Wallpaper Wednesday

29 06 2011
Laser and Star Trails over North Gemini

Laser and Star Trails over Gemini North. Photo credit: Gemini Observatory/Joy Pollard

Today’s wallpaper features Gemini North, the Mauna Kea branch of the Gemini Observatory.  Like Gemini South on the summit of Cerro Pachon in Chile, the observatory at Gemini North houses an 8.1-meter diameter optical/infrared telescope. Together, North and South are capable of surveying the entire night sky with an array of instruments.

In addition to star trails, the image above shows the trace the Laser Guide Star (the LGS creates an “artificial star” which is used as a reference source for the  adaptive optics systems of the telescope’s various instruments) created on May 21, 2010.  If you’re looking at the high-res wallpaper, you can see a similar LGS trace from the W. M. Keck Observatory in the lower left hand corner of the photo. The bright, wide streak at the far left of the image is the moon’s trail. Several other Mauna Kea observatories and telescopes are also visible in the high-res image.  From left to right, they are: the Subaru Telescope (looks like a tube set on end), Keck (the twin domes), NASA IRTF (behind which can be seen the peak of Haleakalā on Maui, rising from the clouds), and CFHT (just behind Gemini North).

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

25 06 2011

The June edition of the  alumni magazine from (one of) my undergrad institutions arrived in the mail on Thursday. The last inside page (scroll to the bottom of the linked .pdf) was dedicated to a photo of the 6″ refracting telescope in the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the campus of the University of Washington. We’ve been having a discussion about the digital manipulation of the sky viewed through the dome’s opening—while the bottom half of the sky does a good job of representing Seattle’s light pollution, the top half isn’t a particularly accurate rendering of the sky visible above the observatory. Even so, it’s a lovely view of the Warner & Swasey equatorial mount and the  Brashear lens, as well as the Warner & Swasey wood dome.*

Refracting Telescope, Warner & Swasey Equatorial Mount

Refracting Telescope, Warner & Swasey Equatorial Mount. Image credit: University of Washington

Today, the observatory stands next to the campus gates at 45th and Memorial Way. While this part of campus remained undeveloped until the 1950s, by the time I was a student at UW in the 1980s, the woods had mostly been lost to (well-lit) parking lots. Possibly a few of the astronomy classes used the telescope for educational purposes until then, but mostly the observatory functioned for fifty years as a nice historical monument, the second oldest building on campus. Fortunately, the telescope was refurbished in the 1990s and just ten years ago, the astronomy department began using the observatory in its public outreach program.

The early astronomy program at University Washington had strong ties with the work being done at Lick Observatory, east of St. Jose, CA.  Mathematics professor Joseph M. Taylor studied at Lick as a “special student” in 1890 and returned to UW to found the astronomy department in 1891. When the university moved from downtown Seattle to its present location, Taylor spent $3000 allocated to the department by the Regents on a 6″ refractor and a building in which to house it. The original wood frame observatory stood for only three years before Taylor started looking for a more permanent structure.  In 1895, he appropriated the stone and money left over from the construction of nearby Denny Hall and directed it toward the construction of the masonry observatory we see on campus today.

The observatory is named after a later professor of astronomy, Theodor S. Jacobsen, who began teaching at UW in 1928. A graduate of UC-Berkeley, he worked as a Lick Observatory Fellow for two years after completing his Ph.D. Allegedly, he hurt his back moving the Great Refractor one night and decided to pursue a less physically risky career, like teaching astronomy and mathematics (although he continued his research on variable stars, so I’m not so sure about that story). At any rate, Professor Jacobsen had a long career at the university and afterward:  his last book came out in 1999, four years before his death at the age of 102.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Photo credit: University of Washington

The architecture of the observatory is well documented in the Historic Property Inventory Form submitted as part of the application process for inclusion on the State Register of Historic Buildings. Two choice passages:

“Built in 1894-95, this small, stone masonry building is the second oldest on the University of Washington campus. Charles W. Saunders, a leader of the architectural profession in Seattle during this era, designed this building as well as the first building on campus, Denny Hall, and the first gymnasium. Situated at the northern end of the central campus southeast of the NE 45th Street entrance, the observatory was built with stone remaining from the construction of Denny Hall, using surplus funds from that earlier project. The telescope dome sits on top of a two-story tower at the north end of a one0story building with flat roofline and a rectangular plan. Supported by large wooden brackets, a shallow wooden balcony with a low wooden balustrade encircles the northern half of this tower at the second story, ending at a small, enclosed stairwell on the west elevation. Built with roughly cut stone set in broken courses, the structure features segmentally arched door and window openings with radiating voussoirs reminiscent of the Romanesque Revival style. The windows appear to retain their original wooden sash units. Sheathed in sheet metal, the telescope dome rotates on cannon balls left over from the Civil War** and still houses the original six-inch clear-aperture telescope. Well-maintained with good physical integrity, the observatory continues to hold free public showings on selected clear nights with slide shows given on other evenings.”

“Charles W. Saunders initiated his practice in Seattle shortly after the 1869 fire and remained among the leaders of the architectural profession for the next twenty years. After 1898, Saunders was in a sixteen-year partnership with George W. Lawton. Together, they designed an extraordinarily wide range of projects executed in an eclectic variety of styles, including schools, residences, apartments, and commercial buildings as well as several buildings for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Lawton had also come to Seattle in 1889 and had worked for Saunders before entering into partnership with him.”

*If you’re counting, this makes the fifth Warner & Swasey telescope I’ve discussed recently; see the entries for the Lick, Kirkwood, Yerkes and University of Illinois observatories for the other four.

**Similar to the rotating mechanism in use at the Cincinnati Observatory Centre

Packing Curiosity

22 06 2011

In case you were wondering what was under that gray tarp last week:

Edited to add today’s video release:

Wallpaper Wednesday

22 06 2011
Barringer Meteorite Crater

Barringer Meteorite Crater. Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Today’s wallpaper comes to us courtesy of ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer), an imaging instrument  that makes up part of the satellite Terra.  Terra was launched in December 1999 as part of NASA’s EOS (Earth Observing System). If you’re wondering why the photo of Barringer Crater looks so strange, it’s because you’re looking at a 3D perspective view created by superimposing an ASTER bands 3-2-1 image over a digital elevation model from the US Geological Survey National Elevation Dataset. This composite image is a decade old now, but ASTER is still going strong, as is evidenced by the data it sends back to earth showing some of our planet’s natural hazards, including debris from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Meteor Crater Observatory

20 06 2011
Meteor Crater Observatory

Meteor Crater Observatory, c. 1943. Image courtesy Illinois Digital Archives

The building shown above wasn’t designed for viewing the night skies, but as its caption suggests, it was built for the purposes of contemplating a (long past) astronomical event. This is a photo of an observatory built by Harry Locke in the late 1930s for the purpose of viewing the Barringer Meteorite Crater near Winslow, Arizona. Harry and his wife, Hope, owned the land where Route 66 met the road leading to the Barringer crater. At that time, the crater was still privately owned by Barringer’s Standard Mine Company, and tourists weren’t welcome on the active mining site.  The Lockes opened “Meteor Station,” a cafe and gas station, at “Meteor Junction,” hoping the business would bring in enough money to fund their life’s dream, the building of a meteor museum.* They seemed to have immediately leased Meteor Station to “Rimmy Jim” Giddings (maybe they thought his colorful personality would draw in more tourists and so make more money?). Giddings ran the business until his death in 1943, after which time Ruth and Sid Griffin took over the operation.**

Apparently crater observatories weren’t a very lucrative business in the first half of the twentieth century. The Meteor Crater Observatory opened in the late 1930s but went into foreclosure after it lost money. Sadly, Locke was killed while trying to earn a living with the Winslow Police Department. After Locke’s death, Dr. Harvey Nininger took over the property and opened the the American Meteorite Museum in 1946. Nininger managed to attract some 30,000 visitors to the museum in the first year, but the business suffered with the re-alignment of Route 66 in 1949. Nininger hung on until 1953, when the museum closed for good. The building was abandoned and today, exists only as a ruin.

Meteor Crater Observatory, 1992.

Meteor Crater Observatory, 1992. Image courtesy Northern Arizona University Cline Library Special Collections and Archives

Old Observatory near Meteor Crater, 2003

Old Observatory near Meteor Crater, 2003. Photo Credit: D. C. McGhee

*Harry Locke was also an amateur cartoonist. His SW sense of humor was documented by Owen Arnold in the March 1943 issue of Desert Magazine (pp. 17-21).

**Joe Sonderman, Route 66 in Arizona, Charleston: Acadia Publishing, 49.

***Sonderman, 50.

Kirkwood Observatory

17 06 2011

As a follow up to my post on Kirkwood Observatory, here are a few historic photos from the Archives Photograph Collection at Indiana University.

First, we have a slightly damaged photo taken within the first decade of the building’s life. If you compare this image with the night shot I posted earlier, you can this photo was taken before the addition to the west side of the observatory. I have a feeling that collegiate ivy tucked into the northwest corner of the building is going to cause trouble.

Kirkwood Observatory, c. 1910

Kirkwood Observatory, c. 1910. Photo credit: Indiana University Archives

Second, we have a view of the building in an apparently defunct stage, covered with…wait for it… ivy.

Kirkwood Observatory, June 6, 1950

Kirkwood Observatory, June 6, 1950. Photo credit: Indiana University Archives

As you can see from the third photo, a view of the observatory through the trees of Dunn’s Woods, a fresh crop of ivy was engulfing the observatory in 1975. I was just admiring the repointing job someone did on the mortar in those limestone walls last weekend; now I know why the joints had to be repaired.

Kirkwood Observatory, c. 1975

Kirkwood Observatory, c. 1975. Photo credit: Indiana University Archives

Wallpaper Wednesday

15 06 2011
'Curiosity,' aka the Mars Science Laboratory Rover.

'Curiosity,' aka the Mars Science Laboratory Rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Did you have a chance to watch the new Mars Rover move around its temporary home in the clean room at JPL before it drove itself out of camera range? Today’s wallpaper was taken during the June 3rd mobility testing, which I would have missed if I wasn’t a slave to my twitter feed. Try to catch up with Curiosity via JPL’s Curiosity Cam or follow the mission on twitter @CuriosityRover. Also, don’t be an idiot like me and instinctively type in the British spelling of ‘curiousity’ when you’re searching for mission data. That will turn into a #FAIL pretty quickly.

UPDATE:  The Rover make its final appearance on camera at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Thursday, June 16, 7:30 to 10 a.m. Watch!

This is the dawning…

14 06 2011

Aquarius Logo

Last week, I took some time away from the never-ending slog that is my book prospectus to watch (via the Internet) the liftoff of a Delta II rocket with the Aquarius/SAC-D spacecraft on board. Tense times, but everything went as planned and early telemetry suggests the Aquarius observatory is in good shape.

When I first heard about Aquarius, I thought I was looking at the wrong project description. Measuring the salinity of the Earth’s ocean? NASA? From space? Yes, on all counts. Aquarius was designed to measure Sea Surface Salinity (SSS) as it varies over time and according to region. The project team hopes that by tracking SSS from orbit, they will be able to detect variations in the Earth’s water cycle.  In the end, they hope to build a more complete model of the interrelationship between runoff, the freeze-thaw of sea ice, and evaporation/precipitation over the ocean.

Schematic diagram of Aquarius/SAC-D satellite

Schematic diagram of Aquarius/SAC-D satellite. Image credit: NASA

How will the observatory accomplish these measurements?  The spacecraft’s primary instrument, which was contributed by Argentina’s Comisión Nacional deActividades Espaciales (CONAE), consists of three passive microwave radiometers that are super sensitive to salinity (1.413 GHz; L-band; this roughly correlates to 1/8 teaspoon of salt in a gallon of water). The instrument also contains an active scatterometer that measures ocean waves that affect the precision of the salinity measurement. Aquarius is projected to spend three years measuring SSS in 7-day cycles, after which time the data will be used to theorize on numerous pressing issues:  how ocean currents effect salinity transport; SSS impact on tropical climate models and El Niño; SSS impact on oceans ubsurface dynamics; ice-ocean interaction; processes that maintain the ocean’s salinity; and so on.

As usual, NASA has provided an abundance of interpretive aids and flashy images.  You can download a project overview in print/text, or just watch the overview video. If you’re in a hurry, you can take a quick look at the diagram of the project’s research priorities and anticipated scientific outcomes. If you’re talking about Aquarius in the classroom, you can print out educational wall posters in English and in Spanish.  The gallery for the project has schematics for launch, stowage and full deployment of the satellite’s instruments. I anticipate some new additions to this section now that the observatory is in orbit above Earth’s oceans.

Kirkwood Observatory

11 06 2011
Kirkwood Observatory, Bloomington, Indiana.

Kirkwood Observatory, Bloomington, Indiana. Photo credit: JR

Well, it’s summer in the American Midwest and that means severe weather is either coming or going, day and night. Even when the thunderstorms are quiet, the skies tend toward overcast here, a fact that must frustrate the students running the public program at the Kirkwood Observatory at Indiana University. In theory, the observatory holds an open house every Wednesday evening. In practice, the weather frequently interferes with the schedule.

Kirkwood Observatory, which stands on the western edge of Dunn Woods on IU’s campus, was named after Daniel Kirkwood, a professor of Mathematics at the university from 1856 until 1886. You might recognize his last name: Professor Kirkwood discovered (and more importantly, explained) what we now call the “Kirkwood gaps” in the asteroid belt.* He also proposed what is now known as (since disproved) Kirkwood’s Law.

Professor Kirkwood retired in 1886 and passed away in 1895. Five years later, construction began on the observatory that would bear his name. William J. Hussey, an astronomer at the Lick Observatory, came to town to give the dedication talk, “Astronomy in Modern Life,” for the opening day of the new building on May 15, 1901. The observatory was outfitted wtih a 12″ (0.3m) refracting telescope, built by Warner & Swasey Company. Sadly, the observatory was almost instantly obsolete, not only because of its instrumentation, but because of light pollution from the growing town. By 1920, university astronomers were seeking a new venue for making observations. Financial difficulties slowed the search down, and it wasn’t until 1936 that Professor Cogshall convinced IU to fund a new observatory at Knightridge.

Kirkwood Observatory has suffered a bit from neglect over the years, as the profession moved on to more sophisticated instrumentation (IU students working on observational astronomy now observe remotely, using the 3.5-m WIYN observatory at Kitt Peak in Arizona). The wood dome was in such sketchy condition by the 1990s that IU’s observational techniques class was held on the roof of Swain Hall West.  Fortunately, the building and telescope received an overhaul in 2001. The telescope is now used for teaching and public programs. Judging from the crowds we’ve encountered at the observatory recently, interest in observational astronomy is alive and well in Bloomington, Indiana.

Don’t forget to the check with the IU Astronomy Department before heading over the other observatory. They’ve been pretty good about keeping their twitter feed updated (@iuastro) on scheduled observing days.

*The main asteroid belt in our solar system lies between Mars and Jupiter. When studying the distribution of the asteroids in this region, Kirkwood noticed that there were several gaps, or empty zones, in the belt.  He proposed that these gaps were caused by the orbital resonance (gravitational disturbance) of Jupiter.

Lick Observatory

9 06 2011

One final set of photos of Lick Observatory: two shots of weather (note the scraping of the image of the sunset); one facade (nice car); one landscape (compare it with the postcard I posted a few days ago); and one gorgeous black-and-white of the moon. As always, click on the image for high res.

Observatories and Instruments