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

The VLA Turns 40

By Dave Finley
Public Information Officer
National Radio Astronomy Observatory

On Saturday, October 10, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) will mark exactly 40 years since the dedication of the Very Large Array — a scientific icon that has greatly advanced our understanding of the Universe.

At the beginning of this year, we had started planning to celebrate this anniversary with a large public ceremony on the Plains of San Agustin, with the VLA’s giant, 230-ton dish antennas as the backdrop. We hoped to host a celebration that would at least match the 1980 dedication ceremony that drew hundreds of scientists, government officials, and members of the public.

The COVID-19 outbreak ended those plans, forcing us to close the VLA to the public, but we couldn’t let the occasion go unmarked. This year’s celebration will be online, starting at 9:00 a.m., Mountain Daylight Time, on Saturday. The event will include two virtual tours of the VLA along with presentations on the VLA’s history, supporting an observatory, the VLA Sky Survey, and NRAO’s plans for the future with the Next Generation VLA. Details of the online event are at:

In the four decades since that ceremony in 1980, the VLA has compiled an enviable record of scientific achievement. Its flexibility as a research instrument has allowed it to make discoveries across the breadth of astronomical specialties, ranging from studies of the Sun and planets in our own Solar System to galaxies many billions of light-years distant, and nearly everything in between.

Radio astronomy, which got its start with Karl Jansky’s 1932 serendipitous discovery of radio waves coming from the center of the Milky Way, had come a long way by the 1960s. In that decade, radio telescopes were responsible for discovering quasars, pulsars, and the cosmic microwave background – the remnant radiation from the Big Bang.

However, the big need was for more resolving power – the ability to see fine detail – an ability in which the large single-dish radio telescopes of that era were severely limited.  It became clear to the leadership of NRAO that the future required using the interferometric techniques developed in Britain by Sir Martin Ryle, for which he received the Nobel Prize. NRAO scientists began working on the concept that ultimately would become the VLA in 1962.

The New Mexico connection to the project came as NRAO began seeking a location suitable for a radio telescope system that would incorporate multiple large antennas and span a territory more than 20 miles across. The site-selection process began with inspections that ran from 1965 to 1969. By a process that included map inspections, aerial photos and reconnaissance, and ultimately ground visits, the list of candidate sites was narrowed from 89 down to four finalists.

The first NRAO visit to the Plains of San Agustin, in the high desert of west-central New Mexico, came in February of 1966. According to one of the participants, the site immediately impressed the team. In a written report in May of that year, they called it “an excellent potential site.”

In the meantime, NRAO was developing the hardware and software for the VLA at the observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, building a prototype called the Green Bank Interferometer. Also, the project began working its way through the proposal and approval processes at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the funding agency.

In 1972, the final selection of the VLA site was approved, the project was approved by Congress, and the NSF authorized NRAO to proceed with construction. The following year saw NRAO open an office in Magdalena and, late in the year, take possession of the central site, where the VLA’s buildings now are located.

The dedication ceremony capped a construction project that was completed on budget and a year ahead of schedule, and began an era that provided the world’s astronomers with unmatched research capabilities. The scientific payoff was tremendous, yielding discoveries that surprised even those who had designed the VLA. One astronomer summed up the scientific impact by saying, “You could point the thing at anything and learn something no one knew before.”

As the VLA racked up important discoveries in the years that followed, technology was advancing rapidly, and by the mid-1990s it became apparent that newer technology could greatly increase the power of the VLA as a scientific tool. In 2001, the NSF approved an expansion project that replaced the original, 1970s-era electronics with state-of-the-art equipment, and work began the following year. With funding from the NSF, Canada, and Mexico, this project turned the VLA into a completely new and vastly more capable research instrument. That status was recognized by a rededication ceremony in 2012 that renamed it the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, honoring the founder of radio astronomy.

The scientific importance of the VLA, along with the stunning visual impact of those giant dish antennas rising out of the desert, have attracted world-wide attention from filmmakers, photographers, writers, and entertainers. The VLA had a leading role in the 1997 Warner Brothers film “Contact,” and in several other feature films and TV productions. It has been a highly-sought backdrop for everything from music videos to car commercials, and is a popular subject for photographers.

Since its inception, the VLA has remained at the forefront of science, enabling discoveries that addressed some of the biggest unanswered questions in astronomy. Today, NRAO plans to continue providing advanced tools for frontier science by developing the Next Generation Very Large Array (ngVLA). The ngVLA will build on the proud legacy of the VLA – and the hundreds of staff members who have supported the VLA over the past decades– to help unravel the scientific mysteries that will challenge the coming generations of astronomers.

Buy Planet Mars!

The other day I was looking through my email offers from Groupon (an online site that offers discounted goods and services), and was caught by the headline offer: Buy Planet Mars!

Wow, I thought to myself, I’d really love to own Planet Mars! I mean, what better investment for a woman who loves astronomy than to buy Planet Mars? I didn’t even realize it was for sale! Probably out of my price range, but still – owning Planet Mars!! I had to click the link.

Needless to say, when I got to the sale page I was rather disappointed to discover that it wasn’t the whole PLANET for sale, I could only buy one-acre parcels of Planet Mars. Darn. But on the other hand, the land was pretty cheap, only $15 an acre (original value $35). I’d get a deed, a map with the location of my land, and a special Planet Mars Info eBook.  Such a deal! I mean seriously, land for $15 an acre? You can’t even buy land in undeveloped-no-where-New-Mexico for that price.

So what are talking here, just how many acres on Planet Mars? My Google search returned a figure of about 35.5 billion acres. 35.5 billion times $15…..WT…didn’t even need to break out my calculator to know we’re talking in the ballpark of $52 billion. Dang, I don’t have it. Bill Gates could buy Planet Mars and only be down less than half of his purported net worth of $110 billion. Gates has given just about a Planet Mars’ worth of money to charity since 1994 (so much better for those of us here on Earth that he has supported important causes here rather than invest in Planet Mars.)

I figure Elon Musk could also by Planet Mars, although it would put him back a lot more than Gates. Musk’s estimated value is more on the order of $66 billion; buying Planet Mars would definitely put a crimp in his lifestyle.

Then I read the fine print on the offer – only one acre per person. It was at this point that I really had to give up my dream of buying Planet Mars through Groupon. Sigh.

But of course, I knew I never could have bought Planet Mars, even if I did have tens of billions of dollars of expendable income. In 1967 the USA, UK, and then Soviet Union created a treaty covering the use and exploitation of outer space, the Moon, and other celestial bodies, signed by more than 100 nations. Bottom line of this treaty is, nobody can claim ownership of the space around us or of any celestial bodies, including Planet Mars. Even with the 2015 modification of the treaty in the SPACEAct of 2015 that allows the ownership of materials extracted from celestial bodies, you can’t own the celestial body itself. Phew! So I didn’t miss out on an incredible (and non-affordable for me) deal!

Turns out owning Planet Mars is nothing more than a novelty item, no different from the hoaxers who sell land on the Moon and Uranus. That’s right, someone out there sells acres of land on an icy, gassy planet that doesn’t even have a solid surface. But ya know, if buying these things as novelty gifts turns your crank, I say go for it! Then talk to me, I’m thinking of starting a business selling cubic kilometers of pretty pink hydrogen gas in the Orion Nebula…

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

Citizen Science

I’ve talked Citizen Science projects in a couple of previous blog posts, here and here.  That’s great for those who have time on their hands to participate, but what if your idle time is limited? That’s where projects like Einstein@Home come in; they don’t require your idle time, but rather, your computer’s idle time. This is a great choice for those of us who want to make a contribution to scientific research and discovery, but lack the free time it takes to do it.

Einstein@Home puts your computer to work when you’re not using it, to search for weak electromagnetic signals emitted by pulsars (spinning neutron stars), using data from several sources. To date, volunteers have discovered about fifty new neutron stars, and are expected to discover many more. The long term goal is to detect gravitational-wave emission from pulsars.

To participate, you need to sign up for an account at the Einstein@home website, then download the necessary software your computer will run to crunch the data that will be supplied.

This is just one of many projects in which you lend your computer’s idle time to reduce data and crunch the numbers. Check out the links below for lists of projects to get involved in, and put your computer’s down time to good use!

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

Starlink Satellites Used for the First Time

By Shelbi Etscorn

A few months ago, AstroDaily shared with you the skinny on the Starlink satellites being launched by SpaceX, the company run by Elon Musk who recently sent and brought back two astronauts to the International Space Station. The goal of these satellites is to offer high speed internet access to people all over the world, even the places with notoriously poor access. Our post also mentioned that anyone can sign up to test run the service, but just recently the first use of the technology was disclosed by SpaceX and the results of that initial use in the field are both heartwarming and thrilling.

Firefighters currently fighting wildfires in remote areas in Washington state have been able to use the high speed internet provided by Starlink satellites with great success. According to a CNBC article on the subject, Washington firefighters were given seven terminals to use which they set up in areas where fires had destroyed infrastructure including any internet service.

In the article, Richard Hall, the emergency telecommunications leader of the Washington State Military Department’s IT division was quoted as saying, “I have never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable.” These terminals have brought internet access to the places that need it most, and they aren’t only being used as communication for firefighters.

Families who have been forced to evacuate have been allowed to connect to the Wi-Fi, giving them the precious opportunity to reach their frantic loved ones and assure them they are well. They’ve also been able to file insurance claims and get the ball rolling on getting their life back to a semblance of normal after having lost so much. Children have even been able to connect to the internet so they can still attend their classes, which as of late have largely been held virtually.

The news is exciting not only because of how well this initial test has been reported to have worked, but also for the relief and aid it has given to these people who are probably going through some of the worst days of their lives. In a world that has now moved almost entirely online, it is more important than ever that people have access to reliable, high-speed internet just so they can do the things required for day-to-day life. Now I’m not saying Elon could have predicted this when he started launching Starlink satellites or that he had anything to do with the pandemic to create a need for the internet his satellites provide, but I am saying that would make a heck of a movie! And I am excited to see what other applications the internet provided by these satellites has to offer!