Wednesday, September 30, 2009

News story on The World at Night

Wally Pacholka just sent me this video from PBS' News Hour on The World at Night. If you don't get a chance to see one of the exhibitions in person, this will give you a flavor of what they are like.

Side show:

News story:

PATS Redux

A lot happened at PATS last weekend, this is just my first post on some of what took place.

On the evening before PATS began I got to speak to Dave Doody who works on the Cassini mission. He wasn't there to speak about Cassini, but rather Planet Trek. Planet Trek is to be a scale model solar system for the City of Pasadena. It is am ambitious plan, and they are still needing money to make it happen (anyone?), but it looks to be a great project where everything will be set to the same scale. That is very important because it is the only way for people to use to model to learn how vast the solar system is (of course it is tiny when compared to everything else!).

After learning about Planet Trek I went over to the gallery which was displaying photos from The World at Night project. If you haven't been to their website, block out a few hours of time and prepare to be amazed. Some of the work featured was captured by Wally Pacholka. That's Wally below. He was one of the speakers at PATS and from his booth you could buy reproductions of his amazing photographs.

The keynote speaker at PATS last weekend was former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart. That's Rusty (in the yellow) when he stopped by our Palomar booth.

Rusty wasn't at PATS to retell the story of his spaceflight. He's got more exciting things to talk about. His talk was entitled: Prevent Impacts? Yes we can. He is very much aware of the damage that an asteroid impact could inflict on civilization and as such he is involved in the B612 Foundation which wants to demonstrate our ability to alter, in a controlled fashion, the orbit of a near-Earth asteroid.

It is an ambitious, but perhaps someday, necessary program. Be sure to follow the link to the B612 Foundation to learn more about it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Last 200" Photographic Plate

20 Years ago tonight the last glass photographic plate was shot with the 200-inch Hale Telescope. Astronomer Sidney van den Bergh (then of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory) recorded a 1-hour exposure of 3C 58, a supernova remnant in the constellation of Cassiopeia.

For reference, astronomer William Miller is shown at prime focus with a photographic plate in this late 1940s-era image from the Google LIFE image archive.

Sky & Telescope magazine reported on the milestone in the News Notes of their February, 1990 issue. The exposure marked the end of nearly 40 years of such work. S&T described the passing of photographic emulsions like this:

So, after a century of faithful service to astronomers, it appears that plates will soon be things of the past at professional observatories, just like oil lamps, pendulum clocks, and slide rules.

Photographic plates have been entirely replaced by CCDs, which were first used at Palomar in 1976. Glass plates were used on the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope up until 2000. While we no longer expose new plates they aren't entirely a thing of the past as we are still storing a great many glass plates on site and get requests from time to time from researchers who need to see a particular image.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New Vistas in Adaptive Optics

The folks over at SPIE have produced a new video: New Vistas in Adaptive Optics. Click on over to have a look. When you do you'll see adaptive optics expert Bob Tyson (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), Antonin Bouchez and Christoph Baranec from Caltech and a whole bunch of images from and footage of the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar.

Cool stuff!

Help Mt. Wilson Observatory

I am in Pasadena for PATS and it was comforting to be able to look up and see the domes and solar towers up on Mt. Wilson. Most of the readers of this blog know that the observatory there just survived a major wildfire.

They have some major recovery work to get through and they could use your help.

From their website:

As a result of the events of the still active Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest, we are going to be sorely pressed for resources to take care of cleanup and further preparation and mitigation activities. If you are interested in helping us with the process of transitioning back to normal operations, we welcome your tax-deductible donation in any amount. Donations can be sent to: The Mount Wilson Institute, Fire Recovery Program, P.O. Box 1909, Atlanta, GA 30301-1909 or you may donate on line using the Amazon Simple Pay Donation system.
For more information and the donation link visit

Thursday, September 24, 2009

PATS is this Weekend

The Pacific Astronomy and Telescope Show hits Pasadena, CA this weekend (Sept. 26-27) and Palomar Observatory will be on hand. If you attend, you might want to stop on by and say "hi". We will have a booth and I'll be giving a talk at 10 am on Saturday.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Its Hip to Be Square

This image of "The Red Square", named for its color and form, was made while studying a hot star. The star, known as MWC 922, is located about 5000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Serpens (the Serpent). The image combines adaptive optics data from the Palomar Hale Telescope and the Keck-2 Telescope. Adaptive optics removes the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere to produce very high resolution images. It was taken in near-infrared light (1.6 microns) and shows a region 30.8 arc seconds on a side around MWC 922. As the outer periphery of the nebula is very faint compared to the core, the image has been processed and sharpened to display the full panoply of detail and structure.

The startling degree of symmetry and level of intricate linear form make the Red Square nebula around MWC 922 the most symmetrical object of comparable complexity ever imaged. The overall architecture displays a twin opposed conical cavities (known as a bipolar nebula), along the axis of which can be seen a remarkable sequence of sharply defined linear rungs or bars. This series of rungs and conical surfaces lie nested, one within the next, down to the heart of the system, where the hyperbolic bicone surfaces are crossed by a dark lane running across the principle axis.

The image was created by Peter Tuthill, a researcher in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, Australia and James Lloyd, an assistant professor at Cornell University Astronomy Department.

For more on the Red Square Nebula have a look at this.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Observatory is Open

It looks like the maintenance work on the observatory's roads has been completed and we are now back on our regular hours open to the public daily from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Web Cam Difference

I have posted about this before (see The Difference Engine), but if you look at HPWREN's display of the Hale Telescope webcam you can get some cool displays when there is activity going on in the dome.

Here is a shot from a few minutes ago:

and the resulting differential image:

The differential image is produced by subtracting the newest image from the previous one. This is the same technique that is used by the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) as they hunt for supernovae and other other variable sources. See my post What Does a Transient Look Like? for details on how that works.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Palomar's Star in Hollywood

In the Palomar Observatory gift shop we sell a coffee mug with the photo of a globular cluster on it and the words:

Palomar Observatory - More Stars than Hollywood

Yet there is one person from the movie business who has a star on the Hollywood's Walk of Fame and is pretty famous in the astronomical world too. That person is Mark Serrurier. For those in the telescope business, Mark Serrurier is well known for his invention that is commonly called the "Serrurier truss".

The open framework that makes up the "tube" of the Hale Telescope was the first application of Mark Serrurier's truss and it has been used on a great many telescopes since. The Serrurier truss was invented for the 200-inch telescope to solve the problem of bending or flexing steel. The telescope is so large that the steel beams it is constructed of bend under gravity. Serrurier's remarkable truss allows for this but still keeps the telescope's optical elements in perfect alignment and focus.

Serrurier did this design work for Palomar in the 1930s a few years after his father invented the Moviola, a tool for editing movies. After World War II he returned to the family business of editing movies and greatly improved his father's invention. It obviously worked out well for him because in 1979 he accepted a special Academy Award for Technical Achievement.

If you are looking for Mark Serrurier's star you can find it at 6667 Hollywood Blvd. If you can't make the trip to see it for yourself, here is how it looked when I visited it earlier this month:

Palomar in Science Fiction - Super Friends Edition

When Superman needs a big mirror to save the day, where would he go? Click on the movie below to find out in this clip from the Super Friends.

OK, this one is a bit of a stretch as the Super Friends are very much fantasy an not so much science fiction, but I just had to post this. They pretty much got everything wrong about Palomar except for the fact that we have a mirror 200-inches across. But, hey, it's just a cartoon, right?

You might recognize the voice of the narrator. That's Ted Knight, which to me was better known as news anchor Ted Baxter from the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Palomar Observatory was featured in a filmed version of Superman too. More on that later.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Observatory Closed Sept 14 - 17

Hey Everybody, Palomar Observatory will be closed to the public most of this week September 14 - 17. We will be re-paving the roads and the place will be a total mess.

Sorry about that.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Leda Anniversary

35 years ago this week Jupiter's thirteenth satellite (in order of discovery), Leda, was discovered by Charles T. Kowal.

Kowal used Palomar's 48-inch Schmidt (now called the Samuel Oschin Telescope) to make the discovery. For the 2-hour exposure (seen above) he tracked the telescope to move through the sky at the same rate as Jupiter, which is subtlety different from the motion of the stars. The result is that anything moving across the sky at the same rate as Jupiter appears as a dot and the stars as streaks. Naturally, the arrow was added later.

With a diameter of just 10 kilometers (~ 6miles) Leda is a pretty small moon.

Spectacular Sunset

Last night's sunset was pretty fantastic. Alas, I didn't have my camera handy to grab an image, so instead I give you this vintage sunset picture:

This image was featured on the cover of the Palomar Pictorial book which is sadly now long out of print.

What makes for a good sunset or sunrise? Clouds: the bane of astronomers. Last nights clouds were courtesy of tropical storm Linda and its cirrus clouds which are now blowing our way.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Palomar's 18-Inch Schmidt

Earlier this week (Sept. 6th) marked the 73rd anniversary of first light for Palomar Observatory's first telescope, the 18-inch Schmidt (FYI, many purists prefer to refer to this type of instrument as a Schmidt Camera, but that is a story for another day). I posted some construction photos and info on this last year around this time, but I thought I would update with some news about the telescope itself.

The telescope produced some major discoveries in its day, but that day has passed. It isn't used for astronomy any more and it hasn't been for over a decade now. The telescope no longer even resides in its dome. Here is a shot of how it looked a couple of years ago before it was pulled from its dome:

As you can see below the telescope is in pieces now:

Don't worry. The old 18-inch Schmidt is about to get some TLC and will (hopefully within a year) be proudly on public display. As things get moving I'll post info here to update how things are progressing and give a preview or two as to how it will eventually be displayed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

George Ellery Hale: the Building

George Ellery Hale was many things. To name just a few he was an astronomer, a telescope builder, and a civic planner. He took such an active role in civic planning that the Pasadena Permit Center is named for him.

From the Permit Center's website:

A History of our Building's Namesake, George Ellery Hale

Appropriately, the namesake for the Permit Center Building is George Ellery Hale. Hale was a renaissance man, personifying the merging of disciplines into an integrated whole. Although best known as a scientist and astronomer who established the Mt. Wilson observatory and inspired the founding of Caltech, Hale was also a pioneer in city planning and was a major contributor to the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in its formative years.

As a member of Pasadena's first Planning Commission, Hale guided the master plan for the city's Civic Center. He promoted a grand plan, suggesting that an attractive city would be a prosperous one. The impressive City Hall was completed in 1927 and two years later the elegant building which now houses the Permit Center was built for the Southern California Gas Company. Acquired by the city and renamed in 1986, it now bears the name of George Ellery Hale, the visionary civic leader who championed the Civic Center.

Technology. City planning. The integration of disciplines. These attributes of George Ellery Hale are pillars of Pasadena's Permit Center.

In 1994 the city restored the historic 1929 lobby of the George Ellery Hale building to form the environment for the Permit Center service counter. The two-story space features the original decorative ceiling, unusual historic painted plaster walls (hidden for years by wood paneling) and the original tile flooring. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Civic Center district.
On one of my Pasadena trips earlier this year I had to stop and visit the building just to pay homage. Here is a shot of the building from across the street:

From closer you can see Hale's name outside:

A close up of the name:

Once I was there I had to go in. Wearing my Palomar Observatory shirt I explained to the confused (but nice) person behind the counter that I worked at an observatory where we had a big telescope named for George Ellery Hale and that he helped to create it. I then asked if there was any artwork or plaque in the building the commemorated Hale.

Reluctantly the kind receptionist took me in to a back area where this sketch is hanging on the wall:

I grabbed a quick photo, said my thanks and left. According to the Caltech Archives, the original sketch was done in charcoal by S. Seymour Thomas in December, 1929. I didn't stay long enough to see if this was a copy or not. The sketch was likely a study done prior to the painting of Hale that Seymour did which stately hangs in the Carnegie library on Santa Barbra Street in Pasadena.

200" Web Cam Restored

The dome for the Big Eye was still open when I cam into work this morning which reminded me to tell everyone that the Hale Telescope web cam is back in action. It was out of commission for much of August but restored last week.

The image above was captured this morning during morning twilight as the telescope was looking high in the southeast. The good folks over at HPWREN assemble animations and maintain an archive of images from this and other web cams on their network.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Friday, September 4, 2009

Mt. Wilson Tower Cam is back!

Mt. Wilson's tower cam is back!

That's the view tonight of the 100-inch Hooker Telescope from under bright moonlight with fires in the background. I missed it until just now, but there was a wonderful update posted yesterday and all looks good for Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Here Comes Science

The band They Might Be Giants has just released a CD & DVD set of science songs aimed at kids, but I suspect that many adults will like them too.

There are several astronomy songs on the album: What is a Shooting Star?, How Many Planets?, Why Does the Sun Shine?, Why Does the Sun Really Shine? ROY G. BIV

How Many Planets? is the only song I know of that mentions Eris. Are there others?

Thanks to CaptainCaustic for letting me know about this.

You can read a review of the project here from Wired and can buy it on iTunes and in all the usual places as an exclusive.

Forest, Fire & Fun

This week the Cleveland National Forest raised their fire restriction level to Extreme. The forest on Palomar is very dry, so be careful out there.

Distant fires, like the 144,000 acre Station Fire, have taken their toll not only on the lands they have burned and the observatories threatened (By the way, things are still looking up for Mt. Wilson) in the San Gabriel Mountains, but they have been hitting Palomar Observatory from afar. Drifting smoke and falling ash have kept our domes closed for a week now.

You can help combat fires by eating and having fun (no, really) at the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department's annual fund-raising barbecue which is tomorrow. Details are below:

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Hale Telescope is Topps

Here is the 200-inch telescope as depicted from the Topps Space Cards series of trading cards issued back in 1957

I just love the way the guy on the left standing on the upper catwalk has his arms spread wide. It is as if he is exclaiming on how big the telescope really is.

The back side of the card:

It photographs stars that are millions of miles away? OK, that's off, but the rest of the card is pretty cool as is the whole series. Very retro, in that cool 50s SciFi way. I love 'em.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Good News for Mt. Wilson Observatory

The Mt. Wilson Observatory has posted a great update tonight. LA County Deputy Fire Chief Jim Powers who is in charge of protection for structures at the Observatory, "expressed his absolute confidence that they will save the Observatory." Follow the link for the full scoop.

It doesn't get any better than that. It almost makes the photo below, posted on Twitter the other night, look less scary.

The Battle for Mt. Wilson

Today the Station Fire made it to the summit of Mt. Wilson. While it lasted, the view from the tower cam on the 150-foot solar telescope looked pretty scary at times:

The view from the air didn't look much better though:

After a while we learned that these were backfires lit by the fire fighters to prevent the main blaze from reaching the observatory.

Power seems to be off on the mountain and official updates are now coming from a site not hosted there.

This afternoon the LA Times reports:

"But firefighters were frantically trying to save the historic astronomical observatory and dozens of critical TV and radio antennas from destruction. By 3 p.m., the fire was approaching closer than ever from two directions: one-half mile to the north and three-quarters of a mile to the west.

“We expect the fire to hit the Mt. Wilson facilities between 5 p.m. today and 2 a.m. Wednesday morning,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department Deputy Chief James Powers. “Right now, we’re conducting controlled burns around the perimeter in preparation for the impending fire's arrival. We’re also bringing in trucks and special equipment to coat all of the structures with protective gel and foam if necessary. We do not plan to cover everything with a gooey mess.”

The equipment was driven in on the two-lane, five-mile long Mt. Wilson Road, which intersects Angeles Crest Highway. Access to the road was restricted to firefighters and law enforcement. Fire lined several sections of the road on both sides, and rocks were falling from denuded hillsides.

As he spoke from his ersatz headquarters in the observatory’s main office, myriad controlled burns set beneath canyon oaks and old incensed cedars cloaked the mountaintop with dense acrid smoke.

The air was also filled with the ear-splitting, blaring sounds of an observatory fire alarm system.

Chainsaws could be heard in every direction in the surrounding forest. Massive earth movers were being unloaded off flatbed trucks nearby. Powers said authorities had deliberately delayed diverting firefighters and equipment to the scene until the complex was in imminent danger.

“That time is now,” Powers said. Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Martin said, “We are going to burn, cut, foam and gel. And if that doesn’t work, we’re going to pray. This place is worth a lot, but it’s not worth dying for. ”

In a worst-case scenario, firefighters were expected to retreat to the safety of the observatory parking lot or seek refuge in the concrete and steel basement of the 105-year-old, 100-inch telescope observatory."

It is currently raining on Palomar Mountain right now. I don't see any rain on the way for the Mt. Wilson area, but hopefully they at least have some higher humidity to ease things a bit. The battle certainly isn't over.

Mt. Wilson Update

Mt. Wilson Observatory is still hanging in there. The Station Fire has now grown to over 120,000 acres. Here is a recent smokey shot of the view from their tower cam:

The tower cam is getting hit by heavy web traffic, so if it does not load for you it may be a sign that the servers are overloaded rather than catastrophe induced by the fires.

Here is the latest official update from the observatory:

Monday, 1 Sep 09, 7:15 am PDT - I wish I had some fresh substantive information to post this morning, but I do not at this point have any news - only what we can all deduce from Towercam and other sources. Towercam scenes continue to show thick smoke on the mountain with a concentration on the right side of the image implying activity on the mountain's north side. It clearly has not reached the mountain and, if advancing towards us, it is only doing so slowly.

The best updates, occasionally mixed in with wild rumors, seem to be found on Twitter.

As you may recall, at Palomar Observatory we faced the threat of wildfire two years ago. Yesterday, Ian O'Neill from Discovery Space and Astroengine interviewed me on the topic. Here is the result: Wildfires and Observatories.