22 Feb 2010
This week we mark the passing of one of the greats of astronomy. His is a name not well known outside of the discipline, but people who love the skies are indebted to him for his astonishing accomplishments.
It was this week in 1938 that George Ellery Hale died of heart problems at the age of 69. But the achievements he left behind, including one local work of art, have changed our view of the cosmos forever.
Although a legitimate astronomer in his own right - the sun was his specialty - it is what he built that made all the difference in the world. He was the man behind the construction of three of the biggest telescopes of the 20th century.
In 1897 he founded the Yerkes Telescope in Wisconsin, equipping it with a monstrous 40-inch lens. In the early 1900's he built the famed observatory on Mt Wilson above Los Angeles. There the Hooker Telescope, sporting its 100-inch mirror, reigned as the supreme telescope in the world until the building of our own "Cathedral of the Heavens," the Palomar Observatory which houses the 200-inch Hale Telescope.
Hale was not just trying to build bigger telescopes just for the sake of being bigger. In astronomy, size really does matter.
Our only physical connection with the heavens is light; that is where all our information is. We need light. With a larger lens or mirror on your telescope you can gather more light, and thus more information about planets and stars and galaxies and even the exotic stuff like dark matter. So what George Ellery Hale did was nothing less than helping us see the universe.
What kind of things were accomplished at his observatories? Here's a short list:
It was at Hale's observatories that astronomers discovered we were not in the center of the Milky Way, but over in the safer suburbs of the galaxy. Moreover, it was discovered that our galaxy was not alone, but just one of a seemingly infinite number of them.
Scientists using the Hale's scopes determined that stars are born, live, and die, and that their blown-out debris give us all the elements of the Periodic Table.
Astronomers using Hale's observatories discovered that we were an expanding universe which led to the belief that the universe indeed did have a beginning. And in observing vastly distant objects called quasars it was determined that our universe did not just have a beginning, and was not just expanding, but was enormous beyond comprehension.
It was Hale's rugged determination to build these observatories that led to these worldview changing discoveries.
Want to know more? His life has been portrayed in several books and in the recent PBS documentary, The Journey to Palomar. And of course you can yourself make a sort of pilgrimage to Palomar Mountain itself and see his last work of art, one that reigned supreme up until the 1990's when bigger telescopes were finally built.
Until next time, clear skies!
08 Feb 2010
Planet Round Up time! There are at least seven pesky planets moseying around up there. Let's go find them!
First let's track down and check off the planets that we will have the toughest time seeing due to that big bright plasma ball up there, namely, our sun.
You can just plain forget about seeing Neptune and Uranus. Both of those giant planets are on the opposite side of the sun and will not orbit around fast enough to see well anytime this month. Tiny Mercury is hiding behind the sun now, too.
There are two other star players near the sun now, as well. But they are not so close to our star that we cannot find them - if we know where to look.
Jupiter, because of our own speedy orbit, appears to be slipping closer to and behind the sun this month. Catch him now in the west after sunset; the Big Guy won't return until later in March in a new role as a "Morning Star."
Venus, that speedster, is whipping around the sun now at a good clip and is trying to pass Jupiter in the skies, going the other way, from our point of view. You will have a tough time seeing Venus this week since our hellish sister is still so close to the sun, but by next week she will pull away and be easy to spot.
Ready for a challenge? Go out next Sunday, the 14th, just 15 minutes after sunset and look towards where the sun has just set. There you will see two "stars." That would be Jupiter and Venus, a site which is pretty enough all by itself. If you look carefully just to the "right" of the two, you may see the faintest hint of the thinnest crescent moon. A thin crescent moon with a side of planets: what a combo!
So where is our other neighbor, our little buddy Mars? Mars, unlike Venus and Jupiter, is on the opposite side of the sky as the sun. So as the sun sets in the west, Mars is rising over in the east. It is relatively easy to see: It is pinkish, and a couple times brighter than any star near it.
Saturn is the only planet left. Like Mars, Saturn is on the same side of the sun as we. It will be rising in the 9 o'clock hour this week. Over the next weeks and months it will rise earlier and earlier, making it a better and better find as time go by.
However, because of unfortunate combinations of orbits and tilts, we are seeing the rings almost edge-on this year. That kind of takes away from their beauty. But hey, it's still Saturn, a handsome planet even with thinned-out rings.