Sunday, February 16, 2014

60 Years of Amateur Astronomy in Tucson!

The Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association turns 60 years old this spring!  I've been an active member for nearly half that time, since shortly after leaving the employ of Kitt Peak in the mid-80s.  Back in the '90s I also served on the executive board, including a stint as President.  It has been a great organization - I've got lots of friends and today was a good day to get together and celebrate another decade of togetherness under the stars.  Besides a buffet line and a program, there was cake - a pair merged together into the picture at right...  Though barely resolved in this image, co-organizer Liz Kalas points out that the gold speckles are edible stars!

We had pretty good turnout - I'm guessing 60 or more ponied up the cash for the food and facility - it was held at the Michael Drake building.  This off-campus building was used at mission control for the Phoenix polar Mars lander, and is currently serving as laboratory for the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.  We even had members from out-of-state attend!  Shown at left standing is Thom Peck, who travelled with wife Twila from San Diego, and to his right is Teresa and Claude Plymate, who now live in Big Bear.  Sitting at left is Robert Wilson.

One of the really neat displays in the public area (besides displays of planetary exploration you would expect from one of the Lunar and Planetary Lab's outbuildings) was an incredible display of meteorites.  Dolores Hill (more on her in a minute) pointed out that the display did not belong to LPL or the University, but was actually a private collection on temporary loan.  Display cases around the room showed hundreds of examples, from iron meteorites displaying the Widmanstätten pattern at left, to my favorite - pallasites, which have olivine crystals imbedded in the iron-nickel matrix, shown at right.  I am always impressed that the crystals are nearly optical quality, yet imbedded in iron-nickel!

Then, turning around, there is an amazing 950 pound (430 kg) example, sawn in half for close inspection!   Shown here, long-time member Molly Hancock touches the polished (and lacquered to protect it) surface (she was afraid to until I insisted for the picture).  And another close-up is shown at right...

We had a nice time visiting and looking through
the displays before our pair of speakers were announced.  Melinda didn't feel well enough to attend, so everyone she knew wanted to know how she was doing.  John Kalas served as co-organizer, and introduced former Presidents Tim Hunter (UMC radiologist and co-founder of the International Dark-Sky Association) and David Levy (author and comet discoverer) to introduce the speakers after giving short presentations themselves.  Tim Hunter (shown at left) gave a time-line and history of the club that had been organized by the late Ron Ferdie, another former President.  Tim then introduced Dolores Hill, who has worked for many years in LPL's meteorite lab, and is now active in the OSIRIS-REx mission.  The mission acronym stands for the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer, and it is intended to rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu, spend time mapping and analyzing the 500 meter diameter object, then touch the surface and collecting at least a few ounces of material to return to Earth.  Dolores tried to recruit amateur astronomers to help the professionals in collecting imaging data to measure properties of the 600,000 known asteroids...

Finally, David Levy talked for a few minutes before introducing Dr. Thomas Fleming of Steward Observatory.  Dr. Fleming covered the history of astronomy in Arizona from A.E.Douglas' search for the eventual location in Flagstaff of Lowell Observatory, and Douglas' establishment of the astronomy department at the university of Arizona which eventually became Steward Observatory.  He went on to point out how Steward helped out in the selection of Kitt Peak National Observatory, and closed out with the several mountaintop observatories (Mount Lemmon, Mount Hopkins, and Mount Graham) that Steward helped found that keep Arizona in the forefront of astronomy. 

The speakers were great, it was nice to get together with friends and acquaintances over the years, and the displays and location were very impressive as well.  It is too bad we have to wait ten years to hold these events!

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