Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Star Party (We're back, Baby!)

We stayed in Ft. Davis specifically to participate in the “star party” at the McDonald Observatory here in this remote area of west Texas. The observatory is affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin and boasts the third largest telescope in the world, the Hobby-Ebberly Telescope, named for the Hobby family of Texas and the Ebberly family of Pennsylvania who donated generously to make the telescope possible.

If I understand the story right, the University of Texas had plans to build a telescope when they learned that a university in Pennsylvania had plans to build a similar telescope at 15% of the cost. The two schools began negotiations to build a telescope together and these two families were involved in the initial development plans. This area is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It would be hard to find any place in the country any farther away from even a very small city. There is no sky glow from any city or town. We were outside in the frigid cold for several hours last night, and we could detect none. The sky was so dark, in fact, that we were able to see a sheen of light that looked like sky glow; in fact, it was made up of particles of dust in the air—the same dust that formed our planet—called zodiacal glow. Mike, being an astronomy buff, was very excited about this since he had never seen or heard of it before.

As a part of the talk beforehand, we were treated to a view of an iridian (sp) flare. These are caused by the system of satellites that were put into orbit by a pre-cell phone-era company that was banking on the ubiquitous use of satellite phones. They were, unfortunately, not practical for the casual user and the company went belly-up. They sold the satellites to the US government to be used for military communications. As they pass overhead, they are constantly being adjusted and readjusted. Because of that, they catch the light of the sun in the same way and mirror would, and they flash VERY brightly. We were looking at Sirius (the brightest star in our field of vision) for scale, and as the satellite passed by, it did indeed flash much, much brighter than Sirius for just a few seconds. Very cool.

After the talk, we were treated to five telescopes trained on different celestial objects: Saturn, a nebula within Orion’s belt, the Andromeda Galaxy, a star cluster (M46 to you astronomy buffs), and the Pleiades (Just think of the Seven Sisters—or Subaru in Japanese, we’re told). It was great fun, and although it was extremely cold on this high hill, it was well worth the shivering to see all this stuff.

So this afternoon we moved on to Balmorhea State Park, still in west Texas. We are finding we like west Texas very well. No sign of the idiot thus far. It has taken me quite a while to get through this particular blog entry, and I still have many pictures to sort through. We have been out of touch for more than a week, and I can’t post my slideshows, or even upload them, without an internet connection. We have used Mike’s cell phone for virtually all of our internet usage, and so without cell phone coverage, we are out of luck. (And, of course, if there is no cell phone, you can bet that there is no internet either.) So stay tuned. I have lots of pictures to post, and more to bring you up to date on our comings and goings. We have missed being in touch with you for this past week, and we are very glad to be back in some semblance of civilization. I will be posting pictures of the things I've been telling you about within the next day or two.

1 comment:

larryc said...

Great to hear everything is OK.... Looking forward to seeing the pics.

Larry