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2004a: Star Party from Hail: Socorro Enchanted Skies Star Party

(by Dennis Kenney; December 2004)

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Clear, Dark Skies

Star Party from Hail

Socorro Enchanted Skies Star Party

Dennis Kenney

Beautiful Socorro and New Mexico Tech, guarded by Socorro Peak, the "M" or mining school mountain to the locals. The eleventh annual Enchanted Skies Star Party. Hail Socorro.

When I was a young kid I often looked up at the night sky. I would return home, walking a mile and a half in the dark after listening to Straight Arrow, Comanche war chieftain, on my friend James' family radio. I walked in the center of the unlit country road in Frye, imagining animals walking in the woods on both sides. The Northern Lights were better than the Fourth of July fireworks in Boston, even without the Boston Symphony Pops playing. Had I really gone forty years without seeing the Milky Way?

A renewed interest in astronomy generated by MIT seminars in aerospace, cosmology, the Chandra x-ray observatory, and black holes resulted in my attending a star party at Shell Beach after hiking in Acadia National Park. I entertained the idea that I couldn't see the Milky Way unless I started wearing glasses since I couldn't pass the ancient Roman Legion screening test for 20/20 vision of seeing the small star Alcor, the companion star of Mizar, the second star in the Big Dipper's handle. To those of you with a telescope, Mizar is a double star, two stars that orbit each other. But there was the thick part of our galaxy along with the constellations I had learned in junior high.

Socorro, New Mexico

Several months later, after attending several astronomical events at BU, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce National Park, Kitt Peak, the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, Sunspot, and an Astrobiology Conference at NASA Ames at the old Moffett AFB, I headed for the Rio Grande River valley. My trip to the White Sands National Monument was interrupted by a hailstorm, which caused feelings that were between anxiety and terror. I was forced to brace my arm against my driver-side window to help it resist the pelting rain.

Still glowing from the half a mrem of radiation I had received at the Trinity test site, where the first atomic bomb had turned night into day, I drove to Socorro, New Mexico. I would have received four times the radiation if I had flown cross-country in a commercial jet, or spent a comparable amount of time at the naturally radioactive base of the Statue of Liberty. Clear, dark skies had been guaranteed.

I woke up this morning after spending the entire night viewing the northern skies at the eleventh annual Enchanted Skies Star Party. The star party is over. The eleventh annual event went from October 5-9th, 2004, including a full night of observing at 10,700 foot South Baldy. Battles seldom go according to plan. The first class taught us how to reach out to potential astronomers, especially kids. The attendees were whirling around to demonstrate the dynamic nature of out galaxy with the speaker, Marni Berendsen, using the thunder in the background for theatrical effect instead of drum rolls. Self-preservation suggested a retreat to the classroom of the UMT Sheen Library was in order.

Enchanted Skies Star Party

It was the Republicans again. I have it from a usually reliable source that the chaplain at the Republican pep rally at the Macey Center played Hail to the Chief and all hell broke loose. Two to three hundred vehicles were damaged by a hailstorm with my Tacoma taking thirteen hits on the windshield from golf ball-size hailstones. Sort of a close-up to Halley's comet. I also lost my mirror and interior light. My truck has better dimples than Shirley Temple. I've been getting about a half of a mile per gallon better gas mileage and will dimple any of my friends' cars like a golf ball if they want me to help them conserve gas. New vehicles with pre-installed dimples can be purchased quite cheaply in Socorro.

The beautiful red tiles on the New Mexico Tech campus buildings were crushed with several students requiring medical treatment. Many of these historically significant buildings date from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The initial estimate of the damage was 13 million or so dollars in damage at NMT alone. Fortunately for the Very Large Array in Magdelena the hailstorm was localized. The offices for the Very Large Array where Jodie worked before going to Vega in Sagan's Contact are located on the north end of the campus. Connecticut can fit easily into the San Augustine valley where the actual antennas are located. During the appropriations hearing for the VLA its superimposed image extended past the beltway proving that the VLA was bigger than the District of Columbia. The VLA director stated in his talk that the hailstorm would have been catastrophic if it had hit the precisely shaped antennas.

The local New Mexico Tech Golf Course (covered a solid white with hailstones) has extended the lost ball rule to include hailstorms - tough luck. The full night of stargazing at 10,000 foot plus South Baldy on Wednesday night was cancelled because of the thunderstorms but three of us returned the next night to make sure we got our money's worth. We attended a chuck wagon-style barbecue and a presentation of Navajo star stories at the Pound Ranch before the final night of stargazing.

Saturn and the Ring Nebula are my favorite telescope objects. The Milky Way, Mars, and Iridium Flares are neat naked-eye objects. Cassiopeia with its various telescopic objects pops up soon after Arcturus and Vega, followed by the rest of the Northern Triangle and the Big Dipper. Don't try to be courteous and not use a flashlight to walk in the dark- you'll get bitten by cacti.

OpenGL Skies

The OpenGL software used for PC-based planetariums was what I wanted to report to the BLUorgers at MIT 2-190. Richard Wright is the guru generating the tools and packages enabling the software. Richard and Benjamin Lipchak are the authors of the OpenGL SuperBible. Benjamin develops OpenGL drivers at ATI Research in Marlboro and is an ex-DECie, like most of BLU. OpenGL is the API of choice for many of the large game developers.

Tom Bisque of Software Bisque demonstrated his company's The Sky software that runs on an operating system sold by a company in Redmond. His company has used open source software extensively in developing its products. Tom presented Richard Wrights' beta software, which allows a PC to function as a planetarium using Linux, Windows, or OS X machines. Richard's OpenGL SuperBible explains the tools used in The Sky and in his own software. Richard's software definitely has the best space and planetary graphics around. The Sky has a large database of objects and renderings to enable just about any flight you want to make. I got sidetracked to The Sky pursuing Simian and Free Flight Simulator software and eventually, 3D OpenGL. I'd cover the technical details of rendering large images and astronomical objects including the intricacies of CCDs if I understood them. For now it's off to visit those out of this world chicas that I met during my last trip to Roswell.

Most of the stellar observing was done at the Elscorn Campus Observatory at NM Tech. The crater formed by the light pollution-resisting berm was turned into Lake Elscorn during the storm before the berm burst. All of the optical observatories were flooded and the hailstones shredded the antennas for the two radio telescopes. Prominent sponsors of the event include Socorro, the Socorro Chamber of Commerce, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the NM Tech Astronomy Club, and the Pound ranch (socorro-nm.com/starparty). My personal thanks to Chris at the Elscorn Campus Observatory, the guys from Michigan (the Mullin brothers), the people at the Skeen library, the woman at the Mineral Museum, and the couple at South Baldy.

Clear, dark skies.

Dennis Kenney is currently trying to burn out his Golden Passport in the southwest. He's driving the white truck that looks like it was parked outside of the Baghdad Hilton. kenneydennis@hotmail.com


Copyright © 2004 Dennis Kenney




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