Observatory 11 – Lowell

The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, was oddly not originally on my list of places to go. I’m not sure how I had missed it, but when I was preparing for the sabbatical, one of my support team, Paul, noticed it wasn’t listed. Since he had been there, he asked about it and insisted that I go there. I’m really glad he did, because Lowell is one of my favorite observatories now!

Because it is sort off by itself in north-central Arizona and not very near to the other Arizona sites I was planning on, it became somewhat problematic figuring out how I could get there. Flagstaff is on an Amtrak line, but there is no line connecting Flagstaff and Tucson, my primary base in the state. What I had figured to do was spend the week in Tucson (see previous entries), go on to California for a week, then stop in Flagstaff on the way back to Albuquerque, NM. The problem there was that the train arrived once a day in Flagstaff at 4:00 a.m. So I’d have to get off then and kill six hours until the observatory opened at 10 a.m., hang around until it closed at 10 p.m., and kill another six hours before catching the train again at 4 a.m. the next day. This did not sound like a good plan, but I couldn’t quite figure another way.

And this is the way things went through the entire trip. I spent a lot of time sorting out how I was going to get from here to there and where to stay and all, but in the end things just fell together. So here’s what happened. After making my trips to Kitt Peak and Mount Graham, I was planning on the following Monday to go south from Tucson to the Fred Lawrence Whipple VERITAS Gamma Ray Observatory. I was pretty psyched about it, as it was one of the few non-optical observatories on my list, plus my wife’s maiden name is Whipple. So just to be sure, I called the visitor center to see about tour details and such, and I learned that they were closed for the week because of road construction. It’s a pretty remote site in the mountains about an hour or more south of Tucson, so if the road needs some work, there aren’t a lot of options. Well, that put the kibosh on gamma rays. So I had a couple empty days to kill in Tucson. Eventually, it hit me that I could drive to Flagstaff to see Lowell Observatory and back and easily make my train to California on Tuesday night. Then I wouldn’t have to do the convoluted nonsense stop I had imagined! It was like a dream come true, except without any gamma rays.

Driving to Flagstaff

I made a hotel reservation for Monday night in Flagstaff and got in touch with my friend Jelena from Kitt Peak who works at Lowell to tell her I was coming up and would be there Monday afternoon. She said she’d meet me when I got there. Tours run all day, and they also have observing every clear night. This was going to be great!

I set out relatively early in the morning Monday for the 4+ hour drive. From Tucson to Phoenix was pretty easy with little traffic and wide open vistas. Phoenix is an impressive, sprawling city in the desert to drive around. Eventually, it gives way to the open vistas again. I stopped at a rest stop about an hour from Phoenix and from Flagstaff, and it was one of the most picturesque views at a rest stop I’ve ever seen. Took a bunch of pictures, but they don’t do it any justice. Rolled into Flagstaff around noon and grabbed a quick lunch at Wendy’s. Not great, but it was the first thing I saw that I recognized.

Sunset Point Rest Stop on I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff

The Lowell Observatory

Flagstaff is a pretty town, at least what I saw of it, with a cool college-town vibe (University of Northern Arizona is there), plus it has the observatory where Pluto was discovered, which pushes the cool factor to 11. It’s also got some ski resort vibe, although probably less of that in August when I was there. Still, pine trees on jutting and rolling hills – it’s nice!

And the observatory campus is beautiful! You wind up a hill (Mars Hill, I think) through treelined neighborhoods, and then you come to this place that looks like summer camp. The visitor center is a modern building with lots of lecture rooms and exhibit space and gift shop (of course!). It serves as the gateway to the rest of the campus, which has a variety of old and new buildings, observatory domes, offices, labs, and lecture halls, with long, broad, winding pathways and trees and flowers everywhere. This is a space designed for people to enjoy, not just a utilitarian scientific site. Many of the buildings are made of stone and several of the historic domes are made of local pine, shaped like an upside-down stave bucket. It turns out the strength characteristics of the soft pine wood doesn’t allow for making a traditional dome. It’s okay. The bucket shapes are unique, functional, and fit the campus. On the inside they are homey and rustic, which I really liked.

The Pluto Finder Dome

Tours

I started in the museum lecture room where our docent Liza (“Lisa with a Z”) was talking about Percival Lowell, his quest to find Planet X, and his study of Mars. The museum includes several of Lowell’s notebooks with sketches of Mars. You can see how he believed he was seeing alien structures – canals – on the surface. It was probably a feedback loop where the way he interpreted what he was seeing affected what he was seeing that supported his interpretation. We know now, of course, that there are no canals on Mars, but at the turn of the 20th century Lowell had some of the best views of the planet available, and nobody knew any better.

Lowell’s sketches from the 24″ Clark refractor, c. 1905

Pluto Finder

Docent Liza wrangling the Pluto Finder

After the introductory lecture, we made our way the Pluto Finder dome. This is where Clyde Tombaugh did the grunt work observing to find Planet X. Along the path to get there are markers for the planets of the solar system at scale distances so you get an idea of how far Pluto really is from us. (Spoiler: REALLY FAR!) The dome is two stories with a wee museum downstairs, which we did not investigate, and the telescope up a narrow staircase running along the curved wall. The scope is a 16″ refractor astrograph, that is a telescope specifically designed for astrophotography and not optical observing, designed by Alvan Clark. Tombaugh would take photos on glass plates of small sections of the sky and develop them. Then after several days or weeks he would take more pictures of the same sections and develop those. Then he would compare the two plates, which were about a foot square, side by side, inch by inch, with magnifying lenses and a “blinker.” With the two plates side by side, the blinker had a lever or switch that would close off the view of one plate, and then with a flip of the lever it would block the other plate, so the viewer could compare the two. It was painstaking work! Eventually, he happened to notice one small dot that moved between two plates. That was Pluto! According to Liza, Tombaugh was looking at that piece of sky because some mathematical calculations suggested that an object in that region could account for a discrepancy found in the orbit of Neptune. It turns out that (1) the calculated discrepancy was an error and didn’t really exist, (2) Pluto has no significant effect on Neptune’s orbit, and (3) Pluto just happened to be in that part of the sky. It was lucky happenstance that it was found.

Clark 24″ Refractor

By now if you’ve been following my blog you should be familiar with the name Clark. Alvan Clark was the premier telescope maker in America in the late 19th century. After his 7″ refractor at Williams College, his 40″ refractor at Yerkes, and the refigured Fitz refractor at Allegheny, the Pluto Finder and the 24″ refractor at Lowell were the fourth and fifth Clark telescopes that I got my hands on. That’s pretty cool!

The 24″ refractor is pretty much what you would expect at this point, then: a big, beautiful, well-balanced scientific instrument that has been in use for about 125 years. Lowell used it, as noted above, for his observations of Mars, but it was also used for early observations that led to the discovery of the expansion of the universe. Like the Yerkes scope, it has been modified with various electronics and such, but most of the equipment attached is original. The multi-ton assembly is balanced so well that Liza (probably every bit of 100 lbs.) was able to slew it around without difficulty. Again, the pine dome, walls, and floor give the observatory a cozy feel. I like my science to be homey. Nowadays the 24″ is used primarily for public outreach. While Flagstaff’s light pollution isn’t as bad as a lot of places because it is the world’s first International Dark Sky Place, there is a highway and a train track that point headlights right at the Clark dome, which is enough to trash a lot of science. Plus, the instrument is not really up to leading edge science in an age of giant reflecting telescopes. (The Lowell Observatory owns and operates several large research telescopes, including the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel telescope which live on other campuses.) I mean, I’d take it to do some science, but they aren’t selling.

The Afternoon

The rest of the afternoon was less structured. I spent some time just walking around the campus, which as I’ve mentioned, I found to be just a beautiful place. The weather was perfect, so that helped, but the lodge pole pine trees smell really good, and the wind makes a lovely sound blowing through them. I took a video to catch that sound, but now I can’t find it. I also took in a presentation on Mars exploration, its history, present, and future plans, that was good. I was pretty familiar with most of the material, as I recall, but it was still fun and informative. Mars was in the public eye at that point because it was just past its close approach and it was undergoing a global dust storm. This combination was very frustrating to most astrogeeks! It was one of the closest approaches since 2003, which promised better viewing opportunities than usual, but the dust storm obliterated all detail visible from Earth. For the average non-astrogeek citizen, the fuss about Mars was probably more about whether or not it would be the size of a full moon. (Spoiler: It was not.) After the presentation, I spent some time watching a few movie loops and shopping in the gift store. It being about suppertime, I went in to town to find some food. I happened upon the Beaver Street Brewery, where I had a nice brown ale and a roasted garlic pizza. Very nice.

The Evening Program

Every clear night the Lowell Observatory opens to the public for sky viewing. This was very pleasant on a very pleasant evening! The sky was clear, temperature was warm, and there was waning moon. Several local volunteers bring their equipment for people to look through, and staff members are available to run some of the official scopes, give informative presentations, and answer questions. For example, one fellow was telling star lore from some of the ancient cultures, mostly Greek and some Native American, about the characters that ended up as constellations. He was really hamming it up, but it was interesting and fun.

A woman had her 20×80 binoculars set on M7, an open cluster. A man had his classic orange Celestron 8″ SCT lined up on Jupiter and later on Mars. The aforementioned Martian dust storm was beginning to subside, and I was able to make out a little bit of detail on the planet, with some patience. Another fellow had a 16″ Dobsonian pointed at globular cluster M13, which was beautiful. The official Lowell scopes were a 16″ Cassegrain reflector (The McAllister telescope) through which I saw open cluster M11, and of course, the 24″ Clark refractor.

The Clark was trained on Saturn, and there was a line to take a look. The sky was clear but seeing was wavy. The magnification was 175x, which is about what I use at home on a bumpy night. So you could see the Cassini division and some color on the disk, and a bit of ring shadow and shadow on the rings (it was close to opposition). Not bad, but of course it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Again. I asked the docent what magnification the Clark could take, and he said, “It might start to break a sweat at 1250x on a good night!” Wow! That would be something to see. Maybe someday I’ll get to one of these places on a good night. As it was, 175x would have to do, and it did well enough that I got back in line for a second go.

Load out

The program went until maybe 9:30 p.m. It having been a full day, I made my way across town to my hotel for the night. I kind of took my time leaving in the morning and made the four hour drive back to Tucson. Somehow I got confused about time in this unexpected side trip. I got back to the apartment at midday and thought I had plenty of time to get to the train station by 6:00 p.m., but what I forgot was that I was supposed to have checked out of the apartment at 11:00 a.m.! I was just about to get into the shower when there was a knock at the door. It was the cleaning crew! I threw some clothes on and went out to tell them I’d be out in just a few minutes. Took a super-fast shower and packed all my stuff and was out the door in about 15 minutes! I left a bigger tip than I would have otherwise and apologized to the guys on my way out.

Now I had several hours to kill and no place to be. I went to the Himmel Park Library, where I had spent some time before going to the UA mirror lab a week before. Killed those hours, took my car back to the airport, got Lyft to the train station, waited the extra hours the train was late (of course), and set out for California.


If you’d like to see my full set of photos from Lowell Observatory, click here.

Observing from Home – Mercury Transit – 11 November 2019

On Monday, November 11, 2019, the planet Mercury lined up in such a way that it crossed the face of the sun from our vantage point on Earth. Because of the eccentricities and inclinations of the planets’ orbits, this is something that happens from time to time, like a lunar or solar eclipse. The last Mercury transit, as it is called happened in 2016, and the next will be in 2032. As it happened, this time our house was in a prime location to observe the event, and it was my day off. So I made some plans to have a look.

If you ever have opportunity to look at the sun, DON’T!! At least not if you don’t have the right equipment. Here’s a link to an article at Sky & Telescope with the right way to do it. If you follow the steps in the article, then it is a pretty cool thing to be able to do. Just be careful, or you or someone with you could go blind. You have been warned.

First viewing – Binoculars

Fortunately, I have the right equipment. I started out with my 10×50 binoculars equipped with solar filters that I had made for them before the 2017 solar eclipse. The sky was mostly clear but with patchy, high-level clouds, so not ideal, but a lot better than I expected. The transit started at about 7:30 a.m. EST, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I was going to be able to see anything yet, due to clouds, trees, and breakfast. I mean, it was my day off, and I don’t like getting up that early. By 8:15 I finally had enough coffee to begin executing my aforementioned plan. As you can probably tell, I’m not a really good planner, so when I say “I made plans to observe” what I mean is “I decided that I might give it a try and had a few options in mind about how to do so.” Any way, I went out in the front yard, which faces east and also a mess of trees, and found a spot on the front steps, actually, that had a clear line of sight to the sun. I got my binoculars fitted with their filters. Looking freehand was pretty much a No-Go. I had some hints that there was something there, but it was nothing I would swear to. So I got my camera tripod and attached the binocs, and that made all the difference.

I was surprised at how very small the planet Mercury appeared to be against the face of the sun. VERY small! Just a pinprick at about 8 o’clock and in from the edge maybe 1/6 to 1/4 the sun’s diameter. It’s no wonder I couldn’t make it out freehand. The streaky clouds often obscured it altogether. I tried taking some pictures with my phone, but that didn’t work well at all. The clouds were increasing, the sun was heading behind a tree, and I had seen the thing, so I felt pretty good, and went in, thinking I might be done. Then again, I might not.

Typical fall sky making it a little tough on solar astronomers, but I still had a good observing experience of the transit.

Second Viewing – Reflector

The sky cleared a bit, and the day warmed a bit, so I decided to break out a telescope. I thought about trying to quickly build a filter for my 8″ Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, and this is where being a real planner would have been useful, but there just wasn’t time on the spot to get a workable and safe solution. The other choices I had were that I have full aperture filters for my 60mm Meade ETX Maksutov-Cassegrain and my 5″ Orion SpaceProbe reflector. The 60mm is motorized for tracking, but it’s only slightly bigger than my binoculars. The 5″ is significantly larger but was at the time unmounted. I have two manual equatorial mounts that would work, one that came with the 5″ that is pretty wobbly, and one that came with my 8″ reflector that is more stable but sticky in its movement. I opted for the functional but wobbly 5″ reflector set up.

Wide angle view of the sun with Mercury left of center. North is down, west is left.

About 11:45 a.m. EST, I set up on the pool deck, which worked out well with an unobstructed view of the sun. Clouds were intermittent and didn’t hinder the viewing as much as they had through the binoculars. I was able to watch the second half of the transit. Using a phone adapter by Gosky or GoSky, I was able to take pictures and video of the event with my Samsung Galaxy J3. This was a mixed blessing as I have documentation of my observing and pictures and video I can share with you, but it’s a different experience viewing directly through the eyepiece as compared to viewing through the camera. I took turns between the two. I did enough direct visual to say I saw it, but I felt especially unsatisfied and satisfied for having video-recorded the 3rd and 4th contacts, that is the end of the transit, which was about 1:05 p.m. EST.

I used 20mm Super-Plössl, 10mm Plössl, and 8.8mm Wide Angle eyepieces with and without a 2x Barlow lens. This provided magnification of 45x, 90x, 102x, 180x, and 204x. Mostly I kept to the midrange 90-102x. The planet was much more obvious than in the binoculars and clearly a disk and not just a dot. Using the zoom on the phone camera means that I have no idea what magnification I actually had for any of the pictures. Because I changed the camera zoom many times, it has been very difficult to try to compare or stack the images, as they are at different magnification with different parallax error and different color balance. Because a Newtonian reflector gives a mirror image both left-right and top-bottom, Mercury appeared to be backing out the way I had seen it coming in through the binoculars, but it did in fact travel from SE to NW all the way.

I’m glad I got the chance to observe this transit directly. The last transit of Venus a couple years ago got completely clouded out. As I mentioned, the next Mercury transit will be in 2032. I wonder what sort of tech we will have to observe that event. I hope we’ll still be around to see it.

Here’s a link to my collection of photos for the event at Google Photos.


Observatory 8, 9, and 10 – Mt. Graham International Observatories

It’s been over a year since I was in Arizona and made my way to Mt. Graham. That’s just ridiculous. I don’t understand how it’s possible. So, I guess I better get back to the work of recording my experiences before my memories have entirely evaporated. I’m hoping it’s not too late already. Fortunately, you can find some of what I did with my pictures and comments over >here<.

You have to make a reservation to visit the >Mt. Graham International Observatories< through the East Arizona College Discovery Park, and the tours are infrequent. Well, they are supposed to be regularly on the weekends, but they had the Fry forest fire in June 2017 that had made it a bit dicey to go up the mountain for some time. In fact, they didn’t do any tours for about a year. I was able to make a reservation for Saturday, August 25, two days after my trip to >Kitt Peak<. It is on the order of two hours to the east of Tucson near Safford, and the tour was at 9:30 a.m. So I was up and at ’em at an uncharacteristically early 6:30. I got one of the worst meals of my trip, a fast food breakfast on the way out of town, and down the road I went. It was actually a very pleasant drive through some beautiful country, mountains giving way to plateaus.

Started from the bottom…

The Discovery Park is a small campus of about 4 buildings of various sizes housing, among other things, a small observatory and the museum where we met for the tour. If I remember, the tour was $40, which included the gas to get up the mountain, lunch, probably some permits, and a bit to keep the program going. Permits, because there is an endangered red squirrel on the mountain that is protected, so not just anyone can go gallivanting about on Mt. Graham. In fact, after a brief introduction, anyone going on the tour has to sign a form promising not to harass the squirrels under pain of federal penalties. Okay, MtG red squirrels, be cool; do your thing. (As it turned out we didn’t see a one of them.)

The three observatories on the tour are the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Radio Telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT, and yes, that Vatican, the Vatican), and the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT). The latter is by some reckoning the largest optical telescope in the world at the moment, but more on that later.

Movin’ on up…

There were about a dozen people there for the tour, enough for two vans. The trip up the mountain takes an hour and a half to go a linear 27 miles. However, that 27 miles includes a 5600-foot vertical ascent and 109 switchbacks. Our two docents were very knowledgeable about the environment on the mountain, and the gentleman driving, whose name escapes me, gave a running description of the different zones to the three or four of us in our van. There are five distinct climate zones as you ascend from the plain to the summit, and oddly, these are the only bits I wrote about in my journals for the entire trip to Mt. Graham. (That whole journal thing didn’t work out quite the way I imagined, but then, what does?) For those who like to keep score my notes record something like this:

  1. Lower Sonoran desert at the base, 3400′ elevation, 3-12″ annual rainfall; ocotillo (a spiky, alien-looking succulent shrub) grows here
  2. Upper Sonoran at 5000′; manzanita, juniper, oak
    • highest density of black bears in the southwest on the mountain
  3. at 6000′ – ash, walnut, pine; 10-20″ rain;
    • Heliograph Point used in the 1800s to transmit messages by mirror from NM to CA
  4. Transition zone from 6500′-8000′; Douglas fir, ash, sycamore, black walnut; 18-28″ rain
    • One of the switchbacks is called Cadillac Curve – an old couple drove off the cliff at a switchback because they were confused by the arrow signs above and below point in to the vertex of the curve. A tree stopped the car, and no one was injured. The signage was changed so you could only see one or the other at one time. Also, they were driving a Lincoln and not a Cadillac.
    • the mountain in national forest land; some cabins, no power grid
  5. Canadian zone from 8000′-9500′; Douglas fir, white and ponderosa pine, aspen; wild flowers, columbine, Indian paint brush
    • Arrow tree – there’s a tree along the road that hunters shoot at; if they hit it, it’s good luck for the hunt! So the poor old tree is spiky with arrows.
    • Naturally, clouds started settling in as we ascended.
    • We ran out of pavement 7 miles from our destination
    • They used to get 200″ snow pack up here, but lately it’s been more like 50″
    • Lots of fresh washouts and alluvia from monsoon rains and fire-cleared mud
    • Our guide said over management of the forest has allowed dense growth of trees that naturally would be about 100′ apart but now grow right beside each other, allowing for easy spread of fire and disease
  6. Hudsonian zone from 9500′-11,500′; 10-12′ of snow

They brought the mirrors for the Large Binocular Telescope, each 8.5 meters in diameter, up this same road with all its switchbacks. It took them three days to drive the 29 miles.

Now we here…

We stopped at a national parks area with restrooms (yay!) and a picnic shelter where we had lunch – a Subway combo meal. As you may see in my pictures, my chips had puffed up to ridiculous proportions with the change in altitude and fairly exploded when I tried to open them. It was really loud! Several of us were becoming aware of the altitude, too, as we walked around, sensing a distinct lack of air pressure. Not dizzy or anything, just feeling the need from time to time to gulp what air there was.

After lunch we piled back in the vans and headed to the MGIO site proper. The three observatories stand side by side by side, maybe 100 meters from each other. The VATT to the left, the LBT to the right and the Submillimeter in the middle. There was ample evidence of the recent forest fire, which as it turns out came within a few dozen meters of the Submillimeter observatory. This came to light when someone asked, “Why is the observatory all streaked pink like that?” It turns out that when they were fighting the fire, they airdropped slurry on the site and actually hit the observatory. They were successful in saving all three observatories, thank goodness.

Okay, so I notice I’m starting to repeat the things I wrote as comments in my photo album, and that seems a little silly. So please take the time to click over there to see the pics and read what I wrote there, and I’ll see if I can give some other different impressions here.

The three facilities were similar in some ways and unique in others. They all have control rooms that are pretty much a series of computer stations. They all have a certain industrialism to them, by which I mean there is at least some area that is like a machine shop with lots of tools, instruments, wires, spare parts, and a smell of oil and solvents in the air. The Vatican observatory, while it has such things, felt more balanced with the residential area we saw, which includes thick carpet, comfy chairs, and bookshelves. It felt homier. I suppose that’s not really so, but that was my impression. The LBT is the most industrial because it is an enormous machine with hundreds of smaller mechanical subsystems. All three have a hand in some revolutionary technology. The VATT and LBT are among the first to have spin cast, honeycomb mirrors from the UA Caris Mirror Lab. The Submillimeter dish, as I added to my photo comments, is part of the Event Horizon Telescope, a virtual radio array the size of the earth that is taking pictures of black hole environments.

I was disappointed with the interpretation we got from the docent leading the tour, especially at the Submillimeter dish. I think it was maybe her first time giving the tour, but she really had no idea how radio astronomy works. I knew because I had just been at the Green Bank Observatory a couple weeks before. It’s a fascinating field of astronomy that not a lot of people are familiar with, and while she gave it the old college try, as they used to say, but jeez. Here’s an example. With radio astronomy they cool the receivers and electronics because otherwise they produce radio frequency noise that interferes with the signals they are trying to detect. Our docent, though, said something like, “they cool the receivers to freeze the radio signals coming in so they can read them.” I mean, come on.

The Different Scopes

The Hertz Submillimeter

The 10-meter radio dish was cool and all, but it wasn’t jaw dropping since I had climbed up the GBT and had used the GBO 20-meter dish for fun. They have very different missions, of course, with the Submillimeter dish doing high-energy radio astronomy, while the Green Bank dishes are more relaxed energy, so to speak. I would have liked to see the shutters open and the dish in action, but the monsoon was in effect.

Speaking of the monsoon, as we made our way from the radio observatory to the VATT the clouds were moving in, fast and hard. I took some pictures and vids where you can see how fast. The sky was half clouded when we went in the VATT facility, and by the time we came out, maybe 45 minutes later, we were socked in. By the time we were done at the LBT, the temperature had dropped by 20 degrees and the wind was whipping through. Later still, when we got back to the Discovery Center the sky was just mostly cloudy with patches of blue. Very dynamic weather that time of year.

The VATT

Back to the telescopes, the VATT was, again, pretty cool for being the first of its kind, with the 1.8-meter (6 foot) prototype spin casting mirror. It’s a fast, open cage, Cassegrain-style reflector on a fork mount. In that regard, it is not unlike the 2.1-meter scope at Kitt Peak. It does some work in infrared, which is pretty uncommon and made it somewhat unique on my list. And I mean, if someone gave me a 1.8m scope, I’d be delighted, but otherwise, in many ways it was just another reflector. So I found that one thing with a pilgrimage like this is that not everything is going to blow your socks off, because you’ve seen something like it already.

The LBT

I had not, however, and would not for the rest of the pilgrimage, see anything quite like the Large Binocular Telescope. This is a truly impressive piece of equipment. There was a fellow who worked there who took over the tour guide duties (thankfully!) and did a great job. The first thing we got to see was the vacuum chamber that is used to re-aluminize the mirrors. This in itself was enormous. Next we got to see the wheel mechanisms that rotate the part of the building that serves as the azimuth bearing for the telescope. The steel wheels rest on a steel track, sort of like train wheels, and are close to three feet in diameter. Several of these wheels are in each of four “bogies” that include the motors that drive them and various electronics systems to coordinate their movement together and safety systems, etc. These bogies are about 8 feet tall and 20 feet long. We also got to see the control room, which is pretty much like the other control rooms, only more so, with about a dozen computer stations.

Finally, we made it under the dome, as it were (except that it’s actually more of a box), to see the instrument, which is colossal. An 8.5-meter mirror is the size of a swimming pool. (Remember those mirrors they were making at the >U of A mirror lab<, polished smooth to a millionth of an inch?) Surround that with a rigid cell to hold it and the detectors you’ll use. Then add the cage and supporting structure to hold the secondary mirror or other detectors at the right distance to get your focus. Then double all that. Then add enough supporting structure to hold both sets rigidly so there is no relative displacement between them to thousands of an inch tolerance. Then put it all on a mount so you can tip it up and down and turn it in any direction, and smoothly enough not to disturb the alignment of the two systems.

Okay, this one is jaw dropping! In fact, I was so impressed by it that I forgot to take a selfie with it. Imagine!

Odds and Ends

I haven’t written much about the people I met on my travels. This is unfortunate, as I didn’t write about many of them in my journal, either, and they are starting to vanish from my memory. I do remember meeting a family of four from the U.K. at the LBT. The parents were maybe in their 40s with two teenagers. I don’t remember their whole story, but they were on a nerd tour, sort of like mine, although, if I recall correctly it was maybe space stuff and outdoor stuff in the southwest U.S. Ugh, I wish I’d written it down, because it was pretty cool.

After we got back down, I drove through the nearby town of Safford to see if there was anywhere interesting to eat or shop. As seems to be typical of small western towns, the streets are wide and few. There were several places that might have been interesting, but for whatever reason (maybe I just wasn’t that hungry yet), I decided not to stop. I headed back to Tucson, about a two-hour drive. When I got there, I was faced with essentially the same problem of where to eat. My apartment was not well equipped, so eating out was the norm. I wanted something local, southwestern, not fancy, quick, and still open. After a few passes up and down the main drags, I settled on La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill. This turned out to be a fast order burrito place with counter service, which was a little less than I hoped for, but I was really tired, and it was getting late. As you can see in the pictures, I ordered something called La Grande and had the nerve to be surprised that it was big! No sides except some chips. They had a salsa bar, so I tried a couple. I don’t remember much about them. The food was good enough that I ate it all, in spite of my not being especially hungry. I remember the manager being helpful when I came in and when I ordered. There were several other patrons, well after normal dinner time. All this notwithstanding, apparently the place has gone under and been replaced by Famous Dave’s BBQ. Too bad. I liked the idea of a salsa bar.

It was a long, long day with lots of astro-adventure and fresh air. I made it back to the apartment and was done.

Observing from Home – 11 August 2019

Conditions

  • 11 August 2019 – 22:00 (8/11) – 00:30 (8/12) EDT
  • mild – 60º-65º F; humidity 80-85%
  • Moon +11 days ~90% illumination
  • still; clear at first, but increasing clouds toward midnight
  • seeing – 6 or 7/10 – pretty good
  • transparency – inconsequential, as I was hunting orbs

Equipment

  • Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Eyepieces
    • 32 mm
    • 15 mm
    • 9 mm
    • 6 mm
  • 2x Barlow
  • Filters
    • Moon, blue, green, yellow

Objects

  • Moon
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn

Observations

A pleasant Sunday night. I pondered long about going out, because, much as I love the NexStar 8, it is a pain to drag it down to the pool deck. I finally discerned that my 3 targets – Jupiter, Moon, and Saturn – would be visible from the deck, so I set up in the northwest corner there. The problems were shakiness (really need to reinforce the deck at some point) and the TV aerial, which turned out to be right in the path of the moon and Saturn. The moon was just a few degrees W of Saturn, both sitting just above the Teapot of Sagittarius. Jupiter was 15º or so to the west just above Antares in Scorpius/Ophiuchus.


Moon

Southern region of the Moon. North is up. Just inside the terminator on the right (West) from bottom to top you can see Schiller, Gassendi, and Kepler, mentioned in the writeup.

I started with the Moon, using 32 mm = 62.5 X with moon filter and variations with 15 mm, 9 mm, and 2x Barlow. I don’t know the moon that well, so didn’t do much more than identify several craters. In the SW quadrant; Schiller, , a long, squashed crater; Gassendi was just east of the terminator – large with prominent central peak; small Flamsteed; up to Encke and Kepler, just on the terminator. On into the NW, Prinz on the terminator, and I think it was breaking dawn on Aristarchus, which sounds like a new age album. Saw Bianchini and Sharp just outside Sinus Iridum. After that I made my way to Mare Tranquillitatis to see if I could find the Apollo 11 astronaut craters: three small craters in a row just north of the landing site and named Aldrin, Collins, and Armstrong. Turns out they are quite small. While theoretically in reach of my scope, I had two problems (at least): 1) I had neglected to add my dew shield and was starting to fog over, and 2) the aforementioned TV aerial was now sitting across the heart of the moon, so that I wasn’t getting good resolution, even at 222 X. [An article in July 2019 Sky&Telescope suggests a 6″ scope can make them out at 250 X with steady seeing.]


Jupiter

Moved on to Jupiter, sitting low in the SW. Tried pushing the magnification to 333 X, and it was just a bit too much. 222 X wasn’t quite enough, but I didn’t think to use the 15 mm + 2X for 266 X, which might have been Goldilocks. Oh well. The GRS (Great Red Spot) was just past transit, very well placed, but so small! It was fairly obvious but just a tight, dark knot (nought? not.) in the SEB (Southern Equatorial Band), which itself was quite light. The NEB (Northern…) was dark and thick, and some “barges” were visible. The equatorial zone remains heavily shaded, darker than the temperate zones. One northern temperate band was visible. The GRS rotated about 2/3 to the limb while I observed, or so it seems to me as I write this. I tried a variety of color filters, including blue, green, and yellow. The blue highlighted the bands and GRS the best, as one would expect. Green and yellow both gave interesting interpretations but were ultimately not that helpful. Of the Galilean moons, I had just missed Io disappearing in eclipse as it turns out, and also just missed Ganymede emerging from eclipse at the other end of my observations. Oh well. Meanwhile, Europa was about 4 Jupiter diameters from the planet to the west. Callisto was about four Europa-Jupiter distances further to the west. I made a sketch at the eyepiece that shows the distances more or less. The GRS in the sketch is bigger than it appeared.


Moon, redux

Went back to the Moon for a bit after it cleared the tower, as it were. Took another stab at the Apollo 11 craters, but no. Poked around the southern highlands for a bit. I’ve always had a soft spot for Clavius, so I looked there for a bit. Noticed a few clouds moving in and wanted to get some Saturn time in, so moved there.


Saturn

Even with deteriorating conditions, Saturn looked pretty good. Again, pushing the mag, it was just a bit much at 333 X, so ended up with the 266 X combo I hadn’t thought of earlier. The rings are tilted so that the other edges are about lined up with the edge of the disk. It’s just a bit past opposition (okay, a month past), so there is just a little bit of shadow on the rings right at the pole, or that’s what I’ve gathered. Any way, the rings kind of squish at that point. Not much color tonight, just a yellowish tint. Darker in the N temperate to polar region with a slightly dark band at the bottom. Very 3-D. Cassini Gap easily visible.


Pics

I took several handheld pictures and videos with my phone at the eyepiece for all three targets. Moon was best, of course, then Saturn. Jupiter was washed out. Clouds were moving in, and I was tired, so I washed out, too.

Best shot of the Moon for the night. North is right and West is down.
Best of Jupiter for the night, which is not that great. North is upper left, West is to the lower left. More or less.
Saturn. Not as impressive as seeing it live. You sort of see the dips where the rings and the disk limb cross, right? North is right.

You can see the full series of pictures I took at my Google Pictures album, >here<.


Observing from Home – 1 July 2019 – The rest of the story

In my last entry I included my first serious attempts at astrophotography with three pictures of Jupiter. Here, then, are my notes from that night’s observing in general.

Conditions

  • 1 July 2019 – 22:00- 00:30
  • warm – 70’s; high humidity – 80%!
  • new moon, essentially
  • still, no wind
  • some streaky clouds, increasing through the night
  • seeing – 6/10
  • transparency – good enough

Equipment

  • Celestron Nexstar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Orion StarShoot Solar System Color Imager IV
  • 2x Barlow
  • Eyepieces:
    • 32 mm – 62.5x / 125x
    • 15 mm – 133x / 266x
    • 9 mm – 222x / 444x — too much for tonight!
  • Filters:
    • blue, red, purple, yellow, sky glow

Objects

  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • M4
  • M8
  • M20
  • M17
  • M22
  • M27
  • NGC 6995

Tech!

Writing this several days after the fact, so we’ll see how bad my memory is. Of course you won’t know unless I tell you! A good bit of time was spent on the new attempt at technology and astrophotography, which ultimately proved successful, but it took a while. The interface between camera and computer is a bit dodgy at first. No image coming through, even though the cam had power. This may have been an interface issue or that the object in view wasn’t centered enough or large enough or focused enough to produce an image. I eventually added the 2x Barlow, doubling the image size and found Jupiter on the monitor in the preview window of the settings screen. In the actual preview window, though, the image was tiled into 4 images that were raked with horizontal lines. Unplugging and restarting the camera seemed to do the trick, and after only half an hour fiddling, I took my first .mov of Jupiter. It was grainy as hell, but I could sort of see that the GRS (Great Red Spot) was on the limb. Over the next 45 minutes or so I took 8 movies of 50-75 seconds each. I tried one of M4, the globular cluster in Scorpius, but that was just dark frames. This camera is not sensitive enough for faint deep sky objects. It barely noticed Jupiter! Any way, I’ve been processing the movies into pictures with some success. They are grainy, and I have much to learn about processing, but they aren’t bad for a first effort. I thought about recording Saturn, too, but I decided to keep it simple on the first try. I also hoped to see several objects by eye on a rare clear night. So I put the tech away and switched to visual.

Observations

Jupiter

I stuck with Jupiter for a good while. It is just past opposition, so it is a great time to observe it. It isn’t very high, sitting on the north side of Scorpius, a few degrees north of M19, about 28º above the horizon according to an app. It’s super bright at -2.6 magnitude. At 62.5x (32 mm) I could see 2 stripes on the disk, on moon to the W (Io), and three to the E. Mostly viewed with the 15 mm and 2x for 266x. It was a pretty stable view. Could make out the GRS easily. The NEB (north equatorial belt) was thick and rusty colored. The SEB was thinner and darker to the … W? of the GRS (toward the direction of rotation). The equatorial zone was orangy and the higher latitudes were lighter. Could occasionally make out another stripe or hints of one above the NEB. I think. Maybe I’m applying that back from my pictures, though.

I tried a couple filters – blue, purple, red, yellow. The purple was a complete washout, making for a big pink blob, and red wasn’t much better. Yellow was okay. Blue was by far the most helpful. That’s when I saw hints of other bands and hints of detail downstream from GRS. This sketch doesn’t look like much, but I watched for a long time with great enjoyment and fascination.

M4 Globular Cluster

I had swung over to M4 before as I mentioned, but went back for more visual. For as big as it is, it’s a challenge. Not to find it but to see it. The surface brightness is pretty low, and I often strain to keep looking at it. Maybe I should have dropped the magnification. I had a hard time making out any detail at all. Just a mess of stars on the verge of vision so as to make my eyes twitch.

M8 Lagoon Nebula

Moved on to several Sagittarius favorites. M8 Lagoon Nebula was beautiful as usual. Not as stand-outish is M42, but up there. Wisps of nebulosity with an X across the center and a swarm of small stars on the east side. At some point in the night I added my sky glow filter – I think much later and then I returned here, I forget – and it really helped bring M8 out from the background.

M20 Triffid Nebula

M20 is hard to compare to M8. Not fair, really. It’s a beautiful thing but so small vs. M8. I think I didn’t use the filter on M20, and it suffered for it. About 1/4 the size of M8 or less. Hints of more complexity maybe and hit of the central star. Should have used higher magnification and the filter. Next time.

M17 Swan Nebula

M17 is always fun to observe. Mostly looked like a checkmark, more than the full swan this night. Not as sharp a line on the swan’t “water line” as often appears.

M22 Globular Cluster

Just a quick look at M22. Enough to say I saw it. I think I was starting to get tired already. Sorry.

Saturn

Not sure of where it fits in the order now, but somewhere in here I went to Saturn. At fairly low power about 4 moons visible. (… Not sure what power I was using now that I think of it. I really need to start writing this stuff down as I do it.) At 266x it was a little rough but some detail. Still very low in the sky, about 20º above the horizon, so not great detail. Plus, it’s just about at opposition, so almost no shadows. Could generally make out the Cassini Gap, some shading on the planet disk. Rings are crossing in front of the disk. A dark band and gray cap on the top of the disk, but not much color.

M27 Dumbbell Nebula

Turning to the north, Cygnus had risen over the house to about 45º. I slewed to M27, a planetary nebula. It is large enough and bright enough that I wonder if it might appear in the SSSSIV camera. Round, but uneven, brighter on the “sides” than on the “top” and “bottom,” and brighter on one side than the other. It seems to shift as you look at it, though. I used 266x pretty much across the board on everything… I think, and I think I used the sky glow filter? Or maybe I came back to it after I added the filter? Maybe that, because I seem to remember adding the filter on the last target of the evening.

NGC 6995 Veil Nebula

I went to the Crescent Nebula, which isn’t really where I meant to go, which is fine, because I couldn’t see it any way. I chose it from the list of named objects on my paddle control for the C8. What I meant to look at and eventually got to was NGC 6995, the Veil Nebula. It turned out to be the Eastern Veil. This is a pretty bright ribbon of cloud in a long, flowing arc. There are two relatively bright stars nearby and not one bright one in the midst, the signature of the Western Veil. It has a few kinks and bulbs, as it were, and is quite an interesting object. Regrettably, I was definitely getting tired and didn’t give it the attention it deserves. It definitely benefitted from the sky glow filter.

I revisited a few previous targets, but as I said, I was getting tired. Plus more clouds were moving in. Plus the dew was getting heavy. In fact, I noticed as I was packing up that the scope’s corrector plate was starting to dew over. On the whole, a good night.

Observing from Home – 1 July 2019 – Pics or Didn’t Happen.

I haven’t written up my notes on this session yet, but I started trying some astrophotography, and that’s been taking some time and attention. It has taken almost a year to get the right combination of learning, confidence, and clear skies, but I finally got out with the astro camera I won at the Green Bank Star Quest 2018. It’s an Orion StarShoot Solar System Color Imager IV, and it doesn’t work with OS X above 10.10. So I had to partition my hard drive and reinstalled 10.8.5. Even so, it is a glitchy proposition. Nevertheless, I succeeded in taking a series of videos of Jupiter on 1 July and have been processing them into stacked photos with an old program called Lynkeos. It’s pretty easy to follow the steps. What is difficult is learning how to fiddle with the settings to maximize the results in the photo. I’m getting there.

So herewith are the three photos I have produced so far. They are stacks of about 350 images each, +/- 100. The images are from video taken between 22:30 and 23:18 EDT. I used the Celestron Nexstar Evolution 8″ SCT with a 2x Barlow lens. I did the stacking and initial processing in Lynkeos, as I mentioned, and finished the processing in GIMP. The first is larger because I processed it on my lappie while the other two were done on the desktop and the resolution settings were different. Haven’t really tracked down the exact cause.

Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 22:30 EDT, CT WV
Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 22:35 EDT, CT WV
Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 23:18 EDT, CT WV

So there. Now I’m an astrophotographer.

Description of the whole observing session to follow in a separate post.

Observatory 7 – Kitt Peak, Part 2

This post is about the evening program at the Kitt Peak National Optical Astronomy Observatory. For my post about the 3-tour daytime program, look >here<.

As I mentioned in that article, I signed up for both the daytime and nighttime programs for less than $100 total. They have several night programs, but the ones being offered that night were the Parade of Planets and Night of the Marvelous Moon. The former would enjoy the favorable alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn with, I think, a 20″ reflector in the dome at the visitor center, while the latter would probe our faithful sky companion, the moon, with a 16″ Ritchey–Chrétien reflector in one of the roll-off observatories up the path. I chose the Marvelous Moon based on the poor performance of planetary observing I’d had from the big scopes so far and on the forecast for a “mostly cloudy” evening due to the monsoon season. I figured if we were going to get to see much of anything, it would have to be big and bright.

The evening began before sundown with introductions and supper in the visitors center. Supper was a box lunch with a sandwich, chips, and a cookie (as I recall these several months later). There were about 16 people there for the programs, and it turned out that only two of us had signed up for the moon. The sky, which had been vacillating wildly all day between sun and storm, was still patchy, so there was hope. That made me feel a little bummed, though, because if there was hope, then there might be cool views of the planets, which I was going to miss. I had to discipline myself to enjoy the program I had chosen.

Sunset

Our first observing of the evening would be of the occultation of a nearby star behind the limb of a local planet, also known as “sunset.” (A little astrogeek humor there. Okay, very little.) We walked up the path to the rim of the mountain with a spectacular view across the valley to the west. The clouds were still hanging out but had broken up some, and as the sun got lower, they lit up spectacularly. Lots of reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and purples. There were places where I could see patches of rain falling miles away, even while the sun glinted off lakes and such in other parts. I experienced a good bit of it through my phone camera, I’ll admit, although I did stop a number of times to drink it all in directly with my own eyes. The good news is that you can share the experience since I was so digitally consumed. Click on >over here< to see my sunset pictures.

Marvelous Moon

Now that it was starting to get dark, we split into the two groups, going to our respective observatories, to respectively hope the clouds would respect us and dissipate. As we began our program on our Marvelous Moon, we had introductions, which was quick since there were three of us altogether. I have forgotten our instructor’s name, but my fellow participant was Jelena. It turned out that she works at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff as an event coordinator, and she was spying out what they could learn from Kitt Peak. Meanwhile, there was some lecture about our target that was clearly intended for astro-novices, so Jelena and I aced all the questions. I think Instructor was a bit new at that presentation, as he kept checking his notes and didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his patter, but he did a good job, nonetheless.

After our classtime to prepare us for looking at the moon, we went up to the scope, opened the roof, and …. well, crud. It was totally socked in. Of course. The clouds weren’t so dense that you couldn’t tell where the moon was, but they were dense enough that you could only make out the glow. We talked a bit about the telescope, its specs and mount and software and such. And we talked about some other stuff, stalling to see if maybe the sky meant to clear up after all.

It didn’t.

Plan B

Well, the various instructors and leaders were chattering away on walkie-talkies and arranging a rendezvous and a plan. It turns out the other group was also under cloudy skies and couldn’t see anything. Imagine that 😉 . So we all stood around on the patio by the visitor center for a while. When the leaders were firmly convinced we had no chance to observe anything beyond our planet, they revealed the backup plan. They had arranged a special opportunity for us. We would get to tour the 3.5 meter WIYN Telescope, which is usually not open to the public!

Of course, if you read Part 1, you know that this also ended up as the Plan B for my afternoon tour, so I had already had the rare chance to tour the WIYN. If you haven’t read Part 1, I recommend that you do, because I’m not going to repeat my description here, as it looked pretty much the same as it had a few hours before.

Epilogue

After the tour of WIYN, we returned to the visitor center and chatted a bit. I told Jelena about my pilgrimage and that I was planning to hit Lowell in a week or so. She gave me her card and told me to let her know when I was going to be there, and she’d show me around the joint. Cool!

Then came the part where we all would be driving down the mountain together with our headlights off, because, you know, astronomy was going on! Except it was socked in, so there wasn’t any astronomy going on. So we didn’t have to do that after all, but we still had to go down the mountain in the dark. That was still pretty exciting! And when you get down to the bottom, it’s open range, so you have to be careful, or a cow might jump out into the road in front of you! But none did this time. I made it back to Tucson in about an hour and a half, having had to stop for border patrol check point. I can’t find my journal at the moment, so I don’t know if I wrote it down, but it seems to me now that the skies over Tucson were clear.

So all in all, the night program at Kitt Peak was fun and enjoyable and even useful for making a contact or two, but ultimately, in terms of its intended outcome, it was a bust. But I can say I spent a night observing on Kitt Peak, and not very many people can. And I can say I’ve seen the WIYN Telescope – twice! And not very many people can say that, either. So, take that, very many people! I’m an astro-nerd!

Observing from Home – June 3, 2019

Conditions

  • 23:15-01:15
  • cool – low 50s F, maybe into the 40s
  • still, no wind
  • no clouds
  • no moon (+1 day)
  • humidity 75-80%
  • seeing: poor – 2/10
  • transparency: good

Equipment

  • Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Eyepieces:
    • 32 mm = 62.5 X
    • 15 mm = 133 X
    • 9 mm = 222 X
    • 8.8 mm = 227 X
    • 2 X Barlow

Objects

  • Jupiter
  • M104 Sombrero Galaxy
  • M58
  • M60
  • M59
  • M51
  • Saturn
  • a wee satellite going past M104
  • a wee satellite going past M51 (don’t think it was the same one)
  • a flaring satellite drifting through Ursa Minor
  • a fireball, due south, just above the trees

Observations

Jupiter

I’ve really been wanting to see Jupiter lately as the GRS is “flaking” and doing weird stuff and shrinking. It’s been months since we’ve had decent night weather when I was free, but tonight was good. Well, clear. The seeing was crap. Any way, I debated going out at all because it’s a pain to take the scope down to the pool, and the deck is full of plants for the garden. I hit on the idea of setting up in the front yard. At 11 p.m. this would give me about an hour on Jupiter before it hit a tree, so to speak. Lots of trees in the front yard. So, that’s what I did!

Quick sketch of Jupiter, ex post facto

Did I mention the seeing was lousy? I could watch the waves of atmosphere rolling over the face of Jupiter. So it was mostly fuzzy and indistinct, even though I was well below the useful minimum magnification for planetary detail. I started at 62.5 X (32mm) and could identify 3 moons (Io was occulted, and I had just missed its disappearance) and the NEB and the SEB. As I’ve seen in pictures lately, the equatorial zone is relatively dark with a tan color. I have to admit I still get confused about image orientation. I think, from pictures, that S was up, but it should have been corrected by the diagonal. But when I pushed the scope toward the N, north was at the bottom. It doesn’t help that I had turned the diagonal to about 4:00 so I could sit and observe. I think that changes the orientation. Well, let’s say S is up. In watching for about an hour with increasing magnification (133, 227, 266, 444) I could see the NEB was thicker and darker, and I thought I could see some gray blocks along the SEB. The polar regions were quite washed out. The GRS was on the flip side, I think. It may have been just on this side about to roll over, but I couldn’t make it out if it was.

I did manage a few pictures holding my phone up to the eyepiece at 133 X and 444 X. Higher power was better for those.

I processed a bunch of pics into this one image using GIMP and Preview. Not very high tech, but it is my first attempt at planetary image processing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it right.

Flaring Satellite

While I was looking at Jupiter I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. I thought maybe someone turned on a light in the house and it caught in my glasses. Then a few moments later, there was another flash. I looked away from the eyepiece. I was facing north. A third flash, and I found it just to the right of the “handle” of the Little Dipper, Ursa Minor. As I watched, this object, which I surmised to be a tumbling satellite, flared at least a dozen times as it moved from NW to NE until it went behind some trees. The flares varied in intensity from … I’m going to guess magnitude 1 to -4 or more! (The smaller the number the brighter the object, and each magnitude is a factor of about 2.5). That brightest flare got me to exclaim, “Holy moley!” out loud. It was just a few seconds between flares, and the difference in brightness wasn’t uniform, which is why I think it was tumbling rather than just rotating. Any way, this was very cool. I also noticed how clear the sky was, as I could see all the stars in the Little Dipper.

M104 – The Sombrero Galaxy

Quick sketch of M104 ex post facto.
That’s a star on the left, not just a random dot.

Once Jupiter got into the tree, I went looking for galaxies. My observing spot was not ideal, as I’d be looking just over the house, which can produce heat issues, with some lights on in the bedrooms, but it turned out okay. I used 62.5 X and 133 X mostly. M104 is a longtime favorite and was still just visible from my position. It never appears very large or much at all like the pictures, but I like it anyhow. Sitting next to a 6.5 magnitude star (going by the Pocket Sky Atlas), it was more radiant than I remember seeing it before. Still best seen with averted vision, there is a bright core – really quite bright tonight – surrounded by nebulosity, but it did appear to have rays of light shining to the … I don’t know.. South? I’m not sure how to explain this. Perhaps a defect in my eyes or optics, although nothing else gave this effect over the night’s observations. Maybe it’s just a really, really bright core, seen on a really clear night. Having spent a long time on fuzzy Jupiter, you might think I’d spend more time on this beauty, but I kind of said, “Oh, that’s pretty,” and moved on. Having added a sketch in my notes, I thought that I had drawn something like it before. Looked through my previous journal entries and sure enough, on 1 May 2013 I have a very similar sketch. The rays aren’t as pronounced, but they are implied (or at least inferred). That was with the Meade ETX90, so more than doubling the aperture perhaps makes a difference.

Virgo Cluster Galaxies

I moved on to a couple of the Virgo Cluster galaxies, starting with M58, because that’s one of the numbers I remember being there. Here my weaknesses as an observer really start to show up. First, I was not prepared. I didn’t have a plan for what I was going to look at and had done no research. This is greatly enabled by having a GOTO scope. Second, I have no patience. (This is an obvious lie, as I just spent an hour looking at fuzz ball Jupiter, but what I mean is….) I don’t take time to soak in the details of what I’m looking at. Well, often that is the case. Third, I don’t know the basics of observing, like image orientation in the eyepiece, angular size of objects and how to estimate them, visual magnitudes of objects and how to estimate them, stuff like that. None of this means I can’t enjoy my observing. It just would be more… insightful if I knew what I was doing, and I’d feel more confident. Any way….

M58 is a fairly large, diffuse, fuzzy object. I didn’t notice any bright core, but I didn’t really study it very long. I would say it appeared larger than M104 and not nearly as distinct. There was a star nearby both of them, though.

I followed an urge to move on to M60, which I knew to be close at hand, although it turns out to be in the opposite direction from what I thought. Hard to tell with the GOTO, which jumps away and slews back slowly rather than just gliding a few arcminutes over. M60 has much the same appearance as M58 – big, fuzzy patch with no noticeable core. I scanned around the area a bit, thinking I’d find M58, and I did find another galaxy, but the neighbor star was missing. Upon review, I think this was M59, another elliptical galaxy that lies between M60 and M58. I hadn’t even brought my sky atlas outside, so I had no idea what the layout was. Rather than going to get it, I abandoned Virgo until another night. This was also partly informed by it getting late and cold, but I wasn’t quite done yet.

(I later found my journal entry for 11 March 2019, the last time I was out with the scope, with a similar entry for M58-59-60. Maybe someday if I do it often enough, I’ll learn and remember.)

M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy

Ex post facto sketch of M51. There’s a star in the upper right, and another in the disk of the galaxy. This second was actually not as bright as the first, although it looks the other way around.

I thought I’d end on a high note, literally and figuratively, turning my scope upward to another favorite, M51, the Whirlpool, the large face-on spiral galaxy and its companion. This was the best I’ve seen it since Mayhill, NM, in the 25″ Dobsonian in 2010. Two fairly large, bright, distinct objects of comparable size at first. As I’m writing two days hence, I forget exactly what eyepiece I was using, but I think I started with the 32mm and pressed to the 15mm for 133X. Any way, as I looked, the larger spiral, which was fairly vague, began to reveal itself. It remained pretty ephemeral, but it seemed to show indications of its structure. The whole was quite beautiful. I kept getting glimpses of a star in the bounds of the spiral playing peekaboo with me. Definitely the best object of the night. Again, though, the orientation has me baffled, to the point that, upon reflection, it is possible I have sketched the reverse of what I was actually seeing. It may be that the larger spiral galaxy should be on the right and the companion to the left.

What is reality?

Saturn, Sort Of, and Out

By this time, Saturn had risen high enough to be seen. So I took a look. It suffered from the same poor seeing and thick atmosphere as Jupiter. No detail at all – no color, no shadows, no Cassini Division in the rings, no nuthin’. I should have left well enough alone and quit on M51.

The night had grown cold, and I with it, so I packed up. Not a bad night on the lawn.

Observatory 4 – Allegheny

To begin with, here is the link to my pictures from the Allegheny Observatory over at the Googles, taken on my trip there Friday, July 27, 2018. There is some commentary there that will likely overlap with this entry, the core of which was itself written on August 4, 2018, on the train to Chicago at the beginning of the Grand Tour. Here we go.


It has been a wild week or two. I went to Pittsburgh last week for Dad’s birthday and went with Meredith to the Allegheny Observatory. That all came together suddenly, of course. I arranged to go to a Pirates (baseball) game with Dad and Meredith, and in communicating that to Dad, he sent me a note reminding me about the tour schedule at the observatory – Thursdays and Fridays only. Well, the ballgame was on Saturday, so…. I called and left a message Thursday hoping for room in the Friday tour. How popular can this be? I thought to myself.

An Unexpected Journey

Went hiking with Ken K. in Harpers Ferry on Friday morning and heard from the observatory at 1:30 that there was no room on the tour that night. Huh. Not expecting that, but oh, well, okay. I lallygagged around the house a bit, thinking there was no urgency to get to the Burgh. Then I got a call from the observatory at 4:30 that there was a cancellation, and they had spaces available at 8:00! Well, it’s a four hour drive, but yes, of course I’ll take 2 please!

I threw myself and my stuff in the car and drove like crazy to get there. I called M. to have her meet me there. When I hit the turnpike I realized I didn’t really know where I was going. This will end up being a recurring theme, as I had the same problem finding the Holmdel Horn, you may recall. I didn’t have an active smartphone, just my flippy, and I didn’t even have a GPS box in the car. Turns out I didn’t have a PA map in the car, either, let alone a Pittsburgh map. So I stopped at one of the rest areas along the way and set about to buy a map. By the time I found one, about 6 or 8 people had lined up at the counter ahead of me. Ugh! I don’t have time for this! So I opened the map and took a couple pictures of the area around the Allegheny Observatory, and hit the road. Not really proud of that, but it got me there. Except for the part where I missed a turn and ended up going over the Fort Pitt Bridge and through the tunnels toward the airport instead toward the Northside. A little looping around, back across the Westend Bridge, and I was back on track with minimal panic. I arrived about 8:20 p.m., so Whoohoo! Don’t do the math; I was driving fast. Even so, I missed all the introductory lecture and history. The group was just starting on the tour of the building, and M. saw me at the door and let me in.

The Observatory

The large dome of the Allegheny Observatory in sunset and clouds.

The building is a mix of Art Deco, Greek revival, and 20th century scientific lab. We saw some of the museum pieces and labs and such before seeing the two big refractors, which were both very cool: the 30-inch Thaw refractor, which is f/18.8 with a 47-foot long optical tube (!) having been designed and built by Brashear Optical in 1912 (according to the website), and the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor. This latter was originally designed and built by Henry Fitz Optical of New York in the 1860s. There is a fascinating story of how the objective lens was stolen and held for ransom, but the director wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. It was eventually returned, but it was ruined in the process. The observatory hired Alvan Clark to refigure it, which he did, making it a greatly improved instrument. Hence, it is the Fitz-Clark. The tour was quite interesting. Our docent was knowledgeable, having worked or volunteered at the observatory for something like 25 years. He did have an odd verbal tic of sighing dejectedly in the middle of most of his sentences, but otherwise, he was quite good. We got to see how the Thaw scope slews and how the floor is actually an elevator to line you up with the instrument so as to avoid ladders and falls and broken bones. This was fascinating and some brilliant engineering, considering everything was designed to be run without electricity!

The Observing

We got to take turns looking through the Fitz-Clark at Jupiter, as Jupiter was the only thing peeking through the clouds. [Clouds will also become a recurring theme.] Beautiful view, nevertheless. Some detail on the disk, and Ganymede was just on the limb about to disappear. There were about 40 people on the tour, so there wasn’t much chance to hog the scope, unfortunately. Any way, it was very fun to be there with Meredith, and she enjoyed it, too.

My sketch, ex post facto, of Jupiter and Ganymede as seen through the Fitz-Clark refractor.

Epilogue

Just a couple weeks ago Jacob and I watched a documentary about the Allegheny Observatory and some of its key figures on Netf… a movie streaming service. It’s called Undaunted: Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory. It was fascinating! It made up much of the knowledge I might have gained in the lecture if I had lived an hour closer to Pittsburgh, or if I had better planning skills.

Observatory 7 – Kitt Peak, Part 1

Okay, right off the bat, you can see my annotated pictures of Kitt Peak >here.<

I am now writing this in March, so –– Good Lord, it’s more than six months since I was there??!!! I didn’t write much in my journal at the time, or here. Fortunately, I did add some commentary to the pictures linked above. Well, let’s see how much I remember.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak is about an hour’s drive and change west of Tucson. They run three tours through the day most days: the solar observatory, the 2.1 meter, and the 4 meter. They open at 9:00 a.m. and tours start at 10:00. It was my intention to get there for the tours, because that was sort of the point of being in Arizona, so I was up and out by about 8, which is pretty good for me. Had breakfast from McD’s in the car, which was about the worst food I had on the whole trip — except for breakfast on the Capital Limited. After driving about an hour on that beautiful morning, I was starting to see some mountainous terrain pop up, and not much later started thinking I was seeing a shiny white or silver dot on top of one of the mountains. As I got closer I became convinced it was a dome. Sure enough, I soon came upon the turn off to Kitt Peak! I was very excited. The road up the mountain was quite a drive, a bit of a white-knuckler in places with some pretty serious switchbacks and sheer drop offs. Nevertheless, I made it safely to the top.

One of the first things I noticed when I got out of the car in the parking lot was that it was very, very quiet, except for some wind in the trees. I liked that. Which is good, because I spent all day and a good bit of the night there. Well, about twelve hours or so. I made my way to the visitors center, which is a small brick building with a beautiful mural, a fair sized patio with some tables and benches and sciency things, and an observatory dome on the roof of the building. Inside, it is filled with sciency displays in about 2/3 of the space and a gift shop in the remaining 1/3. Went to the counter and paid for the three tours ($15 for the lot) and for the evening observing program ($75). There were two choices for observing, a general objects and deep sky program and “Our Marvelous Moon.” It still being the monsoon season, I had reserved a spot for the moon program as I figured you can see the moon pretty well even in pretty bad conditions, but you can’t see all the faint fuzzies unless it’s pretty good.

Tour #1

The first tour was led by docent Katy, who is a professional astronomer, retired with 50 years experience. She was very knowledgeable as you might expect, and very engaging, as you might not expect. About 15 people had appeared for the tour, which began in the center with a little history about how the site was chosen, negotiated with the Tohono O’odham Nation, and developed as the National Observatory. The object of the tour was the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, which had been retired earlier in the year. It is fascinating design and an exceedingly large instrument. As you can see in the pictures, there is a large vertical column connecting with a diagonal structure that extends underground. This diagonal column is north >polar aligned<, that is, it is aimed at the north celestial pole, the point to which the earth’s rotational axis points in the northern sky, like an equatorial telescope mount. Because it is, sort of. Turns out there is a rotating flat mirror at the top of the structure on the diagonal axis, and it tracks the sun. The sunlight reflects off the mirror and down the axis through a 500 foot optical tunnel to a concave secondary mirror, then back half way up the tunnel to any or all of three more mirrors. These mirrors reflect the light down into a variety of spectrograph instruments in a subterranean laboratory (which sounds more evil than it is). We got to look in from an observation room about half way down the optical tube, which looks kind of like a subway station. We also got to go down to the lab, although since it is closed now we could only look in. They did 5 or 6 decades of groundbreaking solar science there, but now it is considered obsolete. So we’re back to the question of what do you do with giant, historic, obsolete astronomy equipment? Oh, fun fact. While we were walking around the solar observatory, half the sky was clear blue and the other half was entirely socked in and producing lightning and thunder, so that was kind of exciting. What happened to that beautiful morning I drove in on?

Tour #2

We made our way back to the visitor center to see if there was anyone new going on the next tour. I don’t remember now if there was or not, actually. Katy led the second tour, too, which was to the creatively named >2.1 Meter Telescope< (that’s about 84″ or 7 feet). It is a large Cassegrain-style reflector on a large, equatorial fork mount. That it is equatorially mounted means the base is at a 32º angle from vertical. As the mirror alone weighs a ton and a half, having this enormously heavy yet super-sensitive piece of equipment standing at NOT perpendicular to its base felt a bit unsettling, like something was not right. Like the angles! (See what I did there?) Any way, this telescope has done lots of groundbreaking science and is particularly notable for being the first scope to use >adaptive optics<. At this point, several months after the fact, I don’t remember why, but I felt oddly bored with this telescope. Maybe it was that Katy spent a good bit of time explaining adaptive optics, with which I was already familiar. I remember being grumpy about that guy in the group who thought he knew more than the PhD astronomer, so maybe I converted my anger to boredom. Maybe I was hungry. I don’t know. Looking back, it’s an impressive instrument that I’d love to have in my back yard.

Break

We returned to the visitor center, and those of us who were staying on (pretty much everyone) could have lunch if we’d brought it, which it says to do in the literature for the tours. There is no food service for visitors. So I had brought some leftovers from dinner the night before at Za’atar, a mediterranean restaurant in Tucson. The weather was stable and pleasant at that point, so we ate out on the plaza. There are a couple of tables and benches, along with a couple cool sundials that have no practical application to lunch. I sat with the woman who manages the gift shop and schedules people for tours and night programs. She was very interesting to talk with. She is a member of the Tohono Nation and active in her church. She told me that she loves the quiet and the peacefulness at the top of the mountain (me, too!), and that people in her church ask her to pray for them while she is at work because she will be closer to God. We were both a little disappointed in their theology, but she prays for them nevertheless. She told me about her family and some of their struggles, so through the rest of my travels I prayed for her. 

Meanwhile the weather began to deteriorate, with clouds and fog moving in across the valley and across the mountain, too. Great. Made for some interesting photos, any way.

Tour #3a

The third tour was to the Mayall 4.1 meter telescope, the largest on the mountain. This part was led by a different docent, named Dave if I remember correctly. We began with some background and history at the visitor center, then moved to the parking lot. Two reasons for that: first, we were driving to the Mayall dome, and second, in the parking lot is a large cement donut with a mural painted on it. I had noticed it on my way in but not really looked at it. It turns out that the donut is a slug the same size and weight as the mirror for the 4.1 meter telescope that was used to balance the scope during construction. Once everything was finished and nothing was likely to fall, then they put in the actual mirror. Once that was done, they had to figure out what to do with a giant cement donut. Rather than roll it down the mountain, they invited a Tohono O’odham artist to do a mural on it, and it was put on display in the parking lot as you walk toward the visitor center. It’s pretty cool on all counts. Dave pointed out that a 160″ disk of glass weighs a couple tons, or at least this one does. What is remarkable is that the aluminum coating on the glass disk that makes astronomy possible is equivalent to about two paper clips, just a few molecules thick. Amazing!

We all loaded in a big white van to head up to the Mayall dome. We hadn’t gotten a quarter mile down the road when someone raced up, flagged us down, and told us we couldn’t go, because it was a hardhat day. They were renovating the dome and moving stuff with cranes, so it was declared unsafe for visitors. Well, that made for a short tour. We ended up back on the patio, and Dave continued his lecture valiantly. Shortly, though, Katy showed up, talked with Dave for a minute, and then excitedly told us they had arranged to let us see one of the other telescopes, the WIYN 3.5 meter.

Tour #3b

WIYN stands for Wisconsin, Indiana, and Yale Universities, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO, i.e. Kitt Peak). The WIYN scope, a large (obviously) alt-az-mounted Cassegrain reflector, is generally not open for public tours, but it was also down for maintenance, so we got lucky. It is about 20 years newer than the 4.1, and consequently it is vastly lighter and more compact and housed in a much more efficient box with shutters instead of a classic dome. Because the mirror was spin cast and honeycombed, it weighs about 1/8 of what the 4.1 meter mirror does. This means the mount can be correspondingly smaller and lighter, and the whole thing is just a lot easier to deal with. It has capacity for detector instruments in three different places at once that can be switched between easily by, well, I guess throwing a switch to move the tertiary mirror. There are dozens and dozens of actuators on the back of the primary mirror, which are not so much for adaptive optics as to correct for stresses when the mirror is tipped at different angles. Engineer Emily gave us the tour. She has been working on this scope since she was an undergrad, and now she’s the managing engineer for it and probably not yet 30 years old.

That concluded the daytime program, three and a half telescope tours for $15. Not a bad deal. I spent quite a while browsing the swag in the gift shop and exploring the displays in the visitor center before the next part of the adventure began.