Meet the Astronomer: Scott Kardel
Corning Museum of Glass, March 24, 2011
David Whitehouse: Good evening everyone and welcome to this opportunity to meet astronomer Scott Kardel of the Palomar Observatory. Eighty years ago, another astronomer, George Ellery Hale, thought big.
Not content with observing the heavens through a telescope with a 40-inch diameter reflecting mirror, he lobbied for telescopes with a 60-inch and then 100-inch mirror. The 100-inch mirror was made by the French glass making giant Saint-Gobain and installed at the Mount Wilson Observatory in 1917. Then, in 1928, Hale began a campaign for an even bigger telescope. He wrote these words, “Starlight is falling on every square mile of the Earth’s surface and the best we can do at present is gather up and concentrate the rays that strike an area 100 inches in diameter.” His dream was a mirror of twice that diameter. Hale commissioned General Electric to make a 200-inch blank. It didn’t work, and so in 1929 Hale turned to Corning Glass Works, who assigned the project to Dr. George McCauley. McCauley’s team experimented with progressively larger blanks until, in 1934, they poured a huge quantity of molten Pyrex into a specially constructed mold 200 inches in diameter. The attempt failed. Pieces of the mold broke loose and the blank was ruined. That colossal wreck of course is now the largest single exhibit in our museum. (Laughter) Later that year, Corning tried again and succeeded. Now, for many of us in this room, that is the end of the story of the 200-inch disk. In reality, it was just the beginning.
We’re particularly fortunate to have with us this evening Scott Kardel, the Public Affairs Coordinator at the Palomar Observatory, who knows very well how the story continues. Scott received his Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Science with Secondary Education and his Master’s in Astronomy. In 2003 he became the Palomar Observatory’s first full-time staff member devoted to public outreach, with the purpose of telling a wide range of audiences about Palomar’s achievements in the exploration of the universe. Part of this outreach, of course, is his blog Palomar Skies. Our current exhibition in the Rakow Library, Mirror to Discovery, owes much to Scott’s willingness to share his encyclopedic knowledge. Will you please join me in welcoming Scott Kardel. (Applause)
Scott Kardel: Thank you. That was a very nice introduction. I appreciate that. So it’s my pleasure to be with you here this evening to talk about a place I know well. So here is the 200-inch Hale telescope at Palomar. The lights are not usually on at night (just so that you know) just for the picture. The telescope is in use each and every clear night of the year. Except at Christmas when we are closed.
We of course couldn’t do what we do in the world of Astronomy from Palomar without what happened here at Corning. Now, this is where most people from this community last saw the mirror, in its packing crate on the train ready to head westward. Of course before that I just wanted to let you know it’s still there. (Laughter) This is as I saw the mirror in November when we had pulled the mirror from the telescope to wash it. This is actually before it got its washing in November and I came in early so I could take pictures of myself with the glass but it’s still there and still in use. Of course none of that would be possible without the hard work that people did here first in a variety of ways, from building the mold, to ladling the glass, not once but twice. I can tell you that the second mirror was poured on my mom’s 5th birthday. She wasn’t there, she wasn’t part of the experience, but it makes it easy for me to remember December 2nd 1934. And the crew that not only built the mold and ladled the molten glass and did all the hard work of course saved that mirror from flood waters, not once but twice.
That’s the mirror in its case right here. To me that’s a terrifying photo (Laughter). George Ellery Hale would have been terrified to have seen that as well I’m sure. And then yet the job done here was professionally done. This fella will take that piece of glass anywhere you want it to go. (Laughter) Is that the most confident person you’ve ever seen? (Laughter) I’ve seen this picture I don’t know how many times and I like it a lot. But this guy will take any cargo you’ve got anywhere you want and he’s not gonna sweat one bit about it. But the mirror here, they, of course took it down to the rail yard. Carefully put it in place with just a couple of people to watch and then took it cross country on what was an epic trip. Sixteen days across the nation, thousands of people out to see it. The advertising nicely placed not here yet but as you saw earlier and then it gets to California. And at California it was actually greeted by a larger crowd then it looks like here. (Laughter) You’ll see in a moment, trust me. That’s Edwin Hubble by the way. Edwin Hubble used to like to tell people they were building the telescope for him; which was only partly true. He had made some major discoveries and there were of course many other people eager to use the telescope as well.
Now I’ve heard stories about what had happened to this in its trip across the country. One of the stories is that there were, bullets fired at it and of course there is steel plating here to protect the glass. I haven’t actually seen proof of that but I when I scanned this picture about a year ago I did notice this, when you look at it really closely, someone put their initials right there. (Laughter) So at one of the stops across country “H.H.” (whoever that is, it’s not Edwin Hubble) but someone scratched their initials on the side of the packing crate. Might have been one of the security guards that guarded it every night. I don’t know. Of course once it was lifted off the train there were more than four people there to see that in California. To me this is another one of those photos that I think just captures a moment that’s pretty exciting. You got the guy here who looks like he could die.(Laughter) People up here, a big crowd, police officers- but everyone is riveted on what’s going on there, as 20 tons of glass and some more tons of steel are lifted into place. And so this was sort of a big moment.
And then of course the whole thing was going to disappear into the optical shop at Cal Tech and it was there for 11 and a half years. As people took the big flat disk and ground and polished that, to get the proper curve in it, so that it could focus and collect starlight. And then to get that finer and finer and finer so there wouldn’t be imperfections. Now that story was interrupted by World War II. That’s part of the reason why it was there for so long. Okay, if you take out four or five years for the war, that’s still a very long time to work on that piece of glass.
Once they announced it finished it was again carefully packed up and sent up the mountain to Palomar. Um three semi trucks to get it there. They carried their own fuel. Those two in the back seem to have problems are pushing to get it up the mountain. Um there’s a good view of it for that job. (Laughter) He’s here to make sure that they shift gears together in the right way at the right time. Um, this was really good until they started getting higher up and into the fog and the sleet and things that are coming down that day. But once it got to Palomar we had a little more work to do on it including putting the coating of aluminum to make it nice and shiny, but we discovered another example of graffiti. I can tell you that the mirror that was born here in Corning- Marcus Brown, the Chief Optician at Cal Tech, signed his name on it. Marcus H. Brown that “O” for October 3rd 1947 A.D., I’m sorry. (Laughter)
Anyway so finish things up, time to do some Astronomy, right? So here is a relatively modern picture of the dome with the moon over it. There’s the telescope. That’s not an actual person but it gives you a sense of scale. The mirror sits right here. And the way this works is light from the sky comes in, reflects off the big piece of glass, then it comes to focus up there where we take its picture. We can also bounce the light down to another place to take its picture down here. Now it used to be, when the telescope was brand new, the astronomer had to ride at the very top to take the pictures. And there’s Edwin Hubble posing for Life magazine. You can see the mirror here, you can see him there, and he took the first photos through the telescope in January of 1949. So 1949, but it was 1934 when the mirror was actually first cast. The long trip of cooling and annealing the mirror, rescuing it from a flood, sending it across country, grinding and polishing the glass, getting it up to the telescope, fine tuning the telescope and then getting ready to actually do some astronomy.
Now Edwin Hubble in astronomy became famous for discovering that galaxies were separate from the Milky Way and discovering that the universe itself was expanding. And so some of the- well, first I have to show you this. So this is the first picture taken through the telescope, got ahead of myself, by Edwin Hubble. When you’re Edwin Hubble you get to take pictures of things named for you. This is Hubble’s variable nebula (Laughter). Collier’smagazine had paid exclusive rights for the first pictures from the 200-inch telescope. I’m sure that probably factored in to the naming, the taking pictures of things named for yourself. But his chief interest really at that time wasn’t clouds of gas in our own galaxy but galaxies separate from the Milky Way and it was the early mission of the telescope to try to be able to use it extensively to figure out how far galaxies are, how fast the universe is expanding, what’s going on, will it expand forever, will it stop, will it collapse and fall back on itself.
Now Hubble himself actually died relatively early in the career of the 200-inch telescope. And so he didn’t get to spend an extensive amount of time on this but, one of his students, an astronomer named Allen Sandage, who passed away just last year, took up the mantle of Hubble’s research and spent the bulk of his entire career in astronomy working on answering just those questions. How fast is the universe expanding? Will it expand forever? And um, we certainly know a lot more about the universe and the answer to those questions than we did back then.
Along the way there were two people that more than once realized that the universe was in fact twice as big as anybody had ever imagined. One of those was a competitor, astronomer Maarten Schmidt. Not bad if you are an astronomer and you get yourself on the cover of Time magazine. He did that for the discovery of things called Quasars. Quasars first found by radio telescopes. The optical astronomers at Palomar had a big enough telescope that they could look at these things and try to figure out what they were. There’s a key technique that astronomers use to try to tell how far away something is and whenever you applied that technique everything looked crazy and it didn’t make any sense. And it was Maarten Schmidt that realized that the reason it didn’t make any sense was because what was happening was so extreme, the pattern of what you should see wasn’t where it was supposed to be. It was someplace else. Basically it was so far away and, as the universe itself expands, the light from these things get pushed more and more to the red because of the way that works that this was not a star in our own galaxy like it looked like but something at the other end of the universe. And it was a moment when people realized, wow, space is not only really big, but it’s really, really, really, really big. Much bigger than anyone had even imagined. And so we call these things Quasars.
For the longest time no one really had any idea what a Quasar really was other than a bright thing at the other end of the universe. And now we know that Quasars are basically baby galaxies that have something that’s called a super massive black hole deep in their middle and you might think that, well, then shouldn’t it be black there. Well it’s not black because it’s sucking stuff up, and as it does that stuff gets really, really, really hot. And that’s what makes the Quasar glow bright enough that you can see it all the way from the other end of the universe. It turns out that we now know that most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, have big huge gigantic super massive black holes at their cores as well, and that something you kind of have to wrap your mind around a little bit is that, as you look farther out into space, you look farther back in time.
And so this beautiful spiral galaxy is a relatively nearby galaxy that’s a couple of tens of millions of light years away and a Quasar is billions of light years away. So it’s almost like looking at a person in different ages in their lifetime. That maybe the galaxy I showed you a moment ago when it was very young looked much like a Quasar and acted much like a Quasar and, over time, these things change just like we do as we age. Well, other early research that was very important with the 200-inch telescope was to understand stars, star clusters, how those work, basically how the stars themselves change over time. There was a lot of work done in terms of the formation of stars and I can tell you that pictures like this when I was like this, were inspirational and cool. You look now and you see lots of great pictures if you go on the internet from Hubble space telescope. Well this was the Hubble space telescope of then in terms of cranking out pictures of the universe that people had never seen before.
The Lagoon Nebula is a beautiful cloud of gas and dust that’s in the process of forming a star cluster. You can see some of that cluster here. But it also represents something that was very new to Astronomy. I’m going to show you two more examples of that. This particular shot is something called the Ring Nebula. That star there is in the process of dying and this is sort of a bubble of gas that has been given off in the process of dying. This is a galaxy I showed you before, this is the Andromeda galaxy. And the reason I show you the Ring Nebula and the Andromeda galaxy is those are two examples of the first ever color pictures of space. And you kind of take that for granted now because you see those all the time but Palomar was where they first started using color Astro-Photography. And those two pictures were considered so advanced that they made it all the way into the future. (Laughter) That’s not Photoshop. If you watched the first season of Star Trek and you’re geeky enough about it like I am, you will go “Hey wait a minute. Yeah those are Palomar pictures up on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.” But think back to the 1960’s when this was being made. Those were considered futuristic things.
And it turns out now that an amateur with their own backyard telescope and the kinds of equipment that are available to amateur Astronomers now can take pictures just like the 200-inch telescope did in the 1960’s and 50’s. So technologies evolving in some ways that are pretty impressive. Of course, we can do some things now that amateurs can’t. But this is the guy that pioneered that. His name is William Miller. He was posing for Life magazine and showing how that worked when you would ride in the telescopes. This is where we saw Edwin Hubble before loading in the color film. Of course, you have to remember on a cold winter night the Astronomer will be up there maybe all night. So, I know, it’s Southern California you think, “well how cold can it get?” Well, it snowed on Palomar last night just like it snowed here yesterday and if you’re going to be up there for 10 hours in the dark by yourself in the cold taking pictures, bundling up is a good thing.
But times have changed. We do Astronomy in a different way now. Now we send somebody up in the daytime. It doesn’t look like daytime. It’s because the dome is closed. Now someone gets the electronic camera ready and the Astronomer sits in front of their computer in a warm room close to the coffee, the bathroom, snacks: things are good. So times have definitely changed.
Does the view look different? Yeah, there are a couple more wires now. There’s some Fiber Optics. I’m trying to remember where that was made (Laughter). Oh yeah, you probably know, so that’s from Corning. There’s a lot of that there… most of the orange stuff. Here’s what it looks like in time lapse when we change cameras because we have more than one. We are going to take one out of prime focus. It’s actually the one you just saw there coming down. People are working really fast here. They’re taking up another camera there and they are going to load that into prime focus. So we have different cameras that are used depending on what the Astronomers request. They have different abilities. The one that just went up is a camera that doesn’t see the kind of light that you and I see. It sees into the infrared. The one that came down was one that does see more the kind of light that you and I can see.
I want to give you an example of the difference. Here’s an old photo from when I was about this big, of something called the Orion Nebula. It was taken with the 200-inch telescope in prime focus. It’s a beautiful thing that you can see in the sky with your own eye, with binoculars, with any kind of telescope. It gets better, the better your telescope is but you can see it. Here’s a view coming up of the same thing taken with the 200-inch telescope, but with a camera that sees into the infrared. Doesn’t look too similar. One of the advantages of going with a different kind of light is that you can see into the cloud and you can see more detail that you would otherwise not be able to see. It isn’t entirely obvious in this picture that you have a cloud of gas that’s in the process of forming a cluster of stars. The cluster of stars is certainly much more obvious here.
Now, we always talk about “the mirror” but there are really a bunch of them. Here’s a drawing. The 200-inch mirror is here, we have three mirrors stashed up there, another one here, another one here, another one there. All of those made here. It’s a nice drawing by a fella named Russell Porter (1936) showing where all of that stuff is. You may or may not know that there’s another mirror that we got for a 48-inch telescope, also from Corning. I won’t go into the reasons that our 48-inch telescope has a 72-inch mirror but it does. That’s what it looked like when they uncrated it the day that it came. That doesn’t look nice does it? That’s ok because it’s then up to the Opticians to fashion that surface into a nice reflective surface to collect starlight. Maybe you’ll see if they did an okay job, what do you think? Kind of a contrast? Yeah so there’s the mirror when we pulled it out to get it recoated the last time just as it was about to go back into the telescope. That 48-inch telescope has really been our work horse. That’s how it used to be operated. It wasn’t made to look through; it was only made to take pictures. The film was loaded inside and someone would look through a finder scope to make sure it was pointed in the right place and it would track across the sky in the right way. It’s first mission was to map the whole night sky, basically be a finder telescope for the bigger telescope on the mountain and for observatories around the world.
They produced something called the Palomar sky survey. This particular picture shows another part of Orion. That and that are two of the three stars that are Orion’s belt the third one’s up here somewhere. You’ve maybe heard of the Horsehead nebula right there. This is called the Flame nebula and I just want to jump back to the 200-inch and show you that same thing, the Flame nebula, but in the infrared. So again, changing wavelengths you can see some pretty cool differences. Of course you can get a much closer view from the bigger scope than the wide angle telescope.
Another thing that has happened recently is that we’ve taken that 48-inch telescope and we’ve automated it. So it’s in use every night with nobody there. It’s pretty cool. It’s got a 96 mega pixel camera in it and it takes pictures every 90 seconds, all night long. Earlier, its main mission in this automation was to hunt for asteroids. We found a couple. (Laughter) Can you see the one right there? That streak is an asteroid. Basically they took the telescope and they pointed it and tracked it on the stars and over the time of the exposure the asteroid moved. Over the years at Palomar we’ve found over 27,500 asteroids. There’s none that you need to change your plans over ok? Things are good. We don’t know of any that are on a direct collision course for the Earth, which is nice.
So another more recent thing that been an active part of the mission of the 48-inch telescope at Palomar has been to hunt for worlds in the outer solar system. We’re the guys that got Pluto in trouble. (Boo) Yeah see, I was told there is an exit here if I need to use it. So this is just artwork. Here is a section of the Earth for scale. There’s Pluto and all these other things are worlds of the outer solar system. This one is the one that’s thought to be a little bit bigger than Pluto: Eris. This one, this one, this one, and that one were all discovered at Palomar with the 48-inch telescope. And what’s really important isn’t “is Pluto a planet or not a planet?” What’s important is that we’ve discovered a whole lot of cool stuff about the outer part of the solar system: That there are more worlds there and more variety to those worlds than anybody had ever dreamed of. Especially in the time when we thought Pluto was big and alone and the only thing there. So Pluto was found in 1930 and it wasn’t until 1992, 62 years later, that people began to find some companions to Pluto in the outer solar system. And now we know there’s a lot of them and a great diversity to the kinds of worlds that are out there. But many of them are similar to Pluto in many respects and that has something to do with the decision on whether to classify it a planet or not. I know there are strong feelings on that issue. We could talk about those later if you want.
I will tell you now that the main mission of this 48-inch telescope is to hunt for things that explode in the night: Supernovae. Now I’ve got two old pictures here that show the exact same thing, but taken many years apart in 1959, and 1972. You see what’s obviously different I hope. Wow! That wasn’t there in the first picture. They happened to take this picture when a star was exploding in that galaxy. So it’s pretty far away, it’s just about as bright as everything there. Pretty amazing. Now, if you look often enough, you will find some of these, but, I would say the astronomer here probably got lucky. You took one picture, compared it to an old one, and went “hey, look, it’s different.” Then figured out what it was. If you want to catch these things in the act, you need to do it in a more systematic way and that’s what we are doing now. So when we see them close to us we can see they are pretty spectacular things.
This one is called the Crab nebula. It was observed by the Chinese in the sky in the year 1054. At night, it was bright enough that it cast shadows. Today, a thousand or so years later, with a 200-inch telescope it’s a pretty impressive and complex thing and basically you’re looking at the guts of a star that has exploded. The core of it’s right there. It’s something we call a neutron star and every once in a while when these things explode, they kind of explode in a way that sends them in one direction like a rocket might if there’s a big push on one end that shoots that neutron star another way. So that’s what this is. The neutron star is right there. This is what we call the Guitar nebula for hopefully obvious reasons, but this is essentially the wake of that star that’s shooting through space as it shoots through a thin cloud of gas from an explosion that was not symmetrical - one that gave it a sideways kick. We can see them in our own galaxy in great detail but they don’t happen very often.
There hasn’t been one of these in our galaxy since the telescope was invented. So if you want to wait for a close supernova, your wait is going to be a long time. But, if you start looking at lots of other galaxies, you’re going to catch some. You won’t see them in detail, but you will see them in the act, and if you want to understand what’s happening there that’s the thing to do. So what we do is we take that 48-inch telescope project (Palomar Transient Factory) and we have it take pictures every 90 seconds all night long. Then we take that data, beam it away on a big microwave dish to a place with a whole bunch of computers.
Now remember the telescopes are automated, and the place with the computers is now pretty much automated, and it takes new pictures as they come in. Now, do you remember this picture? What we are going to do is we are going to take old pictures and new pictures and subtract them from each other. In this case the supernova was obvious. Suppose it wasn’t obvious. Well that’s what you get when you do a subtraction. Is it really obvious now? I think it’s more obvious than here, wouldn’t you say? Now, if the supernova was not here but there, would you notice it in this picture? Maybe not. It’d be lost in the light of the other galaxy. If you combine them like this and subtract them that way, boom! They really pop out. Some of these galaxies are really, really, really, far away and the supernovae are too, so we can still use this technique and it works pretty well. I’m going to show you a picture that looks like a bunch of dots. Dots are pretty exciting right? In this case what’s black and white has been reversed. This is an entire galaxy as are these things. So this picture and this picture we are going to subtract them from each other and look: there’s something there. That’s the supernova and they caught it before it actually got brighter. So what happens is - this is the part that’s exciting and the part that makes the automation really work - is sometimes these things do their really most interesting stuff in a short window of time and if you miss it, you miss it. So, by having the automated telescope and the automated system to look for this, you can then get the word out right away and get other telescopes on the track too. If you look at this nice picture of a galaxy, that’s what they caught out of it. So if you were looking at two pictures like this taken at different times and trying to compare everything in there. That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a lot easier for the computer to pop that out. For galaxies that are somewhat close we can find them, but for galaxies that are far away we can do that too.
Once they think they’ve got it, they beam it back to Palomar and we confirm whether that’s a real thing or not. We do follow up observations with a second telescope but Corning didn’t make that mirror so I won’t talk about that one. And then, the 200-inch as well. Basically that telescope and telescopes in Hawaii and Arizona and other places are used to figure out what kind of a thing that is and what’s going on with that. That’s the count I checked earlier this afternoon. They started their program almost two years ago and they found over a thousand supernovae. Using the old technique that I showed you where you have the one picture and the other picture and you sort of hope and you look. The best guy ever at that found 120 in his life. We found over a thousand in two years, not bad.
So other things come back to the 200-inch here. Have you been out at night and seen the stars twinkle sometime? Is that a good thing? Being out at night and seeing the stars is a good thing. The twinkling of the stars, is that a good thing? Actually for Astronomers it’s not. It’s a bad thing. If you look at stars when they twinkle through a high-powered telescope they might look something like this. They’re supposed to be like little round dots and so the image shakes, and it wiggles, and it wobbles, and if you take a single picture over that time you’re going to get some blurriness. We try to put telescopes in places where there’s not a lot of that but there’s always some, and so there’s a technique that’s used now to be able to clean that up. We call it adaptive optics.
This is before and that’s after. This blur is in fact two stars but you can’t tell that until you use this technique, so we do use this 200-inch telescope. Remember the mirrors here and we can take starlight and bounce it off that up to here, where we can take its picture or put a second mirror that sends it down to there. Down there, we have an instrument that inside has a sensor inside that tells if this stuff is messed up and another mirror that bends. This mirror bends in 241 places up to 2,000 times a second to correct for what the air is doing to give us that sharp picture. Just a little six-inch mirror and so with that we can do things like take this picture and turn it into that, which isn’t too bad. If anyone ever goes to the website Astronomy picture of the day, earlier this week this picture was featured. It’s called the Red Square nebula. There’s a star in there that’s injecting gas into space and it might actually be in the process of dying. It might explode someday. This is another example of a picture taken with the adaptive optics.
This is a movie. This is Saturn’s moon Titan and two stars are actually passing behind it. Titan has an atmosphere and you can watch the light of the star be bent through the atmosphere of Titan. Did you notice that bump moving around? Watch when this one comes past you’ll see the bump actually on the opposite side as well. This was done with the 200-inch and the adaptive optics. You kind of have to be lucky because you can’t arrange for that: like ok, I would like to take this moon of Saturn and pass it in front of some stars. It turned out that they had the right telescope with the right equipment in the right place, which is super. What do you get from that when you get a cool little animation that’s a few seconds long, and a P.h.D. (Laughter) So one of our Astronomers was able to actually analyze the way that light is refracted through air on Saturn’s moon Titan. From that make measurements as to where there are jet stream wind belts on that moon, which later helped the lander to be steered properly to land there and helped him get his P.h.D in Astronomy. It was a good thing. So there’s a lot of neat stuff you can do with adaptive optics.
Here is Neptune over the course of one evening. You can watch it rotate and it’s a way for Astronomers to catch and make long-term monitoring of the weather on other places. There, one of its moons shooting by and they didn’t color correct for the moon itself so it looks kind of freaky.
Now I guess I should switch gears and talk about the Loch Ness Monster right? Oh, wait no. Do you remember about a year and a half ago NASA was crashing a probe into the moon on purpose? The idea was to crash this probe into a dark crater on the moon where they think there’s ice and to look for material that shot out. All of the telescopes on the right side of the planet to observe this event were doing that as were we at the 200-inch. This is actually a picture from a newer, bigger telescope that didn’t have a mirror made at Corning and wasn’t using adaptive optics and to me this looks sort of like someone’s bad proof of the Loch Ness Monster. This dark thing here is actually the crater that the probe was crashing into. Here’s our picture and then we turn on the adaptive optics and it goes to that. That’s kind of a bit better wouldn’t you agree? Now the unfortunate thing is they picked a crater with a big mountain on the front of it. (Laughter) And at Palomar, we were the first to confirm there was nothing to be seen. (Laughter) It was kind of unfortunate but it’s an awesome picture of the moon. We didn’t get to see this ejected plume of ice and things coming out into space. We had hoped to see that but yeah, we were the first to confirm that there was nothing to see. So that’s the way it goes sometimes. You get a pretty picture out of it that’s not too bad.
We have on occasion also used a system where we have a laser that shines up into the night sky. Now, the whole adaptive optics thing basically works on having a star as a reference point and if you don’t have a bright enough star nearby as a reference point, a laser beam can do that for you. This is a picture of both in and outside of the dome showing that.
All this is about to get better. I mentioned our deformable mirrors that bends in 241 places. We are going to install one in May that has 3,388 and that should allow us to take the highest resolution pictures from the ground of any telescope anywhere, including the one in space named for Edwin Hubble. It’s a bit involved and I’m not gonna explain the details. I can if you want (Laughter) but I can show you that it’s coming along because there it is built. Almost exactly the same stuff in there. In fact every piece but one is installed right now and they ran it for the first time Tuesday night this week. The new super bendable mirror isn’t quite in yet. It will be in May as I mentioned, so it would be here. It’s not there yet. There’s the old bendable mirror there, but what they did was they took the whole thing apart, rebuilt it, retuned it, made it better, and then Tuesday night was their night to go “does it still work?” And it did, which was really awesome. Last night they were going to try again but it snowed. Expect to see some very cool pictures coming out of Palomar from this program later this year. Something to stay tuned for.
So far, we have used that adaptive optics program system to begin a few programs where we start looking for planets that go around other stars. You know the big dipper? The middle star in the handle is actually two stars, Alcor and Mizar, and if you look through a telescope seeing other stars too we found that the little one (Alcor) actually has another companion star around it. A tiny reddish star. We’ve also been able to take pictures of planets that orbit other stars, which is not an easy thing to do. In this picture, which looks like some blobs, the light of a star here has been blocked out and this, this, and this are three worlds that actually orbit that star. They’ve got really creative names. (Laughter) The full name is actually of the star HR8799 and this is HR8799B, HR8799C. We kind of ran out of names like Andromeda that sound cool so everything is catalogue numbers now and that’s sort of the way it is in Astronomy. But to be able to actually photograph planets that orbit other stars is a big step when you consider when I was the age of some of the guys in the front row here the total number of planets known to orbit any star other than the sun was zero and now it’s over 500.
Astronomers are getting very good at finding other planets. And of course none of that research that’s ongoing at Palomar would even remotely be possible if it wasn’t for the work done here at Corning directed by George McCauley. And I have to tell you everybody did a really fine job. We’re proud of that, we’re happy for that. Thank you for having me here tonight. (Applause)
David Whitehouse: That was super.
Scott Kardel: Thank you.
David Whitehouse: Thank you so much. That was just fantastic. (Applause) You’ve done it again.
Scott Kardel: (Laughter)
David Whitehouse: And to cap it all for just a few minutes Scott has agreed to answer some of your questions. Who’s first?
Scott Kardel: I have to stand where I can see people.
Audience: Where does your funding come from?
Scott Kardel: Palomar Observatory is owned and operated by Cal Tech (California Institute of Technology) and most of the funding comes from Cal Tech and our other research partners, places like Cornell University, which you hopefully have heard of, and Jet Propulsion Lab and some other partners. Basically the research groups chip in and that money is spread around as operations costs for running everything.
Audience: Can you go back to that first photograph from the 200-inch the first first one?
Scott Kardel: Oh, it might be faster for someone in the booth to take me there but if people don’t mind the flash back I will go back to the picture that Edwin Hubble took of Hubble’s variable nebula.
Scott Kardel: To everybody explain field rotation.
Audience: 25 word explanation.
Scott Kardel: Maybe we should talk after. (Laughter) That might be the best answer for that one is you and I can look at the picture and talk about it rather than do field rotation for everybody, If that’s ok?
Scott Kardel: Ok, so I’m gonna come back to the field rotation question and on the other question I got asked was “What is the adaptive mirror made of?” It’s a thin glass mirror with actuators on the back and if you push too hard or pull back to hard you can break it.
Scott Kardel: Do we think it will break? We hope it won’t break, actually if the engineers do their job right since the new mirror we are getting is the one in the world, we really don’t want to break that. Just like the 200-inch mirror is the one in the world of that and we don’t want to break either.
Audience: The thin mirror you’re talking about is that chemically tempered?
Scott Kardel: I don’t know the answer to if that is chemically tempered or not. I suspect so but I don’t want to say too much and make it be wrong. Question way in the back corner.
Audience: In terms of light years, how far has the Hubble seen into space?
Scott Kardel: In terms of light years how far has the Hubble seen into space? Well we think the universe itself is 13.7 billion years old and there has been talk, still a bit out there, as to whether that’s confirmed or not. People being able to see some starlight from objects from when the universe was only a couple 100,000 years old. So a little over 13 billion years, if that turns out to be true, is how far anybody’s seen out which is pretty astonishing. Yes sir.
Scott Kardel: The question was why are we looking at supernova and what does that tell us about the universe?
Scott Kardel: Especially the what?
Scott Kardel: Oh, one of the reasons we look at supernovas, and especially in distant galaxies, is it really gives you a better feel for how often these things happen. And because they are rare in any one particular galaxy you can also figure out that they do come in different varieties. What do the different types tell us about what is going on in those galaxies, or physically what’s happening in a star to make it do that? I would say that the larger answer is that everything that we have, that we’re made of, is pretty much the byproduct of what happens deep in the core stars and supernovae and stars are basically just hydrogen gas only and they convert that into some heavier elements. When they blow apart at supernova they scatter that everywhere and that’s what you and I and the Earth and everything around us is made of. And that’s one personal reason why I think some people are tied back to that but others just like big things that go boom, right? (Laughter) And these are the biggest things there are and the physics of what’s happening there doesn’t happen here on Earth, and so you have an extreme laboratory in space to test these ideas people may have about what’s going on with nuclear chemistry things and instantaneous events that produce a supernova. I don’t know if that was a long rambling answer or a good answer, (Laughter) or somewhere in between.
David Whitehouse: I don’t want to start a riot, but we have time for just one more.
Scott Kardel: Oh, just one more.
David Whitehouse: And Scott is the lucky person who is going to select the questioner.
Scott Kardel: And what?
David Whitehouse: You’re going to choose which one you want to take.
Scott Kardel: I think the youngest person asking maybe would be that fella right there.
Scott Kardel: How many planets around our sun? If you stick with the modern definition of planet it’s eight of them. (Laughter) Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. But if you want to include some of these like some people have suggested anything that big enough to be round. There you would be more than 50 of them. Some of them don’t have good names yet. Maybe you’ll find good names for them or more worlds like it. But in our own solar system those eight major planets and many, many, many thousands of asteroids and worlds beyond Neptune that are frozen icy things too. Well thank you. (Applause)
David Whitehouse: Well, Scott you’ve really expanded our minds, you’ve given us some visual treats. It’s been a wonderful evening and at last I know what Pyrex was for. (Laughter) Thank you. (Applause)