest Survey.

On the public outreach front, the camera was used to produce the images for The Big Picture, now on display at Griffith Observatory.

The big headlines came as new discoveries of large worlds were made in the Kuiper Belt. Caltech's Mike Brown offers some comments on the end of his survey on his blog.

Earlier this week QUEST, its computers and some other gear was loaded up into a moving van. The camera is headed for the 1-meter Schmidt Telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

What's up next for Palomar's Samuel Oschin Telescope. It is time to spruce it up for its next survey, the Palomar Transient Factory. The corrector plate has been pulled so that it can be washed. The 72-inch mirror (Yes, the 48-inch telescope has a 72-inch mirror. Perhaps a future blog post will explain that.) will soon be re-aluminized. In a few weeks the 96-megapixel Mosaic camera will be installed.

More on Mosaic and Palomar Transient Factory later. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Palomar in Science Fiction - II

"Hurtle toward the far reaches of the universe with the
space vikings of the future!"

How can you pass on a tag line like that? Riders to the Stars (1954) is another science fiction film that features Palomar Observatory.

The basic premise is that there's important material in meteors that gets destroyed when they pass through Earth's atmosphere. So to get it, you've got to go up there and catch 'em. That's where Palomar comes in - tracking the meteors so that the, um, space vikings (which I take to mean explorers) come in.

If you watch the video below, you'll notice that the Palomar footage looks exactly the same as the footage from Rocketship X-M in my first Palomar in Science Fiction post.

Both Rocketship X-M and Riders to the Stars got their footage from The Big Eye Space Telescope, a seven-minute 1948 (newsreel?) documentary film made about the observatory.

For your viewing pleasure I have edited down The Big Eye Space Telescope to show the same clips as seen in Riders above.

Perhaps the use of the same video several times represents the 1950s version of a video going viral.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Birth of Palomar's 'Giant Eye'

Today's This Day in Tech features the Hale Telescope's 200-inch mirror. There are a couple of mistakes in the story (there's no 100-inch telescope on Palomar), but it is still worth your time. While you are there you might also want to read the article future giant telescopes.

New Exhibit opens about Palomar Observatory

The Valley Center History Museum has a new exhibit about Palomar Observatory. Here's what they have to say:

The 60th anniversary of the opening of the Palomar Observatory is being marked by a new exhibit at the Valley Center History Museum.

Museum President Bill Hutchings said the display will not show the typical photos of the finished observatory but, instead will focus on the construction of both the mountain-top site and the road leading to the dome. For the first time, photos will be publicly exhibited showing County prisioners who comprised much of the work crews.

Hutchings said other unusual items in the exhibit are newspaper ads of the late 1940's and 1950's when merchants along Valley Center Road used the phrase "Highway to the Stars" as their official address.

There are also photos of crowds lining the streets on November 18 and 19, 1947, when the Hale Telescope made its way through Valley Center. Streets signs reading "Highway to the Stars" also lined the roadway.

The observatory was dedicated in June of 1948 and opened to the public in January 1949. The museum exhibit will continue through January.

Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 29200 Cole Grade Road. Admission and parking are free. For more information, call (760) 749-2993 or visit

I haven't had a chance to see it yet, but I hope to see it soon. Here's a shot of the old Highway to the Stars sign:

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sunset: October 1, 2008

Here is the light source:

and the subject.

It must be something about October, Halloween and the color orange.

Practice Does Make Perfect

Yesterday we finally had the chance to open up the bell jar/aluminizing chamber to have a look at how the practice aluminizing went.

Once the top of the chamber was safely removed and placed on the observing floor the glass plates and slides were examined.

The crew checked the glass for any streaks or imperfections and then measured the reflectivity of the samples which check in as high at 91.75%. All-in-all it was a good test of the system. Everyone was happy with the results and the 200-inch mirror is cleared for its recoating in November.

Big thanks go out to Susan for shooting photos for me yesterday while I was off the mountain giving a talk.