Sunday, July 09, 2006

Astronomy Internship - Day 29

As mentioned, yesterday’s bit of fun was going to Mt. Wilson observatory. We left the dorm shortly after 9:00am (before I’m usually even up). The total drive was about three hours, but we stopped in Pasadena to grab lunch. We ended up having a bit of extra time at this point, so we headed to Griffith Observatory.

As you can probably tell, it’s currently closed for renovation. Griffith Observatory is really more of a tourist attraction than a research observatory. It sits quite a bit lower than Mt. Wilson, and thus doesn’t escape the smog from the nearby cities of Pasadena and Hollywood.

Back row from left to right: Peter, Kris, Peng, Ryan, Me, Mike, Brendan, Tiara
Center kneeling: Rob

After spending a bit of time there, we headed up the twisty roads to Mt. Wilson at an elevation just over 5,700 ft.

After getting a brief introduction to the history of Mt. Wilson and the observatories stationed there, we began our tour. The first place we stopped was a small museum which had some interesting pictures, none of which I could get pictures of thanks to glare.

The first telescope we visited was this strange looking one:

Yes, that’s right. That’s really a telescope. But instead of looking at things during the night, it looks at the sun during the day. The light is collected at the top of the tower, and then reflected down the shaft at middle. Having the tower allows the telescope to have a 150 ft focal length, which has its advantages for this sort of astronomy.

Inside a small building at the bottom, there’s a device inside to do the analysis. What’s primarily looked at is the sun’s spectrum at thousands of points across the surface. This allows the astronomers to map the magnetic field as well as many other properties.

Here’s what the device looks like:

You can clearly see the image of the sun projected on the imaging table at center. Here’s a closer picture to illustrate things better:

The hole to the left contains a small slit underneath which holds a diffraction grating which is what splits the white light into the spectrum. Below that are the actual devices to collect the data. It’s primarily photoelectric tubes, so unlike CCDs, no calibration is required.

When we first arrived, the astronomers working there were in the middle of obtaining some data, but once they finished, the moved the image off the analysis table and onto a flat surface off to the side to show a few things off:

Here again, you can see most of the sun’s disc. Visible to the right is a small spot which is a sunspot. These spots are cooler areas on the surface of the sun (although still ridiculously hot). Also shown near the center is a card which has some more spots on it. That card shows a scale image of the largest sunspot ever recorded.

In the hand is a small ball, which represents the size of Jupiter, to scale with that of the sun. The size of the Earth is shown by the small ball bearing just above the card.

Here’s a picture up the shaft of the telescope.

Also on top of this tower, is a live webcam similar to the one at MLO. Check it out, the view is pretty amazing.

Our next stop was more of a conventional telescope.

This one contains the 60” Hale telescope which had its “first light” in 1908. The telescope immediately became the most powerful telescope in the world. Here’s a picture of the actual scope:

This thing dwarfs the 40” ones at MLO I visited earlier. To give an idea of the scale, here’s Peng standing nearby:

Although this telescoped passed out of professional use in the mid 1990’s, it is still in use and can be rented out to groups on either a full night ($1,100) or a half night ($600) basis. It comes complete with operators.

The tour guide recommended having a list of things you’d like to look at (I’d recommend going through much of the Messier catalogue). They’ve occasionally had groups that have no idea what they want to do, or who come just to see a star that they “bought” (NOTE: Any company claiming to put your name on stars or sell you land on the Moon, Sun, Mars, or any other body is scamming you).

Although the 60” was the largest telescope I’d yet visited, it was soon to be surpassed.

This telescope is the 100” (2.5m) Hooker telescope. Immediately following the success of the Hale telescope, this larger version was commissioned and was completed in 1917. For the next 31 years, it was the most powerful telescope in existence (it was eventually surpassed by the 200” at Mt. Palomar).

So here’s a look inside:

The midget at left is Dr. Sandquist who is 6” tall. This is the upper level of the dome.

This telescope was the one used by Edwin Hubble to do his groundbreaking research. It was also used by Henry Norris Russell, who developed a star classification system based on use at this telescope. This led to the development of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (H-R diagram) which is the foundation of all modern stellar evolutionary theories.

Here’s the original control desk for the telescope.

If you’ve ever seen astronomical films dealing with Hubble’s discovery, he’s frequently depicted by actors sitting at this desk (albeit with the modern equipment removed).

To keep the dome of the telescope so that the opening was in front of the telescope, the dome rotates, taking the upper balcony (on which we were standing) with it. When the tour guide first hit the button, it seemed like the telescope was the one moving since the motion was so smooth, we had no sensation that we were the ones actually moving and there were no other reference points.

But to prove the point, the guide opened a door to the catwalk outside the dome and we watch the trees slide by. Rob was quick enough to get a video, but I haven’t gotten a copy of it yet. As soon as I do, I’ll post it.

Next we took a walk around the catwalk:

Some people were a bit more flustered than others. The view from the top was pretty impressive.

After visiting a few more instruments including the Infrared Spatial Interferometer (which didn’t look like anything more than a trailer), we began our trip home.

We stopped for dinner at Romeo’s Pizza in Pasadena. I don’t normally plug restaurants, but this is some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. Horay for sausage and artichoke pizza!

By the time we got home, it was just after 10:00. I checked my Email and a few of my other sites I frequent and then passed out for the night.

Today we started the day by going snorkeling in a cove in La Jolliet. It was my first time doing so and was pretty fun. Lots of fish swimming around. I didn’t catch them, but Brendan and one of his friends from the area said they spotted a lobster and a manta ray further out where they were.

Afterwards we came back, showered, changed, and went out for lunch at a Thai restaurant at which I had garlic fried duck.

Once lunch was over, I headed back to the room for awhile before dinner. I then played Brendan in a few games of foosball and was finally defeated. A few of us then headed to Dave & Busters. I played a few hours of Dance Dance Revolution. Unfortunately, I haven’t been playing much recently and tired myself out very quickly. Additionally, the pads were sticky so I really had to stop to get them to register.

Around 10:30 we finally headed home for the night.

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