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...