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.

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!

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 3: The Holmdel Horn Antenna

Just to get this off the table up front, this isn’t really an observatory. The Holmdel Horn Antenna (HHA) is a single piece of equipment that is sitting out in a maintenance yard behind a laboratory in New Jersey, even though it is a national historic landmark. What gets it on my list to visit is that it is the piece of equipment that provided evidence for the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, thus revolutionizing the field of cosmology.

I had read about the Holmdel Horn Antenna somewhere some years ago and heard about it a number of times in stories and podcasts about cosmology. When I started putting my Grand Tour together I looked it up and found an entry in the >Atlas Obscura< website, describing it and its location. For some reason, I thought having read this some months earlier would be adequate for me to find the thing without notes, maps, or GPS. Lesson learned. Little in life is that simple. Now, however, as a result of my naiveté, I have an interesting story.

Setting Out

I started the day at Williams College at the Hopkins Observatory with Dr. Jay Pasachoff showing me the 7″ Clarke refractor, as you may recall from this entry. I figured I had about four hours from northern Massachusetts to Holmdel, New Jersey, and it was before noon, so I expected to be there mid-to-late afternoon and on to Princeton in time for supper. Here’s why I’m not an engineer: I failed to take into account that I was driving into the greater New York City metropolitan area on a Friday afternoon, and that I did not have an exact address for my destination. These are pretty basic considerations for travel estimates probably, so my four hour estimate easily turned into more than 5 hours. Well, I knew I was going to Holmdel Road, but I had lost track of the Atlas Obscura article that has both the address and the coordinates, I did not yet have a smart phone with a data plan, and in my searches from Williamstown, Google was not precise about the location.

Mike

I got to Holmdel Road and went up and down it a few times, looking for a sign or historical marker or something to no avail. I was running low on gas, so stopped at a gas station. Full service only in New Jersey, of course, so as I was getting a fill up, I asked the fellow pumping my gas if he knew where the Horn Antenna was. He looked at me a bit and asked, “You a HAM operator?” “No, amateur astronomer,” I said. Turns out Mike (the guy’s name is Mike) is HAM who got his start looking at Saturn in a telescope at the family lake house upstate when he was a kid. Now he lives close to NYC, so Venus is about all he can see. BUT he is a HAM and has talked with the ISS as it passed over. How cool is that?! And yes, he did know where to find the Horn. Go down Holmdel to thus and such, turn left, go about a mile to the Bell Labs facility. It’s out in the yard around back, you can’t miss it. They’ll never move that thing, he said, because it’s a national landmark and it’s huge.

Okay, off I went, following Mike’s directions. I knew the turn he mentioned pretty well, as I had used it a couple times already. But his 1-mile estimate was as good as my time estimate, as it turned out to be about 3 miles to Bell Labs. I drove onto the campus and drove all around the loop, all around the extensive building. No horn. I drove around a couple times. No horn. So I went to the front door and in to find someone who could direct me, which I eventually did. This guy says “Horn antenna? Is that what they call it? I didn’t know that. But yeah, you just go out of the parking lot and turn right, and it’s right there. Can’t miss it.” Okay. Out I go, turn right. No horn. There is something there, though. It’s a small memorial to Karl Jansky that looks like two old steam heat radiators. I recognized it as essentially a stylized version of the replica they had Green Bank. Cool, but not the HHA.

Getting Late

Back I went to the building. By now it’s well after 5:30, and there is almost no one around. I went to a security/information desk and asked another fellow if he could tell me where the HHA was. Nope, no idea. “Can you look it up on that computer you’ve got there?” I asked. Nope, the internet was down, or he didn’t have the login, something, I don’t remember what, but no, he couldn’t look it up. “Is there anyone else here who might know?” Yeah, maybe. So, God bless him, he leads me off across this enormous lobby, half way across the building, and we find a guy who ought to know. “This guy is looking for the Horn Antenna,” says my guy. The other guy says, “Oh, they moved that years ago!” Oh really? That’s not what Mike told me, I said to myself. “Yeah, they moved over to the Nokia Labs over on Holmdel Road.” Well, I had been past that several times, so I knew exactly where it was. Thanking them both profusely, I headed out.

Got to the Nokia Labs site and found a sign: “Horn Antenna – ESCORTED ONLY.” Ugh. So I went to the building to see if there was anyone that at 6:15 p.m. on a Friday who could escort me. LOL no. Well, I hemmed and hawed for quite a while, even pulling out my laptop to see if I could wardrive their WIFI to find that article I’d seen. Finally, I decided just to take my chances with whatever security they may have (which turned out to be none), and up the hill I went. I mean, after all, it is a National Historic Landmark.

Ah, There You Are

Finally, driving into what is basically a maintenance yard with trucks and tractors and sheds and garages here and there, I found the Holmdel Horn Antenna National Historic Landmark. As I write this now, I can objectively compare this antenna to the GBT, to the Sub-millimeter antenna, and to the VLA, and say the HHA is not very big. But in the moment, after such a long search, as I stood near it the thing seemed huge! I guess I wasn’t expecting something 20 feet across the front, 40 feet high, and maybe 80 feet long. As you can see from my pictures, the front edge is curved like a scallop shell or maybe more like a nautilus, as there is an opening and a membrane over the back of the dish forming a funnel or … a horn! It is designed to rotate in altitude and azimuth to point anywhere in the sky, but they keep it pointing at the ground so it doesn’t fill up with precipitation or trash.

It was originally used to track early satellites and such in the 1950s and 60s. Then in 1964 two Bell scientists, while working on some other project, found this low level noise wherever they pointed the antenna. As they eliminated a wide variety of possible sources, they came to realize they may have found a kind of background radiation in the universe. It took some others getting involved, too, if I recall correctly, before all the pieces came together to show that what they had found was the predicted leftover light from the Big Bang that had stretched and shifted across the billions of years of the universe’s expansion from visible light wavelengths of hundreds of nanometers to microwaves with millimeter wavelengths, about 10,000 times longer.

Serendipitous cosmological science machine

I spent about 6 1/2 hours getting to the Horn that day and then spent about 10 minutes actually looking at it. I’m so glad I found it, though, and those 10 minutes were totally worth it. I was fascinated by this piece of industrial science, with its motors and gears and girders and bolts and all, that by chance detected one of the most sublime forms of radiation in the universe.

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.

Sabbatical 2018: The Movie

Here’s a video summary of my sabbatical travels touring U.S. astronomical observatories. It is entirely inadequate to capture the depth and richness of the experience, but it will give you a taste with some pretty pictures and peppy music (from http://www.bensound.com).

The review presentation

I presented this with a review of the whole experience, or bits and pieces of the whole experience, for the congregation after worship on Sunday, December 9, 2018. We also video recorded that presentation, including this. It’s under an hour long, and you can see that here:

A Sabbatical Map

Here is a map of my sabbatical journeys. It includes the trip to Green Bank, the New England swing, and the Grand Tour in chunks. The paths are approximate, especially on the Grand Tour, as they are here driving routes, and I took the train. Also, I didn’t put the exact addresses of the places I stayed. But you’ll get the idea. I think if you click on the box in the top left of the map header you’ll get the legend. Then if you want, you can turn off the driving routes, which will make it easier to see the places I visited. There are several light blue pins marking places I thought I might get to but ended up not going. This time. I worked out a rough estimate that I traveled over 8000 miles in a little over two months.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this experience, for the opportunity to travel to see these amazing astronomical instruments, and for the people who made it possible, namely my congregation at Catoctin Presbyterian Church, my family, and my wife Molly. I am grateful to the church for the financial means to go and for the spiritual support to send me. I am grateful to Molly for her encouragement and for her taking over many of the duties I left as I went. I am grateful to God for the privilege of this journey and for these beloved people in my life.

As my sabbatical is drawing to an end I plan still to keep writing about my experiences. I’m still processing the whole thing, what happened, what didn’t happen, what I learned and didn’t learn, what it all means. So stay tuned.

 

Observatory 5: Yerkes, Part 3 – The Observing

Written at Sturtevant, WI, Amtrak Depot on Tuesday, August 14
As for the observing itself, the conditions were less than ideal. It was mostly clear and warm 78F at start, 70F at end. Humidity was predicted to be 70% or higher, which is pretty wet. Thin crescent moon (2 days old) was setting as I arrived. Well, it was low in the west. The sky was thick and hazy, and that was the big problem. High humidity, change from mostly cloudy to mostly clear, and apparently, smoke from the California wildfires all conspired against us. The seeing was muddy and rolling, with brief glimpses of clarity. I was really stunned, though, at my first look at Jupiter. Could hardly get a focus on it, and it was yellowish and dark. The color was from the smoke, acting like a filter. It was low in the sky, too, so that didn’t help – looking through a LOT of unstable air. So the image was very large (because of aforementioned optics) but very distorted. It was hard to make out the North and South Equatorial Bands even. Second time viewing was a little better. Could make out the bands and some occasional details between and a bit of darkening near one of the poles (not sure which it was). Still, I’ve seen better with my 90mm scope at home. So yeah, that was a huge disappointment.

 

Things improved slightly over the evening , but I was frustrated that with 40” of glass to work with here, I consistently have had better views at home. That is the way astronomy goes, though, AND that is perhaps one of the reasons Yerkes is a museum piece more than a research scope these days. Too many nights of weather-degraded viewing a year. Anyhoo,…

 

Saturn was in much the same boat as Jupiter, only a bit higher. The Cassini Gap in the rings was mostly visible most of the time. With patience and a couple turns I could see disk shadow on the rings behind. A little bit of color distinction on the disk — gray at top, less so further down.

Sketch of Saturn from my journal.

M11 Wild Duck Cluster – Even this was underwhelming. Nice full view of the cluster, but I felt like the stars weren’t quite in focus. We could run the focus in and out, but it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference. By this time I was just accepting that the seeing was crap, and I should just relish the experience.
My hope rose again for M17 Swan/Omega Nebula, as nebulae are less affected by bad seeing, but the guys had a hard time even finding it! They added a filter to help. When I got my tern I saw the problem. At f/19 and 475x, we were looking at a tiny portion of the nebula. It served to show noobs what a reflection nebula looks like, but it was like looking at the Mona Lisa’s neck. In fact, we were looking at the neck of the swan, I think. It’s one of my favorite Messier objects, so I think I recognized a pair of stars in the field. Looked like:

Sketch of M17, the Swan Nebula, from my journal

which is cool, but at low power it looks like a swan.

[Here’s a picture I found of what we might have been looking at.]

M27 Dumbbell Nebula – Again, the planetary nebula suffered from narrow field of view and high magnification. It was clearly visible but took up most of the field of view, so there was no sense of scale or contrast. I would have backed off the magnification a bit, but I don’t know where you get an eyepiece longer than 40 mm.

The last object for the night was M2, a globular cluster. This one actually looked good! It was a nice fit in the field of view, and the resolution was good, too. Still felt like it could have had sharper focus, but it was okay. Bright core and grainy cover and pretty even drop off out to the edge. (Yeah, well, I know what I mean.) Really a lovely object, or couple hundred thousand objects, as it were.

Sketch of globular cluster M2 from my journal.

And that was that. They brought the lights up and a bunch of us took pics. I got someone to take a couple of me, one looking at the camera and one looking into the telescope eyepiece. The second was stupid, of course, as (1) the lights were on (2) the dome was closed (3) the scope was no longer even pointed at the shutters. Oh well. The first one is a good picture.

The evening ended pretty unceremoniously.

I stood outside for a little bit, letting my eyes readjust to see what the sky looked like. Pretty much like ours at home, I guess. I hoped to see a meteor before going and pretended I did. It was midnight, and I had an hour to go after a long day, so I hit the road.

Photo Dump… Observatories 7-17!

My sabbatical is drawing quickly to an end. My Grand Tour wrapped up last week. My writing output has been lousy. I do, however, have lots and lots of pictures from the Tour that are in annotated albums over at my Google account. (My last photo dump went to my flickr account, but I got a new Android phone for the Grand Tour, so all the pictures automatically synced with Google, so there we go.) So I’m doing what I did after the Lesser Tour and dumping the pics for you to see. I then hope to go back and add commentary posts here for each leg, plus some interpretive and reflective posts on the whole experience.

So here we go. Click on the headings to see the pictures.

Arizona

Kitt Peak Observatory

Kitt Peak, near Tucson, Arizona, is the National Optical Astronomy Observatory for the United States, established in 1958. There are over two dozen telescopes of various shapes, designs, and age there ranging from 16″ to 4 meters (160″) in size. They do a nice job with their tours, visitor center, and gift shop. I also participated in a nighttime observing program, and that was also well done, despite the monsoon making actual observing impossible.

Sunset at Kitt Peak

As part of the evening program, we got to view the sunset from the crest, which was spectacular. I took many pictures which only hint at the glory. The clouds made it more dramatic, but as the light faded the clouds took control of the night, precluding any astronomical observing.

Mount Graham International Observatories

A couple hours east of Tucson you can find Mount Graham, but you can’t go up it without a permit or signing on with the Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park tour, which is what I did. It takes over an hour to ascend the mountain road with its 108 switchbacks. At the summit are three observatories: the Sub-millimeter Radio Telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, and the Large Binocular Telescope. We toured all three. Meanwhile, the weather degraded from mostly sunny to socked in, foggy, and 25-30 mph winds. The monsoon is real. I’m sure it had nothing to do with me being there.

Lowell Observatory

I traveled by car from Tucson to Flagstaff to see the Lowell Observatory, about a 4-hour drive. It saved me some logistical nightmares of getting there by train. Lowell is a beautiful facility, and they do very nice interpretive work. They also do public observing every clear night, and we happened to get such a thing while I was there. Lowell, named for famed astronomer Percival Lowell, is where Clyde Thombaugh discovered Pluto.

California

California Science Center

Not an observatory, but a cool science museum that has lots of space artifacts including the space shuttle Endeavor.

Griffith Observatory

Sitting on a hill overlooking Los Angeles is Griffith Observatory, named for Griffith Griffith. Yep, that was his name. This facility has been an important center for science education in L.A. for generations. It’s still very cool. They do public observing through their 12-inch Zeiss every clear night, despite the atrocious light pollution. You still get a decent view of the planets, which can be a real Gee-Whiz! moment, especially for the uninitiated.

Palomar Observatory

The Big Eye, that is the 200″ Hale reflector, one of the most famous telescopes in the world, is housed in this beautiful, Art Deco observatory dome. If you ever see an observatory in a cartoon, it’s probably based on Palomar. It is still among the largest telescopes in active service, and this is an active scientific facility. A couple hours southeast of Los Angeles, actually closer to San Diego, Palomar doesn’t suffer too much from pollution of the bright lights, big city. They have nice gift shop and visitor center and a good tour.

Mount Wilson Observatory

Mount Wilson was one of the first great observatories on the West Coast, developed by George Hale, the man behind Yerkes and (eventually) Palomar. It’s about an hour and change northeast of Los Angeles and is home to several former claimants of World’s Largest Telescope. Now primarily an educational outreach facility and center for outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking, Mt. Wilson played a key roll in changing the way we understand the shape, structure, size, and age of the Universe.

New Mexico

Molly flew out to join me in Albuquerque 32 days after I boarded the train in Harpers Ferry. We spent a day doing a self-guided Breaking Bad tour, which you can look here at if you’re into the show. We also enjoyed the New Mexico Space History Museum, the White Sands National Monument, the Three Rivers Petroglyph park, and the Valley of Fires lava flow site. Again, if you are interested in these, feel free to click on over. I’m going to keep the major bullet points for the official Grand Tour sites, such as…

Sunspot and Apache Point Observatories

Up on a mountain overlooking Alamogordo and White Sands, near the town of Cloudcroft, and just down the way from Mayhill where I spent a week on my last sabbatical, you can find Sunspot, the national solar observatory. You might have heard about Sunspot in the news recently. It was closed and evacuated by the FBI three days before we got there, leading to all sorts of speculation and conspiracy theories. Turned out to be a criminal investigation of a janitor involved in child porn, and definitely not aliens. Gross. Any way, just around the corner is Apache Point, an active observatory that is home to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an important digital, 3-D map of stars and celestial objects that revolutionized the field about the turn of the century. No visitor center, gift shop, or tours, but the public is welcome to stroll around. So we did.

Monastery of Christ in the Desert

This is the bookend retreat for the sabbatical, balancing the week at the Sienna Center in Wisconsin. Molly and I spent three days and three nights with the Benedictine brotherhood at this monastery on the Chama River near Abiquiu, NM. It is a beautiful and remote setting. Most of the time was spent in silence, or a close facsimile, and we attended quite a few of the services of the hours. The brothers start their day with Vigils at 3:30 a.m. and Lauds at 5:00 a.m., and we managed to miss those somehow. We very much enjoyed our time in reflection there, and the night sky was incredible.

Moon Over the Monastery

Here are many repetitive pictures of the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and friends low over the mountains west of the monastery on two successive nights.

Acoma Sky City Pueblo

Molly’s mom joined us from Colorado when we returned from the monastery to Albuquerque. We spent a day at the Acoma Pueblo, about an hour west of ABQ. I had been planning to go to the Chaco Canyon Native American Heritage site, which is the remains of a very large community dating from about 800-1200 AD in northwestern New Mexico. Chaco shows a great deal of intricate astronomical knowledge built into the layout and architecture of the entire site. Unfortunately, the logistics of travel precluded getting everywhere I hoped to go, and Chaco fell off the list. Sky City was much more doable and turned out to be a fascinating side trip. The Acoma are thought to be descendants of the Chaco people.

The Very Large Array

The last of the Grand Tour observatories, the Very Large Array, is a bookend to the first observatory on my sabbatical, Green Bank. The VLA is the largest radio observatory in the world, a collection of 27 radio dishes, each 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter, set in a Y pattern with a 22-mile diameter. It is well known from Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series and the Jodie Foster movie (based on a book by Sagan), Contact. Once again, radio astronomy proved to be absolutely fascinating, not only to me, but also to Molly and Mom who were both quite impressed. Good tour, good visitor center, nice gift shop.

And that’s pretty much it!

We spent a couple days with Mom at her place in northern Colorado, after which we took the train from Denver home to Harpers Ferry. I have some pics of the trip home here. I still have a couple places I want to get to in and around DC, but time is running out to get it in under the title “sabbatical.” Like I said, I hope to post more about the journey, things I learned, ideas I’ve pondered, observations I’ve made about life, the universe, and everything, so stay tuned.

 

Observatory 6: LIGO

I’ve been keeping up better with recording my journey with my photos, which are now living at my Google account since I have an Android phone. Say what you will about the evil digital empires, it is convenient.

Any way, going way back to Louisiana and the LIGO facility, you can see my pictures and comments at >this link.<

Short form: >LIGO< stands for Laser Interferometry Gravitational wave Observatory, which consists of two campuses, one in Hanford, WA, and the other in Livingston, LA, where I went. It is an instrument that measures the distortion of spacetime by waves created by the interaction of supermassive bodies like neutron stars and black holes. It is a whole new way of looking at the universe, it is incredibly precise, and it is remarkably expensive. New technology is like that. We don’t know yet what the practical applications of all this will be, but I bet it will be cool.

LIGO Livingston is open to the public one day a month through their educational center. They have a very good collection of interactive displays aimed at kids and novices to help explain the science they do there. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly. Tours don’t really show you much of the actual instrument, as it is pretty inaccessible being encased in evacuated steel tubes surrounded by evacuated concrete tunnels. So you get to see the control room and the outside of the tunnels and a prototype of some of the pieces of the instrument. But somehow, that was adequate for me.

It is mind bending to think about waves in spacetime. They aren’t waves inside space but space itself waving. That means when the waves pass over the earth, the whole planet, your home, your chair, your body are all stretched and squeezed. You don’t notice because the effect is minuscule, but it happens nevertheless.

The universe is a weirder place than you would imagine.