Thursday, June 16, 2005

Watch the Sky

This morning my best man, Bob Simcoe, presented his project: digitizing the astronomy photographic plates of the Harvard College Observatory. Working as an associate of the Observatory, he today for the first time publicly revealed, to a monthly colloquium of the US Naval Observatory, plans of the team at HCO. The challenge, while understood for the better part of 20 years, has not yet been comprehensively addressed. The HCO took and collected 600,000 photographic glass plates between 1872 and 1989. This represents roughly one-third of the IAU estimate of 2 million photos in the world.

Interest in digitizing the photographic record has been growing since 1990. Bob's HCO plan is to produce a system, followed with a proof-of-concept operation, so that a reasonably staffed team could conclude the digital capture in approximately 5 years. He's designing a scanner capable of a 20-second duty cycle on 8x10" photos, and one minute on 14x17". As of a few weeks ago, they had moved the center piece of the project, a 4x4' table into the basement 0f the Plate Stack in the library in Cambridge MA. They've mounted the CCD camera, the 1x1 twinlens system on the table. They let a project to the WPI senior engineering seminar to design the photo-holding tray. Coupling that and the light source to the table are the remaining major pieces before the p-o-c work can begin. Answering the last question, Bob said "We should be taking pictures, by August or September, depending on vacaction schedules. But don't hold me to that".

The audience had few questions about the technical detail. Bob was frank about the state of the project, and the pieces remaining to install and test; the next phase is a demonstration of the p-o-c, developing the handling for the whole collection with a 10,000 plate sample. This is probably a year's worth of work. One gentleman raised the question about the archeological value o f the dust on the plates. Bob thought the atmosphere, as captured in the data would be a more likely source of information.