Thursday, April 30, 2009

Palomar Science Meeting - Group Photo

It was a long day at PalSci 09, but some of the participants took time to pose for a group photo in front of the new Cahill Center for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

I do not yet have time to post any details about today's meeting. That will have to wait until another time.

Big Eyes. Big Science.

The 2009 Palomar Science Meeting kicks off today as over 100 astronomers from across the globe gather at Caltech to present findings from their research at Palomar Observatory. Presentations and posters will include results from all of Palomar's telescopes, spanning the observable universe.

In celebration of the meeting here's a view looking down on the Big Eye that I took last weekend. Riding at prime focus is the Large Format Camera.

Compare the modern view above with the classic shot of Edwin Hubble riding the Big Eye from the late 1940s. Times have changed - for the better. Astronomers are able to accomplish more and do it faster than ever before.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Big Picture

Today's 365 Days of Astronomy podcast feature's The Big Picture. The image was captured with Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope & the QUEST camera, beamed to Caltech via HPWREN and on display at Griffith Observatory. For more and a video (available May 1) visit the Spacewriter.

This & That

Check out this news update from HPWREN to see some of what I have been up to lately.

If you've got the time & are in the area you might think about attending the open house at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory this weekend. It should be fantastic.

The Around the World in 80 Telescope folks have archived the live broadcasts. You can find them here or here. You can see the Palomar webcast here.

By the way, 429 people attended one of our public tours of the Hale Telescope in the month of April. That up from just 192 last year. Remember you can get a tour of the 200-inch on most Saturdays & Sundays (until November) at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., & 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lamp Shade

The world's biggest lamp shade is formed by the marine layer clouds as they roll in off of the San Diego coast, covering the lights of the cities below Palomar. Here's the view from last night just after 11 p.m.

During the night, after I took this shot, the clouds got thicker and advanced further inland making it even darker. Astronomers need dark skies. I took this shot after returning from a street lighting demonstration in the City of San Diego.

The City long ago gave up on astronomy-friendly low-pressure sodium lighting for high-pressure sodium and is again exploring making changes in their street lights.* Under consideration are induction and LED lights, both of which are very white in color. I'll be attending a meeting to learn more about this later today and will soon share my photos form the session last night.

Tonight the general public gets a chance to evaluate the new lights. The public survey to evaluate the lighting on 6th and Laurel begins at 7:30 p.m. If you are interested meet at the War Memorial Building.

If you live in the area you should try to have a look and give an opinion.

*Actually, for locations within 30 miles of Palomar and the Mount Laguna Observatory they have been sticking to low-pressure sodium.

Astronomy Podcasts Keep on Coming

I am having a hard time keeping up with the 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts, but there have been some good ones recently. Here are three from recent days that might catch your interest.

My podcast about the naming of the asteroids to the Luiseño People.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Outdoor Lighting from the National Park Service's Night Sky Team.

Will the World End in 2012?
(Quick Answer: NO!) by Cameron Hummels of Columbia University.

There's lots more good stuff too.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Flying Horse Telescope Oil

Back in the day, the 200-inch telescope floated on Mobile Flying Horse Telescope Oil. Here's what a drum of the stuff looked like:

Mobile Oil was pretty proud of the fact that they made the oil for the biggest telescope in the world. They even took out full page ads in magazines to show off their fine product.

Alas, Flying Horse Telescope Oil is no more. At Palomar we have moved on to a modern, synthetic (and fire resistant) oil.

Just like the oil in a car, it doesn't last forever and needs to be changed out from time to time. How often do we change our oil? Every 5,000 galaxies? Nah, we changed it yesterday and from what I hear it was last done about 4 years ago. That's waaay more than 5,000 galaxies.

The 200-inch telescope has three oil pumps that push oil to the north and south telescope bearings. We have three pumps. One for the south (foreground), one for the north (in the back), and one that can be switched to handle the north or the south (middle).

From the perspective above that's the north pump on the left and the south on the right. Behind the pumps, almost lost in the pipes and valves, are the two oil reservoirs that hold the oil for the two bearings. Here is the opened reservoir for the north bearing, where the oil was changed yesterday.

The task was simple. First pump the oil out of the reservoir into a drum for recycle.

Here is the sludgy insides of the empty reservoir:

After the oil is pumped out it is time to wipe down the inside and refill with nice, fresh oil.

It is a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it. The process was most certainly not done in 30 minutes (or less), but all-in-all it was a good oil change and by mid afternoon everything was ready for another night of operating the 530-ton telescope.

So what oil do we use now? Quintolubric 822. Many of the kids that come to visit the observatory tell me that the observatory smells like crayons. Kids, that's not crayons. That's the smell of telescope oil.

Explore the Stars

Friday (tonight!) and Saturday night this weekend you can Explore the Stars from Palomar Mountain. Explore the Stars is a free program for observing the wonders of the night sky from the National Forest Service's Observatory Campground (Its not at the observatory, just named for us).
It is a great program, usually held monthly from April through October. Click here for the full list of dates for the year.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Due to a special event taking place at the observatory we will be unable to give guided tours on Saturday, April 25. Our normal schedule of weekend guided tours resumes for Sunday, April 26.

Also, we've got some maintenance taking place in our visitor center which will keep it closed to visitors on April 27, 28, & 29. The observatory will still be open and visitors can still see the Hale Telescope, but not the exhibits in the visitor center. Sorry about that.

Prototype Preview

Last fall I had the opportunity to visit the 20-inch prototype of the 200-inch telescope. It used to reside at Caltech, but now is at the Eileen Collins Observatory at Corning Community College in New York.

I have had a couple of requests for info about this and am planning a big post on it soon, but in the meantime here is a very short teaser about it:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dark Sky Week

Just a quick reminder: it is National Dark-Sky Week and International Dark Sky Week too. What will you do to celebrate?

The Cyclops of Palomar

Who was Robert T. Edgar? And What was his connection to Palomar?

Here's a showbill advertising one of his talks that I bought off of eBay a while ago.

It certainly looks as if he made a living touring the country talking about the 200-inch telescope in his "The Cyclops of Palomar" lecture demonstration in the 1940s and 1950s (see the "Conquest of Space" article in the link). You can find another showbill of his where he was appearing "IN PERSON" courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries' Special Collections Department. Page 2 tells a little bit of his story and offers some glowing reviews of his presentations.

I would certainly love to hear more about Robert T. Edgar, how he got started on this road and what happened to his cool props. Does anyone out there know his story? Page 2 of the showbill linked above says that he "brings first-hand information of the great telescope through the inventions and contributions which his father has made in connection with the mounting of the great instrument." This just adds to the mystery as far as I am concerned.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who are you callin' dummy?

By 1940 construction of the Hale Telescope had been completed and it was time to balance it. At that time the 14.5-ton mirror for the telescope was still in the optical shop back at Caltech. Further, initial balancing of a large telescope was at that time not generally done with the expensive and fragile mirror in place. A "dummy mirror" was crafted to take the place of where the real mirror was later to be installed.

Perhaps you've seen the large concrete disc behind the dome of the Hale Telescope?

Yes, this disc is the same approximate weight as the 200-inch mirror and the support cell that it rides on. It was in the Hale Telescope, occupying the same place where the mirror is now, from May, 1940 until October, 1947.

All work on the 200-inch mirror was stopped during World War II, which greatly delayed the arrival of the completed mirror.

Here is a newspaper clipping that shows the dummy mirror installed:

The article dates back to when all work on the Hale Telescope was stopped due to the war and Harley C. Marshall was acting as caretaker.

Harley's role at the observatory dates back to its earliest days. From The Perfect Machine by Ronald Florence:

"By the end of the first year of work on the mountain, cottages had been built for [Superintendent Byron] Hill and a few others with families. Mary Marshall became the schoolteacher. Her husband, Harley Marshall, kept account books and arranged public relations for the tourists who were already finding their way up the mountain to see the world's largest telescope."

As Palomar Observatory's person who is currently in charge of public outreach, Harley Marshall and I have a connection separated by some 70 years.

Florence also describes Marshall's role during WWII:

"On Palomar, with the work crew gone, the buildings were closed. Harley Marshall stayed behind as caretaker, and once a month a small crew came up to the mountain to "exercise" the machinery, checking equipment for corrosion, starting up the oil pumps on the two-hundred-inch telescope, turning the dome, and slewing the drives from one limit to the other to avoid the ravages of inactivity. When they left Marshall was again alone with the machines.

"Marshall had been in charge of public relations and visitors before the war. Navy pilots in training at Southern California bases sometimes used Palomar as a navigation point, so Marshall would see planes overhead, but there were no more visitors to the observatory and no press releases. The world had forgotten the perfect machine."
From time to time I find myself alone in the dome with the telescope and have the time to stop and consider all that have come before me--those that have worked on the telescope and its mirror, used it to unravel the secrets of the universe, and even those like Harley Marshall who have had a role in telling its story.

It must have been difficult for Marshall being relatively alone and knowing that the great telescope lay unfinished, not yet able to begin its mission.

Of course the 200-inch telescope was completed. For the last 60 years astronomers have been using it. The story of the telescope is still continuing. Last night it was used for nine and a half hours to probe distant galaxies. Tonight that program will continue and tomorrow night a new set of observers will be here to tackle yet another mystery of the cosmos. If Harley Marshall were here I am sure that he would be happy to know that.

Video Saturday

It is Saturday. I am working today, but you aren't you might have time to enjoy some videos.

Have you ordered your Galileoscope yet? If not, why? They are only $15.00 and can give you views of the Moon like this:

Not bad, eh?

If you missed The Journey to Palomar on PBS and haven't seen it on DVD you might consider buying it on iTunes.It is available for an amazingly low price of $1.99. The preview available there is a bit odd, so if you don't know what it is all about you should just check out this trailer instead.

Finally, I was asked to give a local introduction to the 400 Years of the Telescope when it aired on KPBS-TV in the San Diego area. Here's the result:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Palomar Science Meeting in 2 Weeks

The 2009 Palomar Science meeting begins in just 2 weeks. Check out the list of presenters & topics. I will naturally be reporting on all that takes place. Stay tuned.

Kepler Catches TRES-2

You remember TRES-2, don't you? Just take a good look at the star known as GSC 03549-02811 and you can't miss it. That's because TRES-2 is an exoplanet and every 2.47 it passes directly between its parent star (GSC 03549-02811) and us. As it does it produces a sort of mini eclipse known as a transit.

Above is some artwork showing a transiting exoplanet. Why artwork? Astronomers can not actually see the exoplanet, just the dimming of the star caused by the planet as it passes in front of its parent star. Click here to see a graphic of what I am talking about.

TRES-2 gets its unique name from being the 2nd planet discovered as a part of TrES, the Trans-atlantic Exoplanet Survey. The planet was found by this network of three small-aperture telescopes, one of which was based at Palomar. The network was made up of: Sleuth (Palomar Observatory, Southern California), the PSST (Lowell Observatory, Northern Arizona) and STARE (Observatorio del Teide, Canary Islands, Spain).

Transits are all the rage for finding exoplanets and NASA's Kepler mission is banking on the success of this technique. One of the things that makes TRES-2 so exciting is that it is located in the same part of the sky that Kepler will be staring at. They hope to find many, many exoplanets, including Earth-sized worlds (which TRES-2 certainly isn't). Since the Kepler team already knows that TRES-2 is there they can use it as sort of a calibrator for finding unknown exoplanets.

The team released their first images today and you can see TRES-2's parent star (GSC 03549-02811) in all its glory.

By the way the little 4-inch Sleuth telescope is no longer in operation on Palomar, but it had a good run in helping to discover several exoplanets.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Giant Telescopes in 3D

Todd Mason, of The Journey to Palomar fame, is at it again. A while ago I told you that on his new website, he has wonderful visualizations of what the next generation of giant telescopes will look like. He has just added a page of cool 3D images of these giant scopes: the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (those are links to the individual project websites). He has also posted a 3D movie too. In the 3D movie you'll the Hale Telescope and the giants that are to come.

So grab your red/blue glasses and take a peak into the future. In 3D.

Dark-Sky Talk Tonight & Dark Sky Week

David Crawford, founder of the International Dark-Sky Association, and Lisa Bruhn, president of the San Diego chapter of the IDA, will be presenting tonight at the monthly meeting of the San Diego Astronomy Association. The meeting is at 7 p.m. tonight at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center.

Attending tonight's presentation will get you ready for International Dark-Sky Week, which happens to be next week: April 20 - 26. IDSW kicks off on April 20 with the World Night in Defense of the Starlight.

Two years ago I attended the first International Starlight Conference, held on the island of La Palma. It was a meeting of people from around the world where, with the support of UNESCO, IAC, IAU, and other organizations, it was agreed to promote the World Night in defense of the Night Sky and the Right to Observe the Stars, as a cultural, scientific and environmental humankind heritage.

Check out their website for more and ask yourself, do you have the right to see starlight?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Flame On!

Here is the Flame Nebula and Alnitak, the left-most star in the belt of Orion, as captured by the QUEST camera which was installed (from 2003 until last fall) on Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope.
Be sure to click on the image to enlarge it.

Click here for a much wider view of the same part of the sky, captured with the same telescope (during the Second Palomar Observatory Sky Survey), and nicely processed by Davide De Martin at

Of course if you want a much closer look at the Flame Nebula have a look at this image captured by the 200-inch Hale Telescope. It is an near-infrared image so it looks quite different from the other two. You'll see quite a bit more stars in the near-infrared view. Why is that?

You can find more cool images captured by QUEST here.

Of course QUEST is now gone and a new camera and a new science program have replaced it - the Palomar Transient Factory.

Keeping Up With the Outer Solar System

In late March I mentioned that Caltech's Mike Brown was looking for a name for the satellite of Pluto. He's picked one so be sure to visit Mike Brown's Planets to find out what name was chosen and why.
Speaking of Mike Brown, he has been looking for more objects like Sedna but none have been found yet and that is telling about the solar system. He has also published some work on Haumea and its satellites.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Reminder: 400 Years of the Telescope Tonight!

Remember, for those in the San Diego area, that 400 Years of the Telescope is on tonight at 10:30 on PBS. It is a good show and well worth your time.

I am in it, but if you blink at the wrong time you'll miss me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Russell Porter's Missing Sundial

Back in the 1970s a Sundial, made by Russell W. Porter, vanished from the Caltech campus. It remains missing. Read all about it here from the Caltech News and here from Sky & Telescope.

I will gladly kick in some bucks as reward money if it is returned.

Friday, April 10, 2009

New Asteroids Honor Luiseño People Native to Palomar

Earlier this week I was honored to play a small role in a ceremony here at Palomar Observatory's Outreach Center as three asteroids were named to honor the Luiseño People who are native to Palomar and the surrounding area.

The asteroids, were discovered by my friend and 200-inch telescope operator Jean Mueller. Jean found the asteroids years ago while operating the Samuel Oschin Telescoope as part of the Second Palomar Observatory Sky Survey.

During the course of the sky survey, she scanned most of the plates under high magnification. She looked closely at the images as they were developed searching for comets, supernovae (exploding stars) and fast moving asteroids. In the course of her work, Mueller discovered 15 comets, 107 supernovae and 14 asteroids!

The rules for naming comets and supernovae don't allow the discoverer to have any say in their names, but for asteroids the discoverer has the honor to bestow names. Asteroids, also called minor planets, are first "numbered" after accurate orbits have been determined. Many of the asteroids that she discovered are Apollo-type asteroids. Apollo asteroids have orbits that cross the orbit of Earth and have the potential to someday impact Earth. There are rules to naming Apollo asteroids that are governed by the 15-person Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union. It was only recently that cultures such as the Luiseño could be honored in this way.

The new asteroid names honor figures from the Luiseño creation stories. The names selected were Tukmit (Father Sky), Tomaiyowit (Earth Mother), and Kwiila (black oak).

At Tuesday's ceremony we heard from Jean who said "It has been a dream that I could follow through with the naming of these asteroids for the Luiseño people and to honor their culture and history. I started thinking about this probably 15-20 years ago and took my first steps toward this back in 2003."

That is Jean above. Below is Chris Devers, Chairman of the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians. (holding plaque at left) some of the Pauma kids, myself & Jean (holding a plaque at right).

Chairman Devers had this to say during the ceremony, “On behalf of the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians, I would like to thank Palomar Observatory and Miss Mueller. And we appreciate her dedication to her field and her recognition of our people, our history and our culture." He spoke about the meaning of the names from their creations stories and the "great connection between the stars and the Tribe".

After the presentation of the asteroid plaques the kids gave a wonderful thank you blessing.

The students also brought along some of their artwork depicting the asteroids and/or their interpretation of the asteroids' names. Scroll on down to have a look at their efforts. Some of it is quite good, far exceeding my feeble skills.

This last one looks scary to me!

Here are photos of the asteroids, along with more information on their names and their discovery information.

Asteroid (12711) Tukmit was discovered January 19, 1991. Tukmit is Father Sky in the Luiseño creation story. He was made from nothingness and together with Tomaiyowit bore the First People. The First People became all the people, animals, plants, and inanimate objects of the earth, the basis of Luiseño existence. (Orbit Diagram)

Asteroid (11500) Tomaiyowit was discovered October 28,1989. Tomaiyowit is Earth Mother in the Luiseño creation story. She, together with Tukmit gave birth to the First People, which are all things and features of the earth forming the basis of Luiseño existence. (Orbit Diagram)

Asteroid (9162) Kwiila was discovered July 29, 1987. Kwiila is one of the First People in the Luiseño creation story. Kwiila means black oak, which is indigenous to Palomar Mountain where the Luiseño traditionally gathered acorns during the summer months. (Orbit Diagram)

My next podcast for the 365 Days of Astronomy will include some of the sounds from the naming ceremony. But until then look for the song on this page.

The story got some nice coverage from the San Diego Union Tribune, and was even on the front page of the North County Times the Valley Roadrunner newspapers. The story has also been picked up by and

Top 10 Telescopes of All Time

In honor of the 400th anniversary of the telescope Popular Science Magazine has named their Top 10 Telescopes of All Time. Guess which one is # 8?

Ok, this isn't "the next post" that I referred to earlier. That is coming shortly.

Alien volcanoes & More!

At 6 pm tonight you can catch author/artist Michael Carroll presenting Alien Volcanoes at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego. I understand that he gives a great presentation, so you should check it out if you can.

If you missed me yesterday on These Days you can catch it here.

I just found this shot of comet Hyakutake from 1996 taken from just outside the dome of the Hale Telescope. It is available as desktop wallpaper for your computer from National Geographic. Maybe it can help to tide you over until the next bright comet visits our skies.

My next post (later today) will be about something quite cool that happened here earlier in the week.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

400 Years of the Telescope on PBS

To continue your celebration of the International Year of Astronomy you should plan on watching 400 Years of the Telescope on PBS.

The folks over at Interstellar Studios have done a fantastic job with the production (Yes, I've already seen it). They visited just about every major telescope on the planet. The documentary is narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson and features a moving score by Mark Slater, but the stunning imagery of the show (in HD) will overwhelm you.

It will be aired Monday, April 13 @ 10:30 p.m. in San Diego, but be sure to check here to see when and where it will be shown in your area.

You can see the trailer for the program on their website and below:

Tomorrow (Thursday) morning I will be on KPBS Radio's program These Days with Kris Koenig director/producer of 400 Years of the Telescope to discuss the new documentary, the what's new in astronomy and even Palomar Observatory. You should be able to listen live just after 10:00 a.m. PDT or check out the archive of the show later on.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Palomar Observatory Movie for IYA

Here's the video about Palomar Observatory that I produced for the Around the World in 80 Telescopes IYA event. You can see it in the webcast (linked a few posts below), but here it is in case anyone wants to see it all on its own.

If you prefer, you can find it here on YouTube.

Meet Me At the Corner

The International Year of Astronomy isn't just for adults, it is for kids too. To celebrate the folks from Meet Me at the Corner recently came to Palomar. They interviewed my friend Dennis Mammana about astronomy. You can see the results on their website and below.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Around the World in 80 Telescopes Visits Palomar

Here it is:

Video clips at Ustream

A direct link is here. Please ignore their bad spelling of Palomar (it isn't Palomer) and the fact that we are not in Puerto Rico.

Now it is time for sleep.

Sharpless 106

Here is the new astrophoto we unveiled during the live webcast:

Sharpless 106 is a giant molecular cloud, basically a cloud that is in the process of forming a star cluster. This near-infrared image was captured using the Hale Telescope's Wide-field Infrared Camera.

Be sure to click to enlarge

Awaiting the Webcast

The view a few hours before the Around the World in 80 Telescopes webcast.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Around the World in 80 Telescopes stream

I just realized that I can stream the event directly here. Hopefully this will work.

Free TV : Ustream

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Around the Word in 80 Telescopes TONIGHT!

Here's a reminder that the Around the World in 80 Telescopes begins at 2:00 a.m. tonight (well, Friday morning).


or watch on

Since the 100 Hours of Astronomy website is getting hit hard, you might want to try viewing directly on the channel.

Here's the programming information for the 5 Caltech observatories on the show:

W.M. Keck Observatory 3 am Friday
Caltech Submillimeter Observatory 4:20 am Friday
Galaxy Evolution Explorer (Galex) 1:20 pm Friday
Spitzer Space Telescope 2:20 pm Friday
Palomar Observatory 1:40 am Saturday

All times are PDT

During the Palomar webcast you'll get to see a new astronomical image from the Hale Telescope and a short movie about the observatory. Both of which will be seen here after the event.

Busiest Weekend Ever?

The 100 Hours of Astronomy is underway. Click on over to their website to find a star party in your area. UPDATE From the 100 Hours of Astronomy folks: "We are currently experiencing greater than anticipated load on the web server - we are currently adding more capacity. We appreciate your patience and apologize for any inconvenience."

In the San Diego area there will be a star party (weather permitting) at Mira Costa College at 8 p.m. on April 3 & 4. Be sure to check it out.

Remember that the Around the World in 80 Telescopes live webcast event begins Friday morning at 2 a.m. Pacific and runs until 2 a.m. Saturday morning. You can watch at the 100 Hours of Astronomy website and on I'll be in on at 1:40 a.m. Saturday morning. I'll be looking to see if you are watching.

If that wasn't enough Tours of the Hale Telescope resume this weekend and the San Diego Science Festival's Expo Day is Saturday from 10:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. in San Diego's Balboa Park. Stop on by and I'll show you the Sun through a telescope!

Have a Science Weekend.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kuiper Belt Podcasts

This week Caltech Grad student Darin Ragozzine gives us a great podcast on The Informative Dwarf Planet Haumea which was followed by a podcast on the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Great stuff for fans of the icy bodies of the outer solar system.

Visualizing the Future of Big Telescopes

You may remember Todd Mason from The Journey to Palomar. He and his wife Robin were the filmmakers who brought the career of George Ellery Hale to life in their fine documentary. If you saw the film you also saw some the 3-D graphics that Todd produced of the Hale Telescope.

While making the documentary Todd was also producing graphics for some of the big new telescopes that are now on the horizon. His new site Todd Mason Graphics has wonderful renderings of some future telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and (our local favorite) the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Here is one of his of renderings of TMT:

There are plenty more on his new website. It is well worth the look if you are interested in any of these new telescopes.

If you have The Journey to Palomar DVD, you can see his work in the special features that describe some of these giant new telescopes.