Ancient peoples had no light pollution, and they knew the night skies very well. In fact, they depends on them to know when to plant and when to harvest. Today Pamela talks about the archeoastronomical sites of the American Southwest.
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Fraser: Astronomy Cast, Episode 528: Modern Astronomy of the American Southwest. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, a Senior Scientist for the Planetary Science Institute, and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I am doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser: Good. Gearing up, getting prepared to go and watch some big three-hour movie that’s gonna be happening that has been released yesterday at the time that we were recording. People are probably familiar with it. I’m gonna have to go off coffee for a couple of days, really reduce the amount of liquids, and be able to make my way through a three-hour movie, but I’m looking forward to it.
Pamela: And the only spoiler we have is that it’s three hours long?
Fraser: That’s all we know, yes. Spoiler alert, it’s a long movie. Now, by the time people are listening to this, you will have already done a celebration of 365 Days of Astronomy. So, where can people find out more about what you just did?
Pamela: Okay. So, the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast launched back in 2009 and our Astronomy Cast episodes are part of its consortium of aggregated content and we’re celebrating that we have someone done more than 10 years of podcasts … 10 years daily.
Fraser: 3,650 days when it should only have been 365. That sounds like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
Pamela: But of podcasts.
Fraser: But of podcasts, yeah.
Pamela: So, to celebrate, we are inviting a bunch of our contributors to join us on Twitch.TV/CosmoQuestX all day here in the United States, Saturday, April 27th and all of our content is gonna get broken up and thrown up on YouTube afterwards, YouTube.com/C/CosmoQuest and I hope that you’ll enjoy it. It is so many voices that have helped make this possible across the decade.
Fraser: I remember it beginning back – I think you announced it or it started up at the American Astronomical Society – 10 years ago.
Pamela: Yup and–
Fraser: In Austin?
Pamela: That was in Long Beach.
Fraser: LA. Yeah, in Long Beach, right.
Pamela: And so we launched January 2009 and we just never stopped.
Fraser: Yeah. Yeah, and it’s a great way. I mean obviously you should never unsubscribe from Astronomy Cast. That would be the worst move.
Pamela: Yeah, dumb.
Fraser: But if you wanted another podcast that was like you know those beer samplers when you go and you sit down and you get the chance to try a bunch of tasty beers.
Pamela: It’s a flight.
Fraser: It’s a flight of astronomy-related podcasts. Every couple of weeks, one of my Guide to Space audio tracks comes through, interviews that I’ve done, and then there’s a ton of other amazing podcasts. So, it just gives you a chance to just sample all these different variety and then each one you can go and follow up and do a deep dive with the podcaster. So, I think it’s a great way to sort of see what’s going on with astronomy podcasting across the planet.
Pamela: And it’s just cool how many people got their start with us. Morgan got his start with 365 Days. Paul has been with us since he started podcasting. So, it’s great and it’s gonna be great to see so many people tomorrow – or three days ago if you’re listening to this on Monday. So, yeah, I hope to catch you on the inner tubes.
Fraser: All right. Last week, we talked about the ancient astronomy of the American Southwest. But this is actually Pamela’s stomping grounds and she spent many a night perched atop mountains in this region staring into the night sky with gigantic telescopes. How does astronomy get done in this region today? So, here’s a personal anecdote, Pamela. Which observatories in the American Southwest have you personally spent time extracting science data from the university with?
Pamela: So, science data I have gotten from Kitt Peak and from –
Fraser: You did McDonald Observatory, right?
Pamela: Yeah, and then I’ve used data from the very large array and from Lowell Observatory.
Fraser: And then visited a bunch of the other ones?
Pamela: Yeah, I visited a bunch of the other ones. It’s crazy how many telescopes have sprung up like mushrooms in the arid peaks of the American Southwest.
Fraser: And I think people don’t ‘even realize the capability – both the scale – I would say one of the most powerful instruments in the entire world is there – which is the large binocular telescope.
Pamela: The large binocular telescope.
Fraser: As well as one of the most sensitive radio telescopes. There’s a bunch of pretty amazing instruments. But I’d love to hear some of your personal anecdotes. So, pick one of them and tell us a story about using one of the instruments.
Pamela: Well, I think, for me, the most amazing experience that will stick with me forever was my first night observing on the McDonald Observatory 30-inch. This is a wide field telescope that I used for the bulk of my research while in graduate school and I was learning how to use it. The person who was teaching me was just like, “You just need to stay awake until 5:00 a.m. You just need to stay awake until 5:00 a.m.” And this was a winter night so there was still a good many hours after 5:00 a.m., but about 5:00 a.m. as I’m melting into the desk beside him – because this is my first day on the mountain so I drove all day, flew all day.
So, you fly to Odessa, drive from Odessa to McDonald, eat dinner, and then try and stay awake. So, as I’m melting into the desk beside him, he does the, “Wake up. Go look outside.” The 30-inch observatory is tucked into the side of the mountain. They’ve blasted out a section of the granite, built the telescope in, carved the mountain so that the wind shield doesn’t hit the mountain as the dome rotates, and – as I walk out the front door – all the way along the horizon to my right looking out over the desert there is lightning all along the distant horizon. That lightning is reflecting off the 82 and 107 inch domes that are up the mountain from me to the left. And straight in front of me is Hyakutake like fists.
Fraser: Right, the comet?
Pamela: In fists wide and above me is the Milky Way and it was just sort of like, “If you did this in a planetarium, no one would believe you that it was real.” It was just amazing.
Fraser: Oh, that’s amazing, yeah. So, let’s talk about some of the instruments that are there. So, what are some of the facilities that are available to astronomers in the Southwest today?
Pamela: Okay. So, I’m gonna basically start by listing out the consortium’s facilities that are out there and explaining how this happened. So, we have McDonald Observatory, which is owned and operated by the University of Texas working in consortium with places like Penn State University.
Fraser: And it’s sort of in west-ish Texas, right?
Pamela: It’s in West Texas, Fort Davis. If you draw a triangle where El Paso is one corner of the triangle, Odessa, Texas is the other part of the triangle, and you turn it into a equilateral triangle, Fort Davis is that other point. Now it’s high desert, but not super high desert. So, you’re looking at about 6,000 feet. You will get snowed upon, but it’s not significant – just enough that you can blow out the servos on the telescope domes opening the slit if they have ice in them. This is to say, I have done that. And then you have to wake up mountain staff to replace fuses for you and they hate your guts when you do this.
Then on the adjoining mountain to McDonald, you have the Hobby–Eberly Telescope, which is also out there operated by the University of Texas working in consortium here with the Max Planck Institute, Penn State, with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory – a whole lot of different people working groups to build these telescopes. And there are telescopes from, for instance, Boston University out at Kitt Peak that it’s basically, “Hey, we found a mountain peak where there’s a road, where there’s dormitories. Can we put our telescope there with you?” And the answer was, “Yes.” And it’s kind of the, “Oh, you have infrastructure. Can I put my telescope there too?”
That is how these facilities end up with so many telescopes on one mountain. So, as you journey westward, you hit New Mexico next. And New Mexico is where we find Apache Point where we have the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, where we have parts of the National Solar Observatory system of telescopes. Near Apache Point, we have White Sands and the very large array out there in Socorro. So, those are the big telescopes in that particular swath of desert and – as you keep going west –you start to get to Arizona where the mountains get taller. You have Lowell Observatory, which gets obscene amount of snow.
Pamela: It’s high, high desert. May the oxygen be with you. And this is another one of those places where you have telescope upon telescope on this single mountain, but now we’ve started spreading to other mountains because the Naval Observatory is also out in that area of Arizona. And here we have one of the first interferometric systems where they’re testing, “How do you get multiple, optical telescopes to work together?”
Now, of course, as you get to Tucson – which is pretty much the find the darkest place on the map and go upwards – you have Kitt Peak National Observatory, Mount Graham, and Mount Lemmon all together, covered in various numbers of telescopes. And with Kitt Peak in particular, here you’re looking at a ridgeline and – all along that ridgeline – is telescope after telescope after telescope.
Fraser: So, now you have actually worked – you did some research at Kitt Peak?
Pamela: Yes. I was a summer REU student at Kitt Peak National Observatory and I was employed by the National Radio – the NRAO. I was employed by the radio folks, but they shared their summer experience with the National Optical Astronomy Observatories. So, while my summer project was – this is me – I was writing software. I was working on writing control systems for the observatory.
In addition to writing software for a big, old, amazing radio dish, I also got to do observations of Shoemaker Levy 9 using the Schmidt Telescope and that was amazing. Now, of course, because it was the Schmidt Telescope, Jupiter was like two pixels across or something silly like that. So, what we were observing was not the impacts, but the comet itself in the days leading up to the impact and that was pretty amazing.
Fraser: Wow. Yeah. I mean it’s surprising. I mean it was surprising that you got a chance to even see the Shoemaker Levy 9 impacts and now it sort of feels like I’m surprised that we haven’t had a chance to see anything that significant crash into Jupiter ever since. There’s been a couple of other impacts but – to be there and be part of the observations as the whole thing was coming together – must have been just – like you knew that you were part of something historic.
Pamela: And that was a very special time for something like this to be happening as well because this was when Mosaic was first coming out as a web browser. The very first time I used a web browser – here I’m dating myself – was at Kitt Peak while we were desperately reloading and reloading, waiting for the images from the South Pole to get posted. And this was an amazing opportunity where the reopened Kitt Peak – which normally is in summer shutdown for monsoon season at this point – but they opened it up because of this special experience.
We had astronomers trying to take data simultaneous with visitors trying to visit and see the telescopes as they’re taking data and all of us are trying to see the data that’s coming in from other place. As a student, they were, of course, assigning us all sorts of random tasks and I remember one of our random tasks was just to escort the public through the dome, letting them come in while we were starting the observations, showing them out when the observation was over, rinse and repeat. And we had one kid come in and the other thing that first came out that summer was light up shoes. And you have never seen so many astronomy students dive to scoop up a small child and hand it to their parents.
Fraser: “Turn off those shoes.”
Pamela: Yeah, yeah. It was like, “Oh, no. Thou shalt not step.”
Fraser: One does not bring light up shoes to an observatory.
Pamela: No, but it was a really amazing experience and that was also the first time that I learned ladybugs migrate. And this is actually a problem in these observatories of the southwest because ladybugs migrate at altitude and one of their favorite places to collect is on the sides of observatories and it looks like these moving, writhing, rust spots on the sides of the domes and it’s just millions of ladybugs.
Fraser: That’s amazing.
Pamela: And you will get them in your detectors.
Fraser: Oh, I’ll bet.
Pamela: They will somehow fly all the way down your telescope, down your optical assembly, and walk around on top of your CCD. It’s not good.
Fraser: All right. So, keep going west. What else is there?
Pamela: So, that really gets us through the primary National Observatories is with Tucson and Flagstaff, we have Lowell and the Naval and then with Kitt Peak, we have Lemmon, Graham, and Kitt Peak all right there.
Fraser: So, let’s talk a bit about some of the extreme most modern and cutting edge instruments that are out there. I mentioned leading up to this that one of the most powerful instruments out there – the large binocular telescope – is one, for example. So, do you have any information on some of the more extreme telescopes that people might be able to see there?
Pamela: Well, I think the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald and the large binocular telescope out at Mount Graham really stand out as, “This is why we build telescopes in these contiguous US, not the best place in the world, but easy to access facilities.” With the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, this is one of the largest telescopes in the world and it is the lowest cost, many meter telescope that has been assembled. They pioneered this technology because you’re just an eight hour drive away from Austin.
So, when you’re building an instrument, you build it at the university. You drive it out to the facility, put it up on the telescope, check things out, pull it down, put it back on, pull it down, put it back on, carry it back to Austin if you need to. And this ease of swapping out your equipment, being near manufacturing facilities, allowed them to pioneer this low cost technology.
Fraser: Yeah, there is a lot to be said for being able to just go, put it on, take it off, tweak it, fix it, upgrade it, improve it. When you think about these enormous telescopes that are built on Hawaii where you’ve got to take a boat to get there or on a mountaintop in Chile or the South Pole or space, right?
Pamela: And the ease of sticking as often happened, a graduate student in a Ryder truck to get–
Fraser: Right, rent a truck.
Pamela: That’s so much cheaper.
Fraser: Drive that truck to the top of the observatory and install it. Yeah, there’s a lot to be said for just the sheer convenience of being able to access your telescope and fix it, tweak it, upgrade it, change it, etc. I don’t think that can go understated.
Pamela: No. And McDonald Observatory – as a graduate program – I don’t think there’s someplace I could have been happier because it’s one of the last facilities to not have night operators, which means that I – as the observer – got to handle the telescopes. I was the one who knew how to operate things and it was when we had observers coming in from other institutions that they sent a graduate student out to do the observing. So, here you have a facility that was built thanks to a million dollar donation that somehow became 800,000 by the time it went through courts.
That started the entire facility with the Otto Struve 82-inch telescope. Over the years, we ended up with the Harlan Smith 107-inch telescope that was used with the Apollo missions. We have the Hobby-Eberly Telescope again built thanks to massive donations and these are places that aren’t just doing cutting edge science, but they’re training that next generation not just on the science, but on the operations, the optical engineering, the instrumentation. And to get to work in a department where you have all these components – the people building the stuff, writing the software, doing the science – all in one place.
Fraser: Yeah, but I think it’s really important to get across, right? The size of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, it is a 10 meter telescope. It’s actually a little bigger than that. That’s the same size as each of the Keck observatories on the big island of Hawaii. The very large telescope, each individual telescope is merely 8.4 meters.
Pamela: And the difference here is Hobby doesn’t slew, it just rotates. It has a fixed azimuth so you can only look at some parts of the sky, which is how they did it.
Fraser: On the cheap.
Pamela: The initial costing for it was 15 million. They went over that, but it’s not a multi-billion dollar facility.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah and it is a 10 meter telescope. So, it’s one of the largest instruments that you can get your hands on and done relatively inexpensive. One of the largest telescopes in the world and yet done really on a shoestring budget. But I think the large binocular is even more impressive.
Pamela: And this gets to what was my number one choice for graduate school that I was waitlisted and the first six people all said yes.
Fraser: Oh, no.
Pamela: Yeah. So, my number one choice for graduate school was Arizona and I didn’t get into Arizona. I got into Texas. I got into Yale, but without funding, so I didn’t go there because they were expensive.
Fraser: Right. This was before you were the master of writing research grant proposals?
Pamela: Yeah. Well, I got into Texas with funding. So, it was fine. I also got into RIT with funding, but I didn’t go there clearly. So, Arizona was my number one choice and this is because – like Texas – they have an observatory right there. But unlike Texas, instead of being eight hours away, it’s a couple of hours away and there are some people that bike it. I’m not that insane.
Fraser: Right, yeah. It’s like our access to ski hills here on Vancouver Island. Our ski hill is 45 minutes, a half an hour away.
Pamela: Yeah, yeah. And with Arizona, you have their pioneering mirror lab and so telescopes like WIYN, which is Wyoming, a state that begins with the letter I, Yale, and the National Optical Astronomy observatories. It’s this consortium telescope that was built with this super flexible mirror, four meter class telescope, one of the first of its kind, and they were able to pioneer these technologies because they’re so close to the University of Arizona. They pioneered these honeycomb mirrors that weigh so much less but – by doing spin casting literally underneath the sports arena at the University of Arizona – you have the lunar planetary lab.
And with all of these facilities – including the Planetary Science Institute, my new institute – all right there in Tucson, with access to Kitt Peak – which also has one of the NRAO radio telescopes up there. It also has a solar facility up there. It’s a great place to pioneer technologies, to spearhead research, and to figure out what is the next big thing?
Now one of the problems that they ran into is the next big thing didn’t fit on Kitt Peak and so it was recognized in the late ‘80s, “Oh, expletive, we need to find someplace else to start building” which is where they started looking at the other peaks that were around the City of Tucson, which has a lot of really good dark sky ordinances, which has a really good infrastructure, and they landed on Mount Graham which led to no end of controversy for about a decade. The problem here is each of these individual mountains is its own little ecosystem because – as you go downwards – it gets hot and desert-y and – as you go upwards – you end up with really nice, pine forests, cooler temperatures.
You can pick the climate you want to live in just by picking the altitude you build your house at and which side of the mountain – the rainy or the dry side – that you build on. And this also means that you can end up with divergent evolution on the different mountain peaks and there is a tribe of red squirrels on the top of Mount Graham where the large binocular telescope was set to be built. It was initially slightly different. Plans changed over the years.
And originally, the Ohio State was going to be building this telescope and then environmental activists got involved. They negotiated land rights with one part of the local Indian tribe and then a different part of the local Indian tribe was like, “No, we’re being taken advantage of” but it turned out those were actually white people. There was a whole lot of crazy chaos involved in building this facility but – after about a decade of struggle – they broke ground and both the Vatican Observatory and the large binocular telescope coexist with the red squirrels who – it turns out – like to eat garbage so they’re thriving.
Fraser: Of course, they are.
Pamela: Yeah, they’re fine. They’re fine. But the large binocular telescope is the first of the extremely large telescopes to be built and it was built decades ahead of everyone else. The reason they were able to do this is they have two side-by-side 8.4 meter telescopes that give the observing capacity in terms of resolving on the axis of the width of the facility of over 22 meters.
Fraser: Right. So, it is an interferometer?
Fraser: These two 8.4 meter telescopes that’s the same size as each of the telescopes of the very large – you know the very large telescope has four of them, but they have two of them side-by-side that can act like an interferometer and you get this phenomenal resolving power from these two telescopes. It would be better if they were in the mountains of Chile or in the South Pole, but the fact that they were readily available and accessible from a lot of places in the US makes them just one of the most perfect telescopes that have been built so far.
Pamela: And one of the real pioneering things – and that’s gonna be a common word in this show – that they did with the large binocular telescope, with the VLT, the very large telescope, system of four telescopes and a bunch of little one meters down in Chile, these are all separate domes. They can each work independently.
Fraser: And often do, yeah.
Pamela: They just combine the data with fiber optics. With large binocular telescope, they figured out how to build a single mount for both these mammoth mirrors side-by-side so that they get moved around the sky together. This is a pair of binoculars with over eight meter telescopes.
Fraser: And it’s amazing. The mirror lab builds a lot of the mirrors for the world’s telescopes.
Fraser: And it is amazing how long it takes them to cast and grind these mirrors. They will take years and years to build these mirrors for people.
Pamela: Yeah. The cooling alone because they have to keep them rotating at certain rates so that – as they cool – they cool correctly so they have fans and they don’t change shape as they’re cooling. It’s a really complicated process, but it’s right there at Kitt Peak and these are fabulous facilities. Kitt Peak does have night assistance. Here McDonald is a little bit better. It’s just that eight hour drive.
Pamela: Things we think about as a grad student. No, the American Southwest it’s not as high in altitude as Chile, but it still has that drier atmosphere that makes working in the infrared a little bit more tenable. It’s not as dark as places like Hawaii because we do have cities.
You do see Phoenix on the horizon at Kitt Peak. But you can test ideas and you can still do truly amazing research and these are some of the darkest places in America and the driest and the highest. It’s this combination of dark, dry, and high – even if they’re not over 10,000 feet, even if they do get more than three millimeters of water a year – it allows the science to happen with lower cost and with experimentation with lower risk.
Fraser: There are two instruments that are brand new that are in the southwest that I wanted to just mention. One is called the New Odd Planet-Finding Spectrometer, which is done by Penn State. Jason Wright and team were talking to me about it. And this is going to be a really powerful telescope for the radial velocity method. So, this is the way that they can actually detect the mass of planets. All of the instruments that are out there right now that we’re familiar with – Kepler, TESS, all these space-based ones – they use the transit method to detect these planets and so they can’t determine the mass.
They can only determine the size of the planet. So, you’ve got these really good instruments. One, it’s attached to the WIYN Telescope that you mentioned and then there’s another one called the Habitable Planet Finder, another. So, there are two really sensitive radial velocity instruments that are being installed in the American Southwest which will help target the mass of planets that are orbiting. Right now we’re on red dwarf stars and that will lead into some of the work that’s gonna be done in the next decade to find the Earth-sized worlds orbiting stars like our sun.
So, we are gonna get confirmation of Earth mass worlds orbiting red dwarf stars thanks to a lot of these new instruments – which we actually don’t have – so again, down in the American southwest. So, it really is I mean I think if you had to pick the top three places in the world, you’ve got Hawaii, you’ve got Chile, and you’ve got the American Southwest as the three places where the big astronomy work gets done and then I think also the Canary Islands. Yeah, I would say that’s the fourth, yeah.
Pamela: Yeah. Canary Islands is in there.
Fraser: It’s pretty great too. All right. Well, before we get onto say goodbye, have you got some names to read this week?
Pamela: I do. So, thank you to all our Patreons. I love that there’s so many of you. I can’t get through all your names every week. So, thank you, thank you. Here we go. Thank you to Jordon Young. Thank you to Burry Galwin. Thank you to John Yorsk and I have your box of paper spacecraft. Thank you. They’re awesome.
Thank you to Andrew Polstra. Thank you to David Trog. Thank you to Brian Kegel. Thank you to The Giant Nothing. Thank you to Ramji Anamathu. Thank you to Robert Plasma. Thank you to Cory Devolly. Thank you to Josh Cunningham. Thank you to Emily Patterson. Thank you to Dana Nori. Thank you to Joseph Hoy. Thank you to Chauncey Wilson. Thank you to Kiarten Svari. Someday please tell me how to actually say that. Thank you to Helger Bjorkhag. Thank you to Bill Hamilton. Thank you to Frank Trippen. Thank you to Richard Riviera. And I’m gonna stop there.
Fraser: All right, more next week. Again, thanks Pamela. Thanks, everyone for watching. We’ll see you all next week.
Pamela: Bye, bye everyone. This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light, Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on demand and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information, visit them online at www.8thLight.com. Just remember that’s www the digit 8, T-H, L-I-G-H-T dot com. Drop them a note. 8th Light – software is their craft.
Announcer: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a nonprofit resource provided by The Planetary Science Institute, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomy Cast. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet us @AstronomyCast, like us on Facebook, and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, 12:00 p.m. Pacific, or 1900 UTC. Our intro music was provided by David Joseph Wesley. The outro music is by Travis Serle and the show was edited by Suzie Murph.
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Duration: 36 minutes