Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Belated Farewell

In real life, the adventure ended on Tuesday.  Since then, I've returned to work and have been really busy, so haven't had a chance to conclude the adventure with our Russian friends. 

After our day at the Canyon and Lowell Observatory, about all we had to do Tuesday was spend the day and return to Tucson for a 7pm train.  As is normally the case when we've got the time, we took the "scenic" route back to Tucson and wound down route 89 through Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona.  It is always a beautiful drive, especially with the blue skies and some starts to the Fall colors starting to show.  A regular stop with newcomers is a swing past the Chapel of the Holy Cross, built in the mid 50s..  The photo at left was found on line, showing the Chapel built into the Red Rocks of the valley.  It is not only a spectacular structure, but also has a great view of the surrounding country.  Unfortunately, the most prominent view is of a rather gaudy estate built at the base of the church, shown at right.  In the distance, more rock formations that the Sedona area is known for are visible.
The inside of the Chapel is rather basic, obviously the architects didn't want to compete with the exterior and views.  In total, we spent about 30 minutes enjoying and documenting the views from the top of the hill.  Maiia was enjoying the view of herself, and I caught her doing a self-portrait...
Of course, we had to do the obligatory group portrait to prove we were there, the red rocks providing a suitable backdrop for this shot...  And at right, the trio of Leo, Andrey and Danila were hanging out before the trip continued.
While we should have taken the direct route back to Tucson, we continued to take the longer, scenic route back to Tucson, even most of the kids ended up sleeping or playing video games, rather than enjoy the view...  But to mix it up, we headed east from the Verde Valley, passing through Strawberry and Pine, before lunching in Payson (Pizza Hut!).  Afterwards we continued down just east of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area before encountering the eastern outskirts of the Phoenix metropolitan area before hitting the I-10 back to Tucson.  It was a sad moment as we dropped off the kids with all their luggage to meet their train back to the LA area.  After spending over a week with them, it was an emotional time to say farewell.  Of course, we took another group picture...
For me, the return to reality hit early the next morning as I went back to work to catch up on what I've missed the last week.  Meanwhile by now three days later, our new buddies are having adventures with new hosts somewhere in western California.  It was great spending time with them, and seeing their individual personalities coming through after getting to know us a little.  We've already gotten invites from some of the parents to visit Krasnoyarsk, some have left comments on the blog, and if you go to our traffic viewer at the bottom of the blog, you can see we were pretty popular in Siberia all of a sudden, as parents, friends and teachers followed our exploits.  I'd certainly do it again, it was great fun, both sides benefiting from the visit - they had a knowledgeable guide with some connections, they covered expenses, and Melinda and I got a peek into a window of lives on the other side of the world.  We found out that they are all pretty much just like us, and it would be great to keep up with the kids as they grow and hopefully visit again in the future.  Plus we got some cool gifts - some shown at left! 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

About The Best Day Ever!

Our 600th Post!  And suitably, it includes the Grand Canyon, which is one of our favorite places.  I think we've convinced our Russian friends of the same thing.  It is a beautiful place, and though the day dawned cloudy and threatening sprinkles, any day at the Canyon is great!  It was a 90 minute drive up from Flagstaff, and of course, we had to take the obligatory group shots.

With the spectacular backdrop, everyone wanted their picture taken...

After all the pictures, we split up a little.  Chuck agreed to lead a hike down Bright Angel Trail for 3km.  Meanwhile, Melinda and I escorted Anton (who didn't care to hike today) along the rim and for some shopping before meeting everyone for a late lunch.

 For lunch we went over to one of our June star party standards, Maswick Cafeteria.  While I usually go for the Mexican food, most everyone today (everybody, I think) went for pizza.  Interestingly, they go for what I think is the bland pizza - straight cheese and tomato sauce...  Oh well, I guess they know what they like!  Finally, everyone who had gone out hiking had some time to do some souvenir shopping before heading  back to Flagstaff.  On the way, we stopped at our friend Tom Taylor's B&B, A Shooting Star Inn.  We blogged about them recently, and I thought the group would like to observe through his solar telescope.  Fortunately, the clouds parted for a few minutes and we all got a good look.  Everyone also really enjoyed his music studio, with several making themselves at home with some of his instruments!

Finally, back in Flagstaff, we went back to our rooms to relax a bit and dress in warmer clothes for our visit to Lowell Observatory, a great historic location.  The highlight of any trip at the Observatory is the big 60cm (24") refractor, now about 115 years old - old by most any standards around here.  After a nice movie while it got dark, we climbed the hill to the historic scope.  While waiting in line I took another group shot with the telescope enclosure in the background.  Most of these following exposures are 5-8 seconds in length, the group shot illuminated briefly with my red flashlight...  Finally it was our turn to observe.  With the bright moon, that is the only object to which the  big scope was pointed.  It is visible out the dome slit at right.  Unfortunately, the scope wasn't in critical focus, so I was unable to examine the color error of the achromatic doublet, but it was still interesting to finally look through it after about 10 years of trying!

After a couple hours of looking through some additional small scopes, touring through the interactive exhibits, visiting the Rotunda (collection of some historic instruments), and more shopping in the gift shop, we finally decided it was time for some dinner.  Interestingly, several of the local eateries were totally packed for some reason on this Monday night, so we ended up at Coco's.  Eating late, we finally got back to the rooms about 10pm.  Another road trip tomorrow to return to Tucson - the gang has a train to catch Tuesday evening...  The end of the Arizona leg of the visit is in sight!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Exploring The North Land

A short post today, since yesterday was mostly a travel day.  From Tucson, we shut down operations and checked out of the motel there, and hit the road going North.  Our goal was to be in Flagstaff by about 1pm, and by limiting stops to just 2 bathroom breaks, we were right on time.  The winning vote for lunch was a visit to McDonald's (first time for all our visitors!), so We dropped them off there while Melinda (who was driving her own car full of luggage) and I put gas in the vehicles.  We joined them later, then left for our only stop of the day - Meteor Crater!

We learned that 50,000 years ago, a space rock collided with the Earth at this location about 30 miles east of Flagstaff.  Thanks to the arid climate, it is the best preserved impact site in the world.  We now know that impacts such as this have happened many times around the world in the past.  The scale of this crater, given the relatively small impactor only 50 meters across is quite amazing.  Because of its great speed over 12 km/second, it evacuated a 1.2km crater upon impact, leaving nearly no trace of the original iron-nickle meteorite.  We arrived just as a tour arrived - led by Darrin, a former baseball star from nearby Winslow, who attended the University of Arizona.  He gave a great running commentary as he led us on a rim tour about 1km along the northwestern edge.  Unfortunately, from the rim it is a difficult object to image because it is so wide.  I took many pictures for panoramas, but my software is having difficulty assembling them, so the big picture will have to wait.  The images here will have to do.

Along the way we passed a lot of amazing flowers that seemed out of place is the harsh-looking, rocky soil.  Darrin told us they had good summer rains that just ended a week or so before, and these will all wilt and die in a few days...  At left here is the most colorful - Indian Paintbrush.  Finally we reached the outer turn point of the tour, which had a nice location where the crater served as photo backdrop.  After that it was a quick return back to the Visitor Center - just about the fastest hour I've ever experienced!

After our return, all agreed to split up and meet again in an hour to depart.  I caught the short movie, which I'd never seen in my previous 2 visits, then went out to examine the Crater from some of the viewpoints where you don't have to be escorted.  It was a grand view in the setting sun.  In the photo at left, the man on the path is taking a picture of his small son who ran down to the lower platform visible in the distance.  Eventually, everyone explored and shopped to their hearts content, and finally loaded up the van for the trip to Flagstaff.  Our buddy, Chuck, who gave us the tour of the Pima Air and Space Museum a few days ago had flown his plane into the airport, and we picked him up to join us for the rest of our travels.  After checking into our motel, we went to eat dinner at a nice restaurant across the street, and Chuck bought dinner for everyone!

Tomorrow will be another busy day as our Russian friends tour winds down.  We go 150km to the NW to the Grand Canyon, with some surprises along the way.  It should be a fun day!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Shopping Day!

The Saga continues - Russian visitors day 6!  I purposely left this day slack because I knew we would be returning from Mount Graham late last night, and leaving early for Northern Arizona tomorrow.  I was thinking we might do something fun for the kids - see a movie, possibly a trip to Funtastics - a children's amusement park, attend the Kitt Peak open house tonight or something like that.  So what did they want to do?  Go shopping!

Highest on everyones list was a trip to the Apple Store!  The elegant simplicity of the iPad, IPhone and iPod makes everyone want one it seems, our visitors being no exception.  Sergey ended up getting an iPad for the astronomy club.  As an  informational tablet computer it should enjoy many uses for the group.  I'm not sure who bought what devices, but we spent nearly 90 minutes there!

We spent some time driving around town trying to find some stores that they had found on the Internet.  Jackets with Air Force or NASA patches are desired, but so far none have been found locally.  And unfortunately, several of the stores we were looking for no longer existed or were too small to have jackets like that in stock...  We ended up going to the largest shopping mall around - the Tucson Mall.  It is pretty large and strangely laid out, so easy to get turned around.  We made everyone buddy-up so no one would get lost.  Two hours later, everyone showed up on schedule, safe and sound!  Some bought some clothes, some bought souvenirs to bring home.  Just before we left, we stopped at a store with a rack full of western hats, and Melinda took a photo of everyone wearing a hat.  They looked good!  After a stop for dinner, they were delivered to the motel by 8pm with instructions to pack up so we can leave early in the morning for the trip to Flagstaff and beyond.  Tomorrow will be spent on the road, so we're uncertain when we'll post again, but hope to from our rooms there.

Arizona's Biggest and Highest!

Friday was our day to visit the Observatory that is the largest and highest of Arizona.  Located on Mount Graham in Eastern Arizona, a trio of telescopes is located at 3260m (10,700 feet) above the desert.  The Mount Graham International Observatory is home to The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), the Sub-Millimeter Telescope (SMT), and the flagship of them all, the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT).   This telescope consists of 2 huge mirrors ov 8.4 meters diameter working in tandem, equivalent in light-gathering power of a single 12 meter mirror!

The trip to the Observatory is not for the meek of heart!  It is a long drive - nearly 3.5 hours, and includes driving up a long, at times rough road that climbs 2200 meters (7000 feet) above the base of the mountain.  First we drove for over 2 hours from Tucson to Safford where we met our tour guides at a very nice little museum called Discovery Park, operated by Eastern Arizona College. Husband and wife team Mark and Jackie gave us the run of the displays and most of the kids rode a shuttle simulator which whisks the children away on a voyage through space, complete with the appearance of g-forces and motions like a real flight trainer. Everyone gave it a big thumbs up. As we lined up near the entrance for a photo, Jackie also showed us the local residents - Hiccup and Petunia, the desert tortoises. At left my wife Melinda smooches up to Hiccup, and Petunia is at right. Note that Petunia has a gimpy left leg and likely wouldn't be able to survive in the wild.  Here these are well-cared for and make an interesting encounter for visitors!
The drive up the mountain soon started, pointing uphill very quickly, with almost endless bends and twists.  Just about the time you have had enough, the pavement ends and you continue on a bumpy gravel or dirt road.  Melinda reports (from a second vehicle) that the girls exclaimed "Russian Roads!".  Finally, after nearly 90 minutes of driving uphill, we reached the Columbine Ranger Station, where Mark and Jackie introduced us to Jim and John, a pair of volunteers who interact with visitors at the facility.  They work in near paradise conditions - far above the desert, they are surrounded by tall forests of pine trees and meadows full of wildflowers.  We ate a meal of Subway sandwiches that Jackie had brought for us, and the children stretched their legs a bit before we reached the observatory.  Here John demonstrates the proper form of throwing one of the boomerang toys that return to you if thrown correctly.  And at right, Nikita echoes perfect form with his effort.
As sunset quickly approached, we headed the last few miles up to the Observatory.  Just when you thought the road couldn't get any worse, it turned even steeper and reduced to only one lane.  Our guides made an announcement on the radio to make sure no one went down the road while we climbed because there would be no room to pass!  We finally arrived atop the mountain and took in the amazing sight of the huge buildings housing the telescopes.  No traditional domed buildings here - all are squat rectangular structures, though the VATT sports a very small dome for its stubby telescope atop a 3 story laboratory and living quarters.  In the near distance (about 200 meters to the east) was the LBT, a seemingly huge building - 40 meters tall (120 feet) and also about as wide.  The photo shows the visitors just as they arrived, before they put on their warm clothes.  Travelling from the desert where it was 35C, it was only about 15C at the peak, so the first order of business was to put on warmer clothes!
Mark and Jackie gave us a very nice tour of the VATT, complete with very nice living quarters.  The telescope was among the first from the Mirror Lab where I work, and I helped with the mirror construction when first working at the Lab in the 1990s.  One of the advantages of making the telescopes very steeply curved is that the resulting telescope is very short and can be located in a very small building to help keep construction expenses down.  At left is the Altitude-Azimuth mounted VATT telescope, and at right Mark talks about the optical layout of the Gregorian optical design.
Finally it was time to see the the mechanical marvel that is the LBT!  Parking at the base of the towering structure, it seems to be a skyscraper from a large city transplanted atop a mountain.  The sun was about to set behind horizons 150km (100 miles) away.  Inside we met Jeff Urban, who I had not seen in years - we often worked together at Steward Observatory and unknown to me he was now the site manager!  A former Iowa boy like myself, he lead us on a great tour of the facility and answered questions for a long time at the end.  I was anxious to get up to the telescope, but they build the excitement by starting on the ground floor and seeing all the huge support equipment and explain the monumental engineering challenges that went into the building.  Realize that most of the building rotates with the telescope, and the interface between fixed and rotating parts of the structure is quite complicated.  Finally it was time - the telescope itself!  It always takes my breath away to see it, perhaps my work in making the mirrors makes it special to me, but it truly is an astounding machine.  We roamed the floor of the facility at will for a good 20 minutes while Jeff showed off the engineering. 
As you can see through the side shutter openings from the image at left above, it was growing dark outside, and it was time for the astronomers to open the telescope.  We were allowed to stay for a few minutes more while they lowered the telescope to open the dome.  The mirrors are so large, there are no mirror covers, so whenever the dome is opened, the telescope must lower to horizon-pointing to make sure nothing falls on the fragile optical surface.  In this last picture, one finally gets a good view of one of the two mirrors as the telescope points downwards.  The telescope amazingly moved without a sound, although there is a background whoosh of air as the mirrors are air conditioned with controlled air with the large duct work visible to the right of the mirror.
While we were initially given permission to stay a few hours to watch the astronomers at work, it was an engineering night, and with all the bustle of working on the instrument on telescope, our group would have been in the way, so after Jeff explained all the aspects of the observatory, including the many partners and how to observe with such a device, we thanked our hosts and now descended the miles and miles of road, this time in the dark!  In the desert the creatures come out at night and on the way we spotted ring-tailed cats and a pair of deer as well that were not in any hurry to leave the beams of our headlights.  After a bathroom stop in Willcox, and a grocery shopping trip when we returned to Tucson, we finally dropped our visitors off at their motel about Midnight, exactly 4 hours after departing the Observatory.  It was a great trip, and I took a series of images for making into a time-lapse in the future.  Thanks to all involved for making it so memorable!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kitt Peak Day!

A short post today as we are leaving shortly for a long day trip to Mount Graham, the largest telescope in the continental United States.  But first, yesterday we went up to Kitt Peak National Observatory.  I first started working there when arriving in Tucson in 1970, and where I continue to work for about 1 night per week with the Nightly Observing Program.  With both a daytime and night time session, we started later in the morning, arriving at the Observatory about 11am. 

The astronomers at the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope were expecting us, so after checking in left for the 200 meter walk to that facility.  We had a surprise at the entrance - a Praying Mantis!  With the correct viewing angle, it looked like a scene from a monster movie where mutant creatures were destroying everything in its path!  The telescope in the left image is of the 2.1 meter reflected in the glass behind the mantis.  Despite their fierce appearance, they are quite harmless, and all the children were able to get as close as desired to take its photograph.

The astronomers John Briggs, an amateur astronomer, and staff scientist Jack Harvey were waiting for us.  John had an antique telescope, made 150 years ago - a 13" refractor.  The optics of the big solar telescope were reconfigured to allow the achromat to do imaging, and John here is showing the group the fine images it produces on a computer screen.  In addition to those views, one of the auxiliary telescopes provided a 30cm image diameter of the sun to examine.  The classic telescope, a mixture of 60's era mechanics and current epoch electronic detectors and computers makes for an interesting juxtaposition.  Unfortunately, this telescope is threatened with de-funding, so it may be closed in the near future, something that has been threatened several times in the last few decades.  It is tied for the largest aperture solar telescope at 1.6 meters.
From there we went up to another classic - the 2.1 meter, dedicated in 1964.  While there we watched the observer (a young woman from Indiana), fill the camera dewar with liquid nitrogen to cool the detector to reduce thermal noise.  It was getting a little late, so we walked back to our van and drove the 3km down the road to the picnic area for lunch.  Melinda and I had packed some ham and salami, with lettuce and veggies to make sandwiches, along with fruit, chips and granola bars.  It seemed to be a big hit, the veggies gone before the meat.  The ultimate comment was made by the boy at left after his first bite - "The sandwich of my dreams!".  you can't get higher praise than that!
We returned to the mountaintop to tour the largest telescope on the mountain - the 4-meter.  The telescope had been freshly aluminized during the rainy season just ended, and the mountain manager had told me that they could each keep a tungsten filament that was used in the coating process.  A definite cool and unusual souvenirs!  Up in the telescope dome, some thermal tests were being done, and there was a large circulation fan to mix the air layers so keep the air temperature more uniform.  Unfortunately it was very loud, and I couldn't explain all the aspects of the telescope.  We escaped to the relative quiet of the observing room where the astronomers work.  Another female astronomer - this one from the University of Montreal.  She told us about her work observing nearby white dwarf stars, and comparing the observed spectra of them to computer models that her advisor was developing.  In my observations of the astronomers I've seen since my undergraduate days when first working at the Observatory, there is much more opportunity for women in astronomy.  It almost seems to be 50% women scientists now in the field - a good thing!
We ended in time for me to do my "real" job working with the NOP program.  The group joined me in opening the 40cm telescope in a roll-off roof that we would be using that night.  In all we had 40 observers that night and after a box dinner, we went to observe the sunset and merge into night time observing.  Unfortunately, one of the guests (not from my group of Russians), took a nasty fall and I was diverted to assist and wait for the ambulance to come offer aid to her.  It was almost totally dark when I returned to the telescope and took over my group from Lucas.  it was a whirlwind of observing - we must have seen over 20 objects including Neptune and Uranus, galaxies, several star clusters and nebulae.  We had a few clouds early, but they cleared to reveal a nice sky, made better when the crescent moon finally set (which we observed earlier).  We closed down and left the mountain before 10:30 and the children were home about 11:40.  I was up for a couple hours writing  report about the mountain accident, and finally got to bed myself about 0200 (for about the 3rd night in a row!).  A long road trip today - I will report when I can!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Space and Aviation!

Today our Russian visitors had their heads in the clouds!  This morning we went to the Pima Air and Space Museum.  Our friend Chuck, besides his interest in astronomy also loves flight and flying, and lead our expedition around the Museum, where he is a member.  He even studied up on the Soviet aircraft to help explain some of the design concepts to the children.  At left he was pointing out some of the design differences between jets produced by the different countries after WW2.   The museum has a huge number of plane types throughout their hangar space, as well as outside.  Some of my favorite displays are, of course, the SR-71 and the entirety of hangar 4, which has some classic planes from WW2 and lots of displays of the era.  I got distracted by one of the docents who was relating his experiences flying raids over Southern Europe in a B-24.  The group picture at right was taken in front of a B-29.
Even with the warm temperatures in the sun today, we spent a lot of time outside too, cruising the huge planes outside.  I think everyone loves the huge B-36 on display - Chuck says there are only 2 still in existence, neither one flys, so this one was brought in by train...  Outside also is where led us on a tour of "MIG alley", a collection of classic Soviet aircraft.  After a stop at the cafe for a cold drink and a trip through the gift shop, we headed south to our next stop, the Titan Missile Museum.
While heading south from Tucson, I spotted the brilliant white structure of San Xavier Mission.  We were very slightly early for the Missile Museum, so stopped for a few minute break.  We had time for everyone to visit the spectacular Mission, which was established over 300 years ago, the structure being nearly 230 years old!

At the Missile Museum, we toured the only ballistic missile silo open to the public.  A very nice video introduced us all to the "ancient history" (to the kids anyway) of the essentials of the Cold War and the concepts of maintaining nuclear tipped rockets to deter nuclear war.  It still sounds crazy to me and I'm glad that current leaders are reducing, if not eliminating nuclear stockpiles.  Here is a disabled silo and complete Titan II rocket, though with only a shell of a nuclear weapon installed.  We toured the underground facility, all behind the huge blast doors, shown at right.  Designed to withstand a nuclear attack they help protect the crew and nuclear weapon to assure an attack would not prevent retaliation...  An interesting sidelight, after explaining the international group I had with me today, both the Pima Air and Space Museum, as well as the Titan Missile Museum both waived the entrance fees for our group!  Always nice to enjoy spectacular facilities for no cost!
For an evening activity, Kevin, my supervisor at work, agreed to have us all over to play with his son Kyle and wife Andrea.  They have a lovely home, with lots of space for kids to play.  They also generously offered to feed us, ordering a huge buffet of Chinese food for us all to enjoy.  Once learning the concept of Kinect video games, their converted garage was the most popular place in the house!  The unit uses a small video camera to record the positions and motions of your hands and feet to input into the game.  So instead of pushing buttons to play a game, it is played by moving your hands, feet and entire body, getting exercise in the process (shown at left)!  Also popular was air hockey (shown at right), and an outside team-on-team game of laser tag, at least until 2 kids ran into some cacti spines in the dark... 
After dinner and some more gaming, Kevin started a small fire outside to roast marshmallows and make S'mores by adding them to graham crackers and chocolate. Eventually it started getting late and it was time to leave.  Our hosts insisted that we take all the Chinese food home (even with 17 people, we only ate about 1/3 of it all!).  So our Russian friends will have some healthy food with lots of vegetables for the next couple days when they eat at the motel.  The group shot has Andrea at left, Kevin in the back at left and Kyle front and center in the tie-dye t-shirt.  Another memorable night for the visitors!
Tomorrow another astronomy day - Kitt Peak National Observatory for a daytime tour of the big telescopes starting just before lunchtime, staying after the normal closing time for some evening observing.  We won't get back until late, so likely no update tomorrow, possibly not until our Saturday, as Friday will be a long day as well.  But everyone is fine, healthy and enjoying themselves!