Thursday, June 30, 2005

Comets, Asteroids, And Brown Dwarfs, O My!

The 200 inch Big Eye is the signature scope at Mt. Palomar (click here for website) but there are other scopes at the observatory that contribute as much or more to science. They are just a lot smaller. For instance, there's the next largest scope, the 60 inch "Pig Eye." (The photo above is the scope's base.)

Besides rhyming with Big Eye, the 60 inch scope's nickname, Pig Eye, is an affectionate reminder of its origin. The scope was donated to the observatory in 1970 by the Oscar Mayer Company at a ceremony attended by the company's namesake. Who knew the company was named after an actual person? (Here's a full picture of the scope.)

Pig Eye's most notable achievement came in 1994 with the discovery of the first brown dwarf, Gliese 229B, located 19 light years from Sol in the Gliese 229 system. The brown dwarf is 20 to 50 times more massive than Jupiter, too big and hot to be a planet but too small and cool to be a star. (Click here for more info on these unusual heavenly bodies.)

Pig Eye is mostly used to observe planets within the Heliosphere and distant planetary nebulae. The 60 inch scope has only a 4 month waiting list for use as opposed to the 200 inch scope's 4 year wait. The small room (pictured at left) on the second floor of the dome is the control room.
It's not always used because Pig Eye can be operated remotely. It recently had a new operating system and camera installed so that astronomers at Cal Tech and elsewhere could use the scope without having to make the long trip to Mt Palomar.

Another scope at the observatory is the 48 inch Samuel Oschin. (The scope's dome is pictured at right.) The dome looks like any other dome at the observatory but the scope inside is very important to the safety of all humankind.
The Samuel Oschin is used in the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking project (NEAT, click here for website)

The NEAT project tracks the asteroids that circle the Earth near the Earth's orbit. There are 3440 know asteroids whose orbits are near to Earth's. In 1900 only 18 had been discovered. NEAT's goal is to find 90 percent of the near-Earth asteroids with diameters greater than 1 kilometer by 2008. An asteroid of that size could cause really serious problems for humans if it were to collide with the Earth. So every night the Samuel Oschin takes 200 pictures of the night sky with its 16 megapixel camera and computers compare the photographs against images of known fixed stars in the sky. The extra specks of light in the photographs are the asteroids. NEAT astronomers then track these asteroids to plot their orbits to determine whether any of them pose a risk of collision now or into the future.

Another scope on site is the 18 inch Schmidt. The Schmidt is the oldest scope at the observatory. It became operational in 1936. Its most notable achievement was the discovery of Shoemaker-Levy. In its history the scope discovered 50 comets but it is no longer used for scientific research. (The Schmidt's dome is pictured below.)
Come back tomorrow for more Open House photos.



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