Friday, July 29, 2005

Is it "Planet X"?

Well, probably not, but a team of astronomers has discovered a distant icy body larger than Pluto, long regarded as the ninth planet of the solar system. Like Pluto, this new discovery (which as of yet has the boring name of "2003 UB313") belongs to the Kuiper Belt, a collection of icy remains from the formation of the Solar System.

While most planets orbit the sun in a flat disk called the ecliptic, this new Kuiper Belt Object is at quite an angle, nearly 45 degrees out line! It is also quite far away, nearly 100 times the Earth-sun distance, and twice as far from the sun as Pluto.

This discovery is sure to re-open the whole "is Pluto a planet?" debate. But, at the very least, Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, can be said to have discovered the first object in the Kuiper Belt 21 years before Gerard Kuiper hypothesized its existance!

More information on 2003 UB313 can be found here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Back from vacation, having missed all the fun

Well, I'm back from a week's vacation, well-rested and ready to get back to work. While I was out of town, though, I missed a lot of the fun here at Steward Observatory.

Steward is one of the observatories joining together to build what is known as the Giant Magellan Telescope, or GMT. The GMT will be made of seven round mirrors for a total collecting area equal to a single mirror 21.4 meters in diameter, or about 71 feet across. This is over four times larger than the Keck Telescopes, currently the world's largest.

The design of the GMT requires making mirrors in a novel design, called "off-axis" design. This is because six of the seven mirrors are not at the center of the telescope, but rather away from it. A big step toward proving the required technology was taken this last weekend, when the first mirror 8.4 meters (28 feet) across was cast. This involved melting twenty tons of glass to 2150 degrees, and spinning the melted glass at 4.8 RPM. VIPs and Observatory staff were invited to watch this past weekend (though, like I said, I was out of town).

So far, everything has gone well! Now the glass will be allowed to slowly cool over a period of a few months, then the mirror will be examined and ground to its final shape.

Monday, July 18, 2005

We can start breathing again...

Although I don't want to be too premature, it looks like the MMT Observatory has dodged a bullet. Saturday a thunderstorm dropped up to an inch of rain on the Florida Fire, slowing its progress. In addition, the humidity has gone up, which also slows the fire. And by Wednesday it looks like the summer monsoon will finally start, and the rains should put out the fire. Although the fire could still flare up, it appears unlikely, and some fire crews are moving to other fires in the west that are more dangerous.

Friday, July 15, 2005

More Fire News

Today the Florida (flor - EE - da) is a little closer to the MMT Observatory, but things are looking up. The summer monsoons are trying to get started, so the air isn't as dry, which is slowing the fire down. The picture to the right shows the fire as viewed from the MMT yesterday, an image provided by Emilio Falco. The buildings are likely safe, because trees near the buildings were cut back, sprinklers were put in place, and slurry has been dropped everywhere (some pictures of the road show a pink road from all the retardant!). However, the fire is 40% contained, much better than yesterday, and back-burns have been set to help contain the fire. And, luckily, most of the burning is still more beneficial than harmful to the environment in the area.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Creeping closer...

The Florida Fire outside of Tucson continues to menace the MMT telescope and the telescopes of the Fred L. Whipple Observatory south of Tucson.

According to Barbara Russ (MMT staff) and Gary Schmidt (former director of the MMT), the mountain has been evacuated. Small groups were allowed up today wearing protective equipment to secure equipment away from windows and other vunerable spots. Because the fire is getting close, the fire crews have been moved out, as they could quickly get trapped on the mountain top if the fire comes through.

The MMT itself is likely safe from any fire, because it is located on a large rock far from trees (see some of my pictures from last September). However, many of the smaller telescopes and the astronomer's sleeping and eating quarters are in the forest and could be destroyed by the fire.

Yesterday it looked like it might rain, but the big clouds only produced wind, which made matters worse rather than better. It looks like there won't be any rain today, but tomorrow is looking quite promising. Here's hoping the Observatory and its neighbors living in Madera Canyon (also threatened by the fire) stay safe and secure until the rains come!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Wildfires lurking again!

For the third year in a row, a telescope owned by the University of Arizona is being threatened by a wildfire. Two years ago, two small telescopes on Mt. Lemmon just north of Tucson were threatened by the horrible Aspen Fire, which destroyed the small town of Summerhaven. Last summer, the Nuttall wildfire threatened the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) and the under-construction Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mt. Graham, between Tucson and New Mexico (Click here for a dramatic movie of the fire passing the LBT on July 6, 2004.)

This year, a fire in the Santa Rita mountains just south of Tucson are approaching the MMT Observatory, part of a complex of telescopes on Mount Hopkins. Yesterday the fire jumped containment lines and is threatening homes in Madera Canyon, a popular recreation site. While the fire is still miles away from the telescopes, the mountain has been evacuated. An unexpected change of wind could bring the fire toward the observatory and trap people. A photo taken yesterday from the administrative offices at the base of Mt. Hopkins is below (Image courtesy Stephen Criswell, FLWO).

Fires are a part of life in the western US, and part of the natural cycle. The Florida Fire now burning was started by lightning, and mostly has been burning out brush and dead wood, which is a good thing. And, luckily, to date no people have been hurt or property damaged by this fire. Astronomical observatories get the best data when located on mountain tops far from human habitation. Unfortunately, this often puts observatories in prime wildfire areas. In January 2003, a fire near Canburra, Australia destroyed the Mt. Stromlo Observatory (Click here for an example photograph taken by Matthew Colless three days after the fire). Even worse, this fire claimed many human lives as well, and I have heard amazing stories from astronomers who barely survived the conflagration. Here's hoping that the observatory and its neighbors come through this fire safely!

Monday, July 11, 2005

Writing it all down...

One of the most important, but most boring, parts of astronomical research is writing up what you have learned and publishing it in a professional journal (these are akin to the "New England Journal of Medicine"; if you aren't a professional in the field, you probably won't understand a word).

I've been working for a while nowon writing a couple of pretty long papers. It takes longer than you might think. For example, making a single graph can take most of a day. How can I convey as much relevant information as possible without making things too cluttered? Should I use color? Would a bar graph work better? When the graph goes on the page, will I still be able to tell the difference between triangles and squares?

Although this sounds boring (and it is!), it is vital to scientific research. If I discover new galaxies or a new type of star, what does it matter if I cannot both tell other people about it and convince them that my work is correct? That latter part is often the hardest. We spend more time testing and re-testing our data than we do at the telescope taking more pictures. And when we finish a paper, it has to get approved by one or more fellow astronomers who weren't involved with the work in the paper. If they aren't convinced, the paper doesn't get published. Often just a little tweaking is necessary; sometimes substantial work is needed. Rarely a paper just will not get published because it is wrong.

Once my papers are done, I will feel quite good about all the work I've put in. In the short term, though, it's back to the grindstone...

Friday, July 08, 2005

Back in town / Deep Impact

I'm back in town after a family emergency called me out for a week. Because of that, I also didn't get to observe NASA's Deep Impact success with the MMT telescope.

Wasn't the comet mission a smashing success? My concern was that the impact would create few fireworks, but instead we are still seeing the effects several days later.

Events like Deep Impact make professional astronomers look like little kids. We've been sitting around in the office, looking at movies from the spacecraft. Remarks like "Whoa, cool!" and "Dude, did you see that!" arise from the supposedly professional audience. It's what we got into the buisiness for. :)