Saturday, October 31, 2009

High Flying Over Palomar

On warm days when the thermals are just right we often see a lot of gliders flying around the observatory. From time to time they pass close enough that you can actually hear them flying.

I guess that is why Pilot Getaways magazine was interested in featuring the observatory in an article on the local community Ramona, CA. That, and the fact that they had this amazing photo of a glider over the observatory:

That is a pretty awesome shot. You'll find it on the cover of the September/October issue of Pilot Getaways magazine.

Just underneath the tail of the glider is the dome of the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope, our one million-gallon water tank, water tower and the Power House. Underneath and to the right of the tail is the Palomar Testbed Interferometer. To the right of that is the dome for the 200-inch Hale Telescope. In front of the Hale is the dome of the 24-inch telescope. Behind and a bit to the right of the Hale is the dome of the 18-inch Schmidt. The observatory's Outreach Center (where I am typing this) is just to the right of the pilots and the Cleveland National Forest's Palomar fire station is to the right of that.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Too Far to Be Seen

Sometimes it is pretty exciting when you look for something and don't see it. Last April there was a gamma-ray burst (GRB 090423) detected by NASA's SWIFT satellite. One of the first ground-based telescopes to look for the visible light afterglow was the automated 60-inch telescope at Palomar. The 60-inch was imaging the source within three minutes of the satellite's detection of the GRB. The result? The 60-inch didn't see it.

You might not expect that I would devote any time or space on this blog for talking about something that we didn't see. But that non-detection (unlike LCROSS) was pretty exciting.

As Brad Cenko said in his report:

The lack of an optical afterglow, together with the fact that the X-ray column density is consistent with the Galactic value (Krimm et al., GCN 9198), make GRB 090423 an interesting candidate high-redshift event. We encourage observations at longer wavelengths to search for a NIR counterpart.

Translation: This object should be bright, but it wasn't seen in visible light. That means it could be an extremely distant event. So distant, that the expansion of the universe shifted its light completely out of the optical and into the infrared. That was indeed the case.

Telescopes observing the object in the near infrared and radio wavelengths did indeed see the optical afterglow of the event and it is the most distant object ever observed.

How far is it? Just over 13 billion light-years from Earth. GRB 090423 occurred 630 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only four percent of its present age of 13.7 billion years. Explosions like this give us a glimpse into the early universe and confirm the idea that massive stars, like the one that blew up creating the gamma-ray burst, existed even back then.

Goodbye to Sleuth

From 2003 - 2007 the tiny, robotic 4-inch sleuth telescope spent its nights at Palomar Observatory hunting down exoplanets. The telescope was part of the Trans-Atlantic Exoplanet Survey (TrES), a network of three such telescope dedicated to looking for exoplantes that are seen to directly transit across the face of their parent star.

At the time the survey began, there was just one known transiting exoplanet. TrES added four more exoplanets to the list. Not bad for such little telescopes.

The project was set up by then Caltech postdoc David Charbonneau (now with Harvard) who returned to Palomar earlier this week to to retrieve his little telescope. Even though the telescope had already been out of service for almost two years it was a bittersweet moment. Nobody like to see a telescope retired. The good news is that Dr. Charbonneau is leaving behind a 10-inch telescope ("Sherlock") that was also used for the project. This telescope, which helped to remove false detections from the list of possible exoplanets, will eventually be used for our public outreach programs.

The enclosure that was occupied by Sleuth will be put back into use again. More on that later.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Last Tours of the Season

This weekend (Oct. 31 & Nov. 1) will be the last Hale Telescope public tours of the season. If you have been putting off coming for one of the tours this will be your last chance until they resume in April.

The temperature inside the dome is running about 40 degrees right now and will likely stay in the 40s for the weekend. So if you attend, be sure to bring a warm layer (or two)!

The tours will be held at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., & 2:30 p.m.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Borego's Dark Sky Day

Last Saturday was the big day in Borrego Springs, CA. A number of people were on hand as it was time for the International Dark-sky Association to officially present Dark-sky Community status to Borrego Springs. Here are a few photos from the event, which was held just outside the Borrego Springs Library.

Bill Horn, a San Diego County Supervisor, spoke about the importance of the dark-skies designation to the community and presented an official proclamation for the event.

Click on the image to embiggen. That way you can actually read the proclamation.

Kim Patten of the International Dark-sky Association spoke on the importance of preserving dark skies and the wonderful skies over Borrego Springs.

Here is the Borrego Springs Dark-skies Coalition as they received the framed certificate from Kim Patten of the IDA. Yes, I am in that shot. I worked with this group for two years to help make this a reality.

Astrophotographer Dennis Mamanna spoke eloquently about the value of seeing the sky from the desert that surrounds Borrego Springs and then presented one of his astrophotos, taken from the area, for display in the town's public library.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dark Skies for Borrego Springs

Last summer I helped to announce that the International Dark-sky Association had proclaimed Borrego Springs, CA to be the world's second International Dark-sky Community.
Today, the official ceremony marking their effort to preserve their night sky will be held in Borrego Springs at 1:00 p.m. in the library as a part of their Borrego Days events. I will be attending and report on it later.

If you come to Borrego for the ceremony or to view their impressive night sky, be sure to check out The World at Night photo exhibition. The amazing exhibition of astrophotographs runs at the Borrego Art Institute through November 8, 2009. An if you are in town this evening you can catch Dennis Mammana presenting One People, One Sky! at the Borrego Springs Performing Arts Center. The images in the talk are stunning and include spectacular photos taken by Dennis himself.

Friday, October 23, 2009

No Power

The power company will be doing some work in the area and power will be cut to parts of Palomar Mountain today. The observatory will be running on generators and open to the public. The observatory's public affairs office office is slightly off of the compound and not part of the generator's back up grid. In other words, don't bother trying to call me after 8 am as my phones, message machine and Internet will likely be down.

Pictured above is one of the old diesel Enterprise generators that used to serve the observatory 24/7/365. Back in the early days the observatory was totally off of the grid and ran generators full time. The observatory's main office is still called the Power House even though those generators have now been gone for quite a while.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dome Dog

I am having a super busy week with little time for blogging. Here's a photo from the collection of Lee A. Farnsworth, Jr. taken sometime in the early 1940s.

I am not sure of the dog's name, but it appears in several photos.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

This is the Way We . . . . .

This is the way we wash our dome.

It is possible that, until today, the dome of the Hale Telescope has never been washed except by rain. We decided that it was time to change that. The dome is 135-feet high, making it a rather big job to wash the dome. A guy on a ladder with a garden hose pressure washer just isn't going to get it done.

Thankfully, the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department was able to come to our rescue.

The PMVFD, armed with a ladder truck and fire hose, was easily up to the task.

Seeing the crew in action spraying water onto the dome was a very impressive sight.

When it is time to wash different areas of the dome, you simply turn the 1000-ton dome past the firetruck.

The washing produced quite an impressive spray which led to some interesting photo opportunities.

It is pretty nice to be able to create your own rainbows and have a firetruck and a telescope dome at either end.

They have a pretty powerful pump in the ladder truck and it certainly could shoot water very high into the air. Alas, it wasn't quite able to knock that jet out of the sky. ;)

Thanks to George, Cliff, Greg (on the ladder) and the entire PMVFD for their assistance today.

Russell W. Porter's Palomar Art on Exhibit

Shown above is Russell Porter's 1939 drawing The Two Hundred Inch Telescope Looking Northwest. It is one of Porter's many fantastic visualizations of the 200-inch telescope project. Porter's work earned him the nickname "cutaway man" because many of his drawings featured cutaway views of the interior of the telescope and its many parts.

Now five of Porters original drawings (3 of the 200" and 2 of the 48"), including the one shown above, are on public exhibition for the first time. They are part of an exhibition at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA called "Tools".

From their website:

Objects on display are not sleek contemporary designs but rather belong to the worlds of contemporary art, science, and natural history, and can be simultaneously appreciated for their aesthetics and impact on human development, as well as for their utility. The resulting blurred boundaries are the intention of the exhibition's organizers.
The exhibition runs until January 10, 2010.

Palomar in Science Fiction - Adventures of Superman

I was pretty excited when I first read that an episode of the 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman featured Palomar Observatory. Alas, there was no on-location filming here, but there is a bit of stock footage of the exterior of the Hale Telescope's dome that appears multiple times in the 1953 episode "Panic in the Sky".

It is a pretty good episode. A five-mile wide asteroid is threatening Metropolis (presumably the rest of the planet too) and Superman is the only one who can do something about it.

Here is the Palomar dome as it appears in the show:

The telescope inside is less than impressive when compared to the 200":

There are two things that I really like about this episode. After the astronomer makes his observations, he says that Superman's eyes would probably do a better job than the telescope. If so, then why has Superman been withholding his supervision from astronomical research for all these years?

The real gem is this:

Superman: It's stopped moving now.
Professor: You can't see it move because now it is heading straight toward us.
Superman: Straight? Straight toward Metropolis?!
Professor: [nods]
Superman: Excuse me professor. I've got a date in outer space.

The professor warns that the unknown composition of the asteroid may endanger Superman. I will leave it up to you to watch the episode to see what happens. You can buy the episode directly from iTunes and full seasons of the show are available on DVD.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mt. Wilson Podcast & Lecture

Be sure to check out the new podcast over at The Universe in Mind. In their October 14th episode Hal McAllister, director of the Mt. Wison Instiute, talks about the recent Station Fire and how it threatened the observatory. Also on board is author Marcia Bartusiak. Marcia has written numerous works including the recent and very enjoyable book The Day We Found the Universe. In the podcast Marcia talks about Edwin Hubble and Mt. Wilson.

On October 25, Mt. Wilson Superintendent Dave Jurasevich (black shirt below) will present a free public lecture about his experiences during the Station Fire. The free talk will be held at 2:30 p.m. at the Altadena Library.

Remember, Mt. Wilson is still looking for donations to help them recover from the fire. Visit to learn more and make a donation.

Good Coverage for Palomar's LCROSS Images

The images from the Hale Telescope taken during the LCROSS impact have gotten some good distribution around the Net. We didn't see an impact plume, but we delivered the highest-resolution images of any telescope during the impact. Here is a sample of a few sites on the Web that showed off our images: The Planetary Society (and here), Science, Science News, Science, Sky and Telescope Magazine, Space, Universe Today.

The view inside the Hale Telescope's Data Room about 1 minute before the impact of the LCROSS Centaur rocket.

The BBC was here filming our observations. Look for that on a future episode of The Sky At Night. The show may be carried on BBC America. If so, I will post about it here.

Finallly, as of now our short YouTube video of the LCROSS impact has had over 4,300 views. That's not bad for being up almost a week.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Telescope Tourist

I confess that I enjoy visiting other observatories. I just finished a visit to McDonald Observatory in Texas. While I was there I had the chance to check out their impressive public outreach program and their three largest research telescopes. That's me above with their 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope. I was hoping to get some eyepiece time with that instrument, but the weather had other ideas.

Below is the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith Telescope:

Their largest research instrument is the impressive Hobby-Eberly Telescope:

The HET is also an extremely difficult telescope to photograph. My wide-angle lens was challenged by its size. The telescope's giant 11.1 x 9.8 meter segmented mirror, the largest ever built, blends into silver geodesic dome. Be sure to click to enlarge the photo to make it stand out.

I have now had the pleasure to visit seven telescopes larger than the Hale Telescope at Palomar. Each one is impressive in its own way, none have the grandeur of the 200".

Saturday, October 10, 2009

LCROSS Impact Video

This video covers 12 minutes around LCROSS impact, 4 minutes prior to 8 minutes after. It doesn't look like much, because even though we had the highest-resolution images on the planet there was no impact plume to be seen.

Waiting for LCROSS

Here's the view from outside the dome of the Hale Telescope a few hours prior to the LCROSS impact.

The Moon is hidden just behind the dome. The stars of Taurus, Orion and Canis Major are just to the right of the dome.

More information on our observations of the LCROSS impact can be found here. I will have our LCROSS movie posted here soon.

Galaxy Zoo Supernovae Returns!

Galaxy Zoo Supernovae has returned. If you head on over and learn how to participate, you can be part of the Palomar Transient Factory's hunt for supernovae.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Early this morning the Hale Telescope locked on the crater Cabeus to watch LCROSS impact into the Moon. No impact plume was observed at Palomar or elsewhere, but we did get some great images of Cabeus.
Be sure to click on it to see it in full resolution.

This image was taken 10 seconds after the LCROSS impact using the 200-inch telescope and adaptive optics. Cabeus is dark region in the center, just behind the large bright mountain. The field of view is 71 km (40 arcseconds, with ~200m resolution), recorded at 2.1 microns wavelength.

While no plume was observed, the above image shows off the power of a 5.1-meter telescope armed with adaptive optics. Thanks to Antonin Bouchez and the AO team at Palomar/Caltech/JPL for their hard work and quick turnaround on the image.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The IDA Comes Out Against Bluish-White Streetlights

Many communities in the area around Palomar Observatory are considering changing their streetlights to sources that would have a broad spectrum of color. The blue component of this light would greatly increase levels of light pollution within the cities and over the observatory.

Astronomers would not be the only ones affected and earlier this week the International Dark-sky Association issued a press release on the the impact of bluish-white lights. Here is the text and an illustration that appeared in their news release:

Blue Light Threatens Animals and People

The rapidly expanding use of bluish-white outdoor lighting threatens visibility at night and jeopardizes the nocturnal environment worldwide.

This surge is fueled by the promise of energy savings and reduced lighting maintenance. The demand for energy efficient lighting is a laudable imperative. This effort has resulted in a new generation of electric light sources such as LEDs and induction lamps that emit a cold, bluish white light. The blue tone of the light is a result of how the light source operates and it is not visually necessary. The blue portion of the color spectrum produces only a small percentage of light that is useful to the human eye.

Unfortunately, bluish light produces high levels of light pollution with significant environmental impact. These lights are known to increase glare and compromise human vision, especially in the aging eye. Short wavelength light also increases sky glow disproportionately. In addition, blue light has a greater tendency to affect living organisms through disruption of their biological processes that rely upon natural cycles of daylight and darkness, such as the circadian rhythm. For only a modest improvement in outdoor lighting efficiency, these new sources dramatically escalate the environmental damage caused by artificial lighting.

Some manufacturers and government agencies are misrepresenting the visual effectiveness of these bluish-white light sources and the environmental impacts are not being considered. IDA discourages the use of bluish-white lamp sources with a Correlated Color Temperature above 3000 Kelvin. Developers of light sources should be required to refine their products to limit blue light at wavelengths shorter than 500 nm.

IDA encourages government and other concerned parties to support additional scientific research. This research will help to understand fully the impact of bluish white light and guide the evolution of lighting technology to protect human health and the nocturnal environment while providing safe and efficient outdoor lighting.

Human visual sensitivity is primarily in the green and yellow part of the spectrum and is depicted by the thin solid line. Circadian rhythms are controlled by light emitted within the dashed curve. The color of light emitted by a typical bluish-white 5500 Kelvin LED is depicted by the bold line. A large portion of light emitted by this lamp source falls outside of the human photopic vision range, and falls within the circadian rhythm curve. IDA recommends limiting blue light emitted below 500 nm, in the shaded section of the graph.

LCROSS Impact is Tonight!!

NASA's LCROSS Mission is scheduled to impact the Moon tomorrow morning (Friday October 9) at 4:31:19 a.m. PDT (with a second impact at 4:35:45 a.m). Weather permitting we will be using the Hale Telescope with its adaptive optics to observe the impact. We are just one of many professional observatories that will be looking to see what the impact plume looks like and if it contains water. If all goes well we will have cool stuff for you here sometime tomorrow.

Don't fret if you don't have your own observatory to see the crash. There are lots of ways that you can watch online and elsewhere and they are detailed here. If you will be looking on your own, you probably need at least a 12-inch telescope to catch the crash. Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day has a great photo to help you find the right crater. Be sure to also check out the Guide to Seeing the LCROSS Event from Universe Today.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Everything on the Internet is True. Right?

The Internet is a great source of information. Unfortunately some people think that EVERYTHING they read online is the truth. Of course, that just isn't so.

Sometimes you find an untruth that doesn't hurt anybody. For instance I recently came across an entry over at the Internet Movie Database for the movie The Gift of Love. The entry claimed that this 1958 movie was filmed at Palomar Observatory and Highway 76. Naturally that got my interest up and I felt that I had to track down a copy of it. Alas, the movie was filmed at Lick Observatory and not Palomar. What harm was done from this? Not so much, I lost a bit of time and a few dollars tracking it down.

There are other things on the Internet that are just as untrue, but they can pose actual harm to people. Take for instance the false claim of an apocalypse for 2012. There is no scientific evidence behind any of the fantastic claims being made, yet many people are genuinely frightened. Why? Because there are lots of people on the Internet loudly spreading this hoax.

Thankfully there are also people out there telling the truth about what isn't going to happen in 2012. A great place, with truthful information about this non-event is the 2012hoax: Debunking the "2012 Doomsday" website. If you have concerns about 2012, or if you know people who do, take the time to visit their website.

And if you want to steer clear of the Internet on this one, pick up a copy of the November issue of Sky & Telescope magazine which has an article "The 2012 Doomsday Scare? What you need to know to set people straight."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Happy Birthday Susan!

Happy birthday to Susan V! Susan is a vital part of the outreach effort here at Palomar Observatory.

In honor of Susan's birthday, I give this vintage photo of a Palomar dome cake.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

No Tours on Sunday

Sorry, Gang. We will be unable to offer public tours of the Hale Telescope on Sunday, October 4th.

Regular public tours on Saturdays & Sundays should continue at 11:30, 1:30 & 2:30 through November 1st though.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cosmic Times

Have you read the Cosmic Times? It is a great project out of NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center that basically provides curriculum materials for middle school & high school teachers on our our understanding of cosmology over the last 90 years or so.

They have produced six newspaper front pages from six different years (1919, 1929, 1955, 1965, 1993 & 2006) that talk about "current" events. At the masthead each front page (available as a cool poster) shows off what was then thought to be the age and size of the universe.

For the Palomar connection, aside from photo above, the stories cover the research of people like Edwin Hubble, Fritz Zwicky, Walter Baade, Maarten Schmidt and others. Astronomy teachers and amateur astronomers should both enjoy having a look at the materials posted on their website.

Why wasn't this around when I was teaching astronomy?

Star Trek: The Next Generation Visits Palomar

Last week a new release of the Star Trek the Next Generation movies came out in a boxed set on DVD and Blu-Ray. I am not normally in the business of informing my readers of new home video releases, but this one has Palomar Observatory in one of the bonus features.

On the disc for Star Trek Generations is a bonus feature for both the DVD and Blu-Ray releases called Stellar Cartography On Earth.

The feature is just over seven and a half minutes long and it makes the comparison between the stellar cartography room seen in Star Trek Generations (below) and modern reality.

The piece talks a bit about exoplanets, NASA's Great Observatories, Kepler, the proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder mission and Palomar Observatory.

It features Amy Mainzer (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, JPL), Charles Beichman (Michelson Science Center, Caltech, JPL), Michael Werner (Spitzer Space Telescope, JPL) and um. . . me.

They almost got the spelling of my name right (I x-ed out the extra "L" on the screen grab). It was fun to have them visit the observatory last February and to know that Palomar Observatory is now a very small part of the Star Trek universe.

The Hale Telescope: A Modern Wonder

Here is another trading card featuring the Hale Telescope. This one comes from the Comet Sweets Modern Wonders set issued in 1961. I don't know much about this set, but I believe that is was issued as part of a cigarette promotion. It looks like the complete set also included the Jodrell Bank radio telescope and a planetarium.

Here is the front of the card:

You are seeing it here larger than life as the real card is 2.5-inches across. And the text on the back:

I just acquired another trading card with the Hale Telescope on it via eBay. It is pretty cool, but it will have to wait for another day.