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More vacation astronomy: Meteor Crater and Lowell Observatory

May 29, 2012

Last week was full of cool astronomy-related stuff after the eclipse. Monday night I stayed up until after midnight to watch the launch of the Falcon 9, which successfully delivered a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. Then on Wednesday London and I went to Meteor Crater and Lowell Observatory. The closer, brighter range of hills on the right in the above photo is the rim of Meteor Crater, which rises 150 feet above the surrounding plains.

In the courtyard of the visitor’s center is this boilerplate capsule from the Apollo program. Boilerplate capsules were used for all kinds of testing: parachutes, launch escape systems, touchdowns on land and water, you name it. This is the second one that London and I have seen in the wild–there is also one at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, California (darn it, I’ve been meaning to blog about that place for about a year now). This isn’t just a random space decoration, either. The Apollo astronauts trained at Meteor Crater with mock suits and backpacks before being launched to the moon.

Here’s the crater itself. It’s too big to fit into a single photo, unless you’re in an aircraft or have some kind of fish-eye lens. The crater is a little over three-quarters of a mile across, and a little under 600 feet deep, not counting the raised rim.

It is extremely windy, too.

Here’s the view to the southwest from the highest observation platform–the platform shown in the previous photo is in the lower middle of this image.

The wind up there was shockingly strong. I’ve been in 60-70 mph winds in desert storms and I think the gusts up there on the rim were about that fast. I’m a big dude, and not used to being pushed around by air, but the wind quite literally sent me stumbling a couple of times. Fortunately there were handholds all over the place.

I set my camera to maximum zoom to get this shot of the fenced area in the center of the crater. If you click through to the full-res version, you may be able to make out an American flag and life-size astronaut standee at the near right corner of the fence. People walking around down there would look like ants.

There was a nice museum inside, which we had to rush through because we spent all our time outside gawking at the crater. I did stop to get pictures of these shattercones, which only form under impact craters and nuclear explosion sites. Shattercones have a nice fractal structure, and range in size from microscopic to tens of meters tall.

That evening we drove up Mars Hill in Flagstaff to visit the Lowell Observatory. This segue photo shows a chunk of the Meteor Crater bolide on display in the observatory.

Flagstaff is a cool place for many reasons, not least the enlightened attitude toward light pollution–or rather, against light pollution. The city is plenty well-lit and never felt dim from ground level at night, but that’s because the residents use their power intelligently, with fully shielded, modestly bright light sources that face the ground. From the overlook on Mars Hill, based on the nighttime lights, you’d think it was a town of six to ten thousand. The actual population is just over 60,000. From the parking lot of our hotel I could see hundreds of stars. I have never seen such dark skies from inside any town of more than a thousand people. And they’ve been doing this in Flagstaff since 1958–when is the rest of the world going to wise up?

Of course, a big part of the reason we went to the observatory was to see the big 24-inch Clark refractor, which has been gathering starlight there since 1896. It looks like a near-perfect miniature of the 36-inch Great Lick Refractor, which also has Clark optics and went into service just 8 years earlier. Percival Lowell used this telescope to chart what he thought were canals on Mars. Lowell’s writings about the ingenious Martians carrying water from the polar ice caps to water their dying world inspired both H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Both of the latter authors played a big role in shaping my young mind, and I still revisit them periodically, so it was fitting that I finally visit the telescope that made it all possible (even if the canals turned out to be illusory). In a sense, Barsoom was born in this dome.

Speaking of the dome, you’ll notice that it is made of wood and rotates on automobile tires. Those were obviously not part of the original design, but they’ve been in place for decades now. According to Timothy Ferris, who included a charming chapter about this observatory and this telescope in Seeing in the Dark, when one of the tires goes flat, the observatory staff jack up the dome to fix it.

The “smart end” of the telescope looks like some steampunk enthusiast’s fantasy incarnate. It could pass for the control column of the Nautilus. The effect is only slightly diminished by the Telrad perched opportunistically amidst the Victorian gizmos.

I realize that I haven’t said anything about Pluto. It was discovered at Lowell Observatory, but not with this telescope. I’d say more about it but I have nothing to say; I went up Mars Hill for Mars, not Pluto.

This was London’s favorite exhibit: a beach-ball-sized model of the sun filled with little plastic balls representing the Earth, to scale. It’s a fitting cap to this post, because it points the way toward the transit of Venus next week, when those blessed by geography and weather will see an Earth-sized speck moving across the face of the sun (about three times bigger than the Earth-spheres appear in relation to the sun-sphere in this display, since our sister planet’s orbit around the sun is two-thirds the diameter of our own). I may not have time to post again before then, so: clear skies!

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20 comments

  1. London is adorable!

    Quite a massive crater, was it created by a meteorite? Or some old volcano crater?


  2. Fascinating report, Matt. Your photos make for a nice virtual tour. Flagstaff sounds like Astronomer Nirvana, a place to get really spoiled. Great to have you back and posting.


  3. As Doug said, good to see you back and blogging again! Took the AMTRAK to Flagstaff a few years back (stayed at a hostel) – a good jumping off point to the Grand Canyon. Hope to go back again soon this summer (already!), this time with my scope(s).

    Looking forward to the Venus transit.

    Let me know if and when you need a guest blog.


  4. Hi Terry. How is your ST80A working out for you? Do you use it much, vis a viz your SkySkanner? How is the ST80 on the brighter DSOs?


  5. Hi Doug. I’m still trying to “fix” this scope to improve performance – pinched optics is really affecting my views. So I haven’t really done much observing with it, other than the planets and a few double stars. Fortunately I’m discovering additional resources that might fix this problem.

    Hope all is well with your Meade refractor.


  6. Let me know if and when you need a guest blog.

    If: I do.

    When: whenever it’s convenient for you. I am back, sorta, but I won’t be much less busy than I have been, so who knows what my posting rate will be. And I’ve been hoping for a guest post from you for some time.

    Doug, you’re welcome to share your experiences in a guest post as well, if you like.


  7. Thanks for the offer, Matt, but with a total of 5 months at this marked by equal parts modest success and chronic frustration, i don’t really have much to contribute in the way of wisdom.

    But I do have a question, one that I think a lot of neophytes have. A question that were it ever to be addressed in the form of an actual product would be a huge asset to those of us who observe through modest scopes from our homes in light polluted skies and have trouble lining up in the eyepiece many of the objects we seek.

    First, a little background.

    Stephen O’Meara’s “The Messier Objects” arrived yesterday. Looks pretty nice, though I just did a quick scan through. I did note that he (as I suspected) used a Tele Vue 4″ refractor which he concedes is among the best scopes ever made. Also, that he observed in totally dark skies, and at 3,600 feet up, on the side of a Hawaiian volcano.
    Add to this pair of enviable elements the fact that his eyesight is apparently among the most acute ever tested and, yeah, I imagine he was able to see pretty much whatever he wanted to.

    And all of the above form the basis of “The Messier Objects”: perfect scope, perfect setting, perfect eyesight.

    Yes, his writing is eloquent and inspiring. But I look at his sketches and think: Is this REALLY something I will ever come even remotely close to seeing through my StarBlast 6? Of course not. So what WILL I actually see? And what pattern should I be looking for when I go after, say, M53 from my patio observing base?

    Sue French in her “Celestial Sampler” comes a bit closer in that her sketches look just a little more like what I have seen. Though she does her observing under what I assume are dark “rural New York skies” and uses mainly her “little 4″ refractor”. What kind of refractor, she doesn’t say, but I’m guessing it’s not a Tasco.

    So.

    You know what we need? Really. really need. One of these guys: O’Meara, Sue, Tony Flanders, etc. to write a book complete with sketches, using a Real People telescope in a typical residential suburban setting. A Celestron or Meade or Orion sub-$500 scope from a backyard or driveway in Torrance or Sacramento or Cleveland and do all the Messiers . . . or whatever. Then you’d have something you really could use with goals you had a realistic chance of achieving.

    Come to my house, or one like it and do all your observing here. for a year. Sketch what you see through the eyepiece of a real world scope in a real world setting. Then i can say “Ah, so THAT is the pattern I am looking for.” And will recognize when I see it.

    What’s the point, really, of using a scope maybe 1 in a 10,000 has in a setting virtually NO ONE has available to them and write a guidebook that is going to be purchased and read by the far less gear-and-setting privileged? Sure, you are going to get some help out of it, but too much is going to be just Pie in the Sky for the astromasses.

    Hey, Matt, YOU have real world scopes. And a backyard. So, maybe you?

    Doug


  8. Hi Doug,

    If you haven’t done so already, check out the following link to Tony Flanders’ Urban and Suburban Messier Guide:

    http://mysite.verizon.net/vze55p46/id10.html

    Here, he goes through every Messier object by season, describes the views through two types of scopes (a 70mm refractor and a 7-inch Dobsonian) in two types of skies (urban or light-polluted and suburban or semi-dark). He also has a table which ranks each object in terms of difficulty by scope and sky type.

    No sketches, but his descriptions of what he was able to see by type of scope and site are very helpful.

    If you are looking for a book with sketches, the latest edition of “Turn Left at Orion” has sketches of most (if not all) of the Messier objects through 1) a 3-inch refractor/90 mm Mak and 2) a 6-8 inch Dobsonian.


  9. Thanks, Terry, I will check out Tony’s site this afternoon. I have Turn Left at Orion, and it comes the closest to what I have in mind. I have managed to snag several Messiers and NGCs by using his sketches.

    For me at this point in my observing life, I really need to have some kind of visual pattern of dots in my mind so I can recognize a given object when I come across it in my focuser. Most of the photos in the many books I already have are so far removed from the patterns of bright dots I see through my scope(s) as to be all but worthless. Pretty pictures, but as a practical visual aid, of little value. When I start scanning around in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster, for example, it becomes like the celestial version of a long, unbroken run-on sentence: stars in all kinds of arrangements everywhere. Hard for me to isolate this or that group and identify it as some “official” named or numbered object without some visual template in my head to compare it with. This is why, for me, sketches, ideally black dots on white, are by far the best resource.

    But even then. I can check out 4 different sketches in different online sites of, say, M59 or M60 or M87, and no two are even REMOTELY alike. It’s like they are 4 sketches of 4 different objects.
    So having one group of sketches put together by one veteran observer such as Tony or Sue French by using an 80mm refractor and a 6-8″ Dob in a residential suburban setting, and doing just the most basic kind of sketch containing only 8-12 “can’t miss”/major stars laid out the way one sees them would be invaluable

    I did catch the large open cluster in the Coma Berenices a couple of times: Jaw-dropping gorgeous. Like a large handful of diamonds tossed out over a piece of black velvet on a jewelry store counter.

    I appreciate your reply, and the link to Tony’s site.

    Any progress in getting your SB6 into action?

    Doug


  10. No progress in getting the SB6 into action. My smaller scopes keep me busy these days.


  11. My smaller scopes keep me busy these days.

    Ha ha! A man after my own heart!


  12. For me at this point in my observing life, I really need to have some kind of visual pattern of dots in my mind so I can recognize a given object when I come across it in my focuser.

    Other than Turn Left, I don’t know of any books that show sketches made with small instruments under average skies.

    On one hand, I’m probably not the best person to ask, because I identify things not based on what they look like but on where they are. If the chart shows a galaxy just north of a funky parallelogram of stars, and I carefully star-hop to that funky parallelogram (so that I’m sure it’s the rightfunky parallelogram), I am confident that the smudge to the north is the galaxy in question. IMHO this is one of the benefits of star-hopping: the observer can personally verify every step of the way.

    This is where it might be useful to look again at Stephen O’Meara’s and Sue French’s work and ignore their sketches and focus on their descriptions. Yes, they will see a lot more than you, especially at first. But their descriptions usually start with what they see in the first few seconds, which is all that many of us ever see with our less awesome equipment, less awesome skies, and less extensive experience.

    On the other hand, your question inspires me. I had already been thinking about doing a Messier survey with a small scope, just to see what could be achieved. I may fire up that observing program one of these days. If I do, I’ll try my hand at sketching, too. It probably won’t be soon. Our skies here suck in the summer, with lots of haze and smog and not much wind to blow it out. And it’s too hot to go to the desert. But I might do some runs up Mount Baldy, which is acceptably dark but not stupid-dark like the Mojave.

    When I start scanning around in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster, for example, it becomes like the celestial version of a long, unbroken run-on sentence: stars in all kinds of arrangements everywhere. Hard for me to isolate this or that group and identify it as some “official” named or numbered object without some visual template in my head to compare it with.

    Oh, well, dude, the Virgo Galaxy Cluster is THE hardest thing most amateurs will attempt. My first time through it took me an hour and a half, and that’s after I’d been observing for three years. I couldn’t identify any of the galaxies based on their appearance, but only by careful star-hopping and position-noting. One of the reasons it took me so long is that after I’d identified one galaxy and made some brief notes on its appearance, I had a hard time “backing out” to the closest reference stars to pick up the star-hop sequence. I usually had to go all the way back to Alpha Comae and start all over.

    It does get better with time and practice. My second time through the Virgo-Coma “clutter” took 23 minutes, and my third time took 16 (these were after an additional year of observing experience). Stick with it. AFAICT, there are no amateur astronomers who didn’t go through the same growing pains; everyone either survives them or bails. Don’t bail!


  13. Thanks for the advice, Matt. This is essentially what I have been doing, that is following the directions and moving this way or that from certain signpost stars. I had good success doing this when I was working off Orion’s big shoulder and belt stars and, to the south, off Sirius. And, yes, when I can find some kind of obvious pattern to use (such as your “funky parallelogram”) to use as a guide/marker, I can at least some of the time find the object I’m looking for.

    But what I’ve found since Orion and Sirius departed stage right is that there haven’t been many such patterns I’ve been able to find, so it’s just more of a matter of following the Turn Left or Sue’s directions supplemented with sketches when I can find them, and getting into what I believe to be the general area. But with the VIrgo Messiers and NGCs, as I said in my previous post, it all seems to just run together in one glorious glob of stars. Even when I find what seems to be an arrangement that has to be “something”, I really either don’t know at all what it is, or have an idea of what it might be but cannot be sure.

    I am relieved to hear that the Virgo-Coma cluster isn’t easy to navigate even for those far more experienced than I. When I looked at the appropriate charts in the Pocket Sky Atlas, it looked so easy as there were those little numbered red ovals everywhere, one piled on another. But this turned out to be the real problem as so many are packed in there so closely that it becomes almost impossible to differentiate and pick out any given named/numbered object.

    We have had exactly ONE clear night up here in 3 weeks, so I try to make the most of it when I do get out and likely am too impatient.

    No, I am not going to bail as a result of current frustrations because even just scanning around the stars and stopping here and there to take it all in is profoundly satisfying.

    I think that I just started this hobby at both the right and wrong time when I began in February. With Orion to prowl around in, and Sirius and Alderbaran right there with a starry helping hand, I could always come up with something, usually a half dozen or more in one session. So the right time for getting underway with success, but also the wrong time as this spoiled me for the relatively less spectacular sky, paucity of big and bright stars, and harder hunting that spring serves up.

    Well, summer usually stars up here after July 4, so I will just get out when I can and try to heed your advice and use directional cues and rely less on sketches.

    I appreciate you sending along your thoughts.

    Doug


  14. Doug – it sounds like you’re going to need more detailed star charts to navigate your way to the fainter Messier and other deep-sky objects, especially if you’re using the Starblast 6. I believe that the Pocket Sky Atlas only show stars up to 7.6 magnitude. It’s easier to find DSO’s (especially the fainter ones) if you use higher resolution charts showing stars of the 9th mag. or dimmer that can guide you to the exact location.

    As someone said, having detailed deep-sky charts on-hand is like increasing the aperture of your scope, since you’ll know exactly where to focus your direct or averted vision (relative to the surrounding stars), making DSO hunting much easier.

    For example, I was able to nail all 16 of the Messier Virgo galaxies within 12-15 minutes on my first try, thanks to deep-sky charts that showed stars down to 9.5 mag. Being at an orange-zone site and using a 100mm scope helped as well. A magnification of 20X was all that I needed to spot all 16 galaxies.


  15. I think you are correct here, Terry. I checked out the Tirion Sky Atlas 2000.0 from our library over the weekend (BIG sucker!) and it shows a lot more stars, and so a lot more star patterns to look for as guideposts along the way. I compared the Coma Berenices sections of PSA and 2000.0 and, yeah, there are a LOT more stars in the latter chart, both in Melotte 111 and all the areas around it.

    I did find M3 night before last and in my StarBlast 6 at even 100x, it was nothing more than a decent-sized smudge, no individual stars discernible. I’m sure it was the result of the fact that we don’t have anything close to truly dark skies here.

    I think I am definitely an Open Cluster guy as these are the objects that really wow me. I could stare at Melotte 111 or M44 for half an hour.

    So you ran down all 16 Messiers with your SkySkanner? Yikes. And at 20x. Nicely done! I’m envious. I guess this just proves that dark skies are THE vital ingredient, something you apparently get from your perch in Malibu.

    Do you do any sketches of the Messiers you see?

    Anyway, I appreciate the tip and will do some comparisons this afternoon of sketches I have made, and whose area I noted, against what I see in the same area(s) in the 2000.0. Good tip! Thanks.

    Doug


  16. Matt,

    How about doing a little post on your new Celestron Travel Scope 70? To me, this is an intriguing little instrument, and I’d much like to hear your thoughts on your experiences with it. Did you get it at Amazon?

    Doug


  17. I am relieved to hear that the Virgo-Coma cluster isn’t easy to navigate even for those far more experienced than I. When I looked at the appropriate charts in the Pocket Sky Atlas, it looked so easy as there were those little numbered red ovals everywhere, one piled on another. But this turned out to be the real problem as so many are packed in there so closely that it becomes almost impossible to differentiate and pick out any given named/numbered object.

    You’ve nailed it–this is precisely why the Virgo-Coma “clutter” is so challenging. Someone at the All-Arizona Star Party a couple of years ago introduced me to the term LTG: Little Turd Galaxy. Virgo-Coma is full of LTGs. Actually, I think the guy who taught me that term meant the really dim, featureless NGCs that no-one looks at, not the stuff that’s bright enough to be featured in the PSA, but for relative n00bs like us (even me), there are a lot of LTGs out there.

    I think that I just started this hobby at both the right and wrong time when I began in February. With Orion to prowl around in, and Sirius and Alderbaran right there with a starry helping hand, I could always come up with something, usually a half dozen or more in one session. So the right time for getting underway with success, but also the wrong time as this spoiled me for the relatively less spectacular sky, paucity of big and bright stars, and harder hunting that spring serves up.

    I got started in October of 2007, which was perfect because I had the tail end of the summer constellations and then the winter constellations for months.

    If it’s any consolation, I still find the spring sky challenging. The winter and summer constellations serve up a lot of bright objects that look good even under LP. The spring sky is full of galaxies, which are awesome from dark skies, but I don’t get out to dark skies as much as I’d like–hardly at all this spring. I typically do more observing in the spring, and I have Messier marathons to get me out to the desert, but this year I was just too busy.

    I did find M3 night before last and in my StarBlast 6 at even 100x, it was nothing more than a decent-sized smudge, no individual stars discernible. I’m sure it was the result of the fact that we don’t have anything close to truly dark skies here.

    Could be, but aperture and magnification are also culprits where globs are involved. I was never much of a glob afficionado when I had a 6-inch scope. Even M13 took over 200x to start looking really nice. In the XT10, a glob that isn’t starting to blow apart at 100x is a tough nut to crack (to me at least), but virtually any glob will yield to sufficient magnification. But I agree, they all look better under dark skies.

    How about doing a little post on your new Celestron Travel Scope 70? To me, this is an intriguing little instrument, and I’d much like to hear your thoughts on your experiences with it. Did you get it at Amazon?

    I did get it at Amazon. In fact, I got it with Amazon Affiliate money from this blog. That’s been the plan all along–to use the affiliate money to buy astro gear to review here, to generate more affiliate money to buy more gear to review, and so on. This is the first time I’ve had enough affiliate money in one lump to buy a whole scope. I will review it when time allows, but unfortunately I am crazy busy again so who knows when that might be. It’s on the to-do list, though.


  18. Matt,

    LTG. I like that. Both clever and true.

    I think that the absence of anything here close to true dark skies is most likely at the base of any Find It problems I am having, so I will just adjust my expectations down a notch or two and work with what I have. I’ll continue to give the globs a shot, but I am not going to spend a lot of time on them.

    The reason I use mainly the PSA is because of its 7.6 mag limitations, reasoning that anything from this range down will be most accessible to me, my scope, my skies. But now, based on what Terry had to say, I also see value in going to the Sky Atlas 2000.0 just to see more stars in a given search area. I just ordered what sounds like it could be a somewhat different approach to The Hunt: Pattern Asterisms is the title and it’s part of some Patrick Moore series; based on the summary, it uses about 70 distinctive asterisms, rather than constellations, as guide posts for trekking the starry trails. I got used copy for $3.50, so worth a shot.

    Much of what I’ve seen so far have been some huge oceans of stars that, based on both the books and iPad apps I use, are not anything numbered or named but I sketched them anyhow. But jaw-dropping, huge WOW factor sights nonetheless. Several of these were in and around Gemini a few months back.

    Good deal on the Travel Scope. What you do with the affiliate coin is a service to us all. Btw, I ordered my Skywatcher Mak via your Amazon link, and have made it my default so everything I order from Amazon goes through it.

    Speaking of the Mak: I got a killer view of Saturn last time out with it, using as I recall, about 100x. Razor sharp resolution. But man, it moves FAST out of view! I was just using the mount manually, so no electronic tracking. The lens in this baby seems outstanding.

    Looking forward to your review of the Travel Scope 70. In your time.

    Husband. Parent. Full time teacher/researcher. Serious astronomer. Blogger. God knows what else. Only so much time in a day!

    Doug


  19. […] am contemplating a new observing project. It started back in May, when Doug wrote a long comment that ended with: You know what we need? Really, really need. One of these guys: O’Meara, Sue, […]


  20. Hey Matt, great site – I hope I can get mine running with as much traffic as yours. I was wondering though if you had any quick tips on how to get the HTML for the Current Moon widget set correctly, mine won’t display. Otherwise I’ll just message the folks at moonconnection.com. Thanks!



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