Wild Night Life

There is a common misconception that astronomy is a placid avocation akin to sitting on the beach, watching dapper little waves shifting grains of sand to and fro. Well mostly that is true, but other times astronomy is as much bravery and daring do as coastal dwellers preventing storm driven waves from destroying their homes. You think I jest? You are mistaken if you do. Like beach dwelling, astronomy is at the mercy of sun and storm.

A large telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory is housed in a strangely shaped cylinder capped with a segment of another cylinder. The odd shape was less expensive to build than a dome. The reason this inexpensive design has not dominated telescope housings is simple. It collects snow and ice as easily as a plow. In ice storms graduate students are sent out onto the roof with hatchets, ice picks, shovels, and most importantly mountaineering gear suitable for scaling the North Face of Mount Everest. As in all of academia there is a belief that graduate students are expendable, rather like the medieval serfs that preceded them. So graduate students risk life and limb, cursing and vowing to never create another telescope shelter like the monster they must sweep clear of glare ice.

"All right" you say, "I'll grant that an odd telescope shelter placed at seven thousand feet above sea level could have problems. What if anything does that have to do with Rhode Island, and in particular, what if anything does it have to do with a modest sea level observatory in Charleston?" Well, actually, everything! Replace the words "graduate students" with "amateur astronomers" and the story nearly repeats itself. Unlike the oddly shaped building at Kitt Peak, Frosty Drew's dome can withstand severe wind and snow loads. However as one of our dedicated volunteers learned much to his chagrin and alarm, ice bedevils us as much as Kitt Peakers. He was ready to close up the dome on a night when the temperature had been dropping sharply. Worse yet, it looked like more snow was on the way. He threw the levers which close the shutter and return the dome to its neutral position. The motors made horrible screeching sounds and nothing happened. During the evening, the heat of people's bodies melted snow on the dome. After the visitors had gone home, the water froze in the tracks that hold the shutter. Our volunteer took our tallest ladder and a broom handle outside and began to flail away at the ice. Perseverance, desperation and dedication were finally rewarded when the ice broke allowing the dome to be closed.

"OK", you say, "I'll admit that ice can be a problem, but surely southern Rhode Island is usually rather balmy. Most of the year, you astronomers must lead a rather tame life." Again I insist that heat has just as many problems as cold. We suffered our most serious setback on a hot day last August. A volunteer was hosting one our Friday evening star parties when he heard a strange thunking tinkling sound come from our largest telescope. Thunking tinkling sounds are definitely undesirable things to hear in a scientific instrument! During the day the Sun had heated the dome to a very high temperature. Unknown to us, the retainer for the diagonal mirror had melted through almost completely. Diagonal mirrors are supposed to sit high above the main mirror at the top end of the telescope. Our diagonal mirror weighs about ten pounds and is harder than granite. When our volunteer tilted the telescope, the diagonal mirror fell heavily onto the main mirror. Throwing a large rock into the telescope could not have done more damage! When the diagonal mirror fell, it not only shattered a big chunk off itself but gouged a large hole in the main mirror. Telescope mirrors must be flawless perfect surfaces. Surface variations of a few ten thousandths of an inch are fatal flaws. The damage to our mirrors was terminal, totally ruining a once fine instrument. Today only the shell of this telescope remains. It sole remaining function is to act as a physical support for our remaining telescopes.

The sky is going though one of it periods when relatively few planets are visible in the night sky. Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are low in the western sky, setting relatively early. We have to wait until after ten before Mars becomes easily visible. On the nineteenth, Saturn will pass Venus. Look for Venus [the brightest white star like object in the sky] a day or two earlier and a day or two later. The fainter yellowish Saturn will move noticeably each night as the two pass each other. If you are lucky, you may get a glimpse of Mercury in the next few evenings. It will be a pinkies spot just visible as the sky darkens on the western horizon. Without doubt, Mercury is the most difficult bright planet to find.

The Spring constellations rise earlier each night. Look for Gemini overhead and Leo to the East. Gemini looks like two bright stars (Caster and Pollux) with a line of fainter stars below each primary star. Leo represents a Lion lying in repose. Most people see this constellation as a sickle or a question mark turned backwards. If you have a pair of binoculars, look for the wonderful star cluster called Praesepe [The Beehive] in the faint constellation Cancer [The Crab] which lies between Gemini and Leo. Praesepe looks like a faint gray smudge to the unaided eye. Praesepe seems to be filled with stars, but careful examination with a moderately powerful telescope reveals that many of these stars are actually other galaxies. Quite an eyeful.

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Mar 1, 1999
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
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