Monday, November 30, 2009

Palomar History Photo of the Week - November 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009


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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Observatory Closed Saturday Nov 28

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

It's Full of Stars

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Black Friday Tours at Palomar

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It is Just a Phase

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

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

Observatories of the Southwest

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

History Photo of the Week

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Long and Winding Road

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

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

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

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

Dome Gear

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

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

Thanks to Drew for sharing the photo.

Palomar in Science Fiction - Gumby Edition

Gumby? That's right. Gumby.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dark Skies for Borrego Springs: the Podcast

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

The Big Eye's Final Journey - part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Big Eye's Final Journey - part 1

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the tentative schedule for the day:

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

The mirror spent the night, under guard in Escondido.

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Fix for a Common Glare Bomb

Back yard dusk-to-dawn lights are pretty common. They are also a big source of glare and light pollution.

Here is one of them turned on and I think you'll see what I mean.

Look at the piece of poster board on the right and you should see just how much light it throws sideways and upward instead of down. This is an example of what people who are concerned about light pollution call a "glare bomb".

Look at the picture below and then answer the (trick) question:

Which of these lights is turned on?

The answer is: "both of them"!

It may not look like they are both turned on as many people are used to looking at the source of the light and not the intended target of the light. So let's look at the illumination provided by each lamp:

The light on the right is a retrofitted fixture from Evluma. Notice that it is putting most of its light on where it is supposed to go - down.

They do this with an LED lamp that can be screwed into many existing dusk-to-dawn yard lights. While this LED is a much bluer light than we would like to see, it certainly has much, much better shielding than the light it replaces.

It is a bit pricey (a little over $200), but it also uses substantially less electricity than what it replaces. If you buy one it will pay for itself in a year or two (depending on your electric rates), though lower electric bills.

Friday, November 13, 2009

60 Years Ago Tonight

November 13, 1949, sixty Years ago tonight, the 200-inch Hale Telescope began being used for astronomical observations. Earlier in 1949, Edwin Hubble took the first astronomical photographs with the 200-inch, but additional work was needed to tune up the telescope before scientific observations could begin.

To celebrate I thought I would give you a look at first the 200" log book. Here's what is looks like:

And here is the first page of entries:

Click to embiggen and you'll be able to read everything.

Notice that the first entries are for November 11 & 12, 1949 as observatory director Ira Bowen was performing mirror tests. The first regularly scheduled observer was Milton Humason. He observed from prime focus for just six hours, capturing four images on photographic plates in the process. After Humason's three nights, he was followed by Walter Baade and then Rudolph Minkowski. The Night Assistant (aka Telescope Operator) for each of the nights was Ben Traxler.

After 60 years the Hale Telescope continues to be used nightly and is one of the top telescopes in the world. Tonight's observer is from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and she will be using the 200-inch to study the re-ionization era of the early universe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gearing Up

I am giving a talk on the construction history of the 200-inch Hale Telescope at 7 pm tomorrow (November 12) night at the Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society. I am spending some time today scanning some old photos for the talk that very few people have seen. You might even say that I am "gearing up" for my talk.

Speaking of gears, that is a person with one of the 200-inch telescope's drive gears out on the observing floor. The photo was likely taken in 1939. This photo came from the collection of Lee A. Farnsworth, Jr.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Visit to the Hale Solar Laboratory

Last Saturday I had the rare opportunity to visit the Hale Solar Laboratory. George Ellery Hale had the building built in 1924 to serve as his personal office and solar research lab after his retirement as the director of the Mount Wilson Observatory.

I took over 200 photos from my visit - far too many to share here, but I have included a few below.

The building is now privately owned, but it is a treasure. As you can see it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

Here is a diagram of the solar telescope contained within:

For our visit the solar telescope was brought back into action. Here is the view from within the dome:

The whole building is a 150-foot focal length folded telescope. Light from the Sun is collected by a coelostat mirror and reflected up to a second flat mirror which directs the light back down to a third mirror, back up to a "secondary" mirror and back down to the observing station seen below.
For spectrographic work the light is further directed down in the a deep pit and through a diffraction grating. Here's a look taken from partway in the pit looking upward.

The observing station and Hale's library (below) may look familiar to you if you have seen the documentary about Hale, The Journey to Palomar.

Much of Hale's writings about astronomy in the mid to late 1920s and his planning for the 200-inch telescope took place here in this room. I feel fortunate to finally have had the chance to visit Hale's Fortress of Solitude.

Friday, November 6, 2009

An Amazing Model of the 200-inch Telescope

I recently picked up some old Sky & Telescope magazines off of eBay with Palomar Observatory on the cover.

Shown below is the November 1947 issue.

That's not the 200-inch telescope on the cover. It is a model of the telescope - a very impressive model that was built by Clifford E. Raible.

The finished 1/16 scale model was really quite huge. With the model pointed at the zenith it stood nearly six feet high and the telescope's "tube" weighed 95 pounds. The north pier, made of steel, weighed over 300 pounds. It had 12.5-inch primary mirror with a 22.5-inch focal length and a 4-inch secondary mirror. Like the real telescope, all of the mirrors were made of Pyrex glass. The model also contained auxiliary flats mirrors (like our coude flat) that would allow for the light passing through the telescope to be focused at the lower end of the south polar axis, just like the real thing. The model could also have an eyepiece attached midway up the declination arms, making it a working 12.5 inch telescope.

Like the real 200-inch telescope this telescope was motorized and had it's own oil bearings.

Except for a few nuts, bolts & motors, Raible made all of the parts himself, actually casting aluminum parts in his basement on weekends "often working from breakfast to midnight, quitting only at his wife insistence" .

As the parts for the real telescope were being fabricated at Westinghouse, Cliff "was a frequent visitor, spending many hours watching the operation and talking with the workers." This was especially useful for him as he made his own horseshoe bearing for the model.

Here is a photo of the model that ran in the article:

Notice the scaled person in the lower right.

The more I read about this model, the more impressed I got about the amazing work done by Cliff Raible. All of this made me wonder what has happened to the model in the 62 years since the article was published. Does it still exist today? I am not really sure if it does or not.

There were a few clues in the article that sent me scurrying to Google to try to find some answers. Apparently the model was exhibited at the Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh and Raible was a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh. Thankfully, the AAAP (founded in 1929) is still around and a few of its members had some clues for me.

It seems that 20 or 30 years ago the model telescope was given up by Buhl Planetarium and in the early 90s sold at an auction held at VernonScope. Don Yeier from Vernon Scope confirmed this for me, but I do not know who bought the model or where it resides.

If anyone out there knows of the current whereabouts of the model, please comment or drop me an email to I would love to see a modern photo of this. Of course if the current owner does not want it, I am sure that we can find a good home for it here on Palomar.

Thanks to Don Yeier and for the good folks over at Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh for helping me with some of the pieces on this mystery.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Autumn on Palomar

Here's the view from yesterday morning looking out from next to the 60" telescope out across the valley to the ridge on the other side:

The oak leaves are just now at their peak of color. The color is better this year than it has been in a while because it has been such a mild autumn with no rain or wind events to help get those leaves to drop.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Flight Suit Follow-Up

In a follow-up to yesterday's post of the manual for the F3-A electrically heated flying suit, here is where the astronomers would plug in their flight suits to keep warm:

As you can see there is a nice rheostat so that the astronomer could dial in the correct temperature to counter the cold of the night.

Thanks to Drew from the Palomar Day Crew for providing me with this photo! No one has used them in decades, but the rheostat and outlets are still up in prime focus.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Return of Flying Electric Trousers

About a year and a half ago I did a post about Flying Electric Trousers, the heated flight suits that astronomers used to wear on cold nights while observing at Prime Focus. The flight suits were surplus F3-A electrically heated flying suits used by the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.

In addition to having some of the old flight suits hanging around (one is on public display now) we also have one original F3-A manual. The flight suits are a unique piece of astronomical and aviation history. By request, I am posting scans of the entire manual.

The front cover:

Pages 2 & 3:
Pages 4 & 5:
Pages 6 & 7:
The back cover:
The images are posted in full resolution, just click on them to embiggen and read the text.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Winter" Visiting Hours Return

It is not winter yet, but our "winter" visiting hours resume on Monday, November 2. Until the end of March the observatory will be closing an hour earlier. Our "winter" visiting hours:

From November through March: 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.

From April through October: 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.