Saturday, February 19, 2011

Observing the Skies in Texas

We arrive in western Texas under sunny blue skies, but another cold spell.  Fortunately, the trend is calling for warming.  We camp in a large picnic area about 9 miles north of the McDonald Observatory on Highway 118 in the Davis Mountains.  This free camping area was noted to us in our Frugal Shunpiker's Guide that we purchased from Marianne Edwards who lives in Elora, Ontario.  We've been using her guides throughout Arizona and New Mexico; they've been helping us to figure out where to hike and camp for free or on the cheap.  Yes, there is a state park about 20 miles down the road, but free and alone is soooo much better.  And it's beautiful here at the picnic area with big pine trees and other greenery (finally - TREES!).  It's dry here too so the smell reminds us of Yosemite National Park in California - a dry pine smell.  We're beside a dry wash and hear coyotes yipping at night.  Other picnicers pull in during the day and two cyclists from Quebec camp one night but are gone by daybreak.  The only unfortunate thing is that Brad and I have both picked up the flu bug.  I haven't had the flu in at least 15 or more years.  So instead of hiking and attending the star party at the Observatory on Tuesday night, we will have to wait until Friday since it doesn't run every night.

Prior to getting sick, we do go to the Observatory for a day tour, which is incredibly interesting and informative.  Our tour guide, Shannon (a man), is an amateur astonomer, but is very knowledgeable and rather humourous.  He presents a slide show in the theatre first, explaining about our sun, stars, galaxies and such; and ends with live telescope shots of our sun, highlighting some sunspots and filaments which are bursts of gases that usually erupt around sunspots.  Then we go up the mountain to see two of the telescopes.  The first telescope, the Harlan J. Smith telescope, is a single reflexive mirror measuring 107" in diameter - that's pretty big - not the biggest in the world, but big enough to be used by the many researchers here.  It is designed to shoot laser beams into space.  For example, I saw an episode of MythBusters in which they dispelled the myth that man did not walk on the moon (there are skeptics who don't believe!).  How this was proved was by firing a laser at the moon where Neil and Buzz landed because they left laser transmitters there.  So, if the signal is returned, then the transmitters are on the moon and someone had to put them there!  And on the MythBusters episode, the signal was returned.  It was a telescope like this one, or perhaps this very one, that was used to perform the test.  The second telescope on our tour is the fifth largest in the world, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, and is built with 91 1-meter hexagonal shaped mirrors that are fitted together to form one huge mirror that is 11 metres or 432 inches; however only 83% of this area is actually used bringing the diameter to 9.2 metres or 362 inches.  This one also isn't designed to view visible light, but rather invisible light rays - infrared, ultraviolet, microwave, gamma, x-ray, etc.  These invisible forms of light help researchers understand a lot about our universe - whether stars are traveling towards us or away from us, how hot a star is (blue is the hottest, red is only warm), and other such amazing discoveries.

By Friday night, we are both feeling better and go to the Star Party for my birthday!  First we attend the Twilight show, which is Shannon again doing a presentation in the theatre talking about our solar system in some detail, explaining each planet's orbit.  You know, it's amazing how much we forget from grade school, because we did learn all of this then.  And sure enough, Pluto has been bumped from planetary status; it's now just a "dwarf planet" - poor thing - along with four others.  Shannon uses software to put the planets into motion for us and shows us that Pluto's orbit is actually on a 17 degree incline from all the other planets in our solar system.  I don't remember that from school.  Earth and all the other 7 planets orbit the sun on an even plane, but Pluto's orbit, if viewed on a horizon doesn't.  Huh!

He also talks in some detail about the constellations and relates them to the signs of the zodiac.  How many are there?  Twelve?  I always thought so too.  But apparently there are really thirteen, but since people are superstitious of thirteen, the thirteenth, Ophiuchus, was booted out many years ago.  The signs of the zodiac - Aquarius, Pisces, Scorpius, etc. are constellations in the sky, and are segmented like counties on a provincial map.  The dates from one sign to another is truly supposed to be when the sun travels from one of the constellation's boundaries to the next.  I know the sun doesn't really travel; the Earth tilts, but you can imagine the sun traveling through the constellations throughout the year with the tilting of the Earth.  Some constellations have very small areas and others have large areas.  Scorpius, for example, has a very small area and would really only take the sun about 7 days to cross it, so those born in October/November would be ripped off.  After Scorpius, the sun passes through Ophiuchus, but nobody knows who that is, and it's the thirteenth sign, so Scorpius just got extended.  Most of the signs of the zodiac got averaged to roughly 30 days too, but if you have a map of the sky and their zodiac constellations, well, you'd see that how it is now isn't how it should really be.

We also go outside for some night viewing.  We get really lucky and see the space station go over us.  Apparently, there is a website you can go to where you enter your longitude and latitude and you can find out if and when the space station will appear in your sky.  Google it.  Our speaker points out many constellations including Orion, the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), Leo the Lion, and others.  He has a laser pointer that my son would kill for - it seems to reach the stars!  Then the moon rises from behind the mountain that the Hobby-Eberly Telescope is perched on - what a sight.  It is a full moon and, unfortunately for stargazing, lights up everything.  However, we will get to view the moon tonight through one of the telescopes.  There are six telescopes set up for us to view various stars and planets, but we won't be using the really big telescopes.  We get to see a couple of star clusters, which are less interesting because it's just like looking up in the sky.  But, we also get to look at Jupiter and four of its moons which are all aligned vertically above the planet, the middle cluster of stars in Orion's Belt which is also a gaseous cluster and is stunning, and our moon in its entirety using a filter to ease the brightness down to 13%.

To end the night, we watch a video called The Power of Tens, which starts with a man and a woman having a picnic in Chicago, and every 10 seconds the camera moves away by one more metre to the power of 10.  At first it doesn't seem to move too much, but then all of a sudden, we're in outer space, then out of our solar system, then for a while nothing, then suddenly out of our galaxy.  The camera stops at 10 to the power of 24 which I think is 1000 million light years.  Then it quickly zooms back in, focusing again on the man, then this time zooms in on his hand until we're looking at a single carbon atom, stopping at 10 to the minus 16 metres.  It is a fascinating 10 minute video.  Brad says we've seen a similar show on the Discovery Channel - I don't remember.  Age is a wonderful thing!  And the Star Party makes a great birthday party for me - celebrating with the moon, Jupiter and Orion to name a few.

1 comment:

  1. You guys must be following right behind us! We did the McDonald Observatory last week. If you get close to Marfa,check out the Marfa lights, but read about them first. We just spent 5 days in Big Bend and are now headed a little east. Hope you are both feeling better!