Friday, October 23, 2009

Meteor Mania!

Tuesday night I volunteered to set up one of my telescopes at the Visitor Center of the Kitt Peak National Observatory. They were holding an outreach program called Meteor Mania!, set to coincide with the peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower, falling on 20 October this year. Besides a presentation and a chance to get warm inside the Visitor Center, the meteors were the main course, with the telescopes of TAAA member John Kalas and myself serving as hors d'oeuvres. The meteor program ran from 10pm to 3am (meteor showers are generally better after Midnight), yet it was easiest to set up scopes before it got dark, so John and I had some time on our hands after sunset about 6pm. Here is a self-portrait taken after scope setup - a 4 minute exposure with 12-22mm zoom on the Canon XSi.

It was a beautiful evening, and I wandered about with camera and tripod to capture a few photos in the deepening twilight. The "King of the Mountain" is the 4 meter Mayall Telescope, it's dome dominating the mountaintop, even easily visible to the naked eye from Tucson 45 air miles away. Here it is seen with the University of Arizona's 2.3 meter telescope in the foreground. The four brightest stars in the background are the bowl stars of the Big Dipper, setting in the northwestern sky. As always, click on the image to load a full-screen version.

Out on the southwest ridge of the mountain is the 3.5 meter WIYN Observatory. The acronym is formed from the primary partners, the Universities of Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, which also administers Kitt Peak National Observatory. The 3.5 meter (140 inch) diameter telescope was built 15 years ago, and it's mirror was cast at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, where I work. The mirror was the 3rd large mirror I worked on at the Lab, along with 2 opticians from Kitt Peak's optics shop. The telescope has many unique features that were new at the time of construction. The mirror is a lightweight casting that is only a fourth the weight of a solid mirror. The mounting is an altazimuth design, aimed sort of like a cannon - left-right and up-down motions. The combination of the light mirror and Alt-Az mount reduce the moving mass of the telescope to 20 tons, compared to nearly 300 tons for the 4-meter across the mountain, almost the same size, but built a generation before! On Tuesday, the 2-day-old moon posed next to the faceted dome of WIYN. Also visible are the brightest stars of the constellation Scorpius, setting in the southwest.

One of the more interesting things going on Tuesday night, other than the meteor program, was that there was an "artists in residence" program going on. There were a number of members of the International Association of Astronomical Artists spending the better part of the week, getting inspiration by the sky and hardware assembled at the Observatory. The program was partially to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Kitt Peak. John and I met the 5 or 6 that were up and around Tuesday and toured their impromptu studio (housed in what used to be a rec room when I worked at Kitt Peak in the '80s). They later came by and observed through our telescopes, being suitably impressed with vistas of the cosmos. Shown here is a view of the 2.1 meter telescope "Midday on Kitt Peak" by William Hartmann painted last Spring, and is representative of the work that was ongoing, with several different media employed by different artists.

As our artist friends departed, I set up a camera on a tracking mount to take some wide-field shots of the sky, subconsciously attempting to catch any bright meteors that happened along. This shot is of a pair of the brightest galaxies viewable from the Northern Hemisphere - M31, the Andromeda Galaxy to the left, and M33 in Triangulum to the right. The former is easily visible to the naked eye from a dark sky, and represents the furthest one can see without optical aid - 2.4 million light years (multiply by 6,000,000,000,000 miles per light year to convert to English units)! When you click on the image to get the full size, there are two small fuzzy spots nearby that are small satellite galaxies to the Andromeda Galaxy. They are easily spotted in small telescopes, as are the dust lanes that are also seen. Both this image and the next are a stack of several exposures with a 50mm lens and the Canon XSi.

Also easily visible high in the sky throughout the night were these two clusters in the constellation Taurus. M45 or the Pleiades are in the upper right, and the V-shaped Hyades are lower left. Compared to the distant galaxies in the previous image, both of these clusters are close by, part of our Milky Way Galaxy. The Hyades are about 150 light years (the distance light travels in a year), and the Pleiades are about 440 light years. Upon spotting it in binoculars, some novices note a dipper shape and mistake the Pleiades for the Little Dipper. Interestingly, in Japan, the cluster is known as Subaru, and if you ever see a Subaru vehicle, look for a little map of the Pleiades on the rear of the car!

Finally, about 12:30am, the meteor observers came out and got down to observing, both with the scopes John and I had set up and for meteors. The Orionid shower originates from Halley's Comet - the meteors we see being caused by dust particles released in a comet passage long-ago. In fact, I saw some estimates predicting an enhancement in shower activity caused by filaments of dust released by Halley in a 1400BC pass! I likely saw a few dozen meteors over the hours, though I spent a lot of time looking through the telescope and camera screen. It was a great night, with some spectacular views, though I only caught part of one dim meteor on camera. It was also nice having the Visitor Center as a warm room, with snacks available! The observing ended promptly at 3am, and after packing up, I got home right at 5am. Fortunately I had taken Tuesday and Wednesday from work, so I could sleep in!

There are 2 more opportunities for Meteor Mania! - for the Leonid shower on 17 November, and the Geminids on 13 December. Check out the link if you are interested in taking part!

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