Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Exploring the Solar System

The NASA IRTF is often at work by the time we get to the Mauna Kea's summit. Much of its work is spent exploring the Solar System planets in conjunction with probes in orbit around various planets. Since it's an infrared telescope, similar to the one I work at, observations can be made while the sky is still bright. A bright sunlit sky usually means astronomers are still in bed but the story is different in the infrared. The main thing you need to worry about is pointing the telescope too close to the sun and accidentally focusing its light elsewhere, like the inside of the dome.

I'm sure many of you played with a magnifying glass as a kid, concentrating the sun's light into a small spot that started a fire. Multiply that power by a few thousand and you can imagine we try to avoid pointing at the sun at all costs! Despite the risks, apparently one or two observatories still have their "solar observations" singed on the inside of their domes. I won't mention any names though...

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