Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mt. Wilson Observatory: Albert Michaelson's Interferometer

The last thing I did before I made my descent was to check out the CHARA exhibit hall. Inside it they have the interferometer that physicist Albert Michaelson helped develop. This 20-foot device was placed on top of the 100-inch scope. The mirrors combined to produce a higher resolution. Interferometry is the big word, but for our purposes the goal of this device was to determine the diameter of stars. The room was too small to get a whole picture of it so I had to stitch two pictures together:One example of this that I mentioned in the video was the diameter of the red giant star Betelgeuse. During the winter months you can easily see the constellation Orion in the sky. It is well known and even mentioned in the book of Job (9:9 and 38:31) in the Bible along with the Pleaides which is the group of stars that you can barely see at the very top of this next picture. The following is a screen shot from the Stellerium program that shows Orion. I zoomed into Orion. The constellation is supposed to be the mighty hunter Orion. His "belt" is the three stars in the middle. The tip of his dagger below his belt is where the Orion Nebula is. Betelgeuse is where his right shoulder is.On December 13, 1920, With the use of the interferometer, they were able to determine the diameter of the star. They found out that if you were to place Betelgeuse where our sun is it would engulf all the planets out to Jupiter. So, we are talking at least beyond the orbit of Mars to the orbit of Jupiter. In any case, it is VERY BIG!

After this I went back to the water fountain one more time. Then I started the trek down. In a few hours I made it back to my car and got home safely. The one thing I was a bit concerned about is that I had heard that you can encounter rattlesnakes on this trail. My concern is if one were on the narrow trail I would have a hard time getting around it. It was warm enough on the way down for one to be on the trail. That never happened, but a ton of lizards were running around.

One thing about Mt. Wilson during that day was it was very quiet, and there were few people walking around. Those people probably worked there, and I may have been the only visiter there that day. There are areas marked off that are clearly private and tell you not to go there because the astronomers are sleeping. The one area I had hoped to get to was the speed of light experiment area that Michaelson did his famous test to determine the speed of light. Unfortunately, that is in one of the areas the public is not supposed to go to even though they have a few markers at the spot. I probably could have used my silent skills to get there without causing problems, and I know some have, but out of respect for the history of the observatory I did not do it. It is one thing when museums that take your money will not allow you access to things like this, but since the observatory is free to visit I wanted to be extra respectful about following the rules that have.

Einstein Was Here! (Youtube Version)

Einstein was Here! (Vimeo Version)

Ocean of Clouds at Mt. Wilson (Vimeo: some alternative footage I shot for the ending of my hiking video. It is kind of interesting because they were flying in the parts via helicopter.)

Stellerium (The free program I used for the two pictures above. I highly recommend getting this if you have any interest in the night skies.)

Mt. Wilson Observatory (Official Site)

Again, books and other printed material are the best to read about all these topics, but just as a starting point:

Albert Michaelson (Wikipedia article)

Astronomical Interferometer (Wikipedia article)

Mt. Wilson Observatory Association Booklist