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Fall 2012 Update
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Fall 2012 UPDATE
Curiosity was on Mars!
by Kathy Malinski

WHAT A NIGHT! Griffith Observatory had been planning for this moment. In fact, there had already been two public events at the Observatory leading up to it. But this was what everyone was waiting for—the coverage from NASA JPL of the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars.

Mars has always captured our imagination. The mysterious red planet inspired countless movies and books, has been mentioned in song lyrics, and even played center stage in an iconic television show from the ’60s! Perhaps because it’s our neighbor, or perhaps simply because it exists, we want to know more; we need to know more. A rocket may have launched Curiosity, but our human curiosity is part of what propels the mission.


Why did so many people trek to Griffith Observatory on August 5 to watch the landing coverage when they could easily have viewed it from home? Mark Pine, Deputy Director of Griffith Observatory, asked that question of some of the visitors who were vying for a good observation spot. “Most of them said ‘I just had to be here.’” As the touchdown in Gale Crater was confirmed, the cheer that rocked the Observatory was “spine tingling,” Mark said.

While we watched and waited, Nagin Cox, JPL engineer and former long-time FOTO Board member was in NASA JPL Mission Control as part of the mission flight team. She is currently part of the operations uplink team for Curiosity. She describes being part of the team that evaluates how the rover did each day and prepares the commands for Curiosity for the next day as “thrilling and fascinating.”


Along with a subset of the mission team, Nagin has been working on Mars time. She explains why: “It is more efficient to work on Mars time when you first get to the planet because it allows you to get the most things done the most rapidly. However, Mars time, while it’s a blast, is very hard on people and our families. We’ll be in Mars time operations in August, September and October, and will be transitioning to Earth time soon thereafter.” Although Nagin wears a watch set to Mars Local Solar Time, technology makes it easier to convert Earth time to Mars time than it was on past missions. “Different than on Spirit and Opportunity’s landings, now there’s an app for that,” she chuckled.

While the Curiosity mission is of significant scientific importance, it has also drawn us in as individuals, with back stories that have captivated us — stories where people and technology intersect.


We are following Curiosity on Facebook and Twitter. We watched enthralled as serious engineers cheered at the landing. We got to know a charismatic Flight Director, nicknamed Mohawk Guy. We saw a sea of blue shirts in Mission Control
watching just as intently as we were; knowing all would be well, but still waiting for landing confirmation.

In a tribute to the popular and recently deceased science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, Curiosity tweeted a message on what would have been his 92nd birthday. That same day, it was announced that the Curiosity touchdown spot would forever more be known as Bradbury Landing.


On August 27, we listened to the first voice ever to be beamed back from another planet — that of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Then, to the joy of those attending a special event at JPL on August 28, including many students, the very first song ever sent to Earth from another planet made its debut. “Reach for the Stars,” an inspiring piece by musical artist got people enthusiastically clapping to the beat — both in the auditorium and in Mission Control!


We learned that the pattern in the rover’s tire tracks (shown on the right) is more than just functional — it’s also Morse code for JPL, or Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who built the Curiosity rover and manages the mission. Nagin, whose own dream of working on robotic space exploration at JPL began when she was just 14, reflects on the important role the Observatory plays in sharing information on missions like Curiosity and inspiring the explorers and scientists of the future. “It doesn’t matter how you got there, but when you get to the top of that hill and you walk through those doors, you see information from everywhere. From Griffith, you can see the heavens directly; you can see information from the spacecraft. Griffith is one of our most prominent nexus points for opening up the heavens to everyone.”

Mark Pine has a similar perspective: “You could easily imagine kids in the Observatory audience that night being shaped by the experience.”


For mission information, visit

Follow Curiosity on Facebook, and @MarsCuriosity on Twitter

Follow Nagin Cox on Twitter @nasa_nagin
FOTO would like to express our thanks to Nagin Cox for her time, insight and assistance in the development of this article.

A Great Big Shout-Out

GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY’S 5TH GRADE SCHOOL FIELD TRIP was conceived and presented for the first time in 1935, the year Griffith Observatory opened to the public. The need in 1935 to enhance our school children’s understanding of the cosmos was as real then as it is today.

This recently completed school year saw more than 25,000 5th-grade students plus their teachers and chaperones join Griffith Observatory for the highly regarded School Field Trip. The interactive two and a half hour experience at the Observatory is beloved by students and teachers alike. In fact, the program is so popular that even though there is no notice sent directly to the schools of its existence or registration criteria (although information is prominently displayed on the website as to when registration will begin), teachers, homeroom mothers, volunteers and school receptionists all over Los Angeles County will dial in the very first day of registration hoping that they will be one of the lucky schools that will get to participate. One of the most joyful sounds we hear is the cheering of students when told they are going to Griffith Observatory for one of their very few school field trips.

Griffith Observatory’s School Field Trip program is always in need of support. Friends Of The Observatory has taken the lead in making sure this valuable program remains a constant in the lives of our children. YOUR support is needed to continue this program. Won’t you join our supporters in helping 5th graders come to Griffith Observatory?



Beverly Hills Rotary Club
Creative Artists Agency
Goldhirsh Foundation
Joseph Drown Foundation

Nesbitt Foundation
Paramount Studios
Sidney Stern Memorial Trust
Union Bank Foundation

Stuart Bernthol
Juan Capdet III
Karen Cove
Jerry and Lorraine Factor
Cynthia Fox

Alan Fromm
Rosalie Kornblau
Maryann and Gus Mevers
Richard Shapiro
Bob and Elaine White


I learned that all living things need energy and to respond to stimuli. All living things have CHNOPS (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur). I liked the planetarium show because I was able to see lots of constellations. It’s important to like space because there are so many wonders out there." — recent 5th-grade School Field Trip participant

It Matters.

This year we are all working hard to make sure that Friends Of The Observatory is able to continue to support EXCELLENCE at Griffith Observatory. Your contribution truly makes all the difference in making sure that our local, underserved school children have the opportunity to come to Griffith Observatory and enhance their understanding of the universe. Please be as generous as you can be, but remember, even $20 will make a significant difference in continuing our programs.



thank you in advance for your support and investment in the mission of Friends Of The Observatory.

Saturn Through the Telescope

Mt. Wilson Telescope Operator Tom Mason held his small digital camera to the eyepiece and snapped this image of Saturn. It is mind-boggling to think that something like this is our neighbor at 800 million miles away from us! FOTO offers several trips to Mt. Wilson every year, so make sure you send your email address to us at so we can inform you of upcoming dates for FOTO trips, lectures, and other exciting events.

About Time: Cosmology, Time and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang
by Professor Adam Frank

January 30, 2012

Every month it seems another eminent scientist publishes a book claiming to go beyond and before the Big Bang. Science, it seems, is poised to reinvent its conception of the cosmos’ origins. But what does this impending revolution mean for everyone else? What happens when cosmology changes its perspective and how will it affect our lives?

Professor Adam Frank explored these new theories of cosmology and showed how the most intimate and personal experience of time has always been wedded to a changing view of the cosmos. Crossing 50,000 years of cultural innovation, Frank explained how the human uses of time have always been deeply connected to our conception of the universe. From the invention of clocks in the 14th century to the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century to our own rapidly changing digital global village, our experience of time has always been paired with our ideas of cosmic time. And if cosmology is poised to reinvent itself beyond the Big Bang, then it can only mean that we are also poised to reinvent cultural time. Unlike other talks on cosmology, Frank explored the all-important human context that forms the background of these revolutionary cosmological changes, allowing the audience to see the braiding of human and cosmic time in all its glory.


As in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we followed Paleolithic man as he geographically marked the position of where the Sun makes its daily ascent from where it has hidden during the night and how man learned to record and therefore eventually predict where the Sun will ascend again. We followed ancient cultures as they attempted to make sense of what they saw in the night sky until the invention of clocks, and then electricity with the electric light changed night into day and with it mankind’s need to follow the course of the stars in the night sky. The invention of the telescope allowed man to peer ever deeper past the nearby stars of the Milky Way into the depths of the cosmos. As we made these discoveries and adapted to them, we began to confront new concepts like dark matter and dark energy and string theory, and now with the Large Hadron Collider, we are on the brink of finding answers regarding the birth and death of our universe.

Powerful Images
by Adam Block

March 5, 2012

Astronomical pictures can be used to both inspire and educate. These pictures tell their stories using an interplay of light and vibrancy of color leading to a greater understanding of the scale and dynamics of the universe. University of Arizona’s Adam Block demonstrated what goes into creating these images, as well as interpreted many powerful examples that show the captivating nature of the universe.

Professor Block is most well-known for his ability to speak and communicate difficult concepts in astronomy in simple and creative ways. He is recognized around the world as a leading astrophotographer.

Attending Block’s lecture on astrophotography was like watching a magician reveal the secrets of a magic trick, as he systematically explained the various techniques, including exposure times (to reduce graininess and increase capture of more light), filters, resolution (bit detectors), brightness levels, luminescence, color blend, lumen-infrared sensors (to look through clouds to see star formation) and how to blend these through algorhythms to achieve the effects he wanted. We were dazzled with a myriad of his favorite galaxies, nebulas, star clusters and jets from black holes that he collected from the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, in Arizona. Their 60-inch telescope is the Southwest’s largest dedicated public telescope. (In comparison, Griffith Observatory’s telescope is only 12 inches, but has been looked through by more of the public than any other telescope in the world, with over 7 million viewers since 1935).

News From the Astronomical Frontier
by Taft E. Armandroff

April 16, 2012

Astronomers have made amazing progress on some of the cosmos’ most challenging questions. Even greater discoveries are in store as new technology is utilized with giant telescopes like the W. M. Keck Observatory. Keck Observatory Director Taft Armandroff presented the latest in ground-based astronomy innovations and shared recent news from Keck.

Dr. Armandroff explained how the newer Keck telescopes use segmented mirrors, working together, like a single mirror. Its 36 segmented hexagonal mirrors, six feet on a side, are aligned twice a second to an accuracy of four nanometers or 1,000 times thinner than a human hair — thus forming a virtually continuous piece of glass.


The telescope base on Mauna Kea, Hawaii is at an altitude of 13,786 feet. It is above the cloud base, has smooth winds and is not polluted by land masses, giving it unparalleled viewing opportunities.

The Keck telescopes have been employed to explore the newer techniques of exoplanet discovery using the doppler wobble and planet transit techniques, using laser light to 90-120 kilometers to detect the sodium level at that altitude, and for adaptive optics that can change the mirror at 1,000 times a second. They also employ coronagraphs to block the light of primary stars, in order to better view the planets. Since 1985, when the doppler wobble technique was first developed, over 500 exoplanets have been identified.

Keck is also working with the Kepler satellite and high radiation spectroscopy to get a closer look at each planet, looking for planets with a mass closer to Earth’s size. The most recent research has shown three times as many dwarf stars and elliptical galaxies as previously thought and they should all have planets.

Venus: Earth’s Evil Twin or Just Misunderstood
by Dr. Sue Smrekar

Venus is the planet most like Earth in terms of size and composition. Yet the surface temperature is almost 900°F (480°C), thanks in large part to the runaway greenhouse effect. And Venus has no plate tectonics, the system of moving plates that shapes Earth’s geology. How did Venus evolve so differently from Earth given similar starting conditions?


Volcanism is the key to understanding Venus’ history. Water and sulfur dioxide, key greenhouse gasses, are released into the atmosphere from the interior of the planet when volcanoes erupt. But the volcanic history is controversial. Was resurfacing an early rapid event, followed by little activity, or has it been more steady and more “Earth-like”? A discovery of geologically recent volcanic activity has reopened this debate and provided new insights into the sources of volcanism.


Several volcanic locations previously identified as hotspots (areas where hot mantle plumes create volcanism, like Hawaii) show signs of recent volcanism. What does this tell us about how active Venus is today, how it diverged from Earth, and also just how much like Earth is it? Dr. Smrekar’s lecture compared Venus to Earth and the most significant differences were that:













Both the Babylonians and the Mayans were aware that Venus’ position in the sky repeated predictably. The greenhouse gases in Venus’ atmosphere vary according to the cloud layer and have evolved over time from the time when the young Sun was more faint and Venus had an ocean. The Earth’s CO2 is similar to Venus’. On Earth the CO2 is locked into rocks through the action of rain water, a process that helps to regulate the temperature of the Earth, but one that stops when the Earth is frozen. Venus’ volcanism may be created by the intense temperature of the planet, rather than by plate tectonics as is the case on Earth. Surface emissivity (ability of a surface to emit radiation) on Venus is associated with young unweathered flows.


Today the challenge is to understand how the transfer occurs from the interior core of Venus to create the mantle plumes and the two scales of plumes between the upper and lower mantles, considering that the upper mantle is no longer thought to contain water.

2012 Pageant of the Masters

For the past 79 years, Laguna Beach has hosted its acclaimed “PAGEANT OF THE MASTERS,”an amazing performance of “tableaux vivants” (living pictures). These are faithful recreations of classical and  contemporary artworks with real people posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces. The Pageant takes place each summer in a lovely outdoor amphitheater in Laguna Canyon, with a professional orchestra, original scores, live narration and intricate sets.


The theme that Pageant of the Masters explored this year was The Genius. Long-time Pageant Director, Diane Challis Davy, was inspired to include astronomy especially as space exploration continues to excite our collective imaginations. Acknowledging the importance of astronomy in helping humans understand our universe, and noting that exploration is in our natures, the live narration included this quote of Carl Sagan’s, “We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.  We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”


This year’s program was especially exciting because of the focus on Griffith Observatory. The climax of the first half of the show featured an almost full-scale, life-like recreation of the Astronomers Monument. This was accompanied by a projection onto Laguna Canyon’s Irvine Bowl stage of Griffith Observatory’s familiar façade. Directly above the stage, were tableaux vivants recreations of the “Time”, “Navigation” and “Astronomy” panels from the Hugo Ballin murals in the  Observatory’s W.M. Keck Rotunda.

The recreation of Griffith Observatory against the actual Laguna Beach evening sky was beautiful. The presentation became even more exciting when the night sky was populated by deftly painted balloon “planets” (shown below) rising up abovethe amphitheater, accompanied by laser beams sweeping across the audience, and the stirring sounds of specifically composed music by Bill Liston, ASCAP capped the awesome experience. Pageant of the Master’s scriptwriter, Dr. Dan Duling, remarked that “all of us wondered how a couple of lasers and balloons were going to excite people, and then, seeing the amazing work of our talented technical crew in action reaffirmed the magic of the moment. We could not have been happier with the way it all turned out. The crescendo of applause at the finale of the first act was a theatrical coup.”

Diane Challis Davy notes, “This year’s Pageant of the Masters explored the fascinating relationship between art and technology. Griffith Observatory, the Hugo Ballin murals and the building’s Astronomers Monument are perfect representations of this theme, and have thrilled audiences all summer long.” Adds Dr. E.C. Krupp, Director of Griffith Observatory, “We are pleased and proud that Griffith Observatory played an integral role in 2012’s Pageant of the Masters. This is yet another example of how this internationally acclaimed landmark truly does fulfill its mission of learning, discovery, and inspiration about astronomy.”

The traditional final tableaux at the Pageant of the Masters has almost always been Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and it seemed particularly apt this year. Da Vinci’s quote sums up the intent of The Genius theme: “ Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses. Especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

Observing Report:
by Mathew Wedel
An entirely different kind of VIRTUAL STAR PARTY

Tonight I got to experience a virtual star party of a completely different sort: a binocular tour of the night sky as projected on the dome of the Samuel Oschin Planetarium at Griffith Observatory.

As the lights went down and the stars came out, the presenter (Dean Nasten) directed us to Orion with his red laser pointer and explained how it’s a big molecular cloud where new stars are being born. From the first view of the Orion Nebula (M42), it was clear that this was going to be a lot of fun. The nebula was big and detailed and looked pretty darned similar to its actual appearance through binoculars under dark skies.

The highlight of the evening was a tour of the Southern Hemisphere skies. We saw the Southern Cross and the Coalsack, the Jewel Box Cluster and the Eta Carina Nebula and the Southern Pleiades. I had seen these things before in binoculars, lying on the beach in Punta del Este, Uruguay, almost exactly two years ago. It was unexpectedly moving to get to visit them again, with binoculars, lying in much the same position in the reclined chair in the planetarium.

By the end of the night the presenter had pointed out about two dozen deep-sky objects, and I had found another dozen or so that went unremarked. It’s weird to think that the projector is presumably putting up images of these faint fuzzies all the time, even though most of them are below the threshold of naked-eye visibility. I am going to start sneaking my binoculars into the planetarium on a regular basis.

The downside to virtual stargazing is just that: the endless fields of distant suns are not really endless. Using the binoculars allows you to see the projected stars and DSOs more clearly, but not the stars and DSOs between them. You’re not really out there; the marvel is not at natural splendor but at human ingenuity, and you are, in the end, sitting in a big dark room using the world’s biggest sky app. Fun and interesting, for sure, but not nearly as rewarding as the real thing.

But I think that’s okay. Tonight’s exercise was an outreach, designed to get people who have never used their binoculars for anything other than spying on birds and neighbors to turn them skyward and see a few of these awesome things for themselves, and for real. Based on a wholly unscientific sample of personal eavesdropping, I think it was a success.

So, virtual stargazing: weird, no substitute for the real thing, but still highly recommended. Go if you ever get a chance.

Citizen Scientists: Uncle Sam Wants YOU!
by Elisabeth Duran
Yesterday’s Geeks are Today’s Citizen Scientists

Thanks to NASA, it’s never been cooler to be a geek. Capitalizing on the fact that astronomy is a scientific field in which amateurs can make real contributions, the space agency launched a program last December that has attracted more than 40,000 volunteer scientists.

It’s called Planet Hunters, a collaboration between the exoplanets program at Yale University and Zooniverse, the biggest citizen science project on the Internet (established in 2007, Zooniverse currently boasts 400,000-plus participants).

Planet Hunters’ citizen scientists utilize actual data from NASA’s Kepler discovery mission, which searches other solar systems for potentially habitable planets. It’s already yielded galaxy gold: Just last September, volunteers identified two potential Earth-like planets. Debra Fischer, a Yale researcher, helped launch the project.

“Scientists on the Kepler team obtained the data, but the public helped finance the project with their tax dollars,” Fischer said in a statement for the press. “It’s only right that this data has been pushed back into the public domain, not just as scientifically digested results but in a form where the public can actively participate in the hunt. The space program is a national treasure—a monument to America’s curiosity about the universe. It is such an exciting time to be alive and to see these incredible discoveries being made.”

Size Doesn’t Always Matter
Are you thinking you’ll need a lot of expensive equipment to join the citizen scientist ranks? Not so. For instance, observers with telescopes as small as 8 inches in diameter can contribute to NASA’s Lunar Meteoroid Impact Observation Program, which tracks and records flashes from meteoroid impacts on the surface of the Moon.

Amateur sky sleuths have analyzed data, discovered comets, and tracked stars. Here are just a few other opportunities to unleash your inner geek.

Be a Martian

Be a Martian
A joint project between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Microsoft, users sign up to join a virtual community for those who want to become Martian citizens, or are interested in exploring the Red Planet. Citizen scientists can utilize site data to tag Mars rover images and map craters from satellite pictures.

Mars Student Imaging Project
Attention, students from fifth grade through college sophomores: Since 2004 more than 50,000 among you have developed hypotheses and steered the camera on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft to test them. It’s more than a scholastic exercise: Not long ago a group of middle schoolers discovered a cave on Mars.

Returning to Earth in 2006, the spacecraft Stardust brought pieces of the comet Wild 2 and about 45 particles of stardust itself—bits of cosmic dust formed in distant stars—just ripe for discovery. Citizen scientists who investigate the hundreds of thousands of images available online (taken by the home project’s automated scanning microscope) to identify those that contain actual stardust will share authorship on the scientific paper announcing it AND get to name the bit.

There’s an App for That
Got a yearning to ID one of the millions of galaxies? Galaxy Zoo is now available on the iPhone and Android. Users help to identify and classify more than 70 million galaxies. Easy for you to say: Galaxy Zoo has already generated more than a dozen published scientific papers examining the directions in which spiral galaxies spin, the relationship between galaxy shape and color, and galaxy mergers.

The Stellar Emporium Gift Shop

The Stellar Emporium Gift Shop offers a cosmic array of Observatory insignia items, as well as astronomy-related and space-themed books, gifts, clothing, toys, and other items. With the holidays around the corner, stop by The Stellar Emporium to find unique gifts for friends and family. Operated by museum expert Event Network, the gift shop is located on the lower level between the Gunther Depths of Space exhibit hall and Gottlieb Transit Corridor.


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