Sigma 7: Wally Schirra

24 10 2012

If you’ve got flash (sorry, iPhone users), you can visit the nifty interactive site that NASA posted to celebrate 50 years of Americans in orbit. I’m kind of sad that it didn’t come with a Wally Schirra action figure or at least a vintage board game.

Wallpaper Wednesday (l’Observatoire de Paris-Meudon)

24 10 2012


l’Observatoire de Paris-Meudon. Photo credit: Matthieu Bourdon

Today’s image is an HDR photograph of the Observatory of ParisMeudon. In 1875, when this branch of the Paris Observatory was founded, Meudon stood outside Paris, in a wooded area against the Seine. Today, Meudon is more of a Parisian suburb (though officially in the arrondissement of Boulogne-Billancourt) and probably best known to foreign tourists as the location of the Musée Rodin Meudon at the Villa des Brillants.

While I was doing research on an unrelated topic this week, I came across several mentions of the Meudon observatory in old astronomical bulletins. I am a big fan of the 19th-century version of the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Each edition is a snapshot of the state of astronomy at the time. The A.S.P.’s founder and president, Edward S. Holden, was a prolific writer (well, he had help from observatory staff) and he culled information from other scientific publications, correspondence with other astronomers, and his own travel and research notes to add to each issue of the Publications. For example, here’s a description of the Meudon observatory as reported by Lieutenant Winterhalter:

The Physical Observatory of Meudon (near Paris).*

The accompanying cut is copied from Lieut. Winterhalter’s Report on European Observatories by the kind permission of the Superintendent of the U. S. Naval Observatory (See Publ. A. S. P., Vol. Ill, page 40). The note here given is condensed from the text of Lieut. Winterhalter’s Report.

The Observatory was founded in 1875 and is established in the park of Meudon, not far from Paris. It is by no means completed, so far as instruments are concerned, but its present facilities are employed in spectroscopic and photographic observations. Its distinguished Director and his assistants have taken part in many eclipse expeditions to all parts of the world, and M. Janssen has prosecuted his spectroscopic observations at all altitudes from the level of the sea, to the tops of the Eiffel  tower, of the Pic du Midi and of Mont Blanc. The solar photographs of the Meudon Observatory are unrivalled. No description of them need be given here, because members of the society can see a beautiful glass copy of one of them which was presented to the Lick Observatory by M.
Janssen, in a conspicuous place in the main hall of the Lick Observatory. E. S. H.

*M. Jules Jannsen, Director [2]

And here is a paragraph Holden reprinted from Scientific American:

Large Refractor for the Observatory of Meudon.

A great refractor has just been finished and placed in position for Dr. Janssen at Meudon. It is a combined photographic and visual telescope. The two lenses were made by the celebrated Henry Brothers, of the Paris Observatory. The mounting is by Gauthier, of Paris. Both lenses will be mounted in the same tube, which is square and of steel. The visual objective is 82 cm. (32.3 English inches) in diameter, while the photographic objective is 63 cm. (24.8 English inches) diameter. Both lenses are of the same focal length, 17 meters (669 English inches.) The large objective will be the guiding part of the instrument when used for photography. This great telescope is housed in the ruins of the old royal palace, a part of the ruins serving as the tower for the great dome, which dome is 20 meters (66 English feet) in diameter and weighs some 60 or 80 tons. The dome is to be moved by a gas engine of 1 2 horse-power. The observing chair is attached to the dome and moves with it. All the fine circles are to be read from the eye-end by means of electric lights, the electricity for which is generated by an 8-horse-power engine half a mile distant, in what was formerly the royal stables.—Scientific American, November 18, 1893 [1]

That’s a lot of information packed into one small paragraph.

If any of my students are paying attention, this is how I start a research project, by tracking back through scholarly publications to the earliest mention of a building (that I can find, at least). I know web searches are tempting, but it’s usually more profitable (and more interesting) in the long run to spend some time paging through back issues of trade journals and professional bulletins instead. Even more interesting would be tracking back through old French publications, but I’m prepared to give you a break on that. This time.

As always, click on the image of l’Observatoire de Paris-Meudon to download wallpaper for your computer.


[1] Edward S. Holden, “Large Refractor for the Observatory of Meudon,”  Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 6, No. 34 (January 27, 1894), pp. 46-47

[2] Members of the Staff and E. S. H., “The Physical Observatory of Meudon (Near Paris),” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 4, No. 25 (September 3, 1892), p. 181


Visiting Space Shuttle Discovery (Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

23 10 2012

First Sighting at James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. Photo credit: JR

I left for Los Angeles and my encounter with Endeavour just two days after returning from a visit to the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The highlight of the Smithsonian visit was the Space Shuttle Discovery, of course, but after spending three days with Endeavour, I was a little hesitant to go back and look at my photos from my day at the museum. I was worried that the experience, even though it was so recent, wouldn’t hold up to the weekend following Endeavour. Of course, it doesn’t in many ways, but in others, seeing Discovery was also a great experience.

Landing Gear, Space Shuttle Discovery. Photo credit: JR

Endeavour’s landing gear was retracted during its move to the California Science Center, of course. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but when I started sorting through my Smithsonian photos, I realized how different the undersides of the two spacecrafts appeared, one staged for landing, the other staged for transport. The experience of scale was quite different, too. On the streets of L.A., Endeavour seemed like a behemoth, lumbering down the center lane. At Udvar-Hazy, Discovery seems quite small, although not as small as the Mercury capsule perched off to the side.

James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. Photo credit: JR

Otherwise, the real lesson I learned by comparing the two sets of photos: it’s vastly easier to figure out exposure and white balance when I’m outdoors in persistent lighting/weather conditions. Museum lighting continues to be a challenge for me. Most of my problems could be solved with a tripod, but white balance is always difficult in a creatively lit museum. It’s a good thing I’m not being paid for this.

Wallpaper Wednesday

17 10 2012

Milky Way, Southern Cross, alpha Centauri, Carina Nebula. Photo credit: A. Fujii

Threaded through the partisan bickering during the debates on twitter last night was a string of tweets discussing ESO’s discovery of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system.[1] According to ESO’s press release, the planet was detected through the observation of “wobbles” in Alpha Centauri B’s path of motion. Astronomers speculated that the gravitational pull of an orbiting body was generating the irregularities. Putting the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory to work on the problem, they discovered a planet with an orbital period of 3.2 days. The twitter is excited because Alpha Centauri B is a lot like our Sun and the newly discovered planet has the same mass as Earth—the theory being that our planetary twin has been discovered orbiting the star closest to our solar system. I’m not too worked up about the twinning possibilities, but I do think it’s cool that HARPS is doing exactly what it was supposed to do: find new planets.

In related news, I was intrigued by NASA’s response to ESO’s announcement. It’s as if they’re taking the discovery of the new planet a bit personally. Their press release, ostensibly a statement of congratulations to ESO on its accomplishment, reads more like an attempt to stake a claim on exoplanets of the universe. “We, too, have exoplanet finding capabilities! We have Hubble! We have Kepler! We have the James Webb Space Telescope!”

Click on the image to download wallpaper.


[1] Two stars comprise the Alpha Centauri system, Alpha Centauri A & B. They are indistinguishable to the naked eye, so we usually refer to them in the singular, as in “Alpha Centauri, the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus.”

Endeavour Day Two (Photos)

17 10 2012

Intersection of Crenshaw Dr., Crenshaw Blvd., 82nd. Photo credit: JR

I added Endeavour: Day Two photos to my flickr site last night (to go with Morning One, Afternoon One and Videos). It took me longer than I thought it would because I kept stopping to (re) watch the L.A. Times timelapse video of my weekend. Anyway, the Day Two collection is as much about the spectators as it is about the shuttle (don’t worry, there are plenty of Endeavour photos and all the engine porn you’d ever want). After being jostled around all day Friday—particularly at Randy’s Donuts—I was feeling a bit grumpy about the crowds. Saturday, I tried to use them to my advantage instead of fighting all the people. So, fewer clear sight lines, but more awesome moments of stranger happiness.

p.s. If you follow my twitter feed, you know I left the sidewalk unexpectedly at Crenshaw and King on Saturday night. A few days later, my right knee is definitely feeling the impact, but otherwise, all is good.

Endeavour Day One (Photos/Videos)

16 10 2012

See you later! Photo credit: JR

So far, my answers to the question “How was your weekend?” have been fairly inarticulate. “Amazing!!” is the quick answer, but even that extra exclamation point doesn’t convey the depth of my emotions. The people (friendly, excited), the sounds (beep-beep-beep-beep, endless-drone-of-LAPD-helicopter), the movement (slow and then slower), the spacecraft (OMFG)…it was overwhelming at times. In addition to sorting through all the meanings of the move for the history and future of the U.S. space program, I had to grapple with the idea of escorting the space shuttle through parts of the city known to me only as sites of social strife and political/racial oppression. My personal history with South Central L.A. meant that I couldn’t just chat blithely with my neighbor about the installation of the space shuttle at the California Science Center. Every conversation bumped up against a memory, many of them bad. For instance, on my second day, I walked through the intersection where I saw my first dead body in 1991—how weird is that? My mind was spinning simultaneously in fast-forward and reverse all weekend long and now I really need a nap. I’m going to need to rest before I can really process what this weekend meant for me, what it meant for the nation, what it meant for future space exploration. You know. The easy topics.

I’ve started the photo/video upload on my flickr site. If you want to see motion vignettes of the move, check out my Endeavour Videos collection. They’re short, from 20 to 90 seconds long, but some of them are pretty impressive (in terms of seeing Endeavour, not in terms of cellphone cinematography).

I’ve also uploaded a few photos from Day One: Morning and Day One: Afternoon. Day One began at 12:30 a.m. October 12, 2012 and ended at 11:00 p.m. October 12, 2012 (yes, almost 24 hours on 2-1/2 hours of sleep!); the photos start at the point at which the public was allowed to view the shuttle—the corner of Sepulveda Westway and Manchester—and finish with the rush across the 405 freeway at the end of the day.

JR! Photo credit: some random stranger with my iPhone

More later, I promise.

Endeavour On the Move

12 10 2012

Endeavour’s passing. Photo credit: JR

Here’s just a bit to let you know how well it’s all going out here in L.A. That’s a close-up of Endeavour’s flank as she (it?) moves out of temporary holding in the parking lot of Bed, Bath & Beyond at Manchester near LAX. That move occupied my afternoon. My early morning hours… Well, my early morning hours were spent getting as close to Endeavour as possible (or as allowed by the LAPD). Here’s what I saw when I looked up at about 4:30 a.m.

More soon—must get some sleep before the next stage of the move!

Wallpaper Wednesday

11 10 2012

SpaceX’s Falcon/Dragon Launch. Photo credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Robert Murray

I missed posting yesterday. I was on the road (on the train, in the plane) all day. As you might have guessed, I’m writing this from Los Angeles, where I am preparing for Endeavour’s final move. The big event begins at 2 a.m. this evening and last two days—wish  my old bones luck!

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to be in Virginia. While there, I did something you should never do: pulled out my iPhone during a family dinner and propped it up on the serving dish in front of me so I could watch NASA TV’s pre-launch coverage of the SpaceX Falcon/Dragon launch.[1] Eventually, my phone was passed around the table while my partner and I explained why we were so interested in the launch. By the end of the meal, the TV in the living room was playing NASA TV instead of football. By launch time, fourteen people were sitting in front of the television, counting the seconds to liftoff. Thank god the launch didn’t scrub at T-1 second—that’s a lot of pressure, a room full of relatives!

Congratulations once again to SpaceX. People are paying attention and that’s a good thing for the future of space exploration.


[1] In my defense, a few members of the extended family were eating dinner in front of the television—baseball/football—so I wasn’t being THAT rude.

Intrepid Museum

3 10 2012

Douglas A4 Skyhawk, Intrepid Museum, New York, NY. Photo credit: JR

I failed to upload my photos from our trip to the Intrepid Museum in September. Imagine forgetting about visiting the Space Shuttle Enterprise! I was happy to see the spacecraft again and overall, I liked the new exhibit more than I liked its predecessor at the Smithsonian. Well, on the positive side, Enterprise was better lit at the Smithsonian, making it easier to see all the details and fine lines. On the negative side, visitors were kept well back from the orbiter. At the Intrepid, you can walk underneath it, practically kick its tires. So, while I’m not too happy with the darkness of the temporary pavilion (reminded me of the National Museum of the Air Force), I was pleased they let me get so close.

ESO at 50

3 10 2012

On October 5, 2012, ESO will host a live 6-hour broadcast of “A Day in the Life of ESO” as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. This is your chance to view real-time observations made from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal. You can submit questions in advance of the broadcast via twitter, fb, or e-mail. From the ESO website:

  • Send a tweet @ESO, also using the hashtag #ESO50years
  • Write a question on your Facebook wall in which you tag ESO’s Facebook page. To tag a page you must first “like” the page and then type @ESO Astronomy in your question. A menu will appear from where you have the option to choose our page, ESO Astronomy. See an example of a tag (“via ESO Astronomy”) on this post
  • Send an email to with the subject ESO50years. Optionally, please include your name and country.

The live broadcast runs from 11:00 to 17:00 CEST (that’s Madrid’s time zone, if you need a reference). So, six hours ahead of the eastern time zone in the U.S., seven hours ahead of the central time zone, etc.

Read the press announcement here.

Observatories and Instruments