Saturday, July 16, 2011

"All Good Things . . ."

As the saying goes "All good things must come to an end" and so it is that my time here at Palomar Observatory has finally come to an end.

For the last eight years I have had the honor of serving as Palomar's Public Affairs Coordinator. During that time I have immersed myself in the observatory's history and current operations. I have worked to help spread the message of the observatory in a variety of ways. The Palomar Skies blog, which I began in late 2007, has been a forum for me to share news, photos and interesting stories from the observatory. I hope that this project has been informative and enjoyable. I have certainly enjoyed blogging about the observatory.

Starting in August I will be working as the Director of Public Affairs for the International Dark-Sky Association. Preserving dark skies is important not just for professional observatories, but for wildlife and much more. A star-filled night sky has been a tremendous source of inspiration for most of human history and now it is vanishing for almost everybody. In my new role I will work hard to raise awareness for this cause and hopefully bring the Milky Way back for many.

I will likely be blogging there about dark skies. If you are interested, please look me up sometime in August. As for Palomar Skies, it shall remain here, but I will be stepping aside from it. At some point someone will hopefully pick up the keyboard and resume posting here. After all there are many great stories still to share and more discoveries about the universe yet to come.

So long.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Astrophoto Friday - A Marvel in the Darkness

Antonin Mrkos discovered seven comets. These photos of his brightest comet (1957 D) were taken in August 1957 with Palomar Observatory's 48-inch Schmidt Telescope (now called the Samuel Oschin Telescope) by Charles Kearns, George O. Abell and Byron Hill.

Be sure to click on the image to make it larger to see the wonderfully detailed structure of the comet's tail.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ride the Dome

We don't often get to turn the Hale Telescope's 1000-ton dome for people while giving a tour, but when we do the video cameras are usually out and running. The turning of the dome is so smooth that it looks and feels like the telescope is rotating. Here is a short video that nicely shows off the effect.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Astrophoto Friday - Colliding Galaxies

This pair of spiral galaxies are on a collision course with each other. The galaxies lie some 90 million light years from our Milky Way Galaxy. Collectively they are known as Arp 271 and individually as NGC 5426 and NGC 5427. Over the next several million years they will continue the slow gravitational dance that may eventually cause them to merge into one galaxy.

This image of Arp 271 was captured using the wide-angle 48-inch (1.2-meter) Samuel Oschin Schmidt Telescope. This is a crop of a much larger image. It was taken as a part of the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) survey and comes to us from Jason Surace and the PTF collaboration.

For a much more detailed shot, taken by a much larger telescope, be sure to check out this image of Arp 271 taken with the 8-meter Gemini South Telescope.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Celebrate Your Independence with a Tour of the Hale Telescope

To celebrate Independence Day our regular program of weekend tours of the 200-inch Hale Telescope will be extended to include tours on Monday, July 4th.

The Hale Telescope is an icon of American science, so why not come up and see it for the 4th.

Astrophoto Friday - Crab Nebula

It is nearly Independence Day here in the States. That is traditionally a time for fireworks. It also seems to be a tradition of mine to post a Palomar photo of the Crab Nebula which was created by one of nature's biggest fireworks displays - the collapse and explosion of a massive star (See my post from 2009 and 2010).

The supernova explosion that produced what is now known as the Crab Nebula was first observed on July 4, 1054 A.D. - 722 years before the American Declaration of Independence.

This image of the Crab Nebula was captured using the wide-angle 48-inch Samuel Oschin Schmidt Telescope. This is a crop of a much larger image. It was taken as a part of the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) survey and comes to us from Jason Surace and the PTF collaboration.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Happy Hale Day!

For those of you keeping score at home, George Ellery Hale was born 143 years ago today.

Hale can been seen in the photo above (on the right) talking with his arms linked with an enraptured Andrew Carnegie. It is one of my favorite photos of Hale because you can see him in action. Hale was a wildly successful dreamer and schemer who numerous times was able to talk the rich and famous out of money to advance knowledge. He did this not only for astronomy, but in many other areas as well.

Make No Small Plans
Dream No Small Dreams

If you missed the recent re-broadcast of The Journey to Palomar on PBS, you can catch it on Hulu and learn more about this amazing man.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Astrophoto Friday

It is the return of Astrophoto Friday!

The image is of the globular star cluster known as NGC 288.

This image was captured using the wide-angle 48-inch Samuel Oschin Schmidt Telescope. This is a crop of a much larger image. It was taken as a part of the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) survey and comes to us from Jason Surace and the PTF collaboration.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Reminder: The Journey to Palomar on PBS

Consider yourself reminded that The Journey to Palomar airs on many PBS stations tonight (June 22nd). Be sure to check your local listings and check out the trailer below:

The trailer was made for the first airing of the documentary, which is why it says "November 10th" at the end. Feel free to ignore that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Palomar in a Vintage Escondido Travel Brochure

PALM-3000, the world's best adaptive optics instrument, is currently on the Hale Telescope, but instead of talking about that, I am going to share a bit of Palomar history.

Below are scans from a 1951 brochure put out by the Escondido Chamber of Commerce.

You are going to want to click on the image below to view the inside of the brochure which was written by David O. Woodbury. Some of you may recall that Woodbury was the author The Glass Giant of Palomar, one of the first books to tell the story of the 200-inch telescope. The details described inside are pretty much spot on, but the one odd thing is the diagram that shows off the path of light through the telescope. There are several places where light can be focused and the illustration shows the just one of the three -- coudé focus.

The back cover of the brochure shows the location of Escondido and how to get to the observatory via The Highway to the Stars.

Alas, The Highway to the Stars signs that once marked the roadway are now long gone. The observatory now sells a reproduction of the sign on one of our t-shirts, but here is how they looked:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Journey to Palomar Returns to PBS this Week

I am happy to report that The Journey to Palomar, a documentary about George Ellery Hale and the building of the 200-inch telescope, will again be shown on PBS. It is a moving and inspirational story that is not to be missed.

Follow this link to check your local listings.

A short clip is posted below.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Palomar Mountain State Park to Close

You may have heard that Palomar Mountain State Park is on the list of 70 California State Parks that are slated to be closed. A lot of people have been asking me how this will affect Palomar Observatory. People have even been asking me if this meant that the observatory will be closing.

Palomar Observatory is privately owned by the California Institute of Technology, a private research university located in Pasadena. Palomar Mountain State Park is owned by the State of California. A closure of the park will have no direct affect on the observatory (although I suspect we will have fewer campers coming our way as tourists).

Palomar Observatory is not closing. We have a lot of work still to do.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Looking Ahead

Earlier this month the 2011B observing schedule for the 200-inch Hale Telescope was announced. The astronomers who applied for time in early April finally found out if and when they will be coming to Palomar from August through January.

I thought that the readers of Palomar Skies might like summary of the projects coming our way this fall, so here goes.

Photo by Iair Arcavi.

Transients are all the rage and 13 nights, spread out across the months, will be devoted to following up on objects discovered with the Palomar Transient Factory survey. An additional four nights will be devoted to doing similar work, but for transients discovered via the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey. Both of these programs will primarily use our visible light spectrograph to identify the type of transients discovered. One other night will specifically devoted to a particular type of supernova known as a Type Ia.

The other big item on the agenda for 2011B is the study of exoplanets. Some of this is follow-up work from the Kepler mission. 14 nights are devoted to various studies on Kepler exoplanets or their host stars. Much of this is visible or near infrared spectroscopy, but some of it also makes use of our newly souped-up adaptive optics system known as PALM-3000. This high-resolution imaging system will be used 12 nights to study and hunt for exoplanets and planet-forming disks of debris located around young stars. Using instruments other than the AO system, two nights will be used to study some of these disks discovered by the WISE mission and another two to study some “hot Jupiters” as they are seen to transit their host stars. All together that comes to 30 nights of exoplanets in 2011B or 1/6th of the telescope time.

Speaking of planets and things that orbit a star, worlds of our own solar system are a subject of study too. This includes studies of asteroids (8 nights), the Galilean moons of Jupiter (1), the irregular satellites of the outer planets (2), the atmosphere of Uranus (1), and the frozen world located beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt (2).

Looking a little further out, 12 nights will be devoted to studying brown dwarfs, so called “failed stars” – objects that are more massive than a planet but not massive enough to sustain nuclear fusion the way that stars do. Many of the objects to be observed were first discovered by the WISE mission.

Lots of stellar astrophysics will be going on as our astronomers study star formation (3), young stars and protostars (4), young variable stars, novae (4), white dwarfs (2), x-ray binary systems (1). The presence of dark matter in our own galaxy will be mapped via studies of the motions of RR Lyrae type variable stars that are part of the Pisces tidal stream (3).

Photo by Iair Arcavi.

Looking beyond our galaxy is still a big part of science at Palomar. In fact, aside from engineering time, it comprises the rest of the time on the schedule. Massive stars and the chemistry of the stars in M31 (aka the Andromeda Galaxy), our nearest big galaxy, will be the subject of study for 8 nights. Included on the list are blue compact dwarf galaxies (2), massive elliptical galaxies (5), hyperluminous galaxies (1), low-luminosity star-forming galaxies (5), galaxies known as Lyman-alpha emitters (7), luminous infrared galaxies (7), and galaxy clusters (6). Five nights will be directed toward the evolution of galaxies and six nights will be devoted toward using the Cosmic Web Imager instrument to map out the presence of gas located between galaxies.

Supermassive black holes, which lie at the core of quasars and various galaxies with active galactic nuclei are to be studied for six nights, while quasars themselves are studied another seven nights. The environment in and around another type of active galaxy – radio galaxies— is to be studied for five nights.

It takes time to keep the telescope & its instrumentation in tip-top shape. Seven nights will be lost because we will be re-aluminizing the 200-inch mirror in October. An additional twelve nights will be spent on engineering various scientific cameras, mostly related to our new PALM-3000 adaptive optics system. Two of those nights will be a demonstration of a new instrument known as ARCONS – the ARray Camera for Optical to Near-IR Spectrophotometry. It is likely that there will be science observations on a good fraction of these “engineering” nights.

Finally, we will be closed to astronomy and engineering December 24 & 25 for our only two holidays of the year.

There is the summary of what we will be looking at from August through January. Hopefully I didn't miss anything.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Press Coverage for Supernova Story & A Pretty Pic

The supernova story is making the rounds. In addition to reading about it here on Palomar Skies it has been picked up by, the LA Times, Physorg, National Geographic, The Republic, Daily India, the San Diego Union Tribune, Universe Today, IO9, HPWREN, Sky & Telescope and others.

Now to make your Friday more special, check out this photo by Caltech astronomer Evan Kirby:

It is a beautiful shot of the "summer" Milky Way taken from next to the dome of the Hale Telescope. For more on what is shown here be sure to check out this posting over at the Bamboo Shoots Photography Blog. There you will find a fully labeled version and an explanation of some of the cool objects in the picture.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hale Telescope Webcam is Back!

It has been a tough spring for the webcam in the dome of the 200-inch Hale Telescope, but as summer approaches I am happy to announce that it is back on line.

I made a slight adjustment on the camera's focus this morning and captured this shot of me with the Big Eye. I will try not to block the view from now on.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Press Release: Caltech-led Astronomers Find a New Class of Stellar Explosions

Below is a press release that was issued today about some of the science behind the Palomar Transient Factory survey.

PASADENA, Calif.—They're bright and blue—and a bit strange. They're a new type of stellar explosion that was recently discovered by a team of astronomers led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Among the most luminous in the cosmos, these new kinds of supernovae could help researchers better understand star formation, distant galaxies, and what the early universe might have been like.

"We're learning about a whole new class of supernovae that wasn't known before," says Robert Quimby, a Caltech postdoctoral scholar and the lead author on a paper to be published in the June 9 issue of the journal Nature. In addition to finding four explosions of this type, the team also discovered that two previously known supernovae, whose identities had baffled astronomers, also belonged to this new class.

Quimby first made headlines in 2007 when—as a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin—he discovered what was then the brightest supernova ever found: 100 billion times brighter than the sun and 10 times brighter than most other supernovae. Dubbed 2005ap, it was also a little odd. For one thing, its spectrum—the chemical fingerprint that tells astronomers what the supernova is made of, how far away it is, and what happened when it blew up—was unlike any seen before. It also showed no signs of hydrogen, which is commonly found in most supernovae.

At around the same time, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a mysterious supernova called SCP 06F6. This supernova also had an odd spectrum, though there was nothing that indicated this cosmic blast was similar to 2005ap.

The 1.2-meter Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory that was used to discover four supernovae of a new class. Inset: one of the newly discovered supernovae, PTF09cnd.
[Credit: Caltech/Scott Kardel/Robert Quimby/modified from Nature]

Shri Kulkarni, Caltech's John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science and a coauthor on the paper, recruited Quimby to become a founding member of the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF). The PTF is a project that scans the skies for flashes of light that weren't there before—flashes that signal objects called transients, many of which are supernovae. As part of the PTF, Quimby and his colleagues used the 1.2-meter Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory to discover four new supernovae. After taking spectra with the 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii, the 5.1-meter telescope at Palomar, and the 4.2-meter William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands, the astronomers discovered that all four objects had an unusual spectral signature.

Quimby then realized that if you slightly shifted the spectrum of 2005ap—the supernova he had found a couple of years earlier—it looked a lot like these four new objects. The team then plotted all the spectra together. "Boom—it was a perfect match," he recalls.

The astronomers soon determined that shifting the spectrum of SCP 06F6 similarly aligned it with the others. In the end, it turned out that all six supernovae are siblings, and that they all have spectra that are very blue—with the brightest wavelengths shining in the ultraviolet.

According to Quimby, the two mysterious supernovae—2005ap and SCP 06F6—had looked different from one another because 2005ap was 3 billion light-years away while SCP 06F6 was 8 billion light-years away. More distant supernovae have a stronger cosmological redshift, a phenomenon in which the expanding universe stretches the wavelength of the emitted light, shifting supernovae spectra toward the red end.

The four new discoveries, which had features similar to 2005ap and SCP 06F6, were at an intermediate distance, providing the missing link that connected the two previously unexplained supernovae. "That's what was most striking about this—that this was all one unified class," says Mansi Kasliwal, a Caltech graduate student and coauthor on the Nature paper.

Even though astronomers now know these supernovae are related, no one knows much else. "We have a whole new class of objects that can't be explained by any of the models we've seen before," Quimby says. What we do know about them is that they are bright and hot—10,000 to 20,000 degrees Kelvin; that they are expanding rapidly at 10,000 kilometers per second; that they lack hydrogen; and that they take about 50 days to fade away—much longer than most supernovae, whose luminosity is often powered by radioactive decay. So there must be some other mechanism that's making them so bright.

The four supernovae discovered by the Palomar Transient Factory. Left: before explosion. Right: after explosion. From top to bottom, the supernovae are PTF09atu, PTF09cnd, PTF09cwl, and PTF10cwr.
[Credit: Caltech/Robert Quimby/Nature]

One possible model that would create an explosion with these properties involves a pulsating star about 90 to 130 times the mass of the sun. The pulsations blow off hydrogen-free shells, and when the star exhausts its fuel and explodes as a supernova, the blast heats up those shells to the observed temperatures and luminosities.

A second model requires a star that explodes as a supernova but leaves behind what's called a magnetar, a rapidly spinning dense object with a strong magnetic field. The rotating magnetic field slows the magnetar down as it interacts with the sea of charged particles that fills space, releasing energy. The energy heats the material that was previously blown off during the supernova explosion and can naturally explain the brightness of these events.

The newly discovered supernovae live in dim, small collections of a few billion stars called dwarf galaxies. (Our own Milky Way has 200–400 billion stars.) The supernovae, which are almost a hundred times brighter than their host galaxies, illuminate their environments like distant street lamps lighting up dark roads. They work as a kind of backlight, enabling astronomers to measure the spectrum of the interstellar gas that fills the dwarf galaxies in which the supernovae reside, and revealing each galaxy's composition. Once an observed supernova fades a couple of months later, astronomers can directly study the dwarf galaxy—which would have remained undetected if it weren't for the supernova.

These supernovae could also reveal what ancient stars might have been like, since they most likely originate from stars around a hundred times more massive than the sun—stars that would have been very similar to the first stars in the universe.

“It is really amazing how rich the night sky continues to be," Kulkarni says. "In addition to supernovae, the Palomar Transient Factory is making great advances in stellar astronomy as well.”

In addition to Quimby, Kasliwal, and Kulkarni, 24 other authors—11 of whom are from Caltech—contributed to the work described in the Nature paper, "A new class of hydrogen-poor super-luminous stellar explosions." This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundations, the Israeli Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Gordon & Betty Moore foundation, Gary and Cynthia Bengier, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, and the Royal Society. The Palomar Transient Factory is a collaboration between Caltech, Columbia University, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, UC Berkeley, University of Oxford, and the Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel).

# # #

Written by Marcus Woo

Friday, June 3, 2011

Amateur Astronomers Can Help PTF Study Supernova in M51

Earlier today I reported the discovery of a new Type II Supernova in the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). The astronomers behind the Palomar Transient Factory have initiated a world-wide effort to collect amateur imagery of M51 taken from May 30 - June 2 to best constrain the explosion time of the massive star.

The supernova is known as "PTF 11eon" to the PTF team, but as SN2011dh to the larger world. A finder chart for it is shown below.

Click to enlarge the image.

Any amateur astronomers who have raw images of M51 taken between May 30 and June 2 are encouraged to contact the PTF team at this address:

For more on the supernova, check out this article from Sky & Telescope or this one from Universe Today.

Breaking News - A Supernova in M51

Astronomers with the Palomar Transient Factory are reporting the discovery of a supernova in the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51).

It has been classified as a Type II supernova, which means that it is the result of the collapse and explosion of a massive star. The classification was performed using the Keck I telescope in Hawai'i. The magnitude of the star was estimated at 13.5, which makes it bright enough for amateur astronomers to see and image. It should be noted in the discovery report that the "exact magnitude uncertain due to saturation" - meaning that the supernova was too bright for astronomers to measure. Of course they were using one of the largest telescopes on the planet.

I am checking to see if there will be images to post, but in the meantime here is a shot of M51 taken well over a year ago by Palomar's 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope as a part of the Palomar Transient Factory Survey:

I am sure that there will be more news on this in the coming days and weeks, so stay tuned.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day Tours on Palomar

I don't know that you will be able to see flags and firetrucks, but it is Memorial Day weekend and we are celebrating by extending our public tours past the usual ones heldon Saturdays & Sundays to include Monday, May 30 as well. Tours will be at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tours are $8 per person. More information on the tours can be found here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Milky Way Over Palomar

Astronomer Iair Arcavi comes to Palomar Observatory to use the Hale Telescope to study supernovae as part of the Palomar Transient Factory survey. The survey is going quite well with over 1,110 supernovae discovered so far.

Iair also manages to find the time to do some nighttime photography with his digital SLR camera. I have posted some of his work here before (See his shot of the Milky Way over the Hale Telescope, his 2 Nights at the Palomar Observatory video and his composite of the Perseid meteor shower).

He managed to shoot some more dramatic images of our Palomar Skies just this last week. Both images nicely show off our domes, the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy and how light pollution is brightening our skies.

This image shows the dome that used to house the 18-inch Schmidt, Palomar's first telescope. The constellation of Scorpius can be seen just to the left of the dome. Note the bright sky glow to the southwest.

The 18-inch Schmidt is now retired but in its lifetime it was used for a tremendous amount of important work. For instance, just yesterday was the anniversary of that telescope being used to make the 1992 discovery of asteroid Braille (1992 KD). Astronomers Eleanor Helin and Kenneth Lawrence found the asteroid as a part of the Palomar Planet-Crossing Asteroid Survey. Just seven years later Braille was photographed as NASA's Deep Space 1 spacecraft flew past it.

Another of Iair's photos shows the Milky Way behind the dome of Palomar's automated 60-inch telescope. The 60-inch telescope is used nightly to perform follow-up observations on the new transient sources discovered through the Palomar Transient Factory survey. It also is a rapid-response telescope that gives astronomers a look at the optical glow of gamma-ray bursts.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An Update on Robo-AO

Last week just about everything here on Palomar Skies was related to PALM-3000, the new upgrade to the Hale Telescope's adaptive-optics system. Readers of this blog may remember that PALM-3000 isn't the only game in town when it comes to adaptive optics on Palomar.

The other program that is pushing the envelope is Robo-AO, a laser-guide star adaptive-optics system for Palomar's automated 60-inch telescope. The Robo-AO team was on the mountain last week and Christoph Baranec, Principal Investigator for the program snapped these false-colors photos of their ultraviolet laser propagating out of the dome.

The laser makes use of Rayleigh scattering, which will ultimately help their system to correct for turbulence in the lower 10 kilometers (~6 miles) of the atmosphere. This will allow the 60-inch telescope to take very sharp images of a wide variety of astronomical objects.

(See that sort of blurry star trail, just to the right of the laser beam? That is the globular star cluster known as Omega Centauri.)

The Robo-AO program is still in the engineering phase. Expect a full science demonstration observing run to take place later this year.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Zooming in on PALM-3000

Here are three photos that show off the PALM-3000 adaptive-optics system.

The first is a wide shot of the 200-inch Hale Telescope:

In this view the only easily noticeable changes to the telescope are the hoses and cables hanging from the telescope's south side. The instrument itself is housed in the telescope's Cassegrain cage and can be seen in this wide-angle photo:

The photo gives a feel for some of the complexity of the system through the number of cables visible, but there is much more that the image does not capture. At the heart of the system is the new 3388 actuator higher order deformable mirror. Here you can see the back end of it here:

The weather has not been favorable for the first two nights of commissioning the instrument. The forecast for tonight looks good. Let's hope that the weather cooperates as tonight is the third and final night for this observing run. On Saturday the instrument comes off the telescope until their next observing run in June.

North County News Visits Palomar Observatory

On Saturdays & Sundays guided tours of the Hale Telescope take place 3 times daily. North County News was up recently to see the action. Here is their video:

The public tours do not go into the control room, but they do get rave reviews. If you are going to be in the area, why come on over for a visit?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another Look at Installing PALM-3000

Here is another time-lapse movie of yesterday's installation of the PALM-3000 adaptive optics system onto the 200-inch Hale Telescope. This is shorter, covers less time, but is closer to the action as was shot with a digital SLR from on the observing floor.

Installing PALM-3000

Yesterday, the new upgrade to our adaptive-optics system, the PALM-3000, was first installed on the Hale Telescope. The webcam in the dome of the 200-inch telescope is currently offline to the outside world (sorry about that), but we were able to use it to capture images of the work taking place.

Here is almost 12 hours of work, compressed into just under 4 minutes

How did the first night go? Fog and drizzle kept the dome from opening. Thankfully, the weather is improving as the team has two more nights on this observing run, before the the instrument is used again in June.

More pictures and another video will follow as soon as things get put together.

Shield Your Outdoor Lights

Here is a short video on the importance of shielding outdoor lighting:

The great thing about shielding outdoor lighting as shown in the video is that more light is directed where it is actually needed. Instead of causing glare or shining upward into the sky the light source does not need to be as bright. This means that a lower wattage lighting fixture can be used which will save money.

In spite of the logic behind using fully-shielded lighting, lights like the ones shown below continue to be installed across the country.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Palomar Observatory - A Timescape

Last weekend astronomer Roger Griffith was using the 200-inch Hale Telescope to hunt for cold brown dwarfs. His observations were made to follow-up on data collected with the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer mission. In addition to his time on the telescope, Roger managed to dash out to continue work on a video of time-lapse photography that he had begun shooting at Palomar during one of his observing runs last year.

Here is the result:

Palomar Observatory - A Timescape from Roger Griffith on Vimeo.

Glider Over Palomar

On a warm day it is not unusual to see a glider spiraling over Palomar Mountain. Occasionally they come close enough to the observatory that you can actually hear them.

We had gliders out last Saturday when Brad Eells of the Forest Fire Lookout Association took this photo:

Brad took this unique photo from the old fire lookout tower at High Point, which looks down on the observatory. To the left of the glider are the domes of the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope and the much larger 200-inch Hale Telescope. To the right of the glider is the dome of the 24-inch telescope and the observatory's water tower.

For another shot of a glider over the observatory, check out this post from 2009.

I know that blog posts here have been rare lately, that is starting to change as I have plenty of material to share. Be sure to check back for more this week.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Coming Soon: PALM-3000

Much of the behind-the-scenes work at Palomar Observatory lately has been directed toward supporting the upgrades for our new adaptive optics-system, known as PALM-3000. When fully functional, the system is expected to be the first of its kind and allow ground-based astronomers to get their clearest view yet in the visible portion of the spectrum (all other systems currently operate in the near infrared portion of the spectrum).

We had the final components for the system delivered to the dome of the Hale Telescope today.

These may look like just a bunch of crates, but inside are the final components that will be installed to bring this system alive.

More on this amazing system, which is expected to achieve "first light" later this month, will be posted here over the next few weeks, but in the meantime feel free to read this article on the systems new deformable mirror.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Catwalk Panorama

Hopefully this panorama will show up on all Web browsers. It is an interactive Photosnyth panorama shot a few minutes ago from the catwalk of the 200-inch Hale Telescope. In it you can see the observatory's water tower, the dome of the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope and the dome of the 18-inch Schmidt telescope.

Here is a direct link to the panorama. I hope to shoot more of these in the near future to give people a sense of what it is like to be at Palomar Observatory.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Favorite 20-ton Piece of Glass

The folks over at the Corning Museum of Glass are asking people to vote for their favorite piece of glass in their collection. Can you guess which one happens to be my favorite?*

Here is a video that they produced that explains it:

Here is a direct link to the video on YouTube.

Last March Robert Cassetti, who is seen in the video, happened to give me a wonderful tour of the fabulous glass collection at the museum. If you are at all interested in unique and amazing glass artistry I encourage you to explore all 60 pieces that are highlighted for the museum's 6oth anniversary.

*By the way, the 200-inch mirror that is actually in service at Palomar is my favorite piece of glass. However, it is not on display, nor does it weigh 20 tons.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dome Shadow

Here is the shadow of the dome of the Hale Telescope as it looked late yesterday afternoon. The dome of the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope can be seen to the left of the shadow.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Robo-AO is Moving Forward

The Robo-AO team is back on Palomar for another week of testing new equipment on our 60-inch telescope. I have blogged about Robo-AO before, but for those who don't know, the Robo-AO system will soon be the world’s first laser-guide star adaptive-optics system working on a robotic telescope. When it is in operation it should deliver ultra-sharp imaging for up to hundreds of targets per night.

The system began as a fully-working testbed has been operating at Caltech in the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics basement for several months. Starting last fall the team has been given some engineering time every few months to gradually bring the system up and on the Palomar 60-inch telescope.

In September of last year they had their first propagation of their ultraviolet (UV) laser into the sky as a guide star for adaptive optics. Earlier this year they were able to successfully have the beam sent up the telescope's axis and measure the return.

The team is back at Palomar this week for the installation of new equipment and further testing.

In the image above notice the new electronics rack mounted on the telescope at right. In the center is part of their new adaptive-optics instrument and the black box at left is the laser.

Their are still additional components to integrate into the system, but it is expected that start of the science demonstration period will commence in late summer.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Corning Talk Now Online

For any who might be interested, the talk I gave last month at the Corning Museum of Glass is now posted to their website as an MP4 video file (779 Mb) and as an audio-only MP3 file (68 Mb). FYI, it runs about 50 minutes. I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tonight's Atlas V Launch

Palomar Observatory is a great place to study the universe. It is also occasionally a very nice place to watch rocket launches. Tonight it is well suited for both as the skies are clear, the seeing is quite good and the USAF launched an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

This picture shows the rocket crossing just above Orion's Belt.

This photo shows a staging event a little later. Both images were 30-second exposures taken with an Canon 5D and a 17mm lens.

The Edge of Night

Here is how the dome and the Moon looked just after sunset.

It looks like we will have a good night tonight as the Hale Telescope is used to study quasars.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

No Tours This Coming Sunday

Alas, we will be unable to offer our guided tours of the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Sunday, April 17.

Tours for Saturday, April 16 (held at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. & 2:30 p.m.) will be held as scheduled. More information on our program of public tours can be found here on the observatory's website.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another Palomar Panorama

Here is a view of the dome of the Hale Telescope that was taken yesterday morning from up on the observatory's water tower.

The photo was taken by observatory employee Scott Calman. It is part of a panorama that captures one other Palomar dome and much of the surrounding landscape.

You can find the panorama here. The dome of the 200-inch telescope is at left (looking southwest). To its right is the dome of the 24-inch telescope and the observatory's visitor center/museum (looking due west). Near the far right are the snow-capped peaks of San Gorgonio and San Jacinto to the northeast.

I have posted Palomar panoramas before, but it is always time for another one that captures the view from a different perspective.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Observatory Open

Sorry I didn't get this posted earlier, but the observatory is open to the public again and back on its regular non-winter visiting hours where we are open from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Observatory Closed

Winter weather conditions will keep Palomar Observatory closed to the public today through this weekend.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Visit to Corning, NY

I gave an invited talk about Palomar Observatory to an audience at the Corning Museum of Glass. It was an important presentation for me as Corning is the birthplace of Palomar's 200-inch mirror. I had the chance to fill everyone in on what the astronomers have been doing with it over the years. I was happy that there was a nice crowd for the talk and that they asked me many follow-up questions. I even got a positive review in the Corning newspaper. More importantly I had the chance to meet some great people, look through some historical archives and explore the fabulous collection in the museum.

It should be no secret that my favorite piece in the Corning Museum of Glass is the first disc that was cast for the 200-inch telescope. The casting ultimately turned out to be a failure (read about it here), but it became the first piece in what is now a world-famous collection of glass.

Here is a short video that I shot showing the 20-ton failed disc:

Here is a link to the video on YouTube.

I also had the chance to finally meet glass artist Mark Peiser. Mark has created a series of pieces inspired by the 200-inch mirror for the Hale Telescope. (You can read some earlier posts about Mark's work here and here).

Here I am with Mark in the Rakow Research Library. One of Mark's pieces, seen between us, from his "Palomar Series" is on display as a part of the Mirror to Discovery exhibit at the Rakow. Mark recently sent me some photos of some of his newer pieces in his Palomar Series. I will likely make another post on them in (hopefully) the near future, but here is a preview showing one called "Palomar Rising":

I also had the honor of meeting some of the family of Dr. George V. McCauley, the man from Corning Glass Works who was in charge of creating the glass giant.

That's me with Dr. McCauley's daughter, Anne Price and her son Rick and his wife Sheila. Behind us is a portion of the Mirror to Discovery exhibit in the Rakow Research Library. In the glass case are some cool Palomar/Corning artifacts including this unassuming gem:

It is the drawing board that Dr. McCauley used to design the 200-inch mirror. For a nice look at his design visit this page from the Corning Museum of Glass and look for the image "Plan View and Cross Section of Mirror" and you'll find out a surprise about the 200-inch.

One final thing about the Mirror to Discovery exhibit in the Rakow Research Library, the staff there developed some trading cards for the kids that take a tour through the exhibit. They show the story of the making of the 200-inch mirror, the disc that is on display in the museum and even some astrophotos from Palomar. It is a nice set of cards and I couldn't resist taking a picture of them here at Palomar with the Hale Telescope in the background.

In case you were wondering, the 200-inch mirror is enclosed in the steel ring with the black circles.

Finally, I would like to extend my personal thanks to everyone at the Rakow Library and the Corning Museum of Glass for making this such wonderful visit. It was an honor for me to be able to represent the observatory at the birthplace of the Hale Telescope's mirror.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hale Telescope Guided Tours Return This Weekend!

Can you spot the people on the catwalk? Click the image to enlarge.
Read on to see how you can get there too.

Guided tours of the 200-inch Hale Telescope return this weekend. The hour-long tours are given on Saturdays and Sundays from April through October at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tickets are sold in the Palomar Observatory Gift Shop on a first-come, first-served basis.

The tours explain how the telescope works, its history, research and (weather permitting) includes a visit to the outside catwalk. More details on the tours can be found here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Now Open Until . . .

Yes, the observatory is back open to the public and we have returned to our non-winter hours - meaning that we are now open daily from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

I had an amazing time in Corning, NY. I will be posting about that soon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Still Closed

Yes, Palomar Observatory is still closed to the public due today.

I will be traveling for the next several days and may not be able to update the blog. Don't forget that you can check to see if the observatory is open or not by calling (760) 742-2119.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Observatory Closed due to Snow

The calendar says spring, but winter weather conditions will keep Palomar Observatory closed to the public today.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Palomar History Photo of the Week - Molten Glass

This dramatic photo expertly captured the drama as on March 25, 1934 men working with molten Pyrex glass were pouring what was then the biggest mirror ever made. This casting was unsuccessful, but a second attempt to pour the 200-inch Pyrex disc was successfully completed December 2, 1934.