Thursday, December 31, 2009

Palomar in Science Fiction - Kronos

I just had the opportunity to watch the 1957 sci-fi movie Kronos and was pleased to learn that it is another of the many films that have featured Palomar Observatory.

In the movie the astronomers, working at LabCentral, are tracking a 4-mile wide "asteroid" known as M47 (not to be confused with the star cluster of the same name), which is apparently headed directly for, you guessed it, Earth.

Early on we see LabCentral from the outside, the dome look a bit like the 200-inch at Palomar, but not too much, as we are lacking the other buildings, the security guard station, etc.

Further observations and analysis determines that "asteroid" M47 will hit near New York and we get to see Palomar's 200-inch Hale Telescope.

Of course in the film it isn't Palomar, its LabCentral. Palomar does get named though as astronomer Dr. Gaskell mentions that he needs to phone professor Winter at Palomar to get verification of the position of M47.

The gang at LabCentral launch 3 nuclear missiles to destroy M47 in our upper atmosphere (that might even be worse than letting it hit), but alas the mysterious object absorbs the nuclear energy and lands in the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of Mexico (no where near New York).

What emerges is a giant, um robot, dubbed Kronos.

The still image doesn't do Kronos justice. Check out the trailer for the film embedded below and you'll see what I mean.

Yes, the movie is cheesy, but it is fun and surprisingly good in places.

p.s. This is my 500th post on this blog and I am wishing a Happy New Year to all the readers of Palomar Skies!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Palomar History Photo of the Week - December 28, 2009

2009, the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), is almost over. It has been a year-long celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first astronomical observations.

This week's Palomar History Photo of the Week celebrates the advances in telescopes with an IYA nod from Palomar to Galileo and Isaac Newton.

The photo shows one of the 200-inch opticians on the left looking through a replica of Galileo's telescope. The telescope is balanced on the shoulder of chief optician Marcus Brown. Behind them stands the completed 200-inch mirror in the optical shop at Caltech. In the mirror's center hole is an exact size replica (in artwork only) of Isaac Newton's first reflecting telescope.

The photo was likely taken during the fall of 1947. I would like to thank the Brown Family for their donation of this photo and other items to Palomar Observatory earlier this year.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

This and That

Palomar Observatory is now back on its regular winter hours and open to visitors 9 am - 3 pm daily.

Astrobiology Magazine has named the discovery of exoplanet VB 10b, found using Palomar's Hale Telescope, as one of their Astrobiology Top 10 for the year.

Remember the 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts are continuing for 2010, but there still many open dates, even for the month of January.

Miller McCune magazine published an article on the dark-skies movement in Borrego Springs, CA: Stary, Stary Skies California desert town takes back the night, wins rare "Dark Sky" award.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Observatory Closed December 24 & 25

Remember Palomar Observatory is closed to the public December 24 & 25.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Palomar History Photo of the Week - December 21, 2009

The Winter Solstice occurs at 9:47 a.m. PST today here in the Northern Hemisphere, so this week's Palomar History Photo of the Week is a winter scene.

Here is a photo of the 200-inch telescope's dome taken during snow showers back in January 1938.

Lots of people like to visit Palomar around Christmas looking for snow. We do not have any on the ground now and there isn't any in the current forecast. As a reminder the observatory is closed December 24 & 25.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Known Universe

The American Museum of Natural History astronomer Ben R. Oppenheimer (a member of the team that found the companion to the star Alcor) is part of the group that produced The Known Universe - a short film produced from real astronomical data that takes the viewer on an amazing trip.

From Dr. Oppenheimer's web site:

Every mountain, planet, satellite, star, galaxy, quasar and our cosmic horizon are represented accurately in both size and position relative to each other, based on our best scientific knowledge to date. No interpolations have been made, and only objects that have actually been observed are included. As a result, you will see vast regions of the universe where we have not yet been able to map the locations of particular types of objects, for various scientific reasons. These gaps are akin to the regions labeled 'terra incognita' in old globes and maps, before people had fully documented the geography of the world. This visualization starts from the mountains of Tibet and takes you swirling though our database out to the furthest reaches of the universe that are observable. As we travel away from Earth, the distance from home is represented in the length of time that light takes to travel the same distance.

The film is based on the Digital Universe Atlas, an on-going project of the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium, which consists of the world's most complete and scientifically accurate four-dimensional map of the universe. This visualization, while demonstrating some of the wealth of the Digital Universe Atlas, features only a fraction of the database.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Palomar Find Makes Discovery News Top 10 of the Decade

Discovery News has put out their list of the Top 10 Discoveries of the Decade and their list of Top 10 Space Discoveries of the Decade.

On both lists is the 2005 discovery of the world known as Eris. Knowledge of the existence of Eris, named after the Greek goddess of discord, helped to push Pluto out of the planetary roll call. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union officially proclaimed both Pluto and Eris to be part of a new, non-planet, classification known as "dwarf planets."

The discovery was made using the Palomar Observatory's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope by the team of Mike Brown (Caltech), Chad Trujillo (Gemini Observatory) and David Rabinowitz (Yale).

The discovery was made as a part of survey of the outer solar system using the Palomar QUEST camera and the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory.


HPWREN Helps Palomar Make the List of the Decade's Top 10 Discoveries

See also Ten Science Discoveries That Changed Our Decade and Top ten science stories of the decade from MSNBC.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Palomar History Photo of the Week - December 14, 2009

The men who built the dome of the 200-inch Hale Telescope

Group photos are great. This one comes from the collection of Earnest A. Whichelo, who back in the day was the manager of Consolidated Western Steel. CWS was the main contractor who built the dome for the 200-inch telescope. From the looks of the dome behind the group I am pretty sure that the photo was taken in 1938. Click on the photo and you can easily see each and every face of the crew that did the work.

The photo comes from a collection of photos donated to the observatory by Cindy Johnson, daughter of Earnest Whichelo. I posted another photo from this collection in a post over a year ago. Let me quote now what I said then:

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.

Recently the observatory has been very fortunate as a many individuals have been coming forth with donations of photos and other items from our past. We are in the process of scanning and will share more of these here on the blog and eventually on the observatory's main website and out for people to see when the visit the observatory in person.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Outdoor Lighting at Night

As I am sure most of my readers know, the issue of light pollution and good outdoor lighting is very important to Palomar Observatory.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a demonstration of streetlights by Visionaire Lighting. They showed off a variety of products including an amber LED streetlight.

As you can see the light from the amber LED looks a lot like the light from a low-pressure sodium light. Looks can be deceiving The key to understanding how such a lamp might affect astronomy is to have a more detailed look at the mix of colors that it is composed of. This is done by breaking the light into its component colors - its spectrum. Here is what the spectrum looks like for the amber LED:

The light source is on the right and the spectrum is on the left. Compare the spectrum of the amber LED with a white LED streetlight (below):

The white light offers up a full rainbow of colors (one of the reasons some people like it so much), yet it presents some problems for astronomy. Partly, it is rich in blue light which contributes to Rayleigh scattering, the phenomenon that makes the sky blue in the daytime. Blue light from streetlights disproportionally makes the sky brighter at night too.

One way to limit the amount of blue in the light is to use a narrow band light source such as low-pressure sodium or perhaps the amber LED. Another way that is not as effective for astronomy is to use a light of a low color temperature. Have a look at the two LED lights below and you'll notice that the higher color temperature lamp on the left looks blue and the lower temperature one on the right looks yellow.

The yellowish light on the right is made up of a different mix of light. It has less blue in it. While this is not as attractive astronomically as a narrow-band light source, the lower color temperature lamp will produce less skyglow than the higher temperature one (if all other things like level of illumination and light fixtures are equal).

But even limiting the color temperature does not help enough to make a streetlight attractive to astronomers. A lower color temperature light source still has a broad range of colors that fills up the spectrum. This full spectrum is a problem because it doesn't give astronomers any "window" to look through. The graphic below gives an idea of the concept:

So what is the point of all this? The observatory's position on outdoor lighting is still the same.

Cities, businesses and homeowners should:

  • Use only as much light as is needed for a task. Do not over-light.
  • Shield lights to prevent direct upward illumination.
  • Turn off lights when they are not needed.
  • Use low-pressure sodium lights to the greatest degree possible.

  • Anyone that follows the first three points will save money and help to preserve dark skies. To the final point it may be time to modify it to read "Use low-pressure sodium or other monochromatic lights to the greatest degree possible." We may eventually have streetlights that can mimic the astronomical advantages of low-pressure sodium lights. Visionaire's amber LED is the only one that I have had the chance to see in person. There are other companies and other ideas that might prove to be good choices for astronomy.

    Thanks to Visionaire for showing off some of their products (more later) to the San Diego chapter of the International Dark-sky Association and to Oceanside Photo & Telescope for hosting the lighting demonstration in their parking lot.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    A Companion for Alcor

    The Big Dipper, isn't a constellation (technically it is an asterism), but it is one of the most famous groups of stars in the sky. Nestled within the handle of the Dipper are some famous stars. The middle star of the handle is called Mizar. Next to Mizar is another star that has often been used to test visual acuity--Alcor.

    Can you spot the Big Dipper with Mizar and Alcor in this photo taken from the catwalk of the Hale Telescope? Click to embiggen and hopefully the stars will be easy to spot.

    The close proximity of Alcor to Mizar make the stars great targets for casual evening stargazing. Pointing a small telescope at the pair gives a nice surprise as Mizar is revealed to be not one star, but two. Further spectroscopic studies have revealed that Mizar is made up of more stars that are unseen because they too close to each other to be resolved as individual stars. But what of Alcor?

    You may remember Project 1640, one of new instruments commissioned for the 200-inch telescope lat year. Project 1640 makes use of the Hale Telescope's adaptive optics system, which gives the Hale a view almost equal to what can be obtained from in space. The instrument also has the ability to block out the light of a star, allowing faint objects located next to a star to be seen. This technique should soon be revealing previously unseen exoplanets. The Hale, armed with Project 1640, was pointed at Alcor earlier this year and found that it isn't a single star. Alcor has a small stellar companion that hadn't been seen before.

    What is it like? The companion, Alcor B, is a small, dim red dwarf star about one fourth the mass of our Sun.

    Caption: Alcor is a star in the handle of the Big Dipper. This discovery image shows Alcor B, marked with the green arrow in the inset. Alcor B is a newly found red dwarf companion of Alcor. Project 1640 astronomers discovered the faint star by blocking out almost all of Alcor's light with a coronagraphic mask, the darker circular region in the middle of the image. Although the vast majority of Alcor’s light has been blocked out, a residual halo of speckles remains because of minute imperfections in the camera’s optics. The actual diameter of either of the stars far smaller than a pixel in this image. This residual glare is what makes finding faint companions of bright stars difficult.

    Credit: Project 1640, American Museum of Natural History, Digital Universe Atlas

    For those who are so inclined, here is a link to where you can find the scientific paper on the discovery. The press release is announcing the discovery is below. Note the nod to Galileo in both the press release and the scientific paper, making this a nice discovery for the International Year of Astronomy.

    A Faint Star Orbiting the Big Dipper’s Alcor discovered

    Project 1640 Uses a Novel Technique with Ties to Galileo to See the Unknown

    Next time you spy the Big Dipper, keep in mind that there is another star invisibly (at least to the unaided eye) contributing to this constellation. According to a new paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, one of the stars that makes the bend in the ladle’s handle, Alcor, has a smaller red dwarf companion. Newly discovered Alcor B orbits its larger sibling, caught in the act with an innovative technique called “common parallactic motion” by members of Project 1640, an international collaborative team that includes astrophysicists at the American Museum of Natural History, the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, the California Institute of Technology, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    “We used a brand new technique for determining that an object orbits a nearby star, a technique that’s a nice nod to Galileo,” says Ben R. Oppenheimer, Curator and Professor in the Department of Astrophysics at the Museum. “Galileo showed tremendous foresight. Four hundred years ago, he realized that if Copernicus was right—that the Earth orbits the Sun—they could show it by observing the “parallactic motion” of the nearest stars. Incredibly, Galileo tried to use Alcor to see it but didn’t have the necessary precision.” If Galileo had been able to see change over time in Alcor’s position, he would have had conclusive evidence that Copernicus was right. “Parallactic motion” is the way nearby stars appear to move in an annual, repeatable pattern relative to much more distant stars, simply because the observer on Earth is circling the Sun and seeing these stars from different places over the year.

    Alcor is a relatively young star twice the mass of the Sun. Stars this massive are relatively rare (less than a few percent of all stars), short-lived, and bright. Alcor and its cousins in the Big Dipper formed from the same cloud of matter about 500 million years ago, something unusual for a constellation since most of these patterns in the sky are composed of unrelated stars. Alcor shares a position in the Big Dipper with another star, Mizar. In fact, both stars were used as a common test of eyesight—being able to distinguish “the rider from the horse”—among ancient people. One of Galileo’s colleagues observed that Mizar itself is actually a double, the first binary star system resolved by a telescope. Many years later, the two components Mizar A and B were themselves determined each to be tightly orbiting binaries, altogether forming a quadruple system.

    Now, Alcor, which is near the four stars of the Mizar system, also has a companion. This March, members of Project 1640 attached their coronagraph and adaptive optics to the 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California and pointed to Alcor. “Right away I spotted a faint point of light next to the star,” says Neil Zimmerman, a graduate student at Columbia University who is doing his PhD dissertation at the Museum. “No one had reported this object before, and it was very close to Alcor, so we realized it was probably an unknown companion star.”

    The team retuned a few months later and re-imaged the star, hoping to prove that the two stars are companions by mapping the tiny movement of both in relation to very distant background stars as the Earth moves around the Sun, parallactic motion. If the proposed companion were just a background star, it wouldn’t move along with Alcor.

    “We didn’t have to wait a whole year to get the results,” says Oppenheimer. “We went back 103 days later and found the companion had the same motion as Alcor. Our technique is powerful and much faster than the usual way of confirming that objects in the sky are physically related.” The more typical method involves observing the pair of objects over much longer periods of time, even years, to show that the two are moving through space together.

    Alcor and its newly found, smaller companion, Alcor B, are both about 80 light-years away and orbit each other every 90 years or more. Over one year, the Alcor pair moves in an ellipse on the sky about 0.08 arc seconds in width because of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This amount of motion, 0.08 arcsec, is about 1000 times smaller than the eye can discern, and a fraction of this motion was easily measured by the Project 1640 scientists.

    The team was also able to determine the color, brightness and even rough composition of Alcor B because the novel method of observation that Project 1640 uses records images at many different colors simultaneously. The team determined that Alcor B is a common type of M-dwarf star or red dwarf that is about 250 times the mass of Jupiter, or roughly a quarter of the mass of our Sun. The companion is much smaller and cooler than Alcor A.

    “Red dwarfs are not commonly reported around the brighter higher mass type of star that Alcor is, but we have a hunch that they are actually fairly common,” says Oppenheimer. “This discovery shows that even the brightest and most familiar stars in the sky hold secrets we have yet to reveal.”

    The team plans to use parallactic motion again in the future. “We hope to use the same technique to check that other objects we find like exoplanets are truly bound to their host stars,” says Zimmerman. “In fact, we anticipate other research groups hunting for exoplanets will also use this technique to speed up the discovery process.”

    In addition to Zimmerman and Oppenheimer, authors include Anand Sivaramakrishnan and Douglas Brenner of the Astrophysics Department at the Museum; Sasha Hinkley, Lynne Hillenbrand, Charles Beichman, Justin Crepp, Antonin Bouchez and Richard Dekany of the California Institute of Technology; Ian Parry, David King, and Stephanie Hunt of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University; Rémi Soummer of the Space Telescope Institute in Baltimore; and Gautam Vasisht, Rick Burruss, Michael Shao, Lewis Roberts, and Jennifer Roberts of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology. Project 1640 is funded by the National Science Foundation.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009

    WISE to Launch on Friday - moved to Monday

    Update: The launch of NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer
    mission is now rescheduled for Monday, Dec. 14, with a launch window of 6:09 to 6:23 a.m. PST

    An artist's rendering of WISE in orbit

    WISE, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, is set to launch 6:09:33 a.m. PST Friday, December 11. Visit the link to their website to learn about this mid-infrared all-sky survey mission. If all goes well we will soon be learning a great many new things and, as in the case with the Spitzer Space Telescope, Palomar Observatory will be hosting many astronomers for follow-up observations.

    Good luck to the WISE team!

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009

    Palomar in Science Fiction - Destination Moon

    Destination Moon is a science fiction film from 1950 about the first trip to the Moon. While Palomar Observatory isn't shown in the film, it is mentioned. Have a look at this clip below:

    Yes, "The astronomers at Palomar say they can see you if they knew where to point the Big Eye."

    Nope, that isn't possible. Even using adaptive optics, which removes blurring caused by Earth's atmosphere, the best resolution we can get is about 200 meters per pixel. That's about what we got when we took a good look at the Moon last October as NASA's LCROSS probe crashed into the crater Cabeus:

    So if Spaceship Luna (or its shadow), was a few football fields long we would just be able to distinguish something with modern instrumentation. Alas, Spaceship Luna wasn't portrayed as being that big, so technical adviser Robert A. Heinlein didn't quite get it right. (Still, it is a cool film.)

    I bring this up because I am often asked if we look at the artifacts left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. As with Spaceship Luna, they are too small to be seen from Earth-based telescopes. That isn't true from the vantage point of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has returned images of the Apollo landing sites (for an example see High Noon at Tranquility Base).

    On that same vein I am also often asked if we look at the International Space Station. It turns out that the ISS is an easy target and amateur astronomers have taken some amazing images of it (for an example see the shots posted at

    Yet we don't take any time from our nights to look at the ISS. Why? The Hale Telescope was built not to look at the places and things we already know about. It was built to study the unknown.

    Super Collaboration Yields New Type of Supernova

    Last week a press release was issued about an amazing supernova discovery. Supernova 2007bi was a stellar explosion (the dot circled above) of a type never before seen. Follow the link to the press release to read about the death of this star, which was at least 200-times more massive than the Sun.

    It is well known that sometimes when you look for one thing you can also find something else. The astronomers at Berkeley’s Nearby Supernova Factory were part of a collaboration that allowed them to hunt for exploding stars (supernovae) using data that was collected for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) program as they hunted for asteroids.

    This data for the NEAT survey and the Nearby Supernova Factory was collected using Palomar Observatory’s 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. From 2003 - 2008 the telescope was operated robotically with data was beamed away from Palomar and eventually on to JPL & Berkeley via the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN). This collaboration between Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, JPL, Berkeley and HPWREN has led to many discoveries. In the case of sn2007bi they were able to quickly alert observatories around the world and begin a long term study of this never-before-seen stellar explosion.

    Stay tuned as more of these supernovae are expected to be found by Palomar Transient Factory.

    Monday, December 7, 2009

    Palomar History Photo of the Week - December 7, 2009

    Blake Mitchell was one of the opticians who worked under the direction of Marcus Brown on the Palomar project after World War II. Blake, who is 86 year old now, recently donated to the observatory his collection of photographs from that time.

    For the very first picture from his collection I thought I would post his self portrait:

    That is Blake in the Optical Shop at Caltech. His reflection is posed with the 200-inch telescope's three secondary mirrors three spherical mirrors that were used to test the 200" telescope's convex hyperbolic secondary mirrors.

    Sunday, December 6, 2009

    Storms on the Way

    It looks like we will have an active week of weather bringing snow, rain, fog, wind and difficult travel conditions in and around Palomar. Be careful out there!

    Friday, December 4, 2009

    365 Days of Astronomy Podcasts to Continue in 2010

    I just got word that the 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts will continue in 2010, past the International Year of Astronomy.

    According to their website each of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts are heard by 5,000 - 10,000 listeners.

    Palomar Observatory's public outreach effort helped to financially support the program for 2009 and I personally contributed 7 podcasts. They are looking for more people to contribute for 2010. So if you have an idea and the equipment why not contact the and be a part of something cool.

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009

    Starlight versus our light

    The cover story in the December, 2009 issue of Physics Today:

    The article is Lighting and astronomy. It looks like you might need to be a subscriber to read it online, but if you get the chance, it is an excellent review of the history and problems that light pollution presents to astronomers.

    200" Mirror Cast 75 Years Ago Today

    75 years ago today, December 2, 1934, Corning Glass Works successfully cast the 200-inch mirror for what would become the Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain.

    I have blogged about this before (see: December 2, 1934 and Pouring Glass: the Movie), but today I wanted to share a photo of the then still molten 200-inch mirror and its creator: physicist George V. McCauley of Corning Glass Works.

    It is an interesting photo because the molten glass is hot and glowing, revealing the pattern of the many hollow spots on its underside. Dr. McCauley, or "Mac" as he was called, later described what is shown in the above photo.

    "The changing appearance of the disk during this cooling period was fascinating and beautiful. When ladling was completed, the glass above the cores was hotter than the cores themselves and one saw the perfect pattern of the latter in darker contrast with the molten glass. As time passed and the surface glass cooled, while the cores - cooling less rapidly - became the more radiant and were seen as the highlights between the darker ribs of glass, the picture was so beautiful to look upon that it was with regret that it had to be sealed from sight within the two telescoping sections of the annealing kiln."

    His description was actually of the view just after they had poured the glass the the 120-inch mirror (now at Lick Observatory), but the Palomar mirror is also honeycombed and went through the same effect. Too bad there aren't any color photos of this.

    Monday, November 30, 2009

    Palomar History Photo of the Week - November 30, 2009

    Here is the first magazine cover that I know of with Palomar on it. It is from years ago, the December 1936 issue of The Sky (before the merger to form Sky & Telescope).

    On the cover is a celluloid model of the 200-inch telescope that was used by Westinghouse to help model the stresses and strains of the design.

    The model was later on display for the "last bolt" ceremony held at Westinghouse on April 30, 1937. Look for it in the photo below on the reviewing stand Attending the ceremonies were Caltech president Robert Milliken and Albert Einstein.

    I hope that nobody minds that I squeezed in two pics for this Palomar History Photo of the Week.

    Sunday, November 29, 2009


    FYI, the latest word is that the observatory may open today around noon. I am not on site, so updates will be limited.

    Saturday, November 28, 2009

    Observatory Closed Saturday Nov 28

    I just got word that Palomar Observatory will be closed to the public today, November 28, due to hazardous travel conditions. We are currently experiencing wind, fog, sleet & snow. The roads are not plowed and icy. It is not a good day to visit Palomar Mountain.

    It's Full of Stars

    The image above shows the globular star cluster known as M3. The cluster is made up of several hundred thousand stars. It is a member of our Milky Way Galaxy, located nearly 34,000 light years from our solar system.

    This star cluster is located within the constellation of Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs. In 1764 the French comet hunter Charles Messier made it the third object, M3, of his now famous catalog.

    M3 is thought to be about 180 light-years across, although half of the cluster's stars are located within its innermost 22 light years. M3 contains a relatively large number of "Blue Straggler" stars. These are stars that are bluer than most other stars within the cluster. They are thought to have had their outer layers stripped away by close encounters with other stars in the dense inner regions of the cluster.

    This infrared image was taken by Tom Jarrett (Infrared Processing and Analysis Center / Spitzer Science Center / Caltech) using the Palomar Observatory's 200-inch Hale Telescope with its Wide-field Infrared Camera.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    Black Friday Tours at Palomar

    As an added holiday bonus we'll be offering guided public tours of the Hale Telescope on Friday November 27 at 11:30 a.m. & 1:30 p.m.

    Our regular public tours do not resume again until April, so this may be your last chance to get a guided tour for some months.

    Tour tickets are sold in the gift shop the day of the tour on a first-come, first-served basis. No prior reservations are taken. Tour tickets are $5.00. The tour is not recommended for children under six years of age.

    Do keep in mind that it is COLD inside the dome. Temperatures inside, where the hour-long tour takes place, are expected to be in the mid 40s. Bundle up!

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    It is Just a Phase

    Yesterday's view of the nearly first quarter Moon hangs in the sky over the nearly first quarter dome of the Hale Telescope:

    Click to embiggen, but notice that when you illuminate two round things from the side, they look sort of the same.

    Observatories of the Southwest

    Observatories of the Southwest: A Guide for Curious Skywatchers is a new book by Douglas Isabell and Stephen E. Strom.

    The book profiles Palomar, Kitt Peak, Lowell, Whipple, Mt. Graham, Very Large Array, Sacramento Peak and McDonald Observatories. Each chapter includes sections on the history, research and public outreach for the observatory being profiled as well as an interview with an astronomer that uses that facility.

    I just got a copy today, so I haven't taken a good look yet, but if my skimming through the chapter on Palomar Observatory is an indication of what the rest of the book is like than I would say that anyone interested in visiting any one or more of the observatories included would certainly enjoy reading this book.

    The book is available through the University of Arizona Press and other outlets such as Amazon.

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    History Photo of the Week

    With so many old photographs coming our way now it is time to start a new feature here at Palomar Skies -- Palomar History Photo of the Week.

    That is a warning sign of the side of the building that would eventually house the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory. Perhaps it is a "sign" of what is to come in this new feature.

    On the back of the original photo, which comes from the Family of Lee A. Farnsworth, Jr., was written "1 June, 1937 by Waterson".

    Thanks go out to Observatory docent Richard for scanning this and many other images for us.

    Saturday, November 21, 2009

    The Long and Winding Road

    South Grade Road, seen above from the air in this vintage shot, is the road that was made to bring the 200-inch mirror up to Palomar Observatory. It's many turns make it a favorite choice for people who would unfortunately prefer to race up and down the mountain. This has unfortunately led to a number of deadly head-on collisions.

    In an effort to improve safety on the road the County of San Diego will soon be installing center line rumble strips. This will hopefully prevent people from crossing over into oncoming traffic.

    The rumble strips will be installed November 30 - December 14. There will be traffic delays, possibly as long as 30 minutes during these dates between 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. So if you are planning a trip to Palomar, you might want to build some extra time into your schedule.

    Thanks to the San Diego County and Chief Lucia of the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department for helping to make this happen.

    Dome Gear

    Back in August I had a short post with some photos of the Palomar Day Crew performing some maintenance on the shutter rails for the dome of the 200-inch telescope. One of the guys doing the work took this cool picture that he was willing to share with the readers of Palomar Skies.

    That "big" gear on the left is a part of the mechanism that opens the dome. From the perspective of the photographer it almost seems to rival the horseshoe in size, but then again he was right next to the gear and the horseshoe was very much in the background.

    Thanks to Drew for sharing the photo.

    Palomar in Science Fiction - Gumby Edition

    Gumby? That's right. Gumby.

    I don't imagine that there is much of Gumby on TV these days, but the entire Gumby Saga is
    available on DVD and it contains some pretty interesting stuff. The very first episode of Gumby dates from 1956 and certainly qualifies as science fiction. In that episode Gumby takes a trip to the Moon --13 years before Neal & Buzz went there.

    In the inaugural episode Gumby uses a toy of the Hale Telescope. Here's a short clip from the beginning of the episode that shows Gumby looking through the toy telescope.

    It is a pretty cool toy, a "Mt. Palomar Telescope" made by St. Pierre & Patterson Mfg., Co, North Hollywood, Calif. As near as I can tell these were sold in the 50s & 60s. From time to time you can find one on eBay. I have a couple of these toy telescopes in my collection. I will devote a future post to these cool toy telescopes.

    After Gumby looks at the Moon he rides in a toy spaceship to the Moon there he meets aliens and ultimately gets stuck there. Thankfully his parents use the toy telescope to see Gumby there (That first view of the Moon has to be rescued by his parents.

    Gumby! He was once a little green slab of clay. Gumby! You should see what Gumby can do today. Gumby! He can walk into any book, with his pony pal Pokey, too. If you've got a heart then Gumby's a part of you.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    Dark Skies for Borrego Springs: the Podcast

    Last month Borrego Springs, CA celebrated their recognition from the International Dark-sky Association as the worlds' second Dark-sky Community. Today's podcast from the 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts celebrates their achievement. You can get the podcast from the link above or here from iTunes.

    The Big Eye's Final Journey - part 2

    November 19, 1947: day two of moving the Big Eye to Palomar Mountain did not deliver beautiful, clear weather like the first day did.

    Observatory superintendent Byron Hill met Jack Belyea of Belyea Truck Co in Escondido, CA at 5:00 a.m. Hill told Belyea that "things did not look good up on the mountain as it was closed in with fog and visibility was zero and starting to sprinkle."

    The mirror couldn't be left in Escondido. Everyone would prefer to get the mirror out of harm's way and into the protection of the dome on Palomar. It was decided to press onward and upward to Palomar. They left Escondido at 5:22 a.m.

    "We got within 6 miles of the Observatory and the elements threw everything including the book at us. We had wind, rain, hail and snow," said Belyea.

    Writing in their January 1948 issue, Nancy R. Bolton, staff writer for Sky & Telescope magazine had this to say: "the way up the mountain road to Palomar a fine drizzle of rain was falling, at points a mixture of snow and rain. It was impossible to see beyond a few feet. George H. Hall, of the Caltech publicity department, who was driving our car, had to keep his head outside the car a good part of the time even to drive at a snail's pace. .... My heart almost stopped a couple of times when I realized what we had just passed. I always said I wanted to live dangerously, and this was it!"

    The convoy overcame the elements and completed the final 26-mile leg of the journey arriving at 11:00 a.m. -- nearly four and a half hours ahead of schedule. By noon the mirror was out of the big crate and lifted to the dome floor and its cart that formed the bottom of the aluminizing tank.

    According to Jack Belyea, "We arrived at the Dome at 11:00 a.m. that morning. Unhooked our two pusher trucks and the mirror was backed into the dome - signed for and received in good order." Yes, he made them sign for delivery of the mirror.

    Outside, Jack Belyea (right) shakes the hand of truck driver Lloyd Green (center) and thanks him for a job well done.

    As with yesterday's post we thank the Belyea Family for their donation of Jack Belyea's photos and documents related to the moving of the 200-inch mirror to Palomar.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    The Big Eye's Final Journey - part 1

    Sixty two years ago today, November 18 1947, the 200-inch mirror began its final trip. Nearly thirteen years earlier the mirror was cast by Corning Glass Works. In the spring of 1936 it was moved from Corning, NY to Pasadena, CA where it spent eleven and a half years in the optical shop at the California Institute of Technology. This final trip was a two day journey from Pasadena to Palomar Mountain.

    The mirror was moved by Belyea Truck Co. Nothing was left to chance on this journey as engineer Bruce Rule and Jack Belyea, owner of the company that moved the mirror, planned every detail of the route. Jack was quoted to say "The eyes of the world are on us for this job, there can be no mistake".

    The most hair-raising moment of the first day was the trip over the Galivan bridge, 5 miles north of San Juan Capistrano (51.7 miles from their starting point at Caltech). The convoy arrived at the bridge at 11:00 a.m, seven and a half hours after the trip began. Sixteen extra wheels were added to help distribute the load more evenly for the trip cross the bridge. Even so the bridge sagged 3/8 of an inch.

    On the open highway the convoy was at times able to crank up the speed to 10 miles per hour. Vibrations were carefully monitored and used as a guideline to help set the proper rate of travel.

    As you can see above, it was perfect weather for the drive.

    Here is the tentative schedule for the day:

    Note that they were to to arrive in Escondido, CA at 6:00 p.m. The actual convoy arrived an hour early, giving them an average speed of just under 12 miles per hour.

    The mirror spent the night, under guard in Escondido.

    The second day of the trip, which I will post tomorrow, would bring some challenges as the mirror was brought up from Escondido to Palomar Mountain.

    All of the images shown here were recently donated to Palomar Observatory by the Belyea Family. We are very grateful for their donation and happy to be able to share some of their family history.