Observatory 1: Green Bank, part 2

Radio astronomy is a fascinating branch of science, in part because it is in some ways very different from optical astronomy. Since we can’t see radio, you can observe and gather your data anytime, day or night. The dishes that act as telescopes get basically one-pixel resolution. So where your phone or camera has several megapixels resolution, the largest radio dishes basically act as a single point, if I understand correctly. It is by panning the dish across an object that you are able to form a picture from it. But there is also a great deal to be learned from radio data without even making it into a picture. For example, different chemical elements give off unique radio frequency signatures. Hydrogen emits radio at 21 cm wavelength, which translates to a frequency of 1420.4 MHz. Since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the galaxy and the universe, you might think that trying to map it would be a little crazy. But an interesting thing happens when you observe a span around that 1420.4 MHz. Because of the nature of space and time and electromagnetic waves, we can detect if the hydrogen being observed is moving toward us or away from us, and how fast it is coming or going, and how far away it is from us. That’s a lot of information! So mapping the hydrogen in the galaxy is like making a navigational map of rivers, harbors, lakes, and seas. It gives you an idea in 3-D of how the galaxy is built and how it is moving and changing.

At the Green Bank Star Quest, I got to do some of that kind of science directly! After a workshop on the basics of radio astronomy (where I learned some of the above), we were given the opportunity to use the 20-meter dish to look at … anything we wanted! A couple others in the class and I looked at two significant radio sources, Cass-A (supernova remnant) and Orion-A (star-forming region). Later we added the Owl Nebula, the moon, Mercury, and a variety of other objects. Some were strong radio sources and others less so, and Mercury not at all, which is weird. I still have a lot to learn about what our scans mean, but it was amazing to be able to run a world-class instrument.

I also got to use the 40-foot radio dish at GBO. It is, I think, the smallest of the active dishes at GBO, but let me tell you, 40 feet is not a small dish! About seven of me end to end would fit across it. This dish is also rather historic in that, as I am led to understand, it was used by Frank Drake for the first SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) experiments in the 1950s and 60s, Project Ozma. This is a transit dish, which means it is always pointed along the N-S meridian, rotating up and down but not side to side. There is a control room in a below ground bunker that looks like a science office from the 1960s. A couple stacks of electronic equipment stand in one corner, the instruments appearing to be of 1980s vintage. By means of analog dials and switches and a digital frequency selector and a tractor-feed data record with two pens, one can collect actual science data by aiming the telescope, selecting a frequency range, and interpreting the graph on the paper strip. It is wildly old school science, and it was a blast! Three of us worked together to get some data under the tutelage of our guide Sophie, but I got to take home the data. I followed some directions on a hand-out and found that the blob of hydrogen we investigated near the center of the galaxy was moving away from earth at (if I recall correctly, as I don’t have it here with me) 48 km/hr. How cool is that?

Along with experiences in several other lectures and workshops, I found that I was just having the best time being a science student again. It gave me a thrill, not only to be learning from professional scientists, but also to do actual science. To be transparent, I also got a thrill from being a good student, knowing or figuring answers to questions ahead of others in the class. Yes, I like being an overachieving, curve-busting, teacher’s pet and always have.

But really, it’s the thrill of the science.

Observatory 1: Green Bank

I spent four days and nights at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in Green Bank, WV, July 11-15. A local astronomy club has hosted the Green Bank Star Quest there for fifteen years. It is a very well run event, and I had a ball.

Now some star parties are just camping at a dark site, observing the sky at night and (as I’m told) either sleeping or drinking during the day. Not at GBSQ! First, there’s a bunk house and cafeteria, so no camping required, although you can if you want. Second, they had tours, speakers, and workshops lined up from 9am to 8pm every day, so no reason to be bored. These were really good, too! I learned so much about radio astronomy, “multiple messenger” astronomical discoveries (finding things out through various lines of inquiry), and even astronomy history! The evening keynote speakers were all very enthusiastic, interesting, and engaging on their various topics. I met some new friends as well as spending time with a college bud of mine. In fact, when I registered I was told I am now part of the Star Quest family!

There is more to write about this week’s experiences than I can manage tonight, but I want to get one thought out there. The principle scientist at GBO, Dr. Jay Lockman, was the keynote speaker for Thursday night. He spoke about his experience in developing one of the Great Courses for The Teaching Company on radio astronomy. He told us about the rather grueling process of writing, editing, and filming the course, about some of the history of radio astronomy that he learned himself in developing the class, and about his own radio research, which ironically ended up on the cutting room floor, all of which was quite interesting. His recent research is on the enormous bubbles of gas and dust that have been found to be expanding from the center of the Milky Way above and below the central core, and how, by tracking neutral hydrogen in those areas, some theories as to their nature and flow have been developed. This led my friend Bruce to ask in the Q&A, “As fascinating as this is, how do you answer those who say (and always there are those who say), ‘What is the point of all this? What difference does any of this make? How does this help anyone, or me in particular?'” Dr. Lockman asked Bruce what his answer is first, to which Bruce said, “My answer is, ‘What is the point of a baby?'” which I thought was insightful.

Dr. Lockman, acknowledged Bruce’s idea but went on to say, <paraphrase> “Of course we who do such things know about the intrinsic value of science and of any sort of knowledge, and we can talk about that and about how we may someday find practical applications to all these discoveries. Further, we can talk about the relatively tiny financial investment that we make in science and the vast returns we receive on that investment. But frankly, I am tired of trying to convince people of that. If it isn’t obvious, it is very difficult to get someone to understand it. What I have come to use as an answer instead is that people are interested in these things. I spend a great deal of my time telling conferences full of people like yourselves about this, and they are excited by it. We have 50,000 visitors a year that come through this facility, because they care about science and want to learn things. So it makes a difference because there are people who care about it.” </paraphrase>

This blew me away, and it continues to provide thought fodder for me. It is a great prophetic statement in its justification of something precious and its repudiation of the inherent repudiation in the question. Let’s look at other cases. We might ask, what is the point of professional sports? What good does it do anyone? What is the point of popular music? What is the point of photography, or sculpture, or quilting? What is the point of fishing, or hiking, or boating? What is the point of collecting antiques or beer cans or paperweights or dolls? None of these things has any practical justification, either, but people pour large amounts of time, money, and energy into all of them and more. People make careers around most if not all of these things, too. Why should science, which produces so much more value to the world than, say, football, be held up for scorn as a waste of time and money? And, if the value of science is found in that humans like it and find meaning and pleasure in it, then so, too, the value of all those other things as well, at least to the extent to which they are not harmful to human wellbeing.

Humans do what humans do. Some of us love science. Let’s give thanks for that.

Observing: 12 July 2018, Green Bank, WV

Observing last night was largely a bust. It was mostly cloudy until almost 23:00, after which it was patchy enough for binoculars. Just before midnight it really cleared, but many people had already retired for the night. I dilly-dallied until about 00:15, not trusting the sky to hold, but finally opened the scope. I got about 40 minutes in and the curtain slammed shut again. As predicted.

Nevertheless, I saw…

M55, a smallish-medium globular cluster SE of the Teapot in Sagittarius. Followed up with M28, another globular in Sagittarius, and a brief stop at Saturn. Didn’t spend much time on any of these and was feeling restless and tired. Sort of forcing it.

M31 Andromeda Galaxy was up, but pretty low in the sky still, but there I went. It appeared… oddly unimpressive at 62.5x, filling a good bit of the field of view (f.o.v.). Bright core, northern edge was well defined, or more than the southern edge, any way. Looked for M32 but had to actually use the GOTO to find it (embarrassing). Small, but bigger than stars, a fuzzy oval.

While I was focusing on the NE sky, the SW was clouding over again, and by 00:55 most of the sky was gone. I did attempt M15, a globular in Pegasus, but to no avail. The evening was done.

Bruce and I did see an IRIDIUM flare while he was scanning with his binocs. It was in the SE at about 40º elevation (?) around … 22:30 – 23:00 – not sure; forgot to check the time. It was super bright, ramping up, FLASH!, and ramping down all in about one second. It’s the second one I’ve ever seen, I think.

Observing: 11 July 2018, Green Bank, WV

Last night Bruce, his friend Paul, and I set up scopes near the parking lot while most folks were on the observing field. It was mostly dark by 22:00, but much cloud. It started breaking up, and by 22:45 was almost entirely clear and GORGEOUS! Really dark, transparent, and surprisingly steady. My Celestron 8″ Nexstar Evolution performed beautifully, especially considering I aligned on objects that were still popping in and out of cloud. Mostly used the 32mm eyepiece (e.p.) (62.5x), which showed off several deep space objects (DSOs) really well. For planets, I pushed to either 25mm (80x) or 15mm (133.3x), but not much more than that. Saw four planets – Venus (1/2 phase), Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars – but didn’t spend much time with them.

Venus was in and out of clouds and set soon, so just glimpsed it.

Mars was a blob, maybe with some polar cap, but nothing to write about.

Jupiter, with a neutral density filter to cut the glare, was pretty, and the Great Red Spot was visible about half way from the meridian to the east limb. Not much else visible but a few gray protuberances on the NEB (northern equatorial belt).

Saturn is what it was the other night: rings open, disk overlaps halfway. No evident shadows. Temperate zone to pole (N) shows darker color than below. It was pretty but the seeing was pretty wobbly.

Saw several nebulae of different sorts and also globular clusters and such.

M27  Dumbbell Nebula (planetary neb): large, obvious, sort of boxy, fuzzy thing; brighter on W side than E. Or is it maybe N than S? Edges indistinct.

M39 Open cluster N of Deneb: couple dozen stars. Nice.

Veil Nebula (supernova remnant): faint vertical stripe across star field, kind of like a wrinkle across space.

M11 Wild Duck Cluster (open cluster): almost like a globular! Really beautiful. Looks a lot like…

M22 (globular cluster) in Sagittarius: large, bright, evenly grainy.

M29 (globular): small glob, also in Sagittarius. Bright core with scattered stars around the edges.

M69 (globular): pretty much the same as M29

M6 Butterfly Cluster (open cluster): big, bright, about 3 dozen stars

M7 Jewel Box Cluster (open cluster): much the same as M6.

M8 Lagoon Nebula: looked great w/ SkyGlow light pollution filter! Really helped the contrast, even with pretty dark skies. Dust lanes and nebulosity stand out more.

M20 Triffid Neb: also great w/ filter. Could see dust lanes!

M17 Swan Neb: beautiful w/ filter. Appears upside down with feathery “body” at top, then the arch of the “neck” with two stars upon it. Can’t make out the “bill” so much at this mag.

Then at 01:00-01:15 it went from clear to covered! Clouds smoothly closed the show.

Got to bed @ 01:30. Woke up at 06:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep, so up and showered at 07:00 or so. Which is pressing me toward a nap, now that it’s afternoon.

This is a great first stop for the sabbatical tour!

Observing, 8 July 2018

21:45-01:00 EDT
68º-58º F clear, calm, humid!
No moon (26 days)
Transparency very good
Seeing bubbly
Celestron 8” Nexstar Evolution
Eyepieces: 40mm, 32mm, 13mm, 9mm, 8.8mm, 6mm

First real observing session with the new C8. It performed very well. I started by playing with the collimation (mirror alignment) a little, but it was really pretty good, even at 500x. Nice job, Celestron!

Celestron 8 Nexstar Evolution out of the box
Then it was off to the races. Having GOTO and tracking is AWESOME! I was out to do more survey work than studying anything in detail, just seeing how the scope performed on different objects. So I looked at planets, globular clusters, nebulae, open clusters, and galaxies. The seeing (measure of atmospheric disturbance) made the planets a little challenging, but I was pleased nevertheless.
Jupiter was super bright, but it was hard to get much detail due to the poor seeing. The two equatorial bands were obvious, kind of thin; a few blue-gray spots under the (… oh dear, which way does an SCT turn things?… ah! Here we are. With a diagonal, it’s right side up, but mirrored left to right.) NEB; a few fainter bands visible; blah blah blah. What was especially interesting was that little black dot right about the meridian and half way up the northern hemisphere. It was visible at low power (62x), but I wasn’t convinced at first it wasn’t an artifact. At higher magnification (222x was best), it remained, so yes, a moon shadow I think! One of the moons appeared just west of the planet, so was it that one? I thought there might be a hint of something emerging from the disk in the NW, but didn’t give it much time or thought. Going back to low power, there were only three moons visible, so something was transiting or eclipsed. Upon research after the fact, it was Io that was transiting and was emerging at about 22:38, which is about when I was there. The shadow was also of Io, which exited the disk at about 23:45. This is consistent with what I saw. I returned to Jupiter later, sometime after midnight, and at 222x there were two moons hanging out west of the disk. So the one I had seen which was westerly of Io was Europa. Ganymede was to the east, and Callisto was way west.
Saturn was better behaved, being not so obnoxiously bright as Jupiter, but still wobbly. Always just such a remarkable sight, though. Even at low power I could see the Cassini Division popping in and out. The rings are still wide open, but now are encroaching on the planet disk. It is still close to opposition, so there isn’t much in the way of disk shadow on the rings, and with the seeing as poor as it was, not much ring shadow on the disk, either. The northern hemisphere change in color was visible, going from yellow near the equator to greenish over the pole. The rings outside Cassini Div. were noticeably darker than those inside. That’s about it for detail that I remember. I did push up to 333x without much benefit or cost.
Went on a tour of globular clusters after that: M4, M3, M5, M10, M12, M80. I was surprised at M4 (in Scorpius) that it was as dim as it was. I remember struggling with it with the 8” Newtonian because it seemed low contrast against the background. I guess it’s just so! There was no bright core to it, just a grainy patch surrounded by a broad ring of resolvable stars. There is a band of stars that stands out running N to S over the center. This is the defining characteristic I remember from previous views. M3 (in Canes Venatici) isn’t where I thought it was, which is over near Ophiuchus, but more on that later. It is a big, bright globular; bright center covered with grainy, resolvable stars at 154x. This is where all these globs start sounding the same, but it is really an impressive object. M5, which is closer to what I thought was M3, but still not where I thought that was either (it’s actually in Serpens Caput), is another really lovely glob. Tight bright core surrounded with a mantle of bright stars. Should have written about it on the scene, as now it’s escaping me, but I just kept saying, “Wow, that’s gorgeous!” M10 is also very pretty in much the same way, just a little less so. M12 is tiny by comparison to all these others, but also very pretty. (10 and 12 are in Ophiuchus.) The other night I was looking around with binocs and saw a big, lovely glob in Ophiuchus, which I thought was either M3 or 5, but now I know it wasn’t either, so I think it must have been M10, except that isn’t where I thought I was looking. The closest to where I thought I was looking is actually M107, but that is really small, so it probably wasn’t. Oh, well. Let’s move on.
By now the Milky Way was well up, and Sagittarius had cleared the trees, with the Teapot sitting nice and level. So I made a run up the galactic core nebulae. Starting with M8, I was astonished that it filled the field of view at 154x (13mm). The nebulosity was visible but not super obvious. I backed off to 62x and maybe that’s when I broke out the 40mm for 50x, even. M8 is just huge! Two bright stars stacked N-S just W of center, then a cascade of smaller stars to the east. Nebulosity most noticeable around the two bright ones with a dust lane cutting between them and the cascade. A small brighter patch of neb just W of the southern of the two stars. Does that make sense? Might need darker skies or a filter to enhance the contrast and bring out the nebula some more.
M20, the Triffid, is tiny and faint by comparison. Also centering on two N-S stars, but much smaller and closer together. (I should learn how to talk about these in terms of magnitude some day.) If averted my gaze, I could sort of see the nebula and the dust lane that divides its lobes. I don’t think it was just constructed from memory. Again, more contrast would help here.
M21 is a small open cluster. Next to these other show pieces, it’s no wonder no-one pays attention to it. Including me. Next….
M24 is the galactic star cloud, which would be a good name for a 70s pop band. It is so big that even with the 40mm, it just looks like a lot of stars. Which of course is what it is, but it isn’t identifiable here as an “object.” Really need binoculars for this one. Just saw something about it, though, pointing out it is actually a hole in the galactic dust lane that allows us to see these stars that are near the heart of the galaxy. It’s not really a cluster of any sort. So that’s cool.
M17, the Swan Nebula, is always a favorite of mine. Here it appears to be on its head. The loop of its neck, as it were, concave to the west with two stars on the curve. The body runs from west to east, pretty large and obvious. (I should learn how to talk about these things in terms of arc minutes and arc seconds some day.) Will always remember how it appeared in the 25” scope in New Mexico. Ohh baby.
M16, the Eagle Nebula, appears as a small open cluster without much in the way of nebula. Again, with some averted vision I could pretend there was some nebula, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Mars had now made its way up to a reasonable height, for all the good it did me. Poor seeing, still a relatively low altitude, and the planet-wide dust storm it is undergoing all conspire to make the current appearance of Mars, just 3 weeks from the closest approach in 15 years, a mess to look at. Basically no detail at all, just a salmon-colored ball. Not so much as a polar cap. I think I went up to 222x. At some points with a little averted vision, I thought I could make out some faint surface markings, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I tried a couple filters. What I think turned out to be a green filter had the interesting effect of making the disk essentially white. Wasn’t expecting that! Again, some impression of faint surface markings. Tried a red filter, which was really, really RED and made everything RED! Not very helpful, but interesting. Tried it on Saturn, too, with much the same effect. Upon further research, it appears that Syrtis Major should have been about on the meridian at midnight, so it is possible I was seeing some of its outline.
By this time things were getting damp. I mean, there was water standing on things on the table. I had my dew shield on the scope, but when I checked, there was some dew on the corrector. I pressed on a little more to catch a few galaxies.
M51, just south of the tip of the Big Dipper’s handle, is always a favorite. It appeared as two bright blobs, the cores of the two galaxies, surrounded to the SW especially by nebulous fuzz. No real sense of structure at all. I think I was running at 154x? Or maybe it was the 32mm at 63x.
Popped over to M81, Bode’s galaxy, a large elliptical that looked kind of an oblong blob. I think I was using either the 32mm or the 40mm and expected to find M82 right next door. I didn’t. So I didn’t spend much time with 81 and went to 82, but again its neighbor was not in sight anywhere. I thought they should both appear in the same field of view at low power, as they are less than a degree apart, but couldn’t find both at the same time after some searching. M82 appeared as a long, bright slash running SW to NE.
By now I had serious dew on the scope. I also had not set the scope up high enough that I could just stand, so I was doing a lot of half bends or high squats, and I was getting tired. All in all, the scope performed admirably. The goto worked really well, and the tracking was quite steady, and these were the things I really wanted in a computerized mount. The tracking motor buzzes in cycles, which may have been enough to send a vibration through the image, which I noticed especially on Saturn. It’s possible, though, that it was just the rippling of the atmosphere keeping time with the mount. I hope for a bit better experience on planets with better seeing conditions. Deep sky will also need some getting used to, trying to find the right magnifications for the various types of objects. The globs and open clusters were the winners of the night. After taking the scope off line, I just spent some time looking, as it was still a really beautiful night, and it felt good to sit down for a few minutes. As usual, I thank God for the beauty of the night sky, the eyes, time, and equipment to behold it, and for all peace I feel in the process.

Stuff I looked at:
Jupiter – with moon shadow
Saturn – Cassini division w/ 32mm
Mars – totally washed out with dust, but maybe a few surface features
M3 – very nice
M4 – oddly dim
M5 – absolutely gorgeous
M8 – enormous
M10 – beautiful
M12 – adorable
M16 – hint of neb
M17 – lovely
M20 – pretend it’s there
M21 – meh
M24 – better in binocs
M51 – getting dewed, dude; two cores and some fuzz
M80 – very pretty
M81 – visible blob
M82 – long, thin, bright