MRO Inquirer September Newsletter Available!

The MRO Inquirer September newsletter is now available to the public for free download on our website. This month in our Instrumentation Station feature, MROI’s System Architect Chris Haniff talks about the special features of the delay lines, Shelbi Etscorn tells us about the Messier Catalog, and guest writer John Briggs talks about astronomy activities along the Route 60 dark-sky corridor.

Video of the delay line tolley, which Chris Haniff talks about in his Instrumentation Station article.

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.

If you were stuck on a desert island…

By Shelbi Etscorn

Most of us are familiar with the childhood game of deciding what item you’d want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island. These answers usually revolve around things that would help with survival: a compass, a knife, a fishing pole, a tent. While it’s hard to argue any of those things would be invaluable on a desert island, my favorite version of this game always revolved around the things you’d bring that had nothing to do with practicality. Things like what book would you like to have to possibly read over and over, what three songs would you want uploaded on your iPod, or simply what personal item, only meant to bring comfort, would you like to have by your side.

It’s an outlandish scenario. No one trapped on a desert island has the opportunity to grab one comfort item before getting trapped there short of possibly the contestants on Survivor. There is one other scenario that, while not the same as being trapped on a desert island, is similar as far as being about as far away from civilization as humans have ever been, and completely isolated from…well the entire world. The men and women who have made trips into space know that feeling very well.

While NASA and the equivalent government agencies in other countries go to great lengths to make sure their astronauts have all the practical things that will ensure their survival, we humans are a sentimental group, and sometimes it isn’t enough just to have the things that are compatible with life.

Inspired by not only my childhood game but also Bob and Doug’s recent voyage on the Dragon Endeavor, aboard which they took a stuffed toy dinosaur purportedly picked out by both of their children as the toy they wanted to see in space, I decided to look into what other items of sentimental value were taken into space. Here’s a few that I found:

Many of us have seen popular Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield happily playing his guitar while on the International Space Station (ISS). The guitar was Chris’ own, and it remains on the ISS today, so that future occupants can enjoy it the same way Chris did.

As a child, Mike Massimino watched, as did the rest of the world, the United States’ historic lunar landing. Massimino was greatly inspired by viewing this event, and at six years old, he was photographed wearing a space suit that he had made himself, posing next to a Snoopy Doll, also in astronaut garb. As an adult, Massimino made two trips to the ISS, taking with him the Snoopy Doll from the photograph. The Snoopy Doll would later be a fixture on the corner of his desk in his office, reminding him not only of his achievements, but his childhood wonder at humanity’s achievements in the world of space travel.

Michael Good, an astronaut on the last servicing mission for the Hubble Telescope, took with him to space a St. Christopher medallion, and his and his wife’s wedding rings worn on a chain around his neck. The wedding rings are touching for obvious reasons, but I also took great pleasure in his choice of bringing the St. Christopher medallion. For those who may not know, St. Christopher holds the place in the Catholic religion as the patron saint of travelers. As the story goes, Christopher, being a strong and large man, served God by helping travelers cross a dangerous and swift river, where many had perished attempting to do so. One day, a young boy came to the river, but as Christopher began to cross the river with him hoisted on his back, the waters of the river rose, and the boy began to become unbelievably heavy on Christopher’s back. Heavier and heavier until Christopher thought he would not make it. But Christopher pushed on, and eventually made it to the other side of the river and to safety for both him and his passenger. Upon their safe arrival to the other side of the river, Christopher said to the boy, “You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” The child in response said, “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.” As a traveler who also has the weight of the world on his shoulder by pushing the limits of the human existence, I found this quite the apropos choice as a creature comfort for the astronaut.

While the previous items were all taken with the express approval from NASA, this last item was actually smuggled aboard the mission. Wally Schirra, NASA astronaut, purportedly made the decision to sneak not only scotch but cigarettes aboard during one of his expeditions into space. Ironically enough, Schirra had attempted to quit smoking many times, much to the joy and annoyance of his wife who said he was unbearable to live with while he was in the process of attempting to quit. Because of this, on a later mission, Schirra purposely chose to not bring cigarettes, so he could go through the withdrawal period without any possible temptation to relapse and far away from his wife, for her sake.

The stories of the personal items taken into space are many and varied.  They also lend themselves to a fun thought game you can play with yourself. What would you choose to bring into space that served only the purpose of enriching your time there? If you find yourself stuck, try and think of this quote (very paraphrased) by CS Lewis: Friendship, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself is unnecessary. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival. What things in your life give value to your survival?

Eyes to the Skies!

I don’t know about you, but I’m really looking forward to the upcoming long holiday weekend. What better way to celebrate the economic achievements of the American worker than by taking a day off from work? Even though I’m comfortably working from home (in the dark with my cats close by, wearing stretchy clothes because all manner of food and drink are just a room away) and I love my job as Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications for the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, it will be nice to have an extra day away from Zoom meetings, emails, and hours of research and writing. Of course I don’t plan to forsake work completely; the weather forecast is good for my area here in central New Mexico, and I plan to get out of town to an even darker sky site than Socorro to do some wide field astrophotography and maybe shoot some time lapse video. Observing and photographing the sky, day or night, is as much pleasure as it is work. Did I mention I love my job?

For me, a weekend of camping generally involves setting up my camera to photograph some aspect of the sky.

If you read Jon Spargo’s September Skies article earlier this week, you know we have a few visual treats in store for us this month, with a close encounter happening this very weekend. On Saturday night, the Moon will pass by Mars, getting as close as a half-degree; a half-degree is about the width of the full Moon. The Moon and Mars will both have risen above the eastern horizon by 11pm on Saturday, and will be visible until dawn. The earlier you observe this pair the better; as the Moon orbits the Earth it is steadily moving away from Mars’ location in the sky. Over the next several days the Moon moves between the Pleiades and Taurus as it continues its journey through the sky. Look to the east close to midnight, as illustrated in the chart below. On Tuesday night the waning gibbous Moon will be about 5° above Aldebaran, the eye of the bull, and about 8° below the seven sisters, the Pleiades.

Other things to look for are the planets Saturn and Jupiter, visible high in the southern sky after sunset. As Jon says, this is a great time to break out your binoculars and telescopes and look for features in the clouds of these two gas giants. While you’re at it, see how many of Saturn’s rings you can pick out, and try to notice Io’s change in position over the course of the night due to its speedy orbit around its parent planet Jupiter.

For those of you who are up before the dawn, look to the east to see the planet Venus. Even though it is surrounded by bright stars such as Betelgeuse, Rigel, and the brightest of them all, Sirius, Venus is still the brightest object you’ll see in this part of the sky.

There are five minor annual meteor showers currently in progress: the Anthelions (ANT), the August gamma Cepheids (AGC), the nu Eridanids (NUE), the eta Eridands (ERI), and the Aurigids (AUR). Although none of these showers are at their peak, you may observe a few meteors. According to the American Meteor Society, at mid-northern latitudes one can expect to see about three meteors per hour in the evening, and up to nine per hour in the early AM from these showers. The chart below shows the radiant (the point from which the meteors appear to originate) of all five showers in the early morning.

If you do go meteor hunting, you can also expect to see a few sporadics, meteors which are not associated with an annual shower. In the evening you may see one or two an hour; in the early morning, as many as six per hour. With a combined total count of 15 per hour, the early morning is the best time to go hunting. The chart below shows the radiants of four of the five minor showers looking east in the early AM. While watching that Moon/Mars close encounter and enjoying the view of Orion, one of the most distinctive constellations in the sky, you just might catch sight of a few meteors. For more information on these and other meteor showers, follow this link.

I hope this gives you an idea of what to look for if you get a chance to spend some time under the canopy of stars over the next few days. I’ll be reporting my night sky finds next week upon my return. Happy observing!

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

What is it Like to Work at the MROI?

By Shelbi Etscorn

For the past nine months, I’ve had the pleasure of learning exactly what it’s like to work at an observatory that’s in the middle of taking on the huge endeavor of building an interferometer. And in my role in the Outreach Department, a lot of my job involves…well observing. But not the kind of observing you usually think of happening at a place like the MROI. My observing revolves around the people, events, and news that happen on a day-to-day basis. As such, I thought I might be uniquely qualified to give you a little inside look at how the MROI operates.

The work being done at the MROI is separated into distinct departments, although some staff fill roles in multiple areas. At its most basic these departments are Software, Instrumentation, Opto-Mechanical, Electro-Mechanical, IT, Science, Maintenance, and Outreach. Many of these are self-explanatory.

It was all hands on deck when MROI’s first telescope and enclosure were assembled and moved to the array.

The IT department does the same work for us as other IT departments. However, not many other IT departments have networks that span about 5,000 feet in elevation, the highest reaching 10,000 feet. It isn’t easy to keep in communication with everything on the Ridge from down on campus. But our IT department somehow manages to do just that. And that’s on top of handling all the trivial issues that are the constant torment of IT men and women around the world (have you tried turning it off and on again?).

One of IT’s jobs is to insure the successful operation of the weather stations, which in this instance meant climbing a high tower to fix the wind sensor.

The Instrumentation, Opto-mechanical, and Electro-Mechanical departments work very closely together. They are constantly figuring out the next step in building the Interferometer from the ground up, revisiting old steps that may have failed or simply can be improved, and over all keep the project moving forward. Brick by tiny, technical, precise brick, they are the ones building the innards of the Interferometer.

MROI staff.

While the three previous departments involve themselves in making the Interferometer work, our Science department is concerned with how it will work. Project Scientist, Michelle Creech-Eakman, is not only a Physics professor at Tech, she is also our source of knowledge for the science behind building a working interferometer. She is our face at many events and meetings in the scientific community, sharing our story that she is an acting force behind.

Project Scientist Michelle Creech-Eakman speaking to a tour group during an MRO public open house.

The maintenance department, while often helping us down on campus, is mainly found up on the Ridge. They are the ones with the ability to keep all of our heavy machinery running and most days are operating them to ensure the upkeep of the roads that lead up to the Observatory. It’s no small task, and it’s one that rests solely on their shoulders.

Keeping the dirt roads cleared up to and on the Observatory grounds is no small task, especially when there is heavy snowfall such as this in January of 2019.

The Software Department, of course, concerns itself with creating and maintaining the software that is used to control the MROI. A quick story: very early on after joining the MROI, I was tasked with accompanying the Software Team up to the ridge to film the dome of the Interferometer’s telescope opening, and the telescope itself moving from side to side stopping at specific points, much as it would if it were actually observing specific points in the sky. I was doing this to show the software that had been built that could direct the telescope to focus at one predetermined direction and then another automatically, with no further direction needed after start up. This allows for multiple observations to be made, one after another, while limiting the need for constant human guidance.

The wind was brutal that day making it unbearably cold. I sat perched on the scaffolding that is used to lift and move the telescopes, trying to keep my arms wrapped around myself while also trying to prevent my tripod and camera from crashing down to the ground in the gusts, I watched as the dome opened and the telescope did what it was always intended to do. I think I yelped in joy at the start of the show.

Upon its completion, I scrambled down the scaffolding and excitedly entered the Control Room where the members of the conference team were. I was expecting whoops and hollers, but the team calmly packed up their belongings, told me they were done, and we headed back down the mountain. I guess when you do amazing things every day, even the most incredible achievement seems a little mundane.

All of the departments at the MROI actually seem to mimic an interferometer in the way they work together. Each department is like a telescope, each bringing their own expertise and bringing it together to build something amazing, in the same way the telescopes of the Interferometer will bring together the light from their section of the sky to make an image. Even more impressive, the departments create their own light. They aren’t stationary, passive structures waiting for light to fall on them, they are an active part in the forming of the light that each puts out. They are the stars and planets.

Aerial view of the MROI currently under construction.

While I sit in my corner of the Outreach department, completely surrounded by all these unique, motivated, and unimaginably intelligent people – these telescopes – it’s sometimes difficult to not ask myself, what is our role here? What do they need us for? I certainly do not feel like a telescope. Writing this gave me time for some self-reflection, and I had some ideas: at first, I thought maybe Outreach was the instrumentation. Where the light brought in by the telescopes is created into something tangible that can be studied and enjoyed by everyone. But, it occurred to me, if any department deserves the spot that connects all the departments, it would have to be the previously omitted but not forgotten Administration. Our Principal Investigator, Program Director and Office Administrator work tirelessly to make sure everything gets done that needs to to make the work of all the other departments not only feasible but meaningful. They tie each of us together. No, Outreach was not found there.

I was feeling more than a little unnecessary to the project when it hit me. In our Interferometer metaphor for MROI staff, the Outreach Department is the observer: you! It’s why I seemed to be the only one jumping for joy at an accomplishment I had no hand in while filming the work of our Software team. The Outreach Department is the one standing excitedly by, while all the fancy technology does its thing, eagerly waiting for results and observations that we can share and be amazed at with the community in the form of our newsletters, our events, and even this blog! And we can’t wait to show you what’s happening next.

Shoot the Moon

Inspired by Jon Spargo’s September Skies article I shared yesterday, I did some observing last night and this morning. I had plans to meet friends at Box Canyon yesterday early evening to do some bouldering, and I realized that the western wall of the canyon would be the perfect place to catch the Moon rising over the quebradas in the distance. After a few hours of bouldering (which for me as a beginner consists of desperately clinging to rough rock and shredding the skin on my hands), we finished up on the Gimmies just in time to scoot up to the top of the west wall and set up to shoot the Moon.

Part of the Gimmies, popular bouldering spot in Box Canyon outside of Socorro, New Mexico.

There turned out to be much more haze on the horizon than I realized, delaying the appearance of the Moon by nearly ten minutes past its actual rise time. When it did finally rise above the haze, the Moon was a deep yellow/orange color, and a beautiful sight to behold.

Moon rising through the layers of haze and light clouds. The foreground is the east wall of Box Canyon, and the quebradas are in the distance.
Wide angle view of the Moon over the east wall of Box Canyon.

Because the east wall of the canyon starts low on its north side and reaches a higher elevation toward its south side, we were able to witness three more “moonrises” by moving south on our side of the canyon. This was a great example of parallax, the difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along different lines of sight.

First moonrise over the east wall of Box Canyon.
Second moonrise over the east wall of Box Canyon.
Third moonrise over the east wall of Box Canyon.

Seeing four moonrises in one night was a new record for me!

Since observing the full Moon setting in the morning is just as interesting as watching it rise, I planned to get up early this morning to do just that. I have mountains in my field of view to the west where the Moon was setting this morning, so for me moonset began about 6:25 AM MDT.

Moonset in Polvadera, New Mexico.

If you missed the moonrise last night, you have another chance tonight. Although the Moon has already reached its full phase (100% illuminated) and is beginning to wane (become less illuminated), it hasn’t waned by much; in our location the Moon will be 99.8% illuminated, according to LunaSolCal (print screen below). Moreover, it will still be about 99% illuminated when it sets on Thursday morning, though it won’t have that nice orange color since it sets more than an hour after the Sun rises.

Here’s hoping for clear skies and good observing!

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

What’s Up

I am pleased to announce that Astro Daily will be sharing Jon Spargo’s informative “what’s up” article at the first of each month. Astro Daily will supplement Jon’s article with relevant illustrations, images, and sky charts. Thanks so much for letting us share, Jon!

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

September Skies

Jupiter and Saturn spend most of September high in the southern sky being visible just after sunset. At the beginning of this month they will be only 8 degrees apart. You can verify this by making a fist and holding it at arm’s length. Your fist will cover an angle of about 10 degrees and the separation between the two planets should be slightly less than the width of your fist.

For more information about how to measure distances in the sky, check out the following Astro Daily article:

As the month progresses, the separation between the two will shrink slightly as the two planets begin to narrow the gap separating them as they head for a very close encounter in December. Both planets are well placed in the evening sky for hunting surface features and moons with binoculars and small telescopes. Saturn’s rings are still wide open at 23 degrees from the horizontal.

Mars becomes even more imposing rising two hours after sunset at the beginning of September and less than one hour after sunset at month’s end. While doing so, its apparent brightness improves from magnitude -1.8 to -2.5, causing it to appear slightly brighter than Jupiter. This will be the time to break out your telescopes and go hunting for surface features. The southern polar ice cap should be visible.

Venus now rises about 3.5 hours before sunrise and achieves a position of about 40 degrees above the eastern horizon. Check it out with your fist as described above. At magnitude -4.1, brilliant Venus reveals almost 72% of its cloud-covered surface.

The Moon will be full on the 2nd, last quarter on the 10th, new on the 17th, and first quarter on the 24th.  Looking east on the night of September 5th, around 11 p.m., the Moon will pass within ½ degree of the red planet Mars. Looking east on the morning of the 14th, about an hour before sunrise, the crescent Moon will be below and to the left of brilliant Venus. On the evenings of the 24th and 25th, about 45 minutes after sunset, look south to see the Moon visit first Jupiter and then Saturn.

The Moon and Venus are about 8° apart in this image. On September 14 they will be a little closer together, 5.5° of separation, and the Moon will be a 11% illuminated rather than 2% as in this image.

On the 22nd we can be thankful that summer is over as the autumnal equinox brings us the first day of fall for the northern hemisphere at 7:31 a.m. MDT.

Stay safe and Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo