The Telescopes of Mt. Graham – Part 2

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After exiting the van, our guide, John showed us the yellow tape that marked the boundary of “Squirrel Country,” then he pointed out just how close the fire came to destroying the telescope complex. Next he took us inside the Vatican advanced technology telescope (VATT) complex owned and operated by the Catholic church.

The complex is a place that allows the Jesuit astronomers to observe the heavens in comfort. Unlike yesteryear, astronomers no longer actually stand below a telescope and look through an eyepiece. Now when it is freezing outside, they sit in toasty warm comfort and view the heavens via their computer screens. I saw several computer screens inside the VATT complex that could display images coming directly from the telescope. Gone are the days where an astronomer must brave the cold to view the heavens. Today they sit inside and sip hot coffee or tea, and maybe even listen to contemplative ethereal music as they unravel the mysteries of the cosmos in comfort.

Thanks to John we were provided unfettered access to every part of the VATT complex. He is a highly trained engineer and he presented complete information about the telescopes. His tour was actually more like a master class on how telescopes, and everything else on the mountain works. In addition to presenting the telescope, he showed us every aspect of the operation, including the living quarters, and support facilities for the astronomers. The bedrooms were indeed as small as John told us they were during our lunch break on the way up the mountain. I am a former sailor, and used to small sleeping quarters, so I was ready to move right in. Of course, I am neither an astronomer, nor a Jesuit, so I will not likely ever have that experience.

The walls of the living quarters are adorned with beautiful photos of objects in space that were no doubt captured from the computer screens. Some of the most dramatic photographic images you will ever see are taken by astronomers. They are among the best photographers on the planet.

After touring, and examining the living quarters, we took the elevator up to view the telescope. By today’s standards it is not large, but nonetheless impressive. Standing below it, awakened my kinship with the astronomers. Clearly, I do not have their scholarship, but I do have their interest.

Throughout the entire day John presented a splendid presentation about the operation of the telescopes, and the various pieces of support hardware. He also told us some aspects about the mission, but as good as it was, it just scratched the surface of something as big as—well, as big as the universe.

The tour allowed me to reconnected with my own knowledge of astronomy, and having that background made John’s presentation even more meaningful. I was happy that I had a decent background in things astronomical, but after about an hour into the tour my brain started to overload. However, geek in me wanted more, and I got it.

After a very good explanation of the telescope that towered above us, the tour of the VATT facilities was complete. Now it was time to move on and experience what I had come to see. The Large Binocular Telescope.

THE LARGE BINOCULAR TELESCOPE: (LBT)

When we look through a telescope, we are actually looking back in time. I have, on occasion, referred to space as the great cosmic lie above us, and it is. To varying degrees what we see does not actually exist in the way we see it. For example, a star 100 light years away could have vanished 50 of our years ago, and we would not know it because the light we see from that star is still traveling to the earth from 100 years ago. We would not see it actually disappear for fifty more years. Strictly speaking what we experience as “real time,” could be viewed as a lie.

When John took us into the giant room that houses the LBT, we were awed by the majesty of the machine. Thanks to him, the experience was even greater than I had expected. John is now retired, but at one time he was the director of the Mt. Graham International Observatory. His knowledge of the LBT, as well as the two other telescopes on Mt. Graham, is impressive. I came for a simple tour of the giant telescopes, but the tour turned in to a master class on the telescopes and how they are used.

The tour lasted several hours, and when it was over my mind was overflowing with facts about these giant windows to the heavens. I was mentally and emotionally drained from the experience. Thankfully I took several photos, and made a video of the experience. Sadly the low light in some of the locations, rendered much of the video not suitable for public presentation, but it serves as an excellent reference for my time at the LBT and the entire Mt. Graham experience.

MEETING LUCIFER

Looking at space in the infrared spectrum reveals things that we normally cannot see because of the limitations of our eyes. By employing an infrared device, we can see sights not possible by observations in the normal light spectrum. infrared also produces photographic images not available with typical optical telescope photography. The device that accomplishes that on the LBT is was originally named LUCIFER.

LUCIFER or L.U.C.I.F.E.R is an acronym for Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Spectroscopic Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extra galactic Research. Please remember this because it will be on the test. However, the original name LUCIFER was considered to have a negative connotation, so the device is now referred to as LUCI. For the technically minded among us, a more in depth explanation is presented elsewhere. For the rest of us, here’s the deal.

Astronomers have known for years that looking into space with an optical telescope does not bring out the entire picture. Therefore, to reveal, or enhance what they can seen with traditional telescopes, they started scanning the skies in the infrared spectrum. In some respects, it is now the spectrum of choice. Simply stated, an infrared telescope is a telescope that uses infrared light to detect celestial bodies. It is an incredible tool for astronomy.

CLASS IS NOW IN SESSION

Infrared light is one of several types of radiation present in the electromagnetic spectrum. All celestial objects with a temperature above absolute zero emit some form of electromagnetic radiation. In order to study the universe, scientists use several different types of telescopes to detect the different types of emitted radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum. Some of these are gamma ray, x-ray, ultra-violet, and infrared telescopes. While that sounds, and actually is somewhat esoteric, the discovery of infrared radiation goes way back to 1800 when William Herschel discovered infrared radiation.

Like all scientific discoveries, advancements and further discoveries were made along the way. Today LUCI is an indispensable tool for the astronomers that use the LBT.

Have you ever had an instance in your life when you saw something, then immediately exclaimed: Did I just see that? Of course you have. Here is something interesting that you can do.

On a pleasant summer night go out to your backyard, or someplace with some soft (dry) grass. Take a pair of binoculars with you, as well as a pair of infrared binoculars. Lie down on your back and scan the sky with the regular binoculars. Now repeat the process with the infrared binoculars. What you will see will amaze you. You will wonder what’s actually going on up there. Spoiler alert… you won’t believe your eyes. Human eyes are really good for some things, but they are, no doubt by design, limited.

Usually Arizona is very hot and very dry, but when the rains finally come they can be very heavy. Obviously, rain affects astronomical observations, and cloud cover of any kind prevents optical astronomy. September in Arizona is known for heavy cloud cover and rain. The time of heavy rain is known as the monsoon season. Shortly after I arrived at my hotel in Safford, Arizona, the closest city to Mt. Graham, it rained very hard. I loved it, because after spending the summer in the high desert of Idaho, it was the first rain that I experienced in three months. In case you don’t know, I live in the tropics, so I do know rain.

Everyone associated with the telescopes on Mt. Graham understands the monsoon season. Consequently, the astronomers take this time to return to their respective communities around the world. On the day of my visit no astronomers were on Mt. Graham. I was disappointed about that, because I wanted to speak with an astronomer. The monsoon time is used to make adjustments to the telescopes and the support equipment, so I did get to speak with a couple of the technicians on Mt. Graham. Two days later when I visited the astronomical complex on Kitt Peak, which is also in southern Arizona, I did have the chance to speak with some real life astronomers. That was eye opening!

The complex on Mt. Graham is a lot like a small town. It has the same needs as every small town, but it is very remote, and it exists with a unique set of restrictions. Some of them are fascinating, like the complex being surrounded by an endangered Red Squirrel habitation.
That would be strange enough, but living in a remote location demands a way of life that differs from traditional daily lives.

Like any other community, Mt. Graham has it’s own police force. At one time it was a substantial force that was necessary because of organized opposition to the telescopes by the “green community,”and some Indian tribes. Strictly speaking, they were against any intrusion of the area, not the telescopes. Today, a department of only one or two officers is required to serve the needs of the mountain top.

RADIO TELESCOPE

One can never look through the third telescope on Mt. Graham. Why, I hear you ask? Well it is because it is not an optical telescope. It is a radio Telescope.

A radio telescope is a specialized antenna and radio receiver used to receive radio waves from radio sources in space. Just as optical telescopes are the main observing instrument used in traditional optical astronomy which studies the light wave portion of the spectrum coming from astronomical objects. Radio telescopes are the main observing instrument used in radio astronomy, which is the study of the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum emitted by astronomical objects.

Radio telescopes are typically large parabolic dish antennas similar to those employed in tracking and communicating with satellites and space probes. They may be used singly or linked together electronically in an array. Unlike optical telescopes, radio telescopes can be used in the daytime as well as at night. Since astronomical radio sources such as planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies are very far away, the radio waves coming from them are extremely weak, so radio telescopes require very large antennas to collect enough radio energy and extremely sensitive receiving equipment to study them. Radio observatories are preferentially located far from major centers of population to avoid electromagnetic interference (EMI) from radio, television, radar, motor vehicles, and other man-made electronic devices. Since my visit to Mt. Graham, a worldwide network of radio telescopes working in concert actually produced the first photo of a black hole. That is a huge milestone in astronomy!

Radio waves from space were first detected by engineer Karl Guthe Jansky in 1932 at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey using an antenna built to study noise in radio receivers. The first radio telescope built to study the stars was a 9-meter parabolic dish constructed by a radio amateur Grote Reber in his back yard in Wheaton, Illinois in 1937. The sky survey he did with it is often considered the beginning of the field of radio astronomy.

The work that the Catholic Astronomers are doing on Mt Graham is yielding very good data about our universe. It could be said that they are actually looking for life in the cosmos. One (unnamed) source told me they were looking for God. I find that very interesting, but have no idea if it is true or that is part of their mission. However, it would not surprise me if it is.

As soon as possible I want to return to Mt. Graham to make a proper documentary on the telescopes and the astronomers. Given the dangers to the planet that are lurking “out there,” I need to know more about what is likely already known by a relatively few people. For now, the Covid-19 Virus has curtailed public visits to the Mt. Graham Complex, but maybe in 2021 the visits will resume. I am ready to return so I am holding out hope for that.

Jim

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