Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Travel Back in Space & Time


The Harvard College Observatory contains more than 500,000 (+-100,000) images constituting humanity's only record of a century's worth of sky. Besides being 25 % of the world’s total of astronomical photographic plates, this is the only collection that covers both hemispheres.

For the last few months, volunteers from Observatory Hill and the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston, have been setting the stage for a mammoth attempt to bring the entire collection into the digital age. The result, if money can be found, will be more than just an archive. Digitized with a custom-crafted scanner already in operation, the searchable online atlas will ultimately show any spot in the heavens as it appeared from the late 19th century to the mid-1980s — an astronomical Wayback Machine.

It was on Observatory Hill in 1850 that the first picture of a star — Vega in the constellation Lyra — was captured by what was then one of the two most powerful telescopes on Earth: the Great Refractor, with its 20-foot-long mahogany veneer tube outfitted with a lens 15 inches across.

As important as the plates are the metadata, detailed notes handwritten in logbooks and sometimes on the plates themselves. 80,000 photographs of the pages have been taken, which are slowly being transcribed in India.

I remember observing and reading about Vega (since it was so special) as a child, although I was always confused (I still am) between it and Lyra regarding which was the star and which the constellation. Vega is surrounded by gas and dust and possibly even a planet. It's a very bright star and can be easily spotted in the Northern Hemisphere. I must admit, thought, that I may not be able to recognize the star or constellation without a sky chart now.

I also don't remember why Vega aroused so much interest in astronomical journals besides being surrounded by a haze that possible harbored a planet. I'm sure there was something more that I'm missing.

Addendum: The above post was greatly edited and abridged from a NYTimes article. Only the last two paragraphs were entirely mine. I would have loved to add a hyperlink to the original article had NYTimes not been so volatile with its article-specific URL before slipping it into its archive within a week.
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