April Skies

Mars continues its western migration appearing high in the western sky just after sunset. The Red Planet’s brightness continues to slowly diminish reaching magnitude +1.4 this month as the orbital separation between Earth and Mars continues to grow.

Venus, having passed conjunction with the Sun, now begins a new appearance as the “evening star” as it peeks above the western horizon just after sunset on the 18th. As the month progresses, brilliant Venus begins a slow but steady climb into the western evening sky. It will not reach its highest evening altitude above the western horizon until well into December. By the 30th of April, it should be fairly easy to spot just above the western horizon beginning about 20 minutes after sunset.

As a bonus, tiny Mercury shining at magnitude -1.6, appears next to Venus on the 18th and climbs well above it by the 30th. This appearance of Mercury will be one of the best in recent times as it doesn’t reach its greatest elongation from the Sun until May 17th. Because Venus and Mercury will spend the last half of this month fairly close to the western horizon, a pair of good binoculars will help you to view these two planets.

Jupiter and Saturn remain in view in the early morning rising in the east a couple of hours before the Sun. At magnitude -2.1, Jupiter outshines Saturn at magnitude +0.8. Jupiter is now high enough above the horizon so that views of the giant planet and its moons could be quite rewarding through a small-to-medium-sized telescope. But don’t forget Saturn. Its beautiful ring system is open to 17 degrees from edge-on making the ringed planet a rewarding telescopic target.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 4th, new on the 12th, first quarter on the 20th, and full on the 27th. If you look to the east around 5 a.m. daylight savings time, the waning lunar crescent will be just following Saturn as they rise above the eastern horizon. On the morning of the 7th, the waning crescent Moon will be near Jupiter as it rises above the eastern horizon. Looking west on the 16th, about 45 minutes after sunset, the waxing crescent Moon will be just below the Red Planet Mars.

Due to the closure of New Mexico Tech because of COVID-19 virus concerns, there WILL NOT be a first Saturday of the month star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory.

Stay safe and Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

April 2021

March Skies

This month the early evening sky features Mars high in the southwest. The Red Planet has been drifting slowly closer and closer toward the Pleiades star cluster (the seven sisters) and will be at its closest approach on the 4th, when it will be only 2 ½ degrees from the cluster.

Most of the planetary action this month occurs in the early morning about a half hour before sunrise. The stars of this show are Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn. The fun starts on the 5th, as Mercury and Jupiter rise virtually together with 19 seconds of arc separating them. This close encounter will be best viewed with a pair of good binoculars.

On the 6th, Mercury will be at its greatest elongation from the Sun for this appearance. Saturn rises earlier in the morning and is a full 8 degrees higher in the sky than Jupiter and Mercury. Venus is lost to our view as it reaches conjunction with the Sun on the 26th. We will next encounter Venus when it reemerges as the evening star in mid-April.

Mid-March presents us with another visual treat as we have the opportunity to view the Zodiacal Light on the western horizon. If you can find a really dark spot with a view of the western horizon, you may be able to see a dull pyramid of light extending to a point just above the horizon. This light is caused by sunlight reflecting off of a myriad of tiny dust particles along the Earth’s orbital path.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 6th, new on the 13th, first quarter on the 21st, and full on the 28th. Look to the southeast on the morning of the 9th and 10th, about 30 minutes before sunrise, as the waning crescent Moon approaches and passes below Saturn, Jupiter and Mercury. Look high in the southwest sky on the evening of the 19th, about an hour after sunset, to see the waxing crescent Moon slightly above and to the left of the red planet Mars.

At 2 a.m. on March the 18th most of us in North America will begin daylight savings time. Spring forward by setting your clocks ahead one hour. Spring begins on the 20th for the Northern Hemisphere as we reach the equinox at 3:37 a.m. MDT.

Due to the closure of New Mexico Tech because of COVID-19 virus concerns, there WILL NOT be a first Saturday of the month star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory.

Stay safe and Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

March 2021

February Skies

After a long sojourn as the “morning star,” we say goodbye to Venus as it sinks below the early morning eastern horizon. We will next encounter Venus as the “evening star” on the western horizon in mid-April.

Mercury, currently in conjunction with the Sun, emerges low on the east-southeastern horizon beginning on the 20th and joining Jupiter and Saturn in the pre-dawn sky.

Mars continues to dominate the early evening sky being almost directly overhead at sunset. Be sure to catch it on the 18th as it will be visited by the waxing crescent Moon with only 3 ½ degrees separating them. That is close enough so that both will be in the same field of view if you use ordinary binoculars. You might also notice that the bright white glow of the Moon seems to make Mars appear a little redder in hue.

Jupiter and Saturn return to the pre-dawn sky as early as the 14th, but will be difficult to see as they rise only a few moments before the Sun in the south-southeastern sky. Joined by Mercury on the 20th, this trio of planets will form a grouping that will last several days. Then Mercury will begin to sink lower towards the horizon while Jupiter and Saturn slowly climb higher into the early morning sky. A good pair of binoculars will enhance viewing of this early morning trio.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 4th, new on the 11th, first quarter on the 19th, and full on the 27th. Looking south on the 18th, about an hour after sunset and almost overhead, the almost first quarter Moon will be below and slightly to the left of the red planet Mars. There are no other Moon/planet encounters this month. However, a planetary triple threat will appear on the morning of the 25th. Look to the east-southeast about a ½ hour before sunrise to see Jupiter, Mercury, and Saturn hovering just above the horizon.

Due to the closure of New Mexico Tech because of COVID-19 virus concerns, there WILL NOT be a first Saturday of the month star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory.

Stay safe and Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

February 2021

November Skies

By Jon Spargo

Early evening observers will again be treated to the site of both Jupiter and Saturn as the two giant planets seem to be moving in lockstep across the southwestern sky. However, appearances can be a bit deceiving as the apparent separation of the two giant planets is growing smaller, shrinking to a mere 2.3 degrees by the end of the month. The pair is headed for a spectacular close conjunction in late December, the closest in centuries. Saturn’s rings are still wide open at 22 degrees from edge on offering some fine viewing through small telescopes.

Mars will be with us almost all night long for the whole month. Even though its magnitude diminishes from -2.1 to -1.2 it still presents a wonderful opportunity to observe surface features through a small to medium-sized telescope.

The early morning sky is still dominated by brilliant Venus which rises about 3 hours before the Sun at the beginning of the month, and 2.5 hours by month’s end. Its magnitude dims a bit to -3.9 by the end of the month. Mercury puts in a rare month-long appearance rising about an hour before the sun on the 2nd, shining at magnitude +1.6. A rare treat is in store for those of you who have small to medium-sized telescopes. On the 2nd, you should be able to observe Mercury as a crescent.

This year, the Leonid meteor shower will reach its peak in the early morning hours of the 17th with a moonless sky. However, this year’s shower will not be very strong with only 10 to 15 meteors per hour predicted. Look toward the northeast and the constellation Leo and see how many Leonids you can find.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 8th, new on the 15th, first quarter on the 22nd, and full on the 30th. On the night of the 29th-30th the Moon will offer us a partial penumbral eclipse as 83% of its surface will pass through the Earth’s penumbral shadow. The entirety of North America will be able to witness the entire event. The Moon will enter the penumbral shadow at 12:32 a.m. MST and be most noticeable mid-eclipse at 2:43 a.m. MST.

Looking east-southeast on the 12th, about 30 minutes before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will be just above brilliant Venus. Looking south-southwest on the 18th and 19th, about 45 minutes after sunset, the waxing crescent Moon will visit Jupiter and then Saturn. Looking high to the southeast around 7 p.m. on the 25th, the waxing gibbous Moon will be directly below the red planet Mars.

Sunday, November 1st, marks the end of daylight savings time at 2 a.m. for most of us in North America. Don’t forget to set your clocks and watches back 1 hour (fall back) and enjoy the extra hour of sleep.

Due to the closure of New Mexico Tech because of COVID-19 virus concerns, there WILL NOT be a first Saturday of the month star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory.

Stay safe and Clear Skies!

The Celts, the Cross-Quarter Days, and Candy

By Shelbi Etscorn

You may have read my recent article on what exactly an equinox is. A very brief summary: an equinox is the time of year when the sun’s path is directly above the Earth’s celestial equator causing there to e an equal length of night and day everywhere in the world. A solstice is either the longest day of the year or the shortest day of the year depending on if it is the summer or winter solstice and the hemisphere.

The two equinoxes and two solstices split the Earth’s revolutions around the sun into four parts, so they are aptly called Quarter Days. Usually they occur on March 20th, June 20th, September 22nd, and December 21st. Most people are familiar with these dates. But have you heard of Cross-Quarter Days?

These are the days that fall in between the four Quarter Days. Even if you can’t think of them right now, you probably are very familiar with these days: they are February 2nd, may 1st, August 1st and October 31st. More commonly they are known as Groundhog Day, May Day, Lammas, and Halloween, respectively. In keeping with the season, today I’ll be telling you a little bit more about Halloween.

More than likely, Halloween originated from Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival. It was viewed as the transition from the light to the dark as the last hints of summer faded away and winter’s cold began creeping in. It was on this day that the gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its very thinnest, giving the dead a single night to return. Fires were burned to help ward off evil spirits and food and offerings were left out for the souls of loved ones. These traditions morphed into leaving out jack-o’-lanterns and giving candy to trick-or-treaters.

Pleiades, taken by Dylan Etscorn and Colleen Gino.

Samhain also happens to be the day when the Pleiades reaches its highest point in the sky at midnight. The Celts, being excellent astronomers, noticed this coincidence and began associating the asterism with mourning and sorrow. The seven stars were also believed to be the guiding lights that led the Earth from the dark to the light.

Witch Head Nebula, taken by Colleen Gino and Dylan Etscorn.

The Pleiades aren’t the only spooky thing you can look for in the sky this time of year though! Halloween happens to fall on a full blue Moon this year, which itself is a bit of a spooky treat; unfortunately, it may mean that other celestial objects with spooky names might be a little hard to see on this particular night. The Skull nebula, Ghost Nebula, and the Witch Head nebula rank among some of the scariest sounding celestial objects seen around Samhain. So while you’re dressing up or enjoying your candy this year, take a look up at the stars and see if you see any ghosts or witches. And don’t forget the connection between so much of our daily life and the world of astronomy!

Voting in Space

By Shelbi Etscorn

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are probably aware that we are coming very close to US election day. This year’s election has been notable for a litany of reasons. Not just because of the candidates but also the country’s scramble to try and figure out how to handle mail-in voting along with the standard in-person voting and those who cast absentee ballots. Absentee ballots are used by US citizens who are currently living abroad such as military men and women who are currently deployed as well as their families who are of voting age. You may wonder, what is the farthest distance from the United States that an American citizen has ever cast a ballot in an election. Well the answer is quite far, out of this world even.

Early on in its creation, astronauts aboard the International Space Station generally only stayed aboard for a few days, maybe a week at a time. This made it quite easy for them to either send in a mail in ballot before launch or simply vote in person when they got home. Today, however, astronauts spend months aboard the ISS. And since no one wanted to make the argument that the brave men and women aboard the space station should forfeit their right to vote, other arrangements had to be made.

Just like with anyone else wishing to cast an absentee ballot, astronauts first fill out a Federal Postcard Application prior to their launch date. Once this application has been approved, it’s actually a pretty easy process to allow them to vote. First a test ballot is sent to NASA where it can be filled out by the astronaut and sent back to ground control, who then email it to the county clerk where the astronaut is registered to vote. If this test proves successful, a secure ballot will be sent from the county clerk, to NASA, to the astronaut, and all the way back again in a similar way. And voila! A vote has been cast from our planet’s orbit.

Astronauts have been able to vote from space since 1997. This year there will be four American astronauts aboard the space station who have already filled out the necessary applications to be able to cast their vote from space. Katie Rubins, a member of Expedition 63/64 will be aboard as well as three astronauts who will arrive from the SpaceX Crew Dragon. The latter are scheduled to launch on October 31st. For Rubins, this will actually be her second time casting her ballot from space. She was also aboard the ISS during the 2016 election and voted in the same way she will be doing this year.

If Americans who are currently whizzing around our planet are still able to find a way to vote, they’ve pretty much ruined any excuse the rest of us could possibly have for ignoring our civic duty. No matter who you vote for, get out and vote this year!

How Being the Astronomy Club President Changed My Life

By Zachary Goodrich

I guess we all have to start from somewhere. My story began when I was eleven years old. It was October of that year. I had never really been into astronomy up to that point but, apparently my teacher though I was. It’s an odd story in itself but, her and her husband just recently got divorced and she was left with a bunch of sky and telescope magazines. So she asked me if I could take them. As I recall she said, “you’d get more use out of these than I would”. I happily obliged and took them home. Up until I opened that magazine I wanted to be an entomologist. I liked bugs. Until then. At that moment I knew I wanted to study galaxies. They were so elusive to me. It was a powerful gut feeling. Humbling and primordial in nature. I almost can’t do it justice with words. The closest real world parallel I can draw to it is that feeling you get when you look at fossils or ancient trees. It was that wonder and that thrill that drove me into picking up a habit worse than any drug. Getting a degree in astrophysics.

Fast forward to the regional science fair of my senior year of highschool. There were kids from all around the four corners region as well as some from Magdalena. The kids from Magdalena were accompanied by Dr. Dan Klingelsmith III. I was presenting my project on the Yarkovsky effect on asteroids. Dr. Dan noticed that I had some asteroid light curves on my board and just like that we started talking. After a while he gave me his card and if I needed any help to send him an email. We went our separate ways after that. He resumed his research and I went on to the international science fair. I was extremely nervous about leaving for college. It was the only thing I thought about on the trip. Mostly because I only knew one person from my hometown but, a part of me wasn’t sure if I would be able to rise to the challenge. Not just the challenge of college but of moving on into the next phase of life. It was that fear of failure that almost caused my failure.

I moved out and got settled in. October came around once more and I decided I needed to get back to my roots. I saw a flyer for astro club on a Friday night and I went with a friend. No one was there. Except for Dr. Dan. He was there just doing his thing. He walked us through how everything worked and showed us how he took data and processed it. I asked him if he needed any help collecting. It had begun. The disease spread and I was hooked. I spent a lot of time there. It never really got in the way of my studies. I always had my homework done prior to my sessions. But we all have our faults. In highschool I had never really developed good study habits. Generally I just went with the motions, did my work and never really tried. Sure I had taken college classes before but never like this. I just barely passed. I lost my scholarship and at the time I didn’t know what happened or why I did so badly. After all, I’m not an idiot.

I continued on. The grades came as I got used to pushing myself. I kept helping Dr. Dan with his research as well as helping out with the first saturday star parties. June came around. It was a run of the mill star party. I just finished closing down a telescope. Dr. Dan came into the building and we started talking like usual. I had asked him what had happened to the astronomy club. I hadn’t seen the club at etscorn for the entirety of my time at New Mexico Tech. He told me they generally had meetings but he hadn’t seen them in the past year. He got in his truck and I said “I’ll see you next month!”.

That was the last time I saw Dr. Dan. He died two months later from cancer. Something like this never happened to me before. So I did what I thought he would have wanted me to do. I took it on myself to continue on with the work he was doing and provide astrophysics students with an opportunity to do research. The astroclub did return In fall of that year. I ran into them by accident and gave them a star party with the 20” dobsonian telescope. The previous president was about to graduate, so he asked me if I could carry it on. And carry it on I did.

The first chance I got I implemented ideas that I had been working on. Astroclub is a place where students can come to do research and have a nice calm evening. We host star parties now and even have hot chocolate. I had always wished for a helping hand growing up. Someone that had the same passion I did. So here I am now. I’m the person I needed. The person that is willing to work with others to help them achieve their goals. The person that recognizes traits and talents and builds on them. It’s not about the research anymore. It’s not about keeping the observatory clean and running. It’s about giving these students a chance to express their passion in a way that wasn’t possible. The rest just comes with it. My life will never be the same. Especially now. I finally feel like I have a good purpose and a clear goal. Just because I got to be the astro club president.

MRO Inquirer October Newsletter Available

The MRO Inquirer October newsletter is now available to the public for free download on the MRO website. This month in our Instrumentation Station feature, MROI’s Project Scientist Michelle Creech-Eakman writes about the precision optics in the interferometer telescopes, Shelbi Etscorn tells us about Halloween’s astronomy roots, and interviews MROI’s newest staff scientist and physics professor, Ryan Norris.

MRO’s newsletter is sent to Friends of MRO at the first of each month; early and direct delivery of our monthly newsletter is one of the perks of membership. We kindly ask that you consider becoming a Friend of MRO and support the work the MRO Outreach team is doing. Along with publishing a monthly newsletter, the Outreach Department produces the Astro Daily articles and is active on all social media platforms, sharing our love of astronomy with the local community and beyond. While our monthly public star parties and seasonal observatory public tours are on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions, we expect to be able to offer virtual streaming star parties and observatory tours soon. Your membership contribution would help support these endeavors, and make you a vital part of our mission to develop education and outreach programs, and to expand the frontiers of astrophysical research.

If you are interested in learning more about Friends of MRO, please follow this link.

History of the MROI

By Shelbi Etscorn

In a previous article, I spoke about what it’s like today working at the MROI. Today I’d like to tell you a bit about the history of the project and how we got to where we are today.

MRO site before construction.

The history of the site where the Magdalena Ridge Observatory now sits goes back almost 100 years. In the 30s and 40s it was used as a site for atmospheric research being conducted by Vincent Schafer, Bernard Vonnegut (brother of the famed author Kurt Vonnegut), and Dr. Irving Langmuir (Nobel laureate and namesake of the future Langmuir Laboratory). It wasn’t until the 60s that a true road would be carved into the mountainside allowing access for the supplies and materials needed to build the main Langmuir research facility.

 Around this time Stirling Colgate became the President of New Mexico Tech and used his influence to continue construction on the laboratory. He also oversaw the construction of the Joint Observatory for Cometary Research and the Digital Supernova Telescope.

Stirling Colgate.

Throughout the 60s and 70s additions were added to the facilities on the mountain and in 1980, Ronald Reagan signed a law that established the Langmuir Research site. In 1982 the NRAO developed and proposed the concept of a millimeter array. Magdalena Ridge was a top contender for the spot where they would build this array, however it was eventually built in Chile, now the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array(ALMA). The spot up on Magdalena Ridge was now associated with being a potential spot for an observatory.

President Ronald Reagan and New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici.

It wasn’t until 1994 that a report coming out of the White Sands Missile Range indicated the lack of a fast tracking telescope to track missile launches was affecting the military’s ability to carry out its research, and in 1995 a phone conversation between Dr. David Westpfahl of New Mexico Tech and Dr. Dick Newton from the Army broached the topic of the Government’s need of a telescope. Dr. Westpfahl suggested a telescope atop Magdalena Ridge, and the very next day the two visited the sight. And so began the long road that would lead to establishing the MRO.

In 1996 the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Consortium was formed. Included in this consortium was New Mexico Tech, the Air Force Research Lab, the US Army, New Mexico State University, and others. Together they raised fund and helped pass legislation that would allow construction to begin on the MRO.

In the late 1990s a 2.4m mirror was declassified by NASA and the US government. This mirror was one of many made as part of the bidding process to choose the company that would make the mirror that would be used on the Hubble Space Telescope. The company that made this particular mirror lost the bid unfortunately; however, their misfortune was the MRO’s gain who quickly acquired the mirror which would later be used to create the 2.4m telescope at the observatory.

After many years of finding funding and getting approval, construction on the 2.4 m telescope finally began in 2003 and was completed in 2006. The MRO had its first working telescope!

MRO 2.4m dome construction.

Going back a few years though, the Summer School on Space and Ground Based Optical and InfraRed Interferometry was being held in Leiden, Germany. At this time “Gary Loos and David Westpfahl presented a comprehensive overview of the MRO 3-element Interferometer concept. It was there that Loos met Chris Haniff from the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge who, with his colleague David Buscher, presented a poster on a proposed 10-element Large Optical Array (LOA) based on their experience with the COAST interferometer in the UK” (From the Clouds to the Stars, I. Payne). Here both pairs of men shared their ideas on their different concepts for an interferometer, and the location of Magdalena Ridge was again brought into a conversation about a possible site to build.

Finally, in 2004 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the University of Cambridge, UK, and New Mexico Tech. Chris Haniff and David Buscher became the System Architects for the 10-element Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer.

The rest of the story is contracts and funding, construction and finagling. But it still stands that if Magdalena Ridge hadn’t been discovered and recognized for its potential for a place of research, if the NRAO hadn’t decided against building ALMA there and instead moved their construction to Chile, if Dave Westpfahl had never had that phone conversation with Dick Newton, and if Gary Looz and Dave Westpfahl had never ran into Chris Haniff and David Buscher in Germany, the MRO might be very different than how we know it today, if it even would exist at all.

Events spanning almost 100 years had to happen for the MROI to finally be able to begin construction. Here’s hoping in another 100 years, the MROI will have been completed and all 10 elements of our optical array will be making discoveries we never could have imagined 200 years prior when everything was getting started.

Finding Leo

Leo is one of the easier constellations to pick out of the sky, as it actually looks like what it is named for, a lion. Leo rises in the early AM at this time of year, being fully above the eastern horizon about two hours before sunrise. Finding Leo is easy using the pointer stars in the Big Dipper. If you are not familiar with the pointer stars, they are the two stars on the outer edge of bowl of the Big Dipper, Dubhe and Merak. They are called the pointer stars because if you draw an imaginary line through them from the bottom of the bowl to the top and beyond, you run into the north star, Polaris. Likewise, if you draw an imaginary line the other way, from the top of the bowl through the bottom and beyond, you run into the constellation Leo.

Currently the planet Venus is in Leo, a little more than a hand-width below the belly of the sitting lion (check out this previous blog post for instructions on how to measure distances in the sky with your hands). Venus will be easy to pick out, as it is the brightest object in this portion of the sky. The crescent Moon will be moving through Leo over the next two mornings as well, first appearing on the 13th about 8° above Venus, then about 7° below Venus on the morning of the 14th.

If you find yourself up about an hour or two before sunrise over the next two days, look for Leo, Venus, and the Moon, it will be a lovely sight!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications