Scenes from a Star Party

30 06 2017

This was our first trip to the Cherry Springs Star Party. I wrote a fairly comprehensive summary for the S&T site awhile back. Here are a few random photos from the trip. One advantage of being the Observing Editor at S&T is that I can stay late at work at draw my own star charts. Before going to Cherry Springs, I put one together for Comet Johnson (C/2015), and I have to say, it was admirably accurate.

Stuffed animals make good rattle reducers. Image: JR

All set up at Cherry Springs, just waiting for clouds to go away. Image: JR

Next year, remind me to park on the other side of the tent. I thought this would give us some privacy from neighbors on the west side, but it turns out they left for a hotel every night anyway. If I’d parked on the other side, I would’ve had better protection from the morning Sun.

Observing table, ready to go but crowded. Image: JR

One good thing about attending a star party within driving distance is that you can pack a lot of stuff in even a small car. This is the first star party in a long time where I’ve had at least one decent observing table. In an ideal world, Catherine and I would both have our own tables plus a couple of side tables. I prefer print atlases and they take up a lot of room. Plus, we both have 3-ring binders we use as observing notebooks, and then we both have sketch books. There’s pens and pencils, a bin for extra batteries, a bin for setting our lights (so I can always find it again in the dark).

Meade Lightbridge, finally uncovered. Image: JR

I guess another advantage of working at S&T is that I can borrow one of the random scopes sitting around the office when I need to. My 10-inch is way to heavy to drag across state lines, so I bogarted the Lightbridge that lives on the landing of our office staircase for the week. Really easy to transport and set up, I would definitely consider buying one of these if I had $700 burning a hole in my pocket. I saw many 12-inch and 16-inch Lightbridges in use this summer. I think the 16-inch would fall into the “too heavy to move around” category for me, but I wouldn’t say no to the 12-inch.

Good height for short person. Image: Catherine Johnson-Roehr

As you can see from this photo, the Lightbridge is a good height for me (I’m 5′ 1″ tall). Like all Dobs, it can get a bit awkward when looking at objects close to the horizon (on this night, I was showing off the Andromeda Galaxy to other observers, basically from a crouched position), but when I’m 1/2-way up the sky or more, I find it very comfortable.

Star splitter extraordinaire. Image: JR

Catherine seems really comfortable with her refractor these days. She’s been using it for double stars, plus doing a lot of bino observing. This summer, she used the Irish Federation of Astronomical Society’s Binocular Certificate Handbook to build her observing lists.

Finally, one clear night. Image: JR

We had one clear night of observing only, so I didn’t make much headway on my observing list. I had planned to do some mapping of the Virgo Cluster, but the light management on Saturday night was really, really bad. Our neighbors to the west opened their trunk at least 5 times, destroying my night vision over and over again. The experience was frustrating enough for me that next time I’ll take a little more time to think about how to isolate my scope from the public — not usually my goal at a star party, but possibly a necessary step to enjoy this one to the fullest.

Comet Johnsons widefield

Tracked down Comet Johnson with the 15 × 70 binos before going after it with the scope. Image: JR

Needle Galaxy and M109. Image: JR

In the Beginning

4 05 2017

Digging through back issues of S&T yesterday, I found the ad that shaped my first telescope-buying decision:

Sky & Telescope, August 1983, p. 145.

And I found the ad that probably shaped my friend Mike’s first telescope-buying decision:

Sky & Telescope, August 1983, p. 151.

Equipment Updates

1 05 2017
Musty rusty DS-10

Meade DS-10, purchased c. 1983. 10-inch f/4.5 Newtonian reflector on an equatorial mount.

As you can see, I’m still grappling with the beast, only now it lives in Massachusetts, not Indiana.

On our last truly warm day before winter, I took a wire brush to the rust on the exposed parts of the equatorial mount. The rust was mostly confined to the balance-weight shaft, but I brushed off some chipping paint on the post as well, then painted all the exposed metal with anti-rust primer. (Except for the tripod feet, they’re already good as they are.) I’ve been waiting for another warm day to cover that primer with black paint, but since one hasn’t arrived, it looks like my mount has a case of the rust.

That’s a new Telrad, by the way.

I’ve been contemplating building a dob box using Stellafane’s instructions, but I left many of my power tools behind in Indiana and I don’t really have the space to build a box. Or the carpentry skills, really. Anyway, I’m also thinking about buying a custom dob mount instead of building one.

I’ve got a new motor to install (still), but since I don’t do any imaging, it seems like more trouble than it’s worth. What I am going to get done, though, is stripping the gunk out of the focuser and replacing it with … what … lithium, probably.

Backyard Observing

New equipment bins on observing table, Catherine setting up her refractor.

Our last observing session was mostly Saturn, but Catherine also did a lot of double-star sketching with her 90-mm refractor. I’ve been trying to figure out a better backyard workspace, but mostly that means subdividing the observing table for task grouping.

I’m trying to keep the equipment budget low. Managed to get away from NEAF 2017 having only spent $120, and $20 of that was on a t-shirt. The other $100 was for a Celesteron alt-az tripod. I really needed something heavier (more stable) for the 15×7o binos, as well as for the 90-mm Mak that I like to take camping. I’ve been using the PST on a lightweight photo tripod, so this is a definite upgrade for solar observing. It’s a bit of an overkill for our birding scope, but we took it out to the heron rookery at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord yesterday, and it was light enough that I didn’t mind carrying it up and down hills.

I’m working on this summer’s packing lists. More on that next.


Wallpaper Wednesday: NRAO Green Bank

17 04 2013
Drive Wheels, Byrd Telescope (Pinhole Photograph), July 7, 2009. Photograph by Scott Speck

Drive Wheels, Byrd Telescope (Pinhole Photograph), July 7, 2009. Photograph by Scott Speck

Today’s selection features the pinhole photography of Scott Speck. In July 2009, Speck had the opportunity to photograph the NRAO’s Byrd Telescope. The results are beautiful, the type of photos that move architectural historians to tears.

Click on the image to see a larger version of “Drive Wheels,” or follow the link the in previous paragraph to see more of the NRAO on Speck’s flickr site. His work is available for purchase at imagekind.

S. A. Mitchell and the Leander McCormick Observatory

17 04 2013
S. A. Mitchell with 26-inch refractor. Image courtesy McCormick Museum, University of Virginia

S. A. Mitchell with 26-inch refractor. Image courtesy McCormick Museum, University of Virginia

I’ve written before about the dispersal of the book collection that once belonged to Frank K. Edmondson. My wife picked up a couple more of his books for me recently, one of which seems particularly appropriate to discuss at this point in my career.

Book cover, from the collection of Frank K. Edmondson.

Book cover, from the collection of Frank K. Edmondson.

This is a fascinating handbook written in 1947 by Samuel A. Mitchell, director emeritus of the McCormick Observatory at University of Virginia. It’s a modest little book but it makes clear the entangled nature of American astronomy at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Mitchell’s career as an astronomer opened at the Yerkes Observatory, where he “imbibed a small modicum of the research spirit that [he] found there…” [p. 8] He was inspired especially by E. E. Barnard, who had been on staff at Lick Observatory, and Frank Schleslinger, later of the Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh. He was impressed by Barnard’s dedication (“If  Barnard’s enthusiasm for research could keep him at the telescope with such bitter temperatures [-26 F], why should not I, at the age of 24, not take pattern from the older man?”), but his research trajectory followed that of Schlesinger. [p. 10] As he describes it:

The coming of the photographic plate to the aid of the astronomer and of the largest refractor in the world (dedicated in 1897) brought a great opportunity to ascertain what new information could be found regarding the difficult research of measuring stellar distances. The astronomical  world is under a great debt to Professor Frank Schlesinger when he demonstrated in masterful fashion that the parallaxes possibly by photography with the 40-inch Yerkes refractor gave stellar distances with a very great increase in accuracy over the earlier results from visual observations with much smaller telescopes.[p. 13]

Schlesinger’s departure for the Allegheny in 1905 left a gap in the Yerkes program. Mitchell took the opportunity to fill it, beginning his life’s pursuit of the measure of parallax through the use of photography.

The determination of stellar distances through observation and comparative photography formed the core of Mitchell’s research when he became the director of the McCormick Observatory in 1913. Similar efforts were underway at the Allegheny Observatory, where Schlesinger oversaw a 30-inch photographic refractor; at Mount Wilson, where Adriaan van Maanen worked with the 60-inch reflector; at Sproul Observatory (Swarthmore), under John A. Miller with a 24-inch visual refractor; and at Greenwich Royal Observatory with its 26-inch photographic refractor. Charles P. Olivier, native of Charlottesville and later founder of the American Meteor Society, and Harold Alden, arriving from the Yale Observatory in South Africa, joined Mitchell’s efforts at Virginia. [p. 15]

Mitchell arrived at McCormick while on soft money. That is, he “accepted the directorship with no promises from University of Virginia.” [p. 17] Luckily, he was the recipient of the Ernest Kempton Adams Research Fellowship from Columbia University. His fellowship period ended before Virginia decided to pony up some research money, but Edward Dean Adams (father of E. K. Adams, for whom the fellowship was named) decided—after consultation with George E. Hale, once of Yerkes, at the time of Mount Wilson—to give Mitchell a special financial award given the potential significance of his work.

I’m tempted here to start “following the money.” Edward Dean Adams was the president of the Cataract Construction Company, “a new organization of capitalists which ha[d] been formed to furnish electricity and electric power upon a scale of tremendous magnitude by employing the Falls of Niagara to generate the electric fluid.” [see original NYT article here, examine the Edward D. Adams Station Power plant here] Any of you who have driven an International Harvester have used a piece of the Leander McCormick legacy—IH came out of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, founded by Leander and his brother, William. McCormick’s planned donation was interrupted by a downturn in his finances after the Great Chicago Fire. So tempting, but I’ll leave the analysis of capital to another time.

For now, let me just jump forward in time to highlight a few more connections between American astronomers. Mitchell died on February 22, 1960, in Bloomington, Indiana. He was the father of Allan C. G. Mitchell, the chair of IU’s Physics Department, director of the university’s cyclotron program between 1942-44, and colleague of Frank Edmondson. Sadly, Allan Mitchell died young, outliving his father by fewer than the three years (read his obituary here). My question is: did Edmondson acquire this book directly from Samuel Mitchell, perhaps when he moved to Bloomington after his retirement? Or did Allan give it to him? Did he pick it up because he knew and worked with Allan? How did he end up with No. 114 out of a run of 200?

S. A. Mitchell's signature, back page of handbook.

S. A. Mitchell’s signature, back page of handbook

Oh, and why is this appropriate to discuss at this point in my career? I recently accepted a two-year appointment at University of Virginia, which means this little book is making the return trip from Bloomington to Charlottesville via Edison, NJ. I hope someone is keeping track of the movement.

Wallpaper Wednesday (Peach Mountain Observatory)

6 02 2013
Peach Mountain Observatory. Image credit: James Rotz, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

Peach Mountain Observatory. Image credit: James Rotz, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

As a consolation prize to Michigan for their loss to the Now-Number-One-Ranked Hoosiers (in both polls!), today’s post features the University of Michigan 26-meter Radio Telescope at Peach Mountain Observatory. Built in 1958, this dish supplanted an 8.54-meter radio telescope that had been built just three years earlier. If you zoom in with Google Maps (here, I’ve already zoomed for you), you can see the smaller dish at the south of the observatory’s cleared property, with the large dish at the north.

The most interesting thing I discovered while trying to ferret out primary sources documenting the construction of the radio telescope was a stack of technical papers from the 1970s related to the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO) and Interplanetary Monitoring Platform (IMP-6). For instance:

I love that a search for construction documents can lead to random readings on low frequency solar bursts and orbiting observatories.

Right click on the image above to download it or go to Michigan Engineering’s Peach Mountain Observatory set on flickr.

Nostalgia for the Light

2 10 2012

I just spent several hours watching Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light. It’s a 90-minute film and a more focused audience could probably have knocked the viewing out in one sitting. I, on the other hand, found myself completely distracted by the telescope porn in some scenes, and watched them two or three times. When combined with several Internet research forays, I at least doubled, if not trebled, my viewing time.

If you’ve seen the trailer for the  movie, you already know that it is a visually spectacular film. If you haven’t seen the trailer, take a moment:

Obviously, I picked up the film for the observatories, but they were used mostly as a heuristic device, framing the director’s meditation on the aftermath of Chile’s Pinochet era. Guzmán contextualizes the terrors perpetrated under Pinochet and Chilean society’s subsequent refusal to own up to them in universal natural history (i.e., what emanates from the Big Bang), but Nostalgia is really about the human, not the eternal, epoch. And for all the work the director did to draw parallels between astronomy, archaeology, and the quest to unearth (literally) the remains of Pinochet’s victims, the film is almost exclusively about our understanding of the immediate past. The trauma of nostalgia in Guzmán’s narrative requires memory and suppression, or the development of historical consciousness. The universe does not remember, the universe does not forget. Yes, we can trace the calcium in our bones to its origin in the stars, but that “biological memory” has no moral drive behind it. The bones don’t hold the universe accountable for the calcium, while the survivors of Pinochet’s political massacres do hold the murderers so.

Unless. I was struck by the scenes focused on the work of architect Miguel Lawner. Lawner mapped Pinochet’s prisons by turning his body into a measuring device, moving it through space, step by step, until it remembered dimensions, locations, and functions of everything around it. It’s difficult to gauge how much of his mapping ability came from conscious effort and how much could be attributed to what we like to call “muscle memory.” Either way, it raises questions about the role of the body—beyond the brain—in preserving memories.

Miguel Lawner sketching a concentration camp from memory.

Structurally, this movie reminded me quite a bit of Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Like Herzog, Guzmán worked to tie together archaeology, historical consciousness, the human present, and vision. But Cave was much more optimistic about the human condition. Nostalgia reminds us that moving out of the cave doesn’t guarantee civilization, or if it does, it’s a civilization shot through with darkness.

James Webb Telescope

17 08 2012


A year ago, I posted a rather uninspiring wallpaper describing the James Webb Telescope. If you’ve been following the development of the telescope, you’ve probably noticed that some of the terminology has shifted in response to changes made in the instruments.

For the past ten months, the mission team has been offering a “behind the scenes” look at the instruments and their performance at various testing sites via video podcast. Everything you ever wanted to know about mirrors in space—watch the videos and you will never need to ask another question on the subject.

The most recent video veers away from the subject of the telescope’s mirrors to talk about the “dynamic duo,” the paired instrument consisting of the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) instrument. It seems like an odd combination: the FGS is a guide camera responsible for the fine adjustments in the telescope’s guidance system, while the NIRISS is a four-way instrument that works as an imager, spectroscope/-graph, and interferometer. The FGS and NIRISS operate independently, but as the video linked above indicates, the NIRISS can take over some guidance functions, adding another level of redundancy to the instrument in case something goes wrong with the FGS.

Also: thank you, Canada.

Wallpaper Wednesday

8 08 2012

Lovell Telescope under repair, Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics

Today’s wallpaper commemorates the career of Bernard Lovell, pioneer of radio astronomy. Click on the image to reach the download page.

Wallpaper Wednesday

27 06 2012

45-meter radio telescope at Nobeyama

A few months ago, I provided the link to kuriositas’ 10 Spectacular Radio Telescopes Around the World. I’m providing the link again so you can read about the Nobeyama Radio Observatory, home to the 45-meter telescope shown in the image above. I’d tell you more about it myself, but I have a pounding headache and just don’t feel like it.

Click on the image to download the wallpaper.

Observatories and Instruments