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2005c: No and Hail no, let's try again: Socorro Enchanted Skies Star Party 2005

(by Dennis Kenney; October 2005)

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No and Hail No

No and Hail no, let's try again

Socorro Enchanted Skies Star Party 2005

by Dennis Kenney

Enchanted Skies Star Party XII

Dave Finley and Jon Spargo organized the first Socorro Star Party in 1994. The current sponsors are Socorro, the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Astronomy magazine and the New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club. There were drawings for door prizes throughout the week. A four-inch telescope and a night of astronomical observation at Kitt Peak were the top raffle prizes. All three members of the Beckert family, Donald senior and junior and Elaine won prizes. (Actually everyone present at the first night's drawing won something and the McDonnells did really well at the chuck wagon drawings.) I had hoped to win a luggage tag.

Chicken Little was right.

Professor "Doc" Dan Klingesmith gave a presentation on observing at the NMT Etscorn Campus Observatory. Dan awarded me one of his Chicken Little bumper stickers as a survivor of last year's star party. See I was one of three observers that Doc gave a personal tour of stellar objects in one of the Etscorn domes.


The Contact movie starring Jodie Foster has given the Very Large Array (VLA) a lot of publicity and has produced a steady flow of tourists. National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) spokespersons, including Bill Spargo, are quick to point out that they are not looking for little green men and that, in fact, the implementation of the VLA would miss the narrow-frequency peaks that would most likely be used for interior intragalactic communications by an advanced civilization. The astronomers that NRAO serve use computers and image processing, not earphones, to produce data.

Jon Spargo led us on an insider's tour of the VLA. Joe retired after 37 years at NRAO. Joe's Jodie Foster story involves approaching the actress despite warnings from the handler of the extras of dire consequences, possibly even broken limbs if anybody approached the Hollywood crowd. He.. Oh, no, I'm having a senior moment. I forgot the ending. You'll just to ask Jon about what happened.

The Big Bang

The Etscorn Campus Observatory is located at the New Mexico Tech, the old mining school. Recently, more electrical and electronic engineers graduate from NMT than in all of the geological sciences at NMT; astronomers and more recently homeland security training has been welcomed. The visitors to NMT bring a considerable amount of money to the local economy and motels.

We were greeted by an enormous explosion on the north slope of Socorro Peak on the first day of lectures at the Campus Observatory. The Energetic Material Research & Test Center at Socorro tests explosive devices, performs forensic research and trains first responders. An EMRTC employee at the Las Cruces Space Expo told me that the explosion we had observed was probably a 105 or 155 millimeter artillery shell.

CCD Imaging

The basics of CCD operations are (1) capture photons (light), (2) convert the photons to charges, (3) digitally measure the charges in each well (pixel) by shifting laterally and horizontally digitally much like bits are determined in random access memory (RAM), and (4) manipulate of the data. Linux machines are used to process the raw data from the Very Large Array (VLA), Very Large Baseline Array (VLBA) and other sources at the National Radio Astronomy offices in Socorro at NMT. I learned at the Space Expo that rocket planes on the moon will be powered by Lunox (lunar liquid oxygen) not Linux.

What you can't see is what you get

Drew Medlin, a former NM Tech graduate student, now employed at NASA's Goddard Space Center in Maryland displayed some of his images including some fabulous shots of the lightning bursts the previous night. Somebody mentioned a paper that theorized that gamma rays were required to start the dielectric breakdown of the atmosphere which enables lightning.

Drew was functioning as an optical astronomer in the visual section of the electromagnetic spectrum tweaking his images by computer and multiple elongated exposures. Other branches of astronomy that use different wavelengths of electromagnetic energy such as radio astronomy use visualization techniques to present stellar data to the end user that the human eye can't see.

A Cornucopia of Pueblo Star Stories

G. B. Cornucopia, presently based in Chaco Canyon near the largest masonry structures in America, gave a campfire lecture, Star Tales of the Ancients. GB gave an introduction to the constellations concentrating mainly on the circumpolar stars which amateur star gazers in the Northern Hemisphere learn first. Usually the Big Dipper asterism, part of the Big Bear constellation and Casseopeia, the Queen of Ethiopia, are among the first stellar configurations learned. Polaris, the North Star, can be located with the aid of the pointer stars in the pan of the Big Dipper or as the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. GB described how, to the family-oriented culture of the Pueblo Indians, Polaris represents the family fire surrounded by Dad, the Big Dipper, and Ma, Casseopeia. Later at the Chuck Wagon at the Pound Ranch GB described his residency at Chaco Canyon and what he had learned from the ancient astronomers.

Astronomy magazine

GB Cornucopia and Michael Quandt, an assistant editor at Astronomy magazine, discussed the inconvenience of article embargos with prestige scientific magazines. An investigator can have his article pulled by, say Nature or Science magazine, if they disclose the content of the article before it is published. This presents a problem since an article may be accepted six months before it is published.

The discussion turned to the void left in astronomy by the death of Carl Sagan. Matthew suggested that Neil Thiessen was a likely replacement for Sagan, mentioning the difficulties that Neil had in being a source for the work of other scientists and the animosity this caused with the principal scientists. Some scientists believe that real scientists don't give out press releases, leaving the task of public outreach to less scientifically capable journalists. Michael conceded that run-of-the-mill journalists could support a career by just regurgitating press releases.

Deep Impact

Dr. Harold Reitsema of Ball Aerospace Corporation described the mission to drive a 100- kg copper impactor into the Temple I comet. Actually the process was more like stepping in front of a train and letting it run over you. The principal investigator on the Deep Impact project was Dr. Michael A'Hearn at the University of Maryland.

Harold's next project, the Kepler Mission, is to point a space- based optical telescope (photometer) on a small area of space containing about 10,000 stars for at least four Earth years, searching for Earth-sized planets in a life-habitable zone around the stars. The project should be able to detect planets in some of the 1% of the solar systems oriented so that its planets, if any, cross in front of the star from our perspective. The scientists expect to find about fifty planets about the same size as the Earth.

The Heretics of Astrophysics

If I show you a photograph of Einstein and Maxwell, who will you recognize? Bushy- tailed Einstein, the smartest man ever, that's who. 2005 is the Einstein year, the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's most productive year, after which, like some rock groups with a single hit (okay, a few hits) they play the same song for the rest of their lives. Einstein's effect on astronomy and cosmology extended Newton's work on gravity in the massive macro world - you know, the absolute speed of light and all that. Einstein represented Jewish Physics while the militant Germans, discredited by World War I, retreated into the small micro world of quantum mechanics. Relativity and the Big Bang became the consensus of the herd while the electromagnetic and plasma physicists (heretics) mill around outside the perimeter trying to get publications and academic tenure. I know that E=mc2 and E=hf can fit on a coffee cup while Maxwell's equations require a t-shirt. 2007 will be Maxwell's year - need I mention that the speed of light falls out of Maxwell's equations.

Standing in the Shadow of Deimos

Dave urr, Mark Vincent described to me the path across the Southwestern states that an occultation of a star TYC 121-01027-1u by Deimos, Mar's outer moon, will follow next year, on February 20th. See

South Baldy

Socorro County's South Baldy Peak, the highest point of the Magdalena Mountains, stands tall at 10,783 feet. The Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research is located near the summit because of the ample lightning, hail and other atmospheric phenomena to be observed. Construction of the new Magdalena Ridge Observatory is underway and we watched a slide show documenting its progress. Star-gazing at the peak wasn't as good as it was when I camped up there last year, but nobody seemed to mind.

One-Star Astronomers

Dave Dooling of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory described Building the World's Largest Solar Telescope at Haleakala (House of the Sun in Hawaiian), Maui, Hawaii. The Advanced Technology solar Telescope (ATST) should be the largest solar telescope in the world when it is built. The ATST would be built on another piece of land that is sacred to its native people. The National Solar Laboratory at Sunspot, New Mexico is leading the ATST project proposal. The ATST should be operational by 2010. Solar astronomers are easy to distinguish from their sleep-deprived colleagues who keep the same hours as vampires. Dave quoted his boss as saying that magnetism is to solar astronomy what sex is to Freudian psychiatrists.

What in Hale is a phage? Phage is French for beach and the term is used to describe the dark spots on the sun. Dave showed us some beautiful slides, video and animation of the magnetic tubes that are sunspots and that cause solar proton events (solar flares) when they burst.

From Pandas to X Prize Rocket Planes

My astronomical walkabout this year started with my friend Arnie giving me a refresher course in camping at Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island on the central Maine coastline. My trip last year to the hailstone-scarred star party started with a star party on Sand Beach on MDI. I hadn't seen the Milky Way for thirty years and there it was. This year's camping was supposed to be training for some extreme star gazing from the camping area next to Guadalupe Peak after my trip to Socorro and McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, West Texas.

I stopped at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Federal Building where some nice men helped me find a two cubic inch utility tool in my tote bag that I had been unable to find in the four days of camping at Blackwood camp ground at Acadia. That's right; I forgot to retrieve the tool when I left the building. The tool kit was a vendor giveaway at the Embedded Computers Conference and Expo and was irreplaceable. Anyway, Jodie Foster's character, Ellie notwithstanding, many people see the universe as God's creation. If this case against the Dover school board is kicked upstairs the Bush II-packed Supreme Court may have to rule on whether an intelligent agent created the universe and life or if Genesis is according to Guth. Future generations may look back on the Supreme Court that proved the existence of God.

The active participants, reporters and spectators slowly left the court room, small groups discussing what had happened and supporters encouraging either the plaintiffs or defendants. I'm just a tekkie so I don't understand what the defendants' lawyers were trying to do. There was an attempt to paint one defendant's motivation to be partially sour grapes from loosing the election to remain on the school board. The larger battle was trying to establish whether the defendants would accept Intelligent Design (not Creationism or the existence of God) if it satisfied scientific requirements as a viable, alternate scientific theory to Darwinism. This is just, in my opinion, an attempt to get the camel's nose into the tent (religious training in public schools), a position that shouldn't even be humored. Religion is religion, to be performed in the family and church, and science is science, based on observation and not by faith alone. This battle is important because we are competing in a world-wide arena in biotech and the other sciences. My worldview may be a minority position in America but it isn't in Europe.

After the court recessed the Chief Plaintiff Attorney descended to the front steps of the Federal Building to issue a public statement to an audience consisting of two members of the local press, an author writing a novel on the case (Hughes), two courtroom junkies (Mr. and Mrs. Davis) and a member of the non-working press. He expressed confidence in the defendants as good witnesses, unlikely to be intimidated by the proceedings. The Davises told me that there's a small demonstration in town against the Iraqi War, obviously no demonstrators here, and an even larger protest downtown against the greedy legislators who have just granted themselves pay raises.

Space Exposition

Some star party attendees and I went to the X Prize rocket plane demonstrations (Countdown to the X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo) at the Las Cruces Intergalactic Airfield (International Airport) after attending the chuck wagon barbeque at the Pound Ranch. I caught the massive sunrise liftoff of balloons in Albuquerque Saturday before watching the rest of the sunrise at the Socorro Motel 6.

Despite gusty winds and fog an estimated 20,000 spectators followed their dreams to Las Cruces' Space Expo. Three astronauts were present and retired Air Force shuttle astronaut Colonel Rick Searfoss flew the EZ-Rocket Plane twice in the skies above the airport within an hour, the first time that a rocket has flown twice in such a short period of time. The two-rocket engine XCOR EZ-Rocket plane is the class of aircraft that will participate in next year's rocket plane race (with more powerful engines).

Burt Rutan, the chief designer of SpaceShipOne, spoke on the need to privatize the efforts to tame the new frontier, space. I dragged my mother and two boys out to Edwards AFB to see the landing of Rutan's Voyager, after its historic non-stop flight around the world but missed all three SpaceShipOne flights. A replica of SpaceShipOne was displayed at Space Expo along with spaceware from many of Rutan's competitors for the X Prize.

New Mexico wishes to play a prominent role in the new space race and has enticed Rutan to move his company, Composite Structures, to the new spaceport in Upham, New Mexico. The Southwest Regional Spaceport will be supported by the space facilities already in place, such as the White Sands Missile Range.

Later, Dude, next year.

How am I driving?

Dennis Kenney is currently travelling in New Mexico learning the stellar constellations of the Northern Hemisphere.

Copyright © 2005 Dennis Kenney

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