Saturday, July 7, 2018

New Tech, Distant Journeys, Deep Time

This Studebaker is a marker for Route 66 in Petrified Forest National Park.

Before I escape back into vacation memories, a personal update.

Based on current information from my husband's company, we have chosen not to move. That means instead of a relocation upending us right away, we are looking at unemployment beginning with the new year. I'll keep you posted.

When my husband relaxed into this choice, I was able to drop the high energy supportive wife  mode and collapsed into a flare. That meant I was radiating heat from my whole body and pain pills didn't make any real difference.  After a week of mostly resting, I am back to my definition of normal.

But neither of us are well. My husband's coworkers are facing the same issues, so the conversation at work is constant and stressful. He nervously over-exercised yesterday and is now suffering. I channelled my own nerves into knitting, so my shoulder is back to bad. I'm going to be a good girl and leave the knitting behind when I go out of town for a Shakespeare festival next week. I've packed two fidget spinners and will bring high-tech distractions. I might have to find a yarn shop in Cedar City.

Back to travel memories:
We are serious science fans. For my husband, anything involving space exploration and the technology involved with it attracts him like a magnet.

Due to this obsession, he has long wanted to visit the Very Large Array in New Mexico. It is a series of 27 radio dishes (and one spare) that have been picking up signals from space since the late 70s.

Though it includes a museum and visitors are welcome, the VLA is not easy to visit because it is, intentionally, far away from everywhere. For us, this was a top priority on our journey.

You might be familiar with the VLA from Contact, a movie starring Jodie Foster as a scientist looking for radio signals from alien civilizations.

We like and recommend the movie, but it creates misconceptions about the purposes of these dishes. If the aliens sent a radio message, VLA would "hear" it, but it's real purpose is to look deep into space.

Radio waves are a form of light waves that we cannot see, but the satellite dishes can detect them and give scientists usable data. The antennas are on train tracks and are moved into different positions for different types of focus, like the iris of an eye contracting and dilating to adjust to differing light.

The VLA has captured a view of material spinning around the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy. It has added to understanding of how stars and planets are formed. Because it takes billions of years for radio waves from deep space to reach Earth, scientists are using the data to try to understand the early days of the universe.

Each antenna weighs 230 tons. The diameter on top is 82 feet. They are 90 feet high. It was fun watching my husband run around the tourist area to get as up close and personal as they let us get to these amazing machines.

We now know that they post information on their web page on when the antennas will be in each different formation. I'm sure we will plan another trip back when they are closest together and therefore most photogenic. (Ideally it will also be in cooler weather.)

Our other astronomy visit was almost an accident. We planned a couple days in Flagstaff, Arizona because it was central to several locations. When I went online to find out what we could do in any spare time, the Lowell Observatory appeared. I expected something like the planetarium in Salt Lake, but this was better. Real discoveries have been made there. The observatory was built in 1894 above what was a small town in the mountains because it offered clear skies and darkness.

Newly restored, this 117-year-old telescope is now used for public education.
Percival Lowell was looking for evidence of life on Mars. Although he was disappointed in that search, important discoveries have been made at the observatory.

Pioneers in infrared astronomy found evidence that universe is expanding.

More famously, in 1930 Clyde Tombaugh used infinite patience and a telescope designed to photograph space in order to discover Pluto.

In 1961, the newest telescopes were moved further from town, where discoveries, such as the rings around Uranus, continue.

Now the Lowell Observatory's original site is used primarily for public education. When we visited, they were hosting an enthusiastic and loud science camp for elementary school kids.

We attended two tours, one about the founding of the observatory and another about the discovery of Pluto. When we left, they were setting up telescopes so people could look at the sun.

The Pluto Telescope--the wooden part on the bottom is where photographic plates were put.
We had seen quite enough of the sun already, but wished we had the energy to go back and look through the big telescopes at night.

When life settles down a little, and days get shorter, we will go back to Flagstaff and the Lowell Observatory. The hope is to visit when one of the planets is up at a good time for viewing.

We have a little back yard telescope and have looked at Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. Our telescope isn't powerful enough to show much more than bigger dots of light, but we can see more than Galileo did.

With the right conditions, we can see that Venus has phases like the moon. Four moons are visible by Jupiter as well as some sense of color on the planet. Saturn shows us its rings and and its largest moon.

Seeing these things with my own eyes somehow brings them closer. It feels like a miracle. I'd love to look at Mars with a telescope large enough to show the "canals" that excited Percival Lowell enough to invest his fortune in an observatory.

All of the photos for this blog (except for the knitting) are by my husband. Here is a rather miraculous photo he managed to take by lining up his cell phone with the eyepiece of our telescope--Jupiter and the Galilean moons--so clear and close you can almost touch them from our overly well-lit yard in Salt Lake City.

THE PODCAST is a Dickinson tribute to summertime. Summer seems to ease her obsession with death. She's not sure whether it is God or magic that deserves the credit, but is thankful to wake to yet another summer day.

Despite 100 degrees yesterday, so am I.

THE KNITTING consists mostly of two hats.

The all grey one is inspired by Ancestral Pueblo pottery I saw white traveling.

The floral and striped one is a doodle I made up, then hurt my arm to finish.

Both will be available in my shop eventually, but I probably won't get them listed until next week. If you want to reserve one of them, send me a message.


  1. I saw the telescope in Flagstaff and it is so cool. I have not seen the radio telescope. I'd like to go see it sometimes, well maybe.

  2. We're thinking about finding more historic observatories. I'm pretty sure the one in Chile is out of the question and sadly, Hawaii may be also, but I listened to a podcast about a lot of important astronomy done by women near Boston. I may have to do some research.