Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fire Threatens Mt. Wilson Observatory

The Station Fire is apparently threatening Mt. Wilson Observatory, which has now been evacuated of all personnel. The view above was taken from their tower cam at 5:14 p.m. on Saturday, August 29.

Their latest update on the fire from Mt. Wilson says:

It is expected that the fire, if it cannot be brought under greater control, could reach the Observatory sometime Sunday.

Official news on the fire is available here from InciWeb with more from the Cal Fire blog.

We certainly wish the best for Mt. Wilson and the many firefighters who are working to save this historic observatory.

Lee A. Farnsworth, Jr.

There are lots of names that stand out from the design and construction era here on Palomar. Often lost in their shadows are the people who actually made things happen on the mountain by making roads, welding steel, laying pipe and more.

One of those people was Lee A. Farnsworth, Jr. Lee worked here, driving a tractor and doing other jobs, from around the very beginning of the observatory up until the completion of the construction phase in 1949.

During his time at Palomar Observatory Lee documented a lot of history through his photos, letters and other things. I have had the pleasure to meet some of his family which has graciously allowed me to digitize some of his collection. It is a vast treasure trove of history that displays common every-day life on Palomar and provides an insiders look at the people, tools and techniques of the construction of the observatory.

There is a lot to go though and from time to time I will be sharing some of it here. In case you hadn't guessed, the photo above is a zoom of the photo below of Lee on a tractor in front of "Utility Hill" here at the observatory.

Thanks go out the Lee's family who have given me a look into their family history and have allowed me to share it with the outside world.

The Ladder

One of the things we like to point out on tours of the 200-inch telescope is the ladder at the top of the dome. Can you see it in this shot?

If not, here is a zoom of the photo above:

That ladder is about the highest place you can go inside the dome of the Hale Telescope. Earlier this week I had the chance to go up there for the first time.

To get there one has to go up the prime focus elevator across a walkway, up a ladder, across an interior walkway and down another ladder to the walkway with this ladder.

Here is Greg, one of the observatory's electronicers, up on the walkway right next to the ladder:

It doesn't look high at all, does it? Of course, if you look down . . . . you'll notice that you are up very high. I took this shot, looking down, just as I was about to climb up the ladder and into the dome:

It is a long, long way down from there with nothing underneath except the observing floor, or the glass roof to the visitors gallery. Click on the photo to see it larger and you can easily see the interior cat walk, the visitors gallery (which was unfortunately empty when I took the shot), and the zig zag stairs that go from the observing floor up over the data room to the catwalk. It is a perspective you don't often see and a trip that is not for the faint of heart.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Stories & Stars in Hemet, CA

Tomorrow evening I will be giving a talk on research taking place at Palomar Observatory for Stories and Stars taking place at the Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology in Hemet, CA. The good folks from the Riverside Astronomical Society will be there with telescopes to give everyone views of Jupiter, the Moon & more!

You can read a news story about the event here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Still Inovating After All These Years

SPIE was at Palomar a couple of weeks ago to conduct some interviews. The first one, Palomar's 200-inch telescope: still innovating after 60 years of science, is now posted on their website. It is an interview with our Superintendent, Dan McKenna. In the interview Dan talks about the Observatory's mission and some new observing projects we have going on. I am biased, but it is cool stuff.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Value of a Good Book

That's the cover of my copy of The Picture History of Astronomy by (now Sir) Patrick Moore. My copy was given to me for Christmas in 1972 by my aunt and uncle. Yes, I still have it.

Photographs of Palomar Observatory and taken at Palomar Observatory are all over it (I counted about 40 of them). There is no question that this book had a positive influence on my 10-year old brain and it is very gratifying that it, and Sir Patrick Moore, helped me on my road to Palomar.

That is why I am pleased to help pass on this request to send astronomy books to Uganda.

Mimi Burbank, has been living in Kasese, Uganda and working the South Rwenzori Diocese of the Church of Uganda. Here's little of what she has to say:
We live in a part of the world where electricity is not in great demand, and therefore the night skies are absolutely beautiful! There is nothing (except for clouds during the rainy season) to prevent one from looking at the stars and planets, and with some software that I have on my computer, I am able to recognize the constellations that I see -- something I have never been able to do before in my life. We are too poor to have a telescope (sad about that) but teaching the children about the formation of the universe and our relationship with the rest of the galaxy is something that I wish I could do.

Science is so sadly 'under-taught' - largely because of lack of material and books, but I can assure you that the interest is there. Children are the same the world around - they all want to know more.

I would love to have books and teaching materials for astronomy - for ages 3 on up to adult. If I could get the adults interested in this, we could do more in the way of teaching. We just need resources!
If you have some old or even new astronomy books that you don't need, why not send them off to someone who wants them? It would be a good project to help celebrate the International Year of Astronomy.

Send them to:

Mimi Burbank
c/o South Rwenzori Diocese
PO Box 142
Kasese, Uganda
East Africa

Now, to finish up my story on The Picture History of Astronomy. Earlier this year I met Nick Howes when he was here on assignment for the UK's Astronomy Now magazine. As it turns out Nick knows Sir Patrick Moore. That's the two of them in front of the recent World Record image of the Moon:

I happened to mention my book to Nick and he happily took it back with him to the U.K. and arranged for Sir Patrick Moore to autograph it for me.

Thanks, Nick!

So you see a good book to a young, hungry mind can have a lasting, positive impression.

Palomar in Ads - III

I have posted a few print ads here, now it is time for some video.

It is a wonderful new world of Fords! From 1960 I give you the Falcon, the Thunderbird and the Galaxy. All sold to you using a model of the Hale Telescope and Dome.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dark Skies Podcast

Today's podcast over at the 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts is The Scenery of the Night by Chad Moore of the U.S. National Park Service.

Anyone who cares about light pollution or the beauty of the night sky should listen. In the podcast Chad takes the listener on a trip from Denver to a very dark site that very few people have ever experienced. You can get the show from the link before or here from iTunes.

Ride the Dome

Here's some video that was posted to YouTube by someone who attended one of our recent evening tours run through the Ruben H. Fleet Space Center. You can see part of the tour from the observing floor under the Hale Telescope and experience the thrill of riding the big dome during a rotation.

We have only one more of these tours for the season and I think that it is already sold out.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dwarf Planets

Three years ago today, Pluto, Ceres and Eris were conferred Dwarf Planet Status by the I.A.U.

Three (Eris, Haumea and Makemake) of the five (a 60% majority!) worlds that have been proclaimed as dwarf planets so far have been discovered at Palomar Observatory by Caltech's Mike Brown and his colleagues. So, as you might imagine, we have a have a special place in our hearts for dwarf planets here at Palomar. You can even buy a squeezable dwarf planet of your very own in the observatory's gift shop.

Back on the serious side, Dr. Brown argues that there should be a whole lot more than just five dwarf planets. Be sure to check out his page on dwarf planets, where he gives a full rundown on what a dwarf planet is (trust me, they are a lot bigger than what I have been showing here) and which other worlds should be added to the list.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dark Nights

Until last night when it rained we've been having some good dark nights lately, nicely coinciding with clear skies and little or no moonlight. The photo above was taken a week ago during a star party at our Outreach Center while the big scopes were out hunting for transients and studying neutron stars. The photo was captured before the low coastal clouds blew in covering the city lights and thus making it even darker.

You'll hear more about this in the future, but we have begun a new long-term project of monitoring the sky brightness over Palomar. This comes at a very important time. Outdoor lighting is at a crossroads as new lighting technologies (such as LEDs) and government stimulus money may bring about sweeping changes to street lighting. The big threat to dark skies is that the new lights are whiter and as a result they have a much greater amount of blue light in them. Unfortunately it is blue light that most greatly contributes to sky glow.

LEDs and othe white light sources have the potential to greatly increase the amount of light pollution, effectively wiping away the night sky for everybody. But LEDs do have some promise to dim light pollution. For that to happen cities will need to dim their lights after hours and even turn them off when they are not needed.

Light pollution is a world-wide issue. At the recent meeting of the International Astronomical Union, astronomers endorsed the idea that everybody has the right to see starlight. You can read the resolution as it was adopted here (It is Resolution 5B on page 5. Adobe Acrobat required).

Friday, August 21, 2009

400 Posts and Counting

This is my 400th entry in the Palomar Skies blog. Since December 2007 I have been trying to give a mix of research, history and what it is like to work here at Palomar Observatory. Feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email if there things you would like to see here in the future.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department Barbecue

Mark your calendars for Saturday, September 5 as the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department will be holding its annual fund-raising barbecue. Details are on the flyer below:

Of course if you are looking for astronomical fun don't forget that the Julian Starfest begins tonight and runs through through Sunday.

Swing. Swing. Swing.

In yesterday's post I showed some images of the old Cassegrain observing chair. Before that was realized there was another idea that resembled more of a swing. Here it is as depicted in a 1936 drawing by Russell W. Porter:

You can see this idea represented in my In The Year 1940 post and on this bread blotter:

Yes, that is the 200-inch telescope selling homogenized Bond bread. Apparently both of them are Modern Wonders. The Hale Telescope still is a Modern Wonder. All these years later the 200-inch telescope is still used each and every night (this week it has been used so far to study neutron stars, Kuiper Belt Objects, and Type Ia supernovae), is Bond bread still around?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Sky Chair

I have talked before about how observers with the Hale Telescope used to observed at prime focus. Prime focus is just one of the four places where astronomers can have the light focused. Each focus is at a different "f" ratio and offers a different sized field of view. Also, each focus can accommodate instruments of differing sizes.

A second place where light can be focused is the Cassegrain focus. Unlike prime focus, an astronomer could not ride in the Hale Telescope when using the Cassegrain (often called "Cass") focus. From the era when they were still shooting glass photographic plates, the astronomer would have to keep up with the telescope as it was moved to various parts of the sky.

To do that they would sit in a hydraulic lift, sort of a big fancy barber chair.

A former employee give me more information on the "The Sky Chair". It wasn't hydraulic, but rather "a telescoping chain driven affair".

Below is an astronomer sitting in the chair demonstrating the loading of a glass photographic plate at the Cass focus.

This shot gives a nice view of the underside to the mirror, with the red cooling fans and the mirror supports. If we pull back a bit you get a bit more of the context of the size of the astronomer, chair and telescope:

But you need to take in a much wider view to fully appreciate the scale here:

Do you think of astronomers as being brave? I do when ever I think of how they used to observe at Cass, sitting the chair, some 20 feet off of the ground, in total darkness, under a 530-ton telescope that is slowly and continuously moving. Yikes!

I am told that "the thing was a real behemoth to drive around the observing floor. And yes, working on top of that thing fully extended was a "thrill", even in the light of day."

No wonder they later added a safer way for astronomers to observe from Cass. In 1965 the Cassegrain Cage replaced the chair. You can see the Cass Cage in this modern shot below:

For a time astronomers rode in the Cass Cage, sitting on a chair that moved on a track to help keep them somewhat level as the telescope changed positions (Sorry, but I can't seem to find a photo of that today.). No one rides in the telescope any more. Electronic instruments ride at prime focus, in the Cass Cage, and elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


We were doing more work on the dome shutter rails over at the 200-inch telescope last week. (By that, I mean the "royal we", as it wasn't actually me doing that work.)

Here are two members of the Palomar day crew as they paused to have their picture taken:

The dome is so big and they look so small, that I decided to give you a larger view of just the people doing the work.

They still look pretty small, don't they? Most people just don't get how big (135-feet high) the dome is until they experience it for themselves, but maybe this shot will help.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

70 Years Ago this Week

I found a nice bundle in my mail earlier this week. Some old slides and negatives mailed to me by Roger Carpenter. They are Palomar-related pictures that were taken by his father, an astronomer from Steward Observatory in Arizona.

I will post some others from time to time but this one really struck me because it:

1) arrived in my mail on August 12 -- 70 years to the day after it was taken.

2) is a rare color photograph taken looking into the Caltech Optical Shop while the 200-inch mirror was there.

This photo was scanned just a few minutes ago. Apart from some people in Roger's family, the visitors to Palomar Skies, are the first people to see this photo.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Palomar in Science Fiction - V

Hey, its August (OK, its been August for a while already.), so I thought I would give you a classic Palomar magazine cover from the August, 1962 issue of Analog:

That's the Orion Nebula (M42) as photographed by the 200-inch Hale Telescope in 1959. I haven't seen the inside, so I don't know if "SPACE IS NOT BLACK" is an article on the inside or just a caption for the photo.

The Orion Nebula is a pretty interesting place as the nebula is in the process of forming an impressive star cluster. All of that is revealed when you examine it in the infrared. Compare the image on the magazine cover above with this modern near-infrared image of the Orion Nebula also taken with the Hale:

The infrared view can look into the nebula, revealing the cluster within. It doesn't look much like the first picture, does it?

By the way Analog Science Fiction and Fact has been around for quite a while and it still around today.

Yes, I realize that this makes for a pretty weak installment of Palomar in Science Fiction (maybe it should have been Palomar on Science Fiction). I have got some way cool things in the wings for future Palomar in Science Fiction posts. Stay tuned.

Update on Galaxy Zoo Supernovae Hunt

The Galaxy Zoo Supernovae hunt is closed down for a bit. Here's an update from their website:

"In the next day Supernova Zoo will be taken offline so that we can have a good look at the results from the past few days. Based upon your excellent feedback there will almost certainly be some tweaks to the classification interface and refinements to the decision tree. Supernova hunting is a very different challenge to galaxy classification and we’re delighted that our Zooites appear to equally adept at classifying galaxy morphologies as finding new supernovae!"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hunt for Supernovae at Galaxy Zoo

If you have been to the Galaxy Zoo website recently you may have noticed a familiar-looking dome. That's Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope in their logo. It is there because you can now search for supernovae at Galaxy Zoo by culling through data collected as part of the Palomar Transient Factory.

Universe Today just posted a story on this, so you should head on over to check it out.

If you want to personally contribute to science, you can. Just head on over to Galaxy Zoo, register (it is free & they wont spam you), and get clicking.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Flying Insects & Light Pollution

Below is an amazing video of time-lapse photography showing flying insects near streetlights. I have never seen anything like it.

flight patterns from Charlie McCarthy on Vimeo.

The video shows (in an unique way) what you already know. Flying insects are attracted to lights. You might not know that many of them are killed each night by the lights they are attracted to. To most people that sounds like a good thing, right?

Check out these statistics from the Starry Night Lights Blog:

Studies show that the average street lamp kills at least 150 insects each night it is lit. Multiply that by 365 and you get 54,750 insects killed by one lamp in a year. A city block has at least 4 usually more in the range of 8 street lamps. That means that one city block is knocking out 219,000 to 438,000 insects per year.

While flying insects are an annoyance to humans, they are food to birds, bats, reptiles & more. Read the full post, quoted above to see the full impact that streetlights can have on the animal kingdom.

See the Planets & More!

In a recent comment an older post someone was asking about how to find what planets are up and where to look for them. Remember not to fall for the Mars Hoax, but there are cool planets and things to see in the night sky right now.

Sky & Telescope Magazine's This Week's Sky at a Glance provides a great summary of cool stuff to look for each week. Another option is to get a desktop planetarium program for your computer or hand-held device. Stellarium is a great free open source program for your Mac or PC.

Another great option is to head out to a star party and look through some telescopes. It is the International Year of Astronomy, so you owe it to yourself to go out and do some stargazing. Some of the options for the San Diego area are described in an article in today's San Diego Union Tribune. This is a busy time for star parties and events. I have a few of my favorites listed below.

The Temecula Valley Astronomers are putting on a star party in Wildomar's Marna O'Brien Park on Saturday August 15.

Explore the Stars is August 14 & 15.

The biggest event of them all is Julian Starfest which takes place August 21 - 23 with a free public star party on August 22nd. Visit their website for more information.

I will be appearing at Stories and Stars at the Western Center for Archeology & Paleontology in Hemet, CA on August 29th.

If you are wanting to visit Palomar Observatory in the evening, we have two programs where that it is occasionally possible. One through the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center and the other through the Friends of Palomar Observatory.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In the Year 1940

For my office I just framed one of my eBay purchases from earlier this year. It is a cool piece of Palomar art that (according to the seller) was featured in a magazine or book back in 1937. You can't see it in the image, but below it is this text:


A new universe will greet astronomers when the 200-inch telescope is put into operation in 1940. This fantastic eye will see twice as far as is possible today, will peer at stars one billion light years distant. (A light year is about 6,000,000,000,000 miles). It will increase the observable volume of space eight times, will bring the moon apparently with 25 miles of earth. Thus we may know whether or not our Universe is expanding at terrific speed. By studying the degeneration of stars--events which take millions of years to reach us--we may forecast the future of our solar system.

Above, you see an artist's conception of this greatest and most precise of scientific instruments, which will be housed in a bulging dome on top of Mt. Palomar, 90 miles from Los Angeles. The 60-foot long framework encasing the telescope hangs from a ponderous yoke. Focusing platforms are at both ends of the framework, while the main control boar is on a platform not visible in this picture. The 200-inch mirror lies at the bottom of the framework.

Usually, when I buy old ads with Palomar in it I can identify the publication and date by looking at the back side of the page. Not this time. On the back side is a painting of a total solar eclipse:

It had this caption:


Does anybody out there recognize where these were printed?

Monday, August 10, 2009

M15 with Adaptive Optics

We are just finishing up a few nights of adaptive optics observations of galaxies using the laser-guide star system on the Hale Telescope.

In honor of that, here is a mosaic of images made using the adaptive optics laser-guide star system from year ago this week showing globular star cluster M15.

The image shows the central portion of the cluster. Click on the image to see it in full resolution.

If you are interested you might want to compare the view of M15 with this one of globular cluster M3 taken with the Hale Telescope's wide-angle camera.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Moon, Jupiter, Laser & Hale Telescope

Here is how things looked last night on Palomar:

Inside the SWIFT team from Oxford was studying disk formation in galaxies.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Palomar Transient Factory Video

Here's a video with me talking about Palomar Transient Factory:

Here's a direct like to it on YouTube. That's Hans-Werner Braun, from HPWREN, giving an introduction to the piece.

Palomar Treasure Chest

The 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain is still arguably the most famous telescope in the world. Back in the day there was no question of that as it was featured all over the place, including ads, science fiction, trading cards, and more.

Here is the only Palomar-related comic book in my collection. I don't actually know if there are any others. If anyone knows of something else, drop me an email or leave a comment.

According to Wikipedia the Treasure Chest of Fun & Facts was a Catholic-oriented comic book series that was published from 1946 - 1972. As you can see above the March 3, 1948 issue featured the 200-inch telescope on its cover. My copy is torn you can see a cleaner copy here.

Here is the 2 page pin up from the center of the comic:

Click the image to see it much larger.

The "facts" are mostly not too bad. Although the 200-inch mirror was not cast three times.

The model shown in the illustration was real. It is now on display at Griffith Observatory. That same model was in the December, 1938 issue of Popular Science Magazine. You can see it here from the wonderful Modern Mechanix blog.

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I was traveling and just couldn't fit it in. On my flight back home I had this wonderful view of Mt. Rainier.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Borrego Springs, CA: The World's 2nd Dark-Sky Community

If you aren't looking at my Twitter feed you may not yet have heard the exciting news.

Borrego Springs, CA has just become the International Dark-Sky Association's second Dark-Sky Community. Borrego Springs follows the first Dark-sky Community, Flagstaff, AZ which received this status back in 2001.

You can read the press release on Borrego Springs from the IDA here (Adobe Acrobat required).

I have been working with the team in Borrego on this concept for the last two years and am very proud of the work that they have done. They already had some fantastic lighting in place and have also made many positive changes such as the one you see above.

Changes like the one above will help the residents of Borrego Springs to hold on to the wonderful resource that they have in the night sky. I am hopeful that the idea of a dark-sky community will spread and that other communities will want to preserve their views of the night sky too.

Not everyone can see a view such as is shown in this photo taken by Dennis Mammana, but once upon a time everyone could.

Congratulations to the residents of Borrego Springs and most especially the team that worked so hard for this. Good job!

Prime Time

Back in the day (or should I say night?), astronomers used to ride in the Hale Telescope at prime focus to collect their data just as this person is posed in this photo from the Google LIFE image archive.

They would ride up there all night and capture their images on glass photographic plates. This second photo from the same image archive shows a close up of an astronomer loading a photographic plate into a prime focus camera. Note the guiding eyepiece that was used to ensure that the telescope maintained the proper pointing during the night.

Those times have passed. No one has shot a glass photographic plate with the 200-inch since 1989. The first digital images with Charged Coupled Detectors (CCDs) were captured here in 1976 and that is the imaging standard now.

Here is a photo of the detectors within the Hale Telescope's Large Format Camera. The dark rectangles are the 6 CCDs that form its imaging array. This visible-light camera coupled with the Wide-Field Infrared Camera are the two most commonly used instruments at prime focus now.

Of course no one rides in prime focus any more. The astronomers sit in a comfortable warm room during the night. Technicians (at Palomar they are called "Electronicers") use the daytime hours to perform the instrument changes and keep them cooled with liquid nitrogen.

So how do the modern detectors compare to the old glass film plates? They are vastly more sensitive and they allow our astronomers to be much more productive. Of course another way to compare the old and new instruments is to look at how much sky they can see with a single exposure.

Palomar Skies reader (and Friends of Palomar Observatory member) W. Van Doran has certainly done his homework and made this graphic to compare the fields of view for the old film plate holders and the modern electronic detectors. Have a look at what he has done and be sure to click on it to see it in full size:

Thanks for your great graphic which bridges the old and the new at Palomar!