Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Green Bank Telescope Experience Was Almost Heaven

Greetings to all, I had an opportunity to speak at the Almost Heaven Star party about Meteors and again on Exoplanets it was a great honor to do this as NOVAC does such a great job at this party. I was in the midst of a class act for the entire visit. There was one good night for observing and that was on Friday while I was in Cincinnati attending the Cincinnati Astronomical Societies annual elections. I am now the 2nd Vice President for the club. (polite applause here) I look forward to being a part of the future of this great club.

I arrived in West Virginia at the star party on Saturday @ 3:30 PM. I must have brought the clouds with me for when I showed up the clouds showed up in droves. I did not get all the way set up with my scope when I noticed all that was left were a couple of Sucker holes. The picture here is of my tripod. That is as far as I got setting up. The star party had sold out and all 350 people were there on Friday and Saturday. I had a great time meeting folks from all over and talking to them about public outreach. Saturday evening brought a raffle for everyone. I had donated an iron meteorite Sikote Alin to the cause and was delighted to see such interest in that piece of space gravel. I saw my NOVAC Liaison named Katherine Scott put in 90 dollars worth the tickets. Now she really wanted that rock! A young man named Jacob won it and I was happy to present it to him. I had the opportunity to give him some details on this 1947 fall. He was very excited about winning it. I hope he starts collecting because every meteorite is different. It is a very satisfying hobby.After the drawings I went to the observing field and asked the gentleman across the way for a peep in his setup Dobsonian and did mange to see a hint of Jupiter sitting in a sea of soup before the sky went gray. That was the last chance I had to use a telescope on the field. I turned in a little early because I was tired from the two days of driving and the lack of sleep.

Sunday brought more clouds, But no matter this was the day of my meteor presentation starting at 4:00 PM. I had some time, so I took the opportuity to go to a tour of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory(NRAO) in the early afternoon. I was treated to a behind the scenes tour of the place. It was a tour of the control room the labs where they made the receivers for not only the Green Bank Telescope but also for the VLA(Very Large Array) and all others associated with the NRAO . There was an overnight for the NRAO and I really wanted to go on that but alas there was not enough time to do it.While in the Control room of the Green Bank Telescope, the guide was going on about this and that. It was real fascinating stuff about Faraday Cages , a cage in a cage for the microwave so no RF interference gets out. The GBT is so sensitive you cannot even bring a digital camera with you as the GBT can hear it go off when it takes a picture!!! I asked the operator pictured here while the guide was going on if he knew all of that stuff too or does he just keep the thing from falling over He just grinned and said Pretty much just keep it from falling over... Now that was funny.

Well on that note I had to leave the tour and get back to the Almost Heaven Star Party held at the Mountain institute. Yes that was a shameless plug for the Mountain Institute but they are without a doubt the best hosts for a star party. No offense TSP and the Ranch. I arrived in time to give an engaging presentation on Meteors with great questions and follow up! I love the mix of this crowd as there were novice to expert in the room. I was standing there after the presentation talking to Phil Wherry of NOVAC and he asked me'" Hey you might be interested in this Steve. We have an overnight event scheduled tonight at the NRAO would you like to come?" Now you know what I said. You bettcha and off I went back down the road 30 miles south to the NRAO where I found out I would be a part of a team (Our group) that would operate a 40 foot dish that night. The dish was built in the 80's for an experiment or search that did not require all the bells and whistles the other dishes on the site had so they built this one. All the equipment in the building was analog.This dish received a bonus amount of equipment when the 3oo' fell down. We were given a short lesson on how to use the equipment and Presto! We were now radio astronomers. When we walked through the doors we took a thirty year step backward. This was a fascinating adventure to take. The dish operated in one motion along the meridian, so if you wanted to observe a target you would set the dish in altitude to match the target then let the target drift through the center of the dish where readings will be taken. It was really a simple process NRAO gave us targets for all night. and we found them without issues. The team got so good at it they started looking for additional targets like Jupiter that drifted through the meridian and a couple of galaxies and an additional planetary nebula. I enjoyed every minute of it. We hit Cygnus A right on and the neutral Hydrogen signal went off the top of the chart. That is strong. That was one of those no doubters. While we were in the bunker we could take pictures so I did a few of the crew. You might notice a kind of right of Passage going on here in the radio shack . There were drawings and posters drawn representing everyone that has worked this dish signed by all there so what the hey! we did one also. I had to knock off a bit early 11:00 PM to get some sleep because I still had an additional presentation to cover at 2:00 PM on Sunday and then rush back to Ithaca NY before I fell asleep at the wheel.

Sunday brought a grand breakfast in the Cafeteria and then off to the Mountain institute for a little more heaven. Unfortunately most everyone had cleared out and I was left with just a handful of an audience. the weather was not cooperating very well as a light rain descended upon our Star party. This was a blessing for good reason. My PowerPoint did not play nice with the Mac running the Projector. The bad part was I was giving an introduction to Exoplanet research. The reality was I was giving it to folks that review papers on the subject. There were a few questions that were way over the level of the presentation but I managed to struggle through it. I did have some new data about Kepler that some of them had not seen. I try and have a little something for all levels of knowledge when I do a presentation. I really enjoyed the after discussion as we talked about how Amateurs might look for these elusive Exoplanets using photometry. I hope some interest was sparked in this field. How exciting would that be to add John Smith, Amateur to the list right in there with the JPL, Lowell and Keck teams etc.

I had a grand time even though I did not get on my scope and observe the oh so dark skies of this part of West Virginia. All the folks from NOVAC, Katherine Scott to Phil Wherry to David Haynch and everyone in between were great to work with. so if ever you get the chance to stay overnight and play with a 40 foot dish do it. It will be one of those moments in your life to look back on. I also encourage you to look into The Mountain Institute . They have some great programs for young people. I was surely impressed with the way these young men and women carried themselves. They have a deep love for nature and practice it daily They also have an observatory there to connect the importance of dark skies as a resource. It is just as important as good clean water.That might be a little overstated...

Oh one more thing, Katherine got her wish. I had another meteorite from that 1947 fall and presented it to her. Anyone that would drop 90 dollars in hopes of getting a 40 dollar Meteorite deserves one. I know she will take good care of it. Until the next high adventure or Sunday ...

Clear skies and great seeing too !

Steve T

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