August 3rd, 2008

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Launchpad day 3 - how I spent our morning off...

Saturday August 2, AM

Got a lift down to “historic downtown Laramie” this morning after breakfast and spent a couple of hours photographing the place and its idiosyncrasies – like, for instance, the bleached cowskulls on display in an antique store, not sure if they were for sale or just for atmosphere, and a saddle with a tapestry-worked seat, and a buffalo on skis (you think I’m kidding don’t you) and the “cowboy this” and “cowboy that” motif everywhere. I bought a hat. Okay, so shoot me. It’s one of those foldable packable ones, not too large, and entirely cute – and now I fit right into the Cowgirl Scene.

Once photos were done and the shops opened at around 10, I made the tour of the town’s bookstores (three in downtown Laramie, not bad at all!) and although none of them HAD my books I left bookmarks, and told them about the books, and one shop owner gave me a present of a bookmark neatly wrapped up in its own little giftbox – and they’ll order the books, I’ll send in some signed bookplates when I get home, it’s another foot in another door.

Tried to connect to an unsecured network (called LARIAT Central. Of course it is.) with the laptop but it isn’t giving me much joy although it insists that I am connected – in spite of being connected it is still unable to find or open a single webpage. So this blog entry is going to be posted later.

Scott’s here now with the van to pick me up – lunch at the Library restaurant, where we had dinner the first night. It was memorable for the side order of the Rocky Mountain Oysters which were presented sliced up and deep fried with a small bowl of salsa. There are I believe pictures of some of the outlanders indulging in same, amidst much giggling. I, um, wasn’t so brave…

Launchpad day 3 - "My God, it's full of stars..."

This should all have been posted yesterday but yesterday was already tomorrow when we came back from the WIRO observatory at Jelm and I was far too tired to do the day justice. So - recap -

After lunch, We had Jerry Oltion back in the lecturer's saddle with a talk on amaterur astronomy - a subject he is knowledgeable and obviously passionate about. We learned about the different kinds of mounts available for amateur telescopes and the relative advantages and disadvantages of them - including the trackball mount, something invented and made by Jerry himself. He showed us pictures of what was there to see with these telescopes, including some fabulous shots of the Moon and its craters (Jerry appears to have several "favourite" craters).

Then prof_brotherton followed him with a lecture on stars. Where they are born, how they are born, where they spend their lives, how they die, what happens inside a stellar core. We learned about the spectral classification of stars, different kinds of nebulae and what happens in them, the Chandrasekhar limit. It was a packed and fascinating couple of hours, and I really need to just go away and THINK about everything for a bit just to get it shaken down into solid knowledge and not just fascination and awe. But what happened next blew THAT resolution all to hell.

We picked ourselves up - in three separate vehicles - at about 6 PM to go up to the WIRO observatory at Jelm, at 9500 feet (or so, I forget the exact altitude). We drove across Wyoming's prairie with its wide open skies, and a spectacular thunderstorm off to our left which laced the sky with massive traceries of lightning - there were horses grazing in the fields, under these wide skies, under indescribable light - pure picture postcard. THen we turned off down a short stretch of paved road, and then turned again into gravel road that wound up the mountainside - and soon the obervatory became visible, up there on the mountain top, the classic domed building perched on the ridge, and the excitement began to stir as it grew ever larger and closer.

When we arrived there, it was in time for a truly spectacular sunset, complete with the presence of that thunderstorm we had been pacing on our drive up, or some cousin of it - everyone was out there on the viewpoint snapping away at a sky which was an improbable colour of orange-red fading into purple at the edges - and then it sort of kind of began to rain.

If it rained the dome would not open. It was not happy news. The cloud cover, according to the satellite weather maps running on three of the observatory lab's computers, wasn't looking like it was going to lift sufficiently for us to do anything much other than go into the dome and stare bright-eyed at the huge (well, for certain values of huge - I've certainly never seen bigger) telescope, and see how its mirrors opened, and get explanations of how if functioned. THey did open the dome, briefly, earlier, and I got some pictures of the telescope against that night sky as the roof eased open above us but pictures don't really do it justice at all because they are missing the dimension of broad grins that could not be contained as people lifted their eyes to watch, and the racing heartbeat of seeing it all happen. "DOes the thrill of opening the dome ever go away?" one of us asked the two resident student observers. Their expressions as they smiled mysteriously and shook their heads ever so slightly said it all. You cannot possibly get bored with this instant, opening the dome, opening the umbilical between you and the deep stars.

But then they closed the dome, and we stared up at the sky outside disconsolately. The clouds were there, and they were thick, and they didn't seem to be moving anywhere that night. We began discussing plan B and how and when we would make the trek down the mountain again. SOme people began playing poker to while away the time, others settled at a chess board. Some of us haunted the computer room and asked questions of our hosts, who showed us the images of the galaxy survey which they are currently working on. The resident cat, Nu Boots, weaved in and out of the crowd being exceedingly pretty and laid back (so I got my cat fix, too, playing with the Star Cat...)

I had pretty nearly given up hope when someone bounced in and said, "We have a hole in the sky."

We were in business.

Off we all went to the dome again. And it irised open again, and my God, the sky was full of stars above us. They injected liquid nitrogen into the camera box to cool everything down to the max and reduce vibration to a minimum, and the telescope swivelled on its gimballs until it was pointed straight up. And then we were all shooed off because the thing needed to be kept cool and we could all go into the lab and take our body heat away with us.

Inside the lab numbers on a screen scrolled by to show us where the thing was looking - they picked the Ring Nebula as a suitable object and took several 5-minute exposures of it which we will be doing the computer manipulations of back in class on Monday.Then Jerry suggested Stephens QUintet, a cluster of five galaxies in a single field of view, and maryrobinette was looking up data on her laptop like a pro while the astronomers typed in coordinates and turned the telescope towards our destination.

I could not stop smiling.

Outside, the skies had cleared (hole? that was one big hole...) and if the Milky Way was spectacular down in the Laramie suburbs up here it was breathtaking, sharp, glowing across the night sky. prof_brotherton had brought along the night vision goggles that we had played with in class the previous day and watching the sky through these was mindboggling. I hit upon the idea of trying to take a shot of the MIlky Way by holding my camera against the goggles and much to my astonishment it actually worked - I have this eerie green-tinged photo of Saturn and the Milky Way which may not be great photography but it is spectacular to the max. We were treated to more shooting stars, and I just could not get enough of the sky. THere were stars, stars EVERYWHERE, and I think I am seriously in love (and now I want a pair of night vision goggles of my own...)

It was close to 1 AM by the time we arrived back at the residence hall, and all I could really do was fall over. But there you are, that was the day that was.

On to Day 4...
Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Launchpad Day 4 - hypernovae and binaries and black holes, oh my!

Okay, but we'll get to that.

Our morning was spent up in the Vedauwoo area at something between 8000 and 8300 feet (heard conflicting reports on this from locals, will have to nail it down later). I was dithering about whether to go or not, what with the troubles I've had acclimating to the low humidity and high altitude of the place, but then finally decided to go anyway and try it and see how I felt when I got up there. They said there were picnic tables and if nothing else it would be pleasant to go and take some interesting photographs and just sit there in the shade of the pines.

Turns out Nancy Kress and I both decided, about one third of the way around the loop trail, that we had had enough, and returned to the staging area to wait for the others - we probably did a respectable two miles, counting there and back, but the sun was something fierce and despite the slatherings of sunscreen I didn't quite trust my Viking-pale skin not to turn on me - and there seemed to be a distinct dearth of oxygen in the air when it came to physical activity. So I took a lot of photos, had a nice walk, and then we all came back to the residence for a round of showers and went off to lunch at a nearby Mexican place.

jaylake, maryrobinette and I accompanied one of our instructors, Jim, back to the physics building for the set-up to the planetarium show. The planetarium is located in the sub-basement of the physics building, and we were regaled by the stories of the legendary flood when a water main broke up on the fourth floor of the building and naturally all the water pooled in the lowest spot it could - the planetarium. They had a foot of water in there, and it took some heavy-duty rebuilding and refurbishing to get the thing running again... but their star ball is the old-fashioned mechanical kind, a thing of beauty in a sort of technopunk way full of gears and levers, but it is ageing and requires serious maintenance and refurbishment. Several things simply no longer worked - including the possibility to show the phases of the moon on the planetarium dome. Pity, I would have liked to see that.

Then we threw the rest of the official schedule out of the window because we were running very late and prof_brotherton still had a lot to cover on stellar matters.

We learned about neutron stars, how they form, what they used to be, what they do, how they behave, what they are made of.

We learned about hypernovae, when supermassive red giants 25 times the mass of our sun implode at the core and send out a burst of gamma rays as they collapse from supergiant to black hole in *less than a second*. Now you see it, now you don't.

We talked about black holes, Schwartzchild's Radius, the event horizon.

We talked about binary systems and how pairs of stars affect one another. Sufficiently distant binary stars might each have a planetary system, or there might be a supersystem which is orbiting both stars at great distances... or, conceivably, both... This stuff is not only fascinating, it's starting to MAKE SENSE TO ME which is, in a way, scary. I had a lot of ideas and basic knowledge but much of it was bare-bones or rather shaky - I am learning an incredible amount, but I barely have time to keep up with my notes which are chaotic and terribly disorganised - I will have to sit down and take a good look at everything later and let it settle before I test the new boundaries of my knowledge. But so far I am not only learning a thousand new things every day but I am having a ball doing it.

Tomorrow, we tackle galaxies. And then, in the afternoon, we get to hands-on fiddle with the images they took for us at WIRO last night, making them look like the pretty pictures that we've all come to associate with high-power telescope images. And we get to take those pictures home. And we get to tell people, if not that we personally took those photographs, that we were at the very least there when they were being taken.

TOmorrow night, weather permitting, we are going to go up to the roof of the physics building and scope out the heavens with small microscopes. Let's hope that the clouds that gathered this afternoon sail away by then. But we got so phenomenally lucky up at WIRO when the heavens opened for us to peer inside that I wonder if we've used up our share of the goodwill of the gods. Ah, well, we shall see.

Another thing on the agenda tomorrow - a talk on SETI. I am looking forward to that.

More tomorrow - good night LJ.