Monday, January 23, 2012

Astronomical Observations

We went to the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains in January. We were lucky that it wasn't really cold. The wind was picking up, but not too much. And the best news was that the sky was clear.  We had brought the kids once before and fog had rolled in obscuring our view. Astronomers were used to that kind of thing, so they took our group over to a barn and showed us a variety of things about the moon, the planets and the color of gases.

This time, we arrived at the Visitor Center as a woman was taking down a sign on the door. It was an ad for a different group that would be going to look through the 36" telescope on the mountain top. We decided that that was a pretty special opportunity, so we switched to that and piled into the shuttle with the other 13 people.

There weren't enough seats for all of us in with the telescope, but that was ok. The ledge on the outside was available. The room was crowded with this huge telescope - the base is what is 36" in diameter - the computer, some other ladders and equipment, and a step ladder that we'd use to look through the eyepiece. 
The astronomer was full of corny jokes, so Ron loved it immediately. He told us how they started doing programs for Elder Hostels because they had such an interest. He was putting coordinates into the computer while he was talking. He said that not that long ago, they didn't have the computer. They would have to very tediously use manuals and charts and look then readjust. But the Elder Hostel watched them and decide to collect $25,000 to get them this computer. It made things MUCH easier.

Jupiter and moons
First, he showed us Jupiter. While it's something you can see with the naked eye, you can't see the colors or the moons without the telescope. We had access to see 3 that night! The pictures here are off Google Images. The colorful image of Jupiter was visible, but so were the 3 moons. They looked like bright stars circling Jupiter.  We didn't see any movement as they circled, but they are a lot quicker than Earth's Moon. It was easy to spot  Jupiter even with the naked eye. It's a very bright star this time of year, almost directly overhead. It's almost as bright as Venus, which is also a very bright looking "star." Also called the Morning Star and the Evening Star, Venus is a little closer to the horizon.
Messier 37 - Open Cluster

Next we looked at Open Star Clusters, then the Pleiades. We talked about how different gases are emitted which causes them to present with different colors. I also learned that the telescope has trouble picking things up because of the currents in the air. When you think of the blurry wavy-ness of the air just above really hot pavement in the desert - you especially see this in the movies' desert scenes. Cooler air creates currents too, that can obscure the view for a little bit.

We talked about stars that are just forming as well as stars that are dying. We saw the reddest star, I'm not sure which one, a cluster from the Sword of Orion, and even the center of the Andromeda Galaxy.

The astronomer took us outside to point out constellations and stars with his laser pen. That's always so cool, because then you really know for sure where they're pointing. We talked about different astronomers and what they saw and contributed.

Something I didn't know was that the Dog Star called Sirius, its near the eye of Canus Major, the dog constellation. My first acquaintance with Sirius was the name used for Harry Potter's "uncle," who just happened to morph into a Dog when he needed to. Gotta love JK Rowling, huh?

But I think one of the most interesting things to me was sitting in the chair while the telescope was being adjusted. When the computer and the telescope were synchronizing, it would create really loud different tones. High tones then low tones, not unlike the theme song for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The computer adjusted the telescope, swinging it around to the direction of the star we were studying.  Then the giant metal panes of the dome would slide on their tracks, loud clanging sounds as they banged into each other, opening up the section  needed to allow the telescope through.. But something about the clunky-ness of all of it was just mesmerizing. Knowing how far away that lens was focusing in on, and hearing all the equipment make it happen. I loved that part possibly more than actually getting to see the stars.  Ron loves the star gazing part. He's fascinated by the fact that you're actually looking into the past. I missed having the kids there to hear all the info as well as actually HEAR the telescope and the dome moving around. I wrote a little about that aspect in a different place, if you're interested.

I think it would be interesting to go back at different times of the year when different stars and constellations are overhead.  And I really miss living in the country away from the lights. Then you can see so many more stars.  I see why they call it a "blanket of stars!"  Who knows, maybe this will be some kind of regular trip!

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