She’s an old workhorse doing bleeding edge science – Hale Telescope

As you know, I am a massive fan of the Hale Telescope at Palomar Mountain. I really miss going up and being a tour guide (docent), but have such a low tolerance for political games…..

Anyway, one of the many things I enjoyed telling people about on my tour was how she’s an old massive workhorse and this makes her a very interesting and valuable science platform in the astronomy world.
The Hale Telescope is the last big telescope in the world that is built an on equatorial mount. This means the axis of the telescope matches that of the earth. Roughly 23.5°. This means that the telescope only needs 1 motor to track the stars across the sky. It also means that the image in the ‘eyepiece’ (we use cameras these days, I have been told it’s been scores of years since Hale had an eyepiece fitted) does not rotate, it is in ‘lock step’ with the star or galaxy that we are studying.
Why does this matter?
New big telescopes are built to move in X and Y. So tilt and pan, or like a tank turret. You aim up and down and left and right. To track a star, you make tiny movements in both all the time. It also means that the star rotates in the eyepiece.
Lastly, Hale is big and heavy. New scopes are built to a price, they are delicate. You can’t just bolt big heavy bits of gear to them and expect them to perform….. Hale on the other hand, she shrugs and after a quick rebalance, tracks as good as the day she was commissioned in Jan 1949.

Great, where am I going with this?

To this day, new science equipment is first tested out on the Hale Telescope and then refined and fitted to bigger telescopes.
Case in point is a new instrument that can block out the light from a star so effectively that we can now see planets orbiting around it.
If it were not for Hale, we could not see stuff like this;

Direct imaging of four planets orbiting the star HR 8799 129 light years away from Earth

How amazing is that!!!!!
Totally mesmerizing. The star at the center of the image is 129 light years away.

If you want to know more, you can read about it here; http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2010-128

But as much as I geek out on the tech, I am always humbled by the fact that this new tech was tried and tested on the Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain, just up the road from where I live, and for one amazing year, I told people how even though she is a bit old, a bit heavy and bit low tech in places (I mean, she was designed and mostly built before WW2), she is still doing a critical job in expanding our knowledge of the universe.

That’s pretty cool.