Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009: The International Year of Astronomy

I am still on vacation, but 2009 begins in less than 24 hours. 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first astronomical observations (also the 60th anniversary of first light for the Hale Telescope). The International Astronomical Union will be celebrating all year long with an unprecedented push for public outreach in astronomy.

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy!

Palomar Observatory will be involved in many of the IYA projects. From time to time I'll be posting about the IYA activities that you can enjoy.

First off is the 365 Days of Astronomy - an astronomy podcast for every day of the year. Visit the link, subscribe (its free!) and you can have iTunes drop a new astronomy podcast at your doorstep each and every new day for a whole year. How cool is that? Towards the end of January you'll have a chance to hear my first podcast and others during the year as well.

The International Year of Astronomy has an official trailer. Have a look:

After you've seen the trailer click on over to Astronomy Picture of the Day to see today's entry The Sky in Motion. It is inspirational.

Happy New Year to all the readers of Palomar Skies. It should be an exciting one.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Observatory: Open

Just a quick note to let you know that the observatory is finally again open to the public. Our normal public visiting hours (9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.) are now in affect.

I haven't been posting much lately (seeing as I am on vacation), but there is lots of cool stuff waiting in the wings for when I return. Not the least of which is that the International Year of Astronomy begins in mere days. Palomar will be involved in a number of ways. More on that later.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Icy Conditions Close Observatory - Again

Christmas Day brought rain followed by a hard freeze that left everything coated in ice. The result is extremely slippery conditions that kept the observatory closed on December 26. Temperatures are supposed to rise above freezing today, but it is currently just 20 degrees and it may be a while before we reopen to the public. We certainly will not do so until conditions are safe for visitors.

Update: Still icy. Still closed. In all shady spots the roads on Palomar Mountain are pretty bad.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Observatory to re-open December 23

The snow removal at the observatory continues and the observatory is expected to re-open on Tuesday December 23rd. Of course the observatory will be closed December 24 & 25 as is traditional.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Warning: Snow Falling Off Dome!

Today is the Winter Solstice and yes, we are still closed to the public due to snow.

When we are open to the public we do ask that visitors read and obey all signs. They are posted for everyone's safety.

During and immediately after a snowfall there is always a danger at the observatory. One that most visitors do not think about--snow and ice falling off of the Hale Telescope's dome. The dome is 135 feet high. A slump of snow falling from that height carries a lot of energy--energy that could cause great damage, injury or even death.

When we are open to the public and the potential is there for snow to fall off of the dome the observatory staff does its best to warn visitors by posting signs like the one below.

Many people don't pay any attention to the signs as they are really focused only on the snow.

On Friday of this week we had a slump of snow slide off of the dome on to a Manzanita tree growing between the dome and the visitors path next to it. The impact of snow, yes snow, to the tree makes it look like the tree had exploded.

Notice that the trees in the background have already lost their snow. We keep the dome at nighttime temperatures (you get better images of the stars that way) which keeps the snow and ice on the dome far longer than it stays in the surrounding trees. As a result, most people wouldn't expect to have anything fall onto them, because they can see that all the snow has already fallen from the trees.

Thankfully no one was hit by this. Imagine what it would have done.

In February 1998 the observatory had just acquired a new car (one week before) when a visiting astronomer had parked it right next to the dome early in the morning, before the staff had the chance to up the signs warning of snow falling off of the dome. The result could have been deadly. Thankfully the observer was not in the car when the snow fell. The impact of snow falling off of the dome crushed the roof of the vehicle.

When visiting the observatory for snow, be careful out there and pay attention to all signs. They are posted for everyone's safety. And when we are closed because of snow that's for everyone's safety too.

Thanks to Steve Kunsman for providing me with the photos for this post.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Still Closed

Snow, ice, fallen tree limbs and other issues have been taxing the observatory staff. As such the observatory is closed today (December 19) and will remain closed through the weekend (December 20 - 21). So anyone looking to find a place to play in the snow should find another place to visit. Sorry about that.

Have a look at the shot below.

Notice that there is still a fair amount of snow on the dome making standing next to the dome a very dangerous place to be. Several inches of snow falling from the top of the 135-foot tall dome can be very damaging. In a future post, I will put up a photo of what happened to a car that was parked next to the dome when snow fell onto it. It was not pretty.

Fallen tree limbs have also been a problem at various locations on site.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The observatory is still closed to the public. The staff has two to three feet of snow (plus bigger drifts!) to deal with giving them plenty of work to do just to get the telescopes back to astronomy. Getting the grounds ready for visitors will take a while.

For anyone who may be wondering why I am not answering my phone - I am snowed out of my office.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Snow & Ice

We are in the middle of a big winter storm. The observatory, and likely the road here, is closed for at least the rest of today.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winter Weather on Palomar = Caution

Mother Nature can strike hard in the wintertime. Even though Palomar Mountain is located in Southern California (where the stars always shine) the mountain and the observatory are not immune to the ravages of winter.

Yesterday's winter storm produced at least one accident on Palomar (see photo below) and kept the observatory from opening to the public. The weather also kept me from updating our website to reflect the closure. Whenever possible I'll post notice of closures but we also try to update our Public Information Recording when weather or other conditions will interfere with your visit to the observatory. The number for the Public Information Recording is (760) 742-2119.

When planning a visit to to Palomar, especially in winter, be sure to check the weather forecast and our "Special Notes" on our Driving to Palomar Observatory webpage.

As of this writing, we are still closed and will not re-open until it is safe for visitors to be on observatory grounds. There's lots of snow and ice to clear from our walkways. Another winter storm is on the way that will likely keep us closed on Wednesday and maybe beyond.

Stay safe!

More TV Premiers of The Journey to Palomar

The Journey to Palomar, the TV-documentary on the career of George Ellery Hale and the telescopes he built, is still having premiers in various PBS markets.

Look for it on KQED in San Francisco Wednesday, Dec. 17th at 10PM on regular and HD and also on KQED World on Dec. 19.

Viewers in Dallas can check it out on KERA next Monday, the 22nd at 9PM and in our nation's capital (Washington DC) it will premier it on WETA on Sunday, December 28 at 3:30 PM.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mosaic Sees First Light!

As reported earlier in the week Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope is getting a new camera known as Mosaic. I am happy to report that it was successfully installed yesterday and last night it achieved first light just ahead of an oncoming winter storm. Commissioning for the instrument will continue for the next several weeks and it will likely be mid to late January before we have any pretty pictures to show from the instrument.

In the meantime here are some shots from the recent activity in the dome.

The 96-megapixel Mosaic camera
Mosaic hooked up to its vacuum pump and control electronics as the crew prepares it for a floor test prior to installing it into the telescope.

Caltech's Gustavo Rahmer working inside the Samuel Oschin Telescope. Note that the camera is held in place by the four vanes of the "spider". The optics of the camera are pointed toward the primary mirror and can be seen in reflection just above Gustavo.

David Hale examines the connections in the telescope's interior as Gustavo looks on.

Congratulations to the entire crew. Palomar Transient Factory should produce some very exciting results in the coming years. Stay tuned.

Happy Birthday to the Mt. Wilson 60-inch Telescope!

Happy Birthday to the Mt. Wilson 60-inch Telescope! Today is its 100th anniversary of first light.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


It is almost time for a new sky survey to begin at Palomar Observatory. The wide-field Samuel Oschin Schmidt Telescope is ready to receive its new camera - Mosaic.

Mosaic is due to arrive at Palomar this afternoon. The camera is an array of 12 8-megapixel CCD chips. Each image from this 96-megapixel camera will cover 7 square degrees of sky. It will survey the sky for the new Palomar Transient Factory, an automated program to detect and rapidly (in the same night) classify transient sources in the sky. Follow-up observations will be performed with the Palomar 60-inch telescope and other telescopes located elsewhere.

The survey should detect supernovae, variables, quasars, exoplanets and much more.

This fall the observatory staff has been performing maintance on the telescope and its optics. You may have already seen a shot of the newly re-aluminized primary mirror. The telescope's 48-inch corrector plate was also cleaned.

Here is how it looked back in September:

And how it looks today:

There have been so many shots of dirty and clean optics on the Palomar Skies blog this year, that most readers may think that we do this all the time. Actually most of the telescope mirrors only get re-aluminized once every couple of years or so. This year they were all due to get some care, making this a record year for the staff to clean and re-coat optics. In addition to a 40-inch mirror for Mount Laguna Observatory the staff re-coated the 60-inch, 72-inch and 200-inch mirrors and cleaned the corrector for the Samuel Oschin Telescope. That's a lot of glass to care for.

Expect to see some shots of the installation of Mosaic as that work progresses.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pointing the Way

Last weekend observatory docent Richard Garcia and I had the chance to give David Ho, of Hotech Corporation, a tour of the Hale Telescope.

That's David & I below.

The tour was our way of thanking David for one of the cool items that his company produces - the Astro Aimer. In the photo above David and I are each holding an Astro Aimer. He is doing so to show off his product, I am doing so because the tool I use for public outreach. It combines a red and a white LED flashlight with a 5mW green laser all in one package. I pretty much can't live without one of these tools when it comes to giving tours of the Hale Telescope or hanging out at a star party.

Thanks go out to Richard Garcia for being a super docent at Palomar and taking the photo.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Operation SkyPhoto

Speaking of the Palomar Sky Survey . . . prints from the first survey are being used for a noble cause. Operation SkyPhoto is selling prints to help pay the huge costs associated with treating Alexander Thatte. Alexander is the son of two members of the Physics department of the University of Oxford. He has been battling leukemia for 4 years with chemotherapy and two bone-marrow transplants.The prints themselves are fantastic and make wonderful holiday gifts for anyone with an interest in astronomy. Here is your chance to help someone in need and get a cool thing in return. It doesn't get any better than that.

Hubble Holidays

The folks that run HubbleSite have put up some holiday cards of astronomical images.

One of them just happens to be a shot of the Pleiades captured with the Palomar Samuel Oschin Telescope for the Second Palomar Sky Survey.

Pouring Glass: the Movie

Here is some of the film footage shot from the pouring of the first 200-inch disc on March 25, 1934. Film was shot on the pouring of the second disc (December 2, 1934) but I haven't seen any of that yet.

If anyone knows where I can see footage from the second casting please let me know.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

December 2, 1934

I am a few days late in marking the seventy fourth anniversary of the casting of the 200-inch mirror, but I finally have a moment to do so.

Back in March, on the anniversary of the casting of the first 200-inch disc, I described some of the process of making the mirror. The first casting was unsuccessful and the team at Corning Glass Works, led by Dr. George McCauley, got to work in re-engineering the mirror's honeycombed underside. Finally, nearly nine months later they were ready to try again.

The date of the pouring of the mirror, December 2, 1934, also happens to have been my mother's 5th birthday. So here's a happy belated birthday to both the 200-inch mirror and my mom.

Lots of people worked in a variety of capacities on the task of casting the mirror. Tinsmiths, carpenters and more. Those that handled the molten glass, the ladlers, faced intense working conditions. Their task was to scoop out 750 pounds of molten glass and deliver it to the mold. The glass was hot enough to melt steel so part of the crew had to hose down the outside of the ladle. It was a monumental job. These were the men who accomplished the task:

Vincent Capo, Harry Contento, Frank Crisci, Joe Miller, Nick Miller, Frank Oriella, Joe Ruocco, George Scott, Oran Smith, Pasquale Yorio, Rosario Yorio. This was back in the heart of the Great Depression. The highest paid of the ladelers made just 48 cents an hour, earning them $3.84 for their day.

Corning's staff photographer, Ayres A. Stevens, captured many moments in the entire process of making the mirror. This photo is one of my favorites.

Later on, when I have more bandwidth (possibly Saturday), I'll post a short film clip of the team in action.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Not quite yet . . . .

Today is seventy fourth anniversary of the pouring of the glass for the 200-inch mirror, I am not able to make an appropriate post today so I will put it off until sometime tomorrow. In the meantime have a look at this June 1934 article from Modern Mechanix describing the pouring of the first disc which was unsuccessful.