Astronomy

Eyes On The Skies At Owens Valley Radio Observatory

If you’re still putting off joining your local astronomy club, I have some news for you: you’re probably missing out on some great adventures.

Planets and stars beginning to fade in after sunset. Bright Mars shines in the center and less bright Saturn to the lower left, above the tent in the distance. Credit: Pauline Acalin

Case in point–every summer around June, the Orange Country Astronomers (OCA) club, based in southern California, plans an overnight field trip to the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), located outside of Big Pine, CA. And since it’s not every day that I get to spend the night at a working radio observatory, I always jump at the opportunity to do so.

Lightning storm at Owens Valley Radio Observatory with one of the two 27-meter Solar Array dishes to the left. Credit: Pauline Acalin

Year after year, Dr. Mark Hodges, OVRO Outreach and Design Engineer, leads the night’s activities and serves as a friendly and informative guide. Hodges, along with the on-site staff, graciously invites the observatory’s stargazing guests to utilize any of the site’s facilities, which includes an extensive library stacked with space-related books and journals, comfy sofas to lounge on, and a kitchen for preparing necessary late-night snacks. And after a long day spent setting up telescopes in the desert, this air-conditioned building is a welcome oasis while we wait for the soaring temperatures to subside before nightfall.

View of the 40-meter telescope with Sierra Nevada Mountains as a backdrop. My truck is parked beside it for scale. Credit: Pauline Acalin

While the spectacularly starry night sky may seem like the main event, it’s the behind the scenes tour of the inner mechanics of the enormous 40-meter telescope that really stands out. OVRO is currently working in support of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to monitor about 1200 hugely energetic active galactic nuclei, called blazars, every two days. Blazars are located at the center of super-massive black holes and emit jets at near light speed towards the Earth. Researchers hope to learn more about how blazers can produce and emit these jets, as well as what the jets’ composition.

My 102mm refractor with the Milky Way backdrop at OVRO, during a trip in 2014. Credit: Pauline Acalin

Another highlight of OVRO is the scale model of the solar system. The model’s scale of one foot per million miles drastically improves your capacity to grasp the immense stretches of nothingness between the planets, the next nearest star, and the Andromeda Galaxy. Each planet is accurately sized and displayed on its own plaque. If you go, be sure to bring some water to sustain you during the trek between the planets, as it’s quite a hike.

Countless stars fill the night sky behind one of the two 27 m Solar Array antennae at OVRO, during a trip in 2014. Credit: Pauline Acalin

Moonless nights are ideal for viewing the stars, and I was lucky to have enjoyed such dark skies during my first field trip to OVRO. I remember how that first time, thousands of stars lit up the sky, many of which were so bright it was nearly impossible to distinguish them from planets. But during my most recent trip to OVRO, an unexpected shift in the weather produced a different kind “star party”…a lightning storm! Since the rain didn’t begin falling until well into the second hour of the storm, I had time to photograph the lightning storm. It was wondrous to view, and in hindsight, I would not have traded this experience for the clearest of skies.

Members from Orange County Astronomers setting up telescopes for day and nighttime astronomy. Credit: Pauline Acalin

I encourage you to get out there and join your local astronomy club so you can experience the wonder for yourself.

For NOW.SPACE

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