Archive for the ‘Photo posts’ Category


Mt Wilson photo tour and a brief observing report

June 5, 2016

Mt Wilson 1 - Geo on the 60-inch

Last night the PVAA had the 60-inch telescope booked at Mt Wilson. It had been ages since I’d been up there – my only other trips up were in 2009 and 2010 (observing reports here and here). So it was very satisfying to be back. It is amazing to look back and realize that in 2010 I was only 3 years into what has now been almost 9 years of stargazing.

The last two times I went up, we didn’t have time for a tour of the grounds, so about all I saw were the parking area, the 60-inch dome, and a few odds and ends in the distance. This time we got a nice long tour from Geo Somoza – most of the rest of this post is a photographic tour of part of the observatory. We didn’t have time to go through the museum up there, or see the solar telescopes – guess I’ll just have to go back again to catch those (which is no bad thing!).

I rode up with Ron Hoekwater, Laura Jaoui, and Gary Thompson, who kindly drove us. We left Claremont early and got up there about 6:00, well in advance of the planned 6:30 start time for the tour. While we were chatting outside the gate, we saw something ominous: a tower of smoke going up from the mountains to the west. This would come back to haunt us.

Mt Wilson 2 - Einstein bridge and the 100-inch

Here’s the dome of the 100-inch Hooker telescope – world’s largest from 1917, when it eclipsed the 60-inch telescope on the same mountain, until 1948, when it was eclipsed in turn by the 200-inch Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain. It is a bit staggering to realize that from 1908 to 1993, when Keck 1 went online on Mauna Kea, the three consecutive world’s largest fully-functional telescopes were all within 92 miles of each other in southern California. (The 240-inch Soviet BTA-6 saw first light in 1976, but it suffered terrible thermal stability and seeing problems and never performed anywhere near its full potential.)

This bridge is nicknamed “Einstein’s bridge” because Einstein paused here for a famous photograph during a visit to Mt Wilson in 1931 – see that historical photograph here.

Mt Wilson 3 - the 100-inch

Here’s the scope itself, the same machine that Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason – a former mule-driver who worked his way up to master observer – used to chart the expansion of the universe. I was scheduled to go up and observe with the 100-inch last year, but I got very sick the day before and couldn’t make it. So that is still on the bucket list.

Mt Wilson 4 - the 100-inch mirror

A view into the back of the mirror cell of the 100-inch telescope. The green champagne-bottle glass of the primary mirror is clearly visible. If you click through to the full-size version you may be able to see bubbles in the glass. The 14-inch-thick mirror had to be made in three separate ‘pours’ of molten glass, and bubbles from the first two pours were trapped by the layer above. The people at Mt Wilson were so concerned about the bubbles interrupting the figure of the mirror that at first they refused to work with it, but St Grobain Glassworks was unable to pour a better one and eventually George Ellery Hale ordered his people to grind and polish this mirror, which turned out to be fine at the optical surface after all.

Mt Wilson 5 - 100-inch eyepiece

In the old days, to observe visually with the 100-inch you had to go down a narrow hallway to a tiny room where light from the scope was bounced to the Coude focus. That was pretty unsatisfying so a few years ago the telescope was modified for more intimate visual observing. Now the primary mirror at the bottom of the scope bounces the light to a secondary up in the upper cage, thence to a tertiary at mid-tube which directs the light out to a quaternary mirror in the diagonal housing at the top of the black tubular assembly on the left of the scope in the above photo, thence down to a quinary mirror at the bottom of the black tube, then into the white refractor that is pointing down and to the right. A diagonal sitting nearby can be placed into the refractor to put the eyepiece into a convenient orientation when the scope is tilted.

Mt Wilson 6 - 100-inch controls

The control board of the 100-inch, with at least three separate control systems lined up right to left in order of age. Most interesting is the old table on the right with the clock and the two periscopes. The periscopes allowed the telescope operator to see the telescope’s setting circles. Nowadays, the scope is controlled by the computers on the left.

Mt Wilson 7 - 100-inch dome

Excited amateur astronomers lingering outside the dome of the 100-inch. We got to walk around on the walkway you can see on the outside of the dome. The entire dome rotates, walkway included. It’s a fearsome engine indeed.

Mt Wilson 8 - CHARA array and 60-inch domes

On the left is one of the six domes of the CHARA array, I believe still the world’s longest-baseline optical interferometer. It has enough resolving power to image the discs of nearby stars. On the right is the 60-inch dome.

Mt Wilson 9 - lightspeed test site

Geo shows us the concrete pier used during the speed-of-light experiments in the 1920s. More on those in a sec.

Mt Wilson 10 - lightspeed test plaque

For decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Albert Michelson conducted a series of experiments to measure the speed of light. In a series of famous tests in the 1920s – almost two decades after Michelson earned his Nobel Prize – a beam of light was bounced from this pier on Mt Wilson to a mirror on Lookout Mountain, one of the foothills of Mt San Antonio, better known to locals as Mt Baldy – the mountain at whose base I live. The concrete pier on Lookout Mountain is still there and it is apparently an easy hike. It’s on my to-do list.

Mt Wilson 11 - LA and smoke from wildfire

Sunset over LA. On the left, the marine layer of fog is moving in over the city. On the right, a tower of smoke is going up from a wildfire near Calabasas, about 40 miles to the south and west of Mt Wilson, and spreading out over the LA basin. For a while the smoke was going southeast from the fire, and it looked like it might miss us. But by the time it was getting dark, the wind had shifted and was carrying the smoke directly toward the observatory.

Mt Wilson 12 - going up to the 60-inch

As darkness fell, we trooped into the dome of the 60-inch telescope.

Mt Wilson 13 - Edison bulbs

Here are the controls for the dome’s shutter, which has to be opened for the telescope to see out, and closed again to protect the telescope during the daytime and in inclement conditions. The three light bulbs on the upper left of the console are original Edison bulbs – they have been working without ever being replaced since 1907 or so.

Mt Wilson 14 - control board and mercury tank

Our telescope operator, Christopher Burns, checks something on one of the computers in the control center, while beyond him Geo stands by the mercury tank in which the 60-inch telescope floats. Don’t worry, it’s fully sealed now. In the old days, it was open, and mercury would sometimes splash on the floor as the telescope rotated.

Mt Wilson 16 - Jupiter with blue filter

Our first target was Jupiter. As usual, the photo completely fails to do justice to the naked-eye view. The seeing was imperfect and I think the smoke from the fire might already have been affecting the views. The north and south equatorial and temperate belts were visible, and the Great Red Spot was prominent, but I could see little detail beyond that. I have seen much better on other visits, and indeed in much smaller scopes (see for example the two previous Mt Wilson observing reports linked at the top of this post). But I won’t complain too much – part of the joy of observing with the 60-inch is in the process, not the outcome.

Mt Wilson 15 - 60-inch lit by laser

After Jupiter we moved on to the globular cluster M3, and then the Sombrero Galaxy, M104. M3 was already looking a bit dim – certainly not as bright as it appeared in Ron’s 25-inch scope from RTMC last weekend – and about this time the smell of smoke became pronounced in the dome. We had a hurried look at M104, but it was just a dim smudge of light and I couldn’t even make out the dust lane.

After M104 we had to shut down early to protect the telescope. If ash from the fire was allowed to fall on the mirrors, it would combine with moisture in the air to produce acids which would eat away the coatings. In the photo above, Geo is shining a laser up through the optical train to check for ash on the mirrors.

Mt Wilson 17 - Matt with the telescope

It was a bummer to have to shut down early, but we had an awesome tour and it was fun to observe again with the 60-inch, even if only briefly. Geo and Chris were great hosts and everyone had a good time. We’ll get to reschedule our night on the scope, since we only got about an hour and a half of observing in, so the club’s investment is protected. It’s a shame about Mars, though – we won’t have another opposition this close for some time, and the planet will be noticeably more distant, smaller, and dimmer by next month already. Still, into every observing career a little rain – or ash – must fall, and I’ve been extremely fortunate. Two eclipses (2012, 2014), a Venus transit, and a Mercury transit in the last four years, and not one of them clouded out. Mars will be back, and I’ll be ready.


Sinus Iridium

September 24, 2015

Sinus Iridum in Apex 127 2015-09-23

Taken at 7:43 PM PDT last night, from the top of the parking garage in downtown Claremont, using a handheld iPhone 5c shooting afocally through an Orion Apex 127 Mak and a 12.5mm Plossl eyepiece.

In other news, no, I’m not dead. Just been busy with teaching. But I have some exciting astronomy news coming up later this fall (finally revealed here!), and in the meantime, I’m looking forward to the total lunar eclipse this coming Sunday evening, September 27.


Mount Baldy moonrise

October 27, 2013

2013-10-19 Mt Baldy moonrise

Last Saturday London and I were stargazing up on Mount Baldy. I knew the waning gibbous moon was going to rise a little before 8:00. What I had not anticipated is how awesome it would look, coming up through the trees on the next ridge over, a mile or so away. And because I had not anticipated that, I didn’t have the camera with me.

So, nothing for it: we had to go back up the mountain Sunday night, with the camera this time, just to catch the moonrise. Up top is the tweaked and left-right corrected version, below is the raw image.

Next month I want to go back and catch the full moon rising. I’ll keep you posted.



Observing Report: a semi-cloudy night at Joshua Tree

October 8, 2012

My scope at Joshua Tree Saturday night. Clockwise around the scope are the bright star Capella just in front, the constellation Perseus (12:00), the Pleiades (2:00), the Hyades (V-shaped arrow of stars directly oppose Capella), and Jupiter (4:00). Photo by Kevin Zhao.

Saturday evening I was at Joshua Tree. My summer anatomy students invited London and me along to the Indian Cove campground. I didn’t have room in the car for the big gun so I took my 5” Mak, which is what it’s for—times when I need a decent amount of aperture in a small package. That was no loss: the sky was striped with high, thin clouds all night and never really cleared out. We got decent views of a few things, but the 10” would have been wasted. We used the Mak to look at the Double Cluster and Jupiter. In moments of steady seeing there were quite a few cloud belts showing, and all four Galilean moons were lined up on one side of the planet, which was pretty cool. London brought along his AstroScan and we used it to look at extended objects like the Pleiades and the Andromeda galaxy.

iPhone panorama by Chad Claus. Click for the big version!

The clouds might have made for lousy telescopic views but they made for gorgeous naked-eye skywatching. At sunset the whole sky was striped with light from one horizon to the other.

Here’s another view, actually taken by me for a change. This is the unprocessed raw image, direct from my Coolpix 4500.

Moon halo photo by Kevin Zhao. Jupiter is inside the ring at 1:00, and the Pleiades are outside at about the same angle.

When the moon rose around 11:30, it was surrounded by a ring of faint light. I thought it was a moonbow, but that’s something different. The ring we saw around the moon is called a 22-degree halo and apparently has no other or more poetic name. That’s a shame. In the early morning, when the moon had gotten well above the horizon, it was surrounded by a complete circular halo with radiating clouds on either side. That was worth the clouds. I’ve been under wonderfully clear desert skies many times, but I’ve never seen a moon halo quite like that. For once, I think the clouds were worth it.

Update: There wasn’t just a moon halo, there was also a sun halo Saturday afternoon. Agnes Kwon captured it in pixels. Witness:

Many thanks to Agnes, Chad, and Kevin for letting me illustrate my post with their awesome photos!


The moon tonight

July 28, 2012

Afocal shot with Nikon Coolpix 4500 shooting through SkyWatcher 90mm Mak and Orion Sirius 32mm Plossl eyepiece, tweaked and flipped to correct orientation in GIMP. Eight-seven people saw the moon through this telescope tonight.

Thanks to everyone who has commented on the Suburban Messier Project. I will go forward with it at some point, but right now I am in the middle of my summer teaching and don’t have time for much of anything other than that. See you in the future!


Snapshots from Owl Canyon, April 16-17

April 20, 2011

No time for a full report now, but here are some highlights from our trip to Owl Canyon last weekend.

This is my “Uncle Rod” shot (if that makes no sense, go here).

Cirrus clouds at sunset. Notice the stripe of rainbow color about 1/3 down from the top. This is sunlight refracted through the ice crystals in the clouds. I’m not sure if it would be considered a sun dog, a tangent arc, or another of the multitude of halo types, but it sure was pretty.


Birthplace of suns

October 16, 2010

Normally I loathe just reblogging stuff from elsewhere on teh t00bz, but I make exceptions. Sometimes it’s nice to have your sense of wonder not just tickled, but smacked right across the room. This picture of NGC 346, from APOD, did it for me. Click through to the astronormous hi-rez version, and spend a few minutes zooming in and out. While doing so, try to hold these two ideas in your head at once: first, this is just one star-forming region in the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, which is a big spiral galaxy in a small galaxy cluster on the outskirts of a not-terribly big supercluster, and so on and so forth; and second, every star in the picture is a sun, each with its own history and fate, most with their own systems of planets–and so on and so forth.

If NGC 346 was our entire universe, we could spend a thousand centuries exploring it and not exhaust its wonders. And yet you would not have to venture far into the closer galactic superclusters to find more galaxies than there are stars in the photo, each galaxy with more stars than you could count in a lifetime, each star with its own unique history.

Right! Enough of that! Back to fighting over our speck of dust.


Mt Wilson: even better the second time around

June 14, 2010

About a dozen of us from the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers spent Saturday night observing with the 60-inch telescope up on Mount Wilson. A really excellent night on the mountain is a Goldilocks affair–you need enough of a marine layer to cover up the lights of LA, but the fog has to stay low enough not to swamp the observatory itself. The PVAA visited Mount Wilson last summer, but got fogged out. That worked out okay for me, because they rescheduled for the fall and I found out about the trip in time to go along.

Saturday night the marine layer was looking  pretty good when we got there. Unfortunately, it cleared out before midnight, so the sky was too bright for us to do any serious galaxy observing. But we saw quite a few planetary nebulae and globular clusters, which punch through the light pollution better than most galaxies.

We saw a lot of burnt trees on the way in, from last fall’s Station Fire, which at one point threatened the observatory. The trees by the gate had some light charring down near the bottoms of their trunks, but they hadn’t burned very high or very hot, and I suspect that the fire evidence I saw there was caused by backfires set by the firefighters who saved the observatory.

The 60-inch telescope, largest in the world from 1908 to 1917, is as impressive as ever.

Our first target was Saturn. Although the seeing settled down later in the evening, right after dark the sky was pretty turbulent and that cut down on the amount of detail we could see. Also, and to my immense irritation, I couldn’t get my camera to focus with the optical zoom engaged, so I couldn’t  increase the object size on the CCD as much as I would have liked. This photo doesn’t really do the view justice–in fact, it’s not much better than I’ve done with my 10-inch scope from my driveway (proof here).  Remember that this is a sad comment on the state of the just-past-sunset atmosphere and my finicky camera, and not a slight on the telescope, which is capable of much better!

But things did get better as the evening progressed and we saw tons of cool stuff. Several other people were experimenting with their own digital cameras and that inspired me to try some things I haven’t done before, like photographing double stars. Here is Albireo, a summer favorite that is easily split by even small telescopes.

We started with Saturn and ended with Jupiter; the King of the Planets was climbing in the east as the sky started to brighten before dawn. If you haven’t looked at Jupiter in a while, the Red Spot is actually red again, and the normally-brown South Equatorial Belt has faded almost completely. This is a big switch from the past year or two, when the “Red” Spot has mostly been visible as a white notch in the SEB. It was far and away the best look at the GRS that I’d ever gotten.

The highlight of the evening for me was seeing M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, and M5, another excellent summer glob, back to back. M13 is probably in most deep sky observers’ top ten, but some people like M5 better, and I’m in that camp. M5 isn’t quite as big or bright, although it comes very close, but it has a much more compact core and the outer stars are arranged in loops and swirls rather than radiating chains. To my eyes, M5 looks like an explosion of stars, in progress. It’s good in my ten-inch scope. It’s phenomenal in the 60-inch.

Last fall we went on a weeknight and I had to leave early, around 3:00 AM or so, to get up to teach the next morning. We also had a considerably larger group, so we didn’t get through as many objects per unit time. Obviously going with a big group is better for the club, but it was nice to have a more intimate group and a shorter line at the eyepiece. I had a heck of a good time, and I plan on going back up every chance I get. If it’s within your means, you should do likewise.

Many thanks to our host and telescope operator for another tremendous evening!

Update: I’m kind of a doofus. If you were wondering why this post is included in the binocular category, it’s because I took my 15×70 bins with me and did some deep-sky observing out of the opening in the dome, while waiting in line for the eyepiece. I bagged four targets for the AL Deep Sky Binocular club, which leaves me with only six more needed to complete that list. But I forgot to mention all of this when I first posted!


JPL tour

April 4, 2010

All right, I doubt if I fooled anyone with the last post, but I had to try right? This is a lab at JPL, and those are duplicate Mars rovers, but it’s not no secret what they’re up to. This is a shot of the famous “sandbox” where maneuvers planned for Spirit and Opportunity are tested here on Earth before they are attempted on Mars. I took this picture from the viewing gallery, which is open to everyone who takes a tour. My tour was back on January 8 of this year, and I’m finally getting around to blogging about it only three months late.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was started up by some Caltech grad students back in the 1930s, as a place to test the jet engines they were building for their thesis work. At the time, jet propulsion was the most cutting-edge technology on the planet. I wonder how many of those interwar engineers imagined that their country would have bootprints on the moon in three decades, and probes flying past the outer planets in four?

Anyway, in the 1950s the folks at JPL teamed up with Werner von Braun to build and then orbit the first US satellite, Explorer 1, which discovered Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts. When NASA was founded in 1958, JPL became the center of US efforts to explore the solar system with robot probes, and it continues in that role to this day. The various moon and Mars mappers, Mariners and Pioneers and Voyagers and Vikings, orbiters and atmospheric probes and landers, and rendezvousers with comets and asteroids–in short, just about everything awesome that NASA has done outside of the manned space program and a few of the space telescopes–were all born at and controlled from JPL. A surprising number are still working, including some that have been out there almost as long as I’ve been alive.

JPL has an annual open house each May, and school groups can arrange tours at other times. Vicki and London and I got to go in January because someone I met doing sidewalk astronomy last fall was organizing a school trip and had some extra slots. It was quite an honor to get to go along, and just stupendously cool.

The coolest part was seeing the stuff that’s still being built. Right now, this is mostly the Mars Science Lab, set to depart for the red planet in a year and a half, and its supporting spacecraft. Here a couple of engineers work on the robotic arm for the MSL–not the actual arm or the actual rover, but an exact duplicate. They’re working out the programming bugs on the clone before they put the program in the real one.

Here’s London with a mockup of MSL. It’s big, beautiful, and kinda freaky. The gearhead in me says, “That is one sweet robot!” The Cro-Magnon says, “That is one unnervingly big robot”, and is happy not to have to see it trundling around on its own.

Here is the giant cleanroom, the size of a high school gymnasium, where the MSL mission stuff is being built and stored. That big silver dish in the corner is the MSL aeroshell, which will decelerate the crane and rover in Mars’ thin atmosphere. This is not a mockup or a duplicate; in about two and a half years, that actual thing in the corner will actually be crashing through the Martian atmosphere at several thousand miles per hour.

Here are more bits of the gumdrop-shaped probe that will carry MSL to Mars. I think the flying-saucer shaped thing in the foreground is the parachute carrier,  but I could be wrong.

And here’s the crane that will hover on its rocket engines while it lowers the MSL rover to the surface. Sounds crazy, I know, but apparently they did exhaustive design studies and this is the best way to get a rover the size of a car down to the surface. MSL is big, and the bouncy balloon thing that worked so well for Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity ain’t gonna cut it this time around (see a cool comparison shot of the three types of rover here; also, how cool is it that we’re on our third generation Mars rover?).

The back wall of the cleanroom is tiled with giant versions of the patches from the various JPL missions, from the early Surveyors and Rangers to Cassini, the current Mars rovers, and New Horizons. I don’t know if that gives the people who work there some anxiety of influence, or more of a “Hell yeah, we’re awesome!” feeling, but I definitely leaned toward the latter.

Our tour ended in a viewing gallery overlooking Mission Control, where busy people keep track of flybys, orbiters, landers, and rovers, from MESSENGER heading for orbital insertion around Mercury, to New Horizons streaking toward its 2015 Pluto flyby, to the Voyager probes approaching the heliopause, far beyond the orbits of the gas giants.

I wish the lighting would have been brighter so I could have gotten a crisper shot; this was my favorite thing in the whole tour. This one screen in Mission Control has data scrolling in, in real time, from many of the active probes (not all of them; MESSENGER, for example, was not up on the boards when I was there). I got to watch data coming in from the Voyager probes, which were launched when I was two years old. How cool is that?

UPDATE, two and a half years later: Curiosity landed safely on Mars last night, so some of the hardware in the photos above is there on Mars, working. Oh, and Spirit has given up the ghost, but Opportunity is still going strong, 3116 days into its 92.5-day mission.


The moon in 3D!

January 27, 2010

Last month I sent in my completed logbook for the AL Lunar Club to Steve Nathan, the coordinator for that club. We struck up a conversation and he shared the above image and some information about it (with permission to post):

The Moon image is attributed to L. M. Rutherford.  The images were take on Sept. 15 and Nov. 13, 1864.  His original negatives were copied by many (!) 3D stereo card publishers for decades…into the early 1900’s.  Other phases of the Moon were also shot in 3D, but all took advantage of the libration effect. Similar 3D images exist for the planets, sunspots, meteors, etc.; all with limited, to no 3D effect. However, somewhere around here I have Neil Armstrong’s famous lunar bootprint…in 3D! (FYI: much of the NASA lunar program photography was done in 3D).  Intriguing, eh?!

If you don’t have a stereo-viewer (I don’t), don’t click on the image (leave it at column width), hold your head back at least a foot and a half from the screen (farther is easier), cross your eyes until the moons double up and then merge the two in the middle to make one bright 3D moon between the two flat ones.

Earlier I had asked if two cameras had to be widely separated geographically to get the stereopair. For making stereopairs of Earthly objects, two photos must be taken with the camera in slightly different places to simulate the separation between our eyes. Since the moon is a quarter of a million miles away, it seemed logical that you’d need the cameras to be as far apart as possible. But as you can read above, the two shots were separated not in space but in time. Steve wrote:

Libration alone will do the trick, the object of interest (the Moon) presents two different views of itself to the observer; increasing the baseline/camera separation would be redundant.

Libration is the “wobbling” of the moon over time as seen from Earth, because of the complex geometry of the Earth/Moon/Sun system. Go here for a more complete explanation.

Pretty darned cool; there is absolutely no reason I couldn’t give this a whirl as soon as the clouds clear out. If I get anything, I’ll post it here. In the meantime, here’s another version of the stereopair that I cleaned up a bit in GIMP. I like the sepia-toned classic version as well; use whichever tickles your fancy.

Finally, many thanks to Steve for sharing the image and the information!