VLA Dishes at Sunset


VLA at Sunset with Crepuscular Rays

The photogenic dishes of the Very Large Array aim skywards as the setting Sun casts shadows across the sky.

If these were optical telescopes I could write that the telescopes were getting ready for a night of sky viewing. But radio telescopes can observe day and night.

Still, there is something magical about catching any type of telescope in action as the Sun sets and night falls. Here, the last beams of sunlight coming from the west illuminate the dishes, while dark shadows – crepuscular rays – cast by clouds converge toward the anti-Sun point in the east.

As part of my trek around New Mexico this past week, I shot this on Sunday, March 17, about an hour before I took the image of Comet PANSTARRS over the VLA dishes – for that image I was east of the array looking back to the west and to the comet.

But for this image I was at one of the public access areas, standing under one of the dishes, looking east.

At first, all the dishes were aimed up to the zenith, stowed I assume due to the high winds that were blowing all afternoon. But then, right on cue as I began shooting, all the dishes began to move in unison. The dishes first aimed toward me, then turned to aim up to the south, as here. It was an amazing dance to watch. It gave me goosebumps. And tears.

There is likely no more iconic image of our exploration of the universe from Earth than this array of antennas listening for the faintest signals from deep space – not alien radio programs, but the natural signals emitted by atoms and molecules where stars are forming and dying.

– Alan, March 18, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Timor Cottage R.I.P.


Magellanic Clouds in Moonlight

Word has reached me that my favourite observing site in the world is gone.

Over the weekend, devastating bush fires swept through Warrumbungles National Park and surrounding areas near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. Several dozen homes were lost. Some were homes of friends I’ve made there in my many visits to the area in the last 12 years. Among the buildings burned and lost, Timor Cottage, the rental cottage where I stayed in 2010 and in 2012. Previous posts have extolled the virtues of this site. I’m told it is now ashes. Ironically, just last week I confirmed my booking for it, for a stay in early 2014.

Fortunately, all residents were evacuated safely. No one lost a life, just property.

The nearby Siding Spring Observatory managed to survive the fires largely intact, due in no small part to the fire suppression safeguards implemented in the last 10 years since the fires of January 18, 2003 that destroyed Australia’s other major optical astronomy site, the Mt. Stromlo Observatory. Some lessons were learned. However, they did not help the people living near by, many of whom were Observatory employees. It was, and is, a wonderful astronomy community along Timor Road. I wish them the best in their efforts to rebuild their homes and their lives.

It is life in unforgiving Australia — one month paradise, the next hell on Earth.

– Alan, January 14, 2013 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Visiting The Dish – The Parkes Radio Telescope


Parkes Radio Telescope (2012) #2

On Friday I had the pleasure and privilege of giving a talk at “The Dish.”

This is the Parkes Radio Telescope, a big 64-metre diameter dish antenna used to explore the radio sky. To the public it is famous for starring in the Australian movie, The Dish, that told the story, somewhat accurately but with liberal license throughout, of how the The Dish was used to receive the first TV signals from the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

Next week The Dish celebrates an important anniversary, 50 years since December 14, 1962 when Parkes received the signals from the first successful interplanetary probe, Mariner 2, flying past Venus, revealing that planet’s hellish conditions for the first time.

While The Dish is called upon occasionally to serve as a ground station for planet probes, its primary mission is to record natural radio signals from deep space objects, notably pulsars, spinning neutron stars. CSIRO’s website presents lots of information on the Parkes telescope.

Last night I presented a talk and picture show about the wonderful sky events in 2012, highlighted by the Great Australian Eclipse, to a nearly full house of local amateur astronomers at the Visitor Centre, where I took this photo. The talk was part of the monthly meeting, open to the public, of the Central West Astronomical Society, a very active club of which I am proud to be an honourary member. Whenever I am in Australia I try to get to Parkes on the club’s meeting night, to give a talk to the group and to meet up again with many of my Australian astronomy friends. It was a great evening. Thank you all!

– Alan, December 8, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Star Gazing


Happiness is a big telescope under a dark sky.

This is Regina astronomer Vance Petriew, gazing skyward at the Milky Way in Cassiopeia. Vance is the discoverer of Comet 185/P, aka Comet Petriew. This year, his comet returned to the August sky as a faint glow in Gemini, close to where it was when Vance found it exactly 11 years to the day before this image was taken, and at the very same spot in the campsite at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in Saskatchewan.

We all revelled in the Saskatchewan comet’s return, staying up till 4 am to see it through Vance’s 20-inch telescope, a reflector made by the small company called Obsession. (When you have an Obsession, you are a serious observer!) Enjoying the view early that morning before dawn were  Vance’s three daughters, only one of whom was around 11 years ago and then as a baby. But this year even the four-year-old was able to see Dad’s comet up close.

At the afternoon talks Vance recounted the story of how the comet’s discovery changed his life, and led to immense changes at the Park. As a result of the media and political attention the comet brought, the Park has become a Dark Sky Preserve, one of the first in Canada, leading a nationwide movement, while astronomy programming is now an integral part of the Park’s interpretive programs, as it is becoming at other provincial and national parks. There is now a permanent public observatory and lecture hall nearby in Cypress Hills, just a short walk away from where the comet was found.

Comets can have quite an impact!

— Alan, August 24, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Reliving Apollo


When I first walked into this exhibit hall at the Kennedy Space Centre, I was floored. This image only shows part of the vast Saturn V rocket lying on its side, surrounded by artifacts and memorabilia from the glory days of the Apollo moon landing program, including an actual lunar module (at upper right), though one that never flew — if it had, it wouldn’t be here to be on display. The immensity of the Saturn V rocket is overwhelming. I regret never having seen one go up.

The actual Command Module from Apollo 14 is here, as well as the Saturn launch control room faithfully recreated from the original consoles, and brought to life in a multi-media show.

It is a stunning exhibit, and a space enthusiast’s dream, located at the site of the VIP launch viewing area. Across the water are the launch pads and Vertical Assembly Building still used, though not for long, by the Space Shuttle.

On the day we were there, March 5, by good fortune we did manage to see a launch, of an Atlas V rocket carrying the secret X37B spaceplane into orbit. That was pretty neat, though seeing a Shuttle go up would be even better. Only two more chances for that!

And then, I hope, those amazing Shuttles will find retirement homes in exhibit complexes as fine as this one at KSC. The last 30 years of Shuttle missions have provided some of the most memorable moments in space exploration, both highs and lows, and they deserve to be commemorated in suitable fashion in impressive exhibits. It would be a pity if, after spending billions and billions on the Shuttle program, no one can come up with ~ $100 million to house and display at least one of the retired orbiters properly.

– Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Looking Up at Arecibo


Visiting one of the world’s great observatories is always a highlight for any astronomy enthusiast. Most of us “collect” observatories, and try to get to as many as possible in our lifetime of travels and explorations. This last week provided me an opportunity to visit a place of legendary status in astronomy, the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. This is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and consists of a 1000-foot metal dish suspended in a natural bowl in the island landscape.

In this shot, our tour group, part of the “Cosmic Trails” Caribbean cruise I was on that week, is standing underneath the metal mesh dish, looking up toward the antennas suspended high above the dish. This is a rare and privileged place to stand — driving down into and under the dish isn’t on the usual tourist tour. Had they been beaming powerful radar signals out to some solar system target that afternoon we would not have been able to stand here. As it was, they were listing to signals from pulsars. We also got into the main control room to talk to the observers and technicians at work that afternoon.

I won’t provide all the background about this remarkable observatory (you can read about it yourself at Wikipedia or visit the telescope’s webpage). However, movie fans will know this location from its appearance in the movie Contact and in the James Bond film Goldeneye. And it is well-known for its role in broadcasting signals to potential aliens and for listing to signals from extraterrestrials. However, one of its main roles these days is bouncing radar signals off passing near-Earth asteroids, and producing radar “images” of those asteroids. Arecibo also discovered, back in the 1960s, the true rotation rate of Mercury, now visible at its best in the evening sky.

– Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Testing New Gear


Now and then I have the opportunity to test new equipment for astrophotography. That can be both a blessing and a curse — I get to try out new gear before I buy it to see if it really works first, which is nice. But if the equipment doesn’t work well, I might have wasted some valuable nights with little to show for it but some poor photos and lots of frustration. Not so with the gear pictured here. The Celestron CGEM mount, tested for SkyNews magazine, worked great, tracking very well and serving as the platform I used in late 2010 for a lot of astrophotos over two dark of the Moon periods. At about $1500 this is a superb entry-level mount for anyone serious about astrophotography.

I also can praise the Celestron NexGuide autoguider (with the glowing screen at right), shown here on a William Optics 66mm guidescope. It, and its near twin, the Synta SynGuider, worked very well — these are autoguiders to provide exact tracking of the mount over long exposures, a necessity even in the digital age. Unlike many autoguiders, these units are “stand-alone,” requiring no additional computer and able to run for many nights off a typical 12-volt power pack. They are great for use in the field. What’s more, the new autoguiders are quite low cost (~$300) compared to the $1000+ cost of previous models with similar capabilities. I reviewed these units for Sky and Telescope and for SkyNews.

The scope shown here is a favourite of mine, the A&M (now Officina Stellare) 105mm f/6 apo refractor, a beautiful Italian-made “designer scope” with first-class optics. It is a terrific visual and imaging telescope, though a little large for its aperture.

For more details about recommended autoguiders, see the website I developed to support The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide and follow the links to the Chapter 13 entries on astrophoto gear.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer