To The Extremes

Video highlights from The Known Universe

Sometimes astronomy just sucks.

Sometimes astronomy just sucks.

I’m not saying that, Mike Brown is. Mike’s a world renowned astronomer and we’re standing on the gangway perched on the Mount Palomar Observatory, watching the fog roll in.

“This is not looking good,” he says, peering up into the cottony soup that’s parked itself over the observatory. “And it’s not like I can come back tomorrow.”

Tonight is Brown’s only opportunity to observe a dwarf planet four billion miles away called Haumea. If he doesn’t see it tonight, he can’t come back tomorrow to try again. There’s a long list of astronomers waiting to use really big telescopes like the 200-inch monster at Palomar and if you get skunked, too bad. Reapply for time and come back next year. That’s astronomy, which is why it sometimes sucks.

“You get used to this kind of thing,” Mike says. “Only rarely do things really go your way. If it’s not the weather that’s a problem, then there’s some technical problem that’s standing in your way.”

From a production standpoint this was an issue. You don’t want to go somewhere and spend a lot of time filming something for which there’s no pay-off. We wanted action. We wanted the doors to the observatory swinging open. We wanted Brown and his team speaking astronomy and using lingo that none of us would understand. We wanted to see Haumea on the computer screen and for Brown to tell us at the end of the night just what he saw and learned about the distant object. Instead, it looked like all we were going to get was a good cup of coffee.

“I always bring my own special ground,” Brown says. “Do you all want some?”

By 10 p.m. the fog was beginning to break just enough for Brown to open the observatory’s doors. As any astronomer knows, you can just open up an observatory and start looking at the universe. You have to give the telescope a good hour or two to get to temperature. That means giving the telescope time to get to the same temperature of the air. Once that was done, Brown swung the telescope and pointed it to where Haumea was and started looking. He took a series of photos and within a few minutes images started appearing on the screen. They were photos of a fuzzy gray orb. Mike just stared at them.

“We’re sunk,” he said sitting back in his chair.

There was still too much moisture and fog in the air to get a clear view of Haumea and beside, this distant object was due to set soon, so Brown’s and our night at the telescope was over.
“That’s astronomy,” Mike said as we packed our gear. “Late nights and lots of a problems, that’s what it’s usually about.”

Sounds like making a TV show. At least he serves up better coffee.

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