Low-Cost Approach to Scanning Historic Glass Plates Yields an Astronomical Surprise


A new process highlights an innovative way to get old glass plates onlineā€¦ and turned up a potential extra-galactic discovery over a century old.

You never know what new discoveries might be hiding in old astronomical observations. For almost a hundred years starting in the late 19th century, emulsion-coated dry glass plate photography was the standard of choice used by large astronomical observatories and surveys for documenting and imaging the sky. These large enormous glass plate collections are still out there around the world, filed away in observatory libraries and university archives. Now, a new project shows how we might bring the stories told on these old plates back to light.

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Who was Gerard Kuiper?

Gerard Kuiper, founder of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Credit: lpl.arizona.edu

In the outer reaches of the Solar System, beyond the orbit of Neptune, lies a region permeated by celestial objects and minor planets. This region is known as the “Kuiper Belt“, and is named in honor of the 20th century astronomer who speculated about the existence of such a disc decades before it was observed. This disc, he reasoned, was the source of the Solar Systems many comets, and the reason there were no large planets beyond Neptune.

Gerard Kuiper is also regarded by many as being the “father of planetary science”. During the 1960s and 70s, he played a crucial role in the development of infrared airborne astronomy, a technology which led to many pivotal discoveries that would have been impossible using ground-based observatories. At the same time, he helped catalog asteroids, surveyed the Moon, Mars and the outer Solar System, and discovered new moons.

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This Drone Took Amazing Astronomical Observatory Video In Wisconsin

A drone shot of Yerkes Observatory in Chicago. Credit: Adam Novak / Vimeo (screenshot)

It’s hard to do many types of astronomy in the daylight, so that can be a good time to do a different kind of observing — enjoying the architecture of the telescope! This new video shot by a drone shows off Yerkes Observatory in snowy Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The video was uploaded by Adam Novak.

Yerkes, which is operated by the University of Chicago, calls itself the “birthplace of modern astrophysics” because it combined astronomical observations with experimentation in physics and chemistry. That’s something that’s normal in astronomy today, but certainly not in 1897.

Observations began with a 40-inch refractor (billed as the biggest such telescope ever finished) that weighs about 20 tons. While the telescope itself is from the turn of the century, the means of moving it is much more modern — from about 50 years ago, according to a National Park Service book on the observatory:

The telescope was modernized in 1969 permitting more accurate and rapid setting of the position of the telescope. The efficiency of the telescope was further increased by the addition of an automatically guiding camera. The driving clock, by which the telescope is made to follow the stars, consists of a synchronous motor controlled by an electronic oscillator, the frequency of which can he set so as to make the telescope follow the sun, the moon, or stars.

You can learn more about Yerkes on the official website.