Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Mt. Wilson Observatory: The Solar Telescope

(GPS: N 34° 13.480 W 118° 03.520)

This blog continues with one of the major goals I had of the hike: exploring Mt. Wilson Observatory. A few years back I was about a week away from coming to the observatory, and that was when the station fire took place that pretty much closed not only the observatory to the public, but the Angeles National Forest for most of the year. Keep in mind that it is only open to the public from April 1st to November 30th, so I was very disappointed at the time because it was something I had wanted to do for a few years. If you followed this blog during that period I was very frustrated because there were fires in Yosemite about the same time. It was one of those things that burned me out, no pun intended, because of all the training and preparation for nothing.

That was then, but when I did the Mt. Wilson Trail it was a case of killing two birds with one stone: exercise hiking on the historic trail and getting to see the observatory. The only problem is it was very dry and hot up at the top. At the end of the Mt. Wilson Trail video, I showed the direction I needed to go to the observatory. After entering I encountered the museum.

The museum is one room with walls of astronomical space pictures with explanations, a few artifacts, and a few models. I spent a little time there, but was more interested in exploring everything else. So, just turning around from the above picture I encountered the 150-Foot Solar Telescope.
The Mt. Wilson Observatory started off as a solar observatory. George Hale, the founder with funding from Andrew Carnegie, originally did much research in the area of studying the sun's magnetic properties. While most people think of astronomy as looking at stars at night, astronomers have, and still do, study the the closest star we have during the day. That is, the sun itself. So, the scientists here do work in the day and at night. What you see above is the elevator that takes one to the top of the telescope. Many famous people and scientists have gone up it. When one examines the sun with one of these telescopes, one usually sees black spots on the sun. These spots are where intense magnetic activity (aka solar storms on the surface of the sun) takes place. There is usually an 11 year cycle for the sun spots. One major focus of studying the sun and the black spots is trying to figure out the exact mechanisms cycle and what produces them.

As I write this, much is being talked about in the news about the sun going into a "solar silence" phase where there will be little sunspot activity by around 2020. If that does happen then the question will be for how long, and what does that mean for us on the earth? We have not had this happen since 1645 to 1717, almost 400 years ago. I'll let you google the news articles and link some basic wiki articles for starters below.

The solar telescopes main instrument is called a magnetograph which takes the readings of the sun. Not only does it note the sunspots, but also the rotation rate of the sun. Also, each day simple drawings of the sun are made and sent to a couple of centers in the U.S. in an effort to predict extreme solar activity that can disrupt global communications.

As for me, the sun was making itself known to me in a bad way. The hike was easy while I was under the cool clouds, but once I got past cloud level things really warmed up. The observatories drinking fountains were not working, the little water and gatorade I had was getting warm, and I started to get a little concerned about the trip back down. Without liquids on a hot hike down could lead to a very bad situation! Yet, for the sake of science I pushed myself on to the the rest of the observatory.

Einstein Was Here! (Youtube Version)

Einstein Was Here! (Vimeo Version)

I'll say this a few times as I do this. Personally, when it comes to science I would much rather read books and articles by scientists to understand the concepts. However, Wikipedia is a good starting point, but not the be all end all of understanding, be it science or any other discipline. With that caveat:

Sunspot (wiki article)

Maunder Minimum (wiki article)