A good-sized asteroid will pass by Earth on Saturday, August 21, 2021. There is no danger it will strike our planet. It’s been designated as asteroid 2016 AJ193. It’s estimated to be just under a mile wide (1.4 km wide). And it’s moving fast. It’s traveling at 58,538 miles per hour (94,208 km/h) relative to Earth. That’s about 16 miles per second (26.17 km per second). The closest approach to Earth will occur on August 21, 2021, at 11:10 a.m. ET (15:10 UTC). This means the best opportunity for amateur astronomers to try to see this asteroid glide by will be early on August 21, just hours before sunrise. See the full story. Click Here
Except for when I saw the movie “Deep Impact,” I have never been scared by the thought of an asteroid strike, so why do I write so much about them? The short answer is that I have been interested in asteroids, comets, and meteors since I was a kid, but a better answer is that in 2019 I had a briefing from some professional astronomers that renewed my interest in asteroids, and what might be headed our way. What they told me seemed to have an air of urgency to it, and now given the apparent up-tick in asteroid activity by the media, and a seemingly greater public interest in asteroids, it appears as if I might have been given some relevant information. The part that really interests me is the recent increasing interest in asteroids by the world scientific community. The reaction coming from many quarters seems to indicate that something is afoot.
The following is from 2016
What would we do if we discovered a large asteroid on course to impact Earth? While highly unlikely, that was the high-consequence scenario discussed by attendees at an Oct. 25 NASA-FEMA tabletop exercise in El Segundo, California.
“While highly unlikely” is an interesting choice of words, but that sentiment is not the prevailing wisdom these days. They are from a conference back in 2016, and in my opinion, seem to be designed more to make all of us feel warm and fuzzy, but is that realistic?
The scientific community is aware that asteroids and other big space “rocks” pose a potential problem for the planet. In 2020, there was great concern about what might be headed our way. The average person must deal with the coronavirus, so awareness of the news regarding an asteroid on a potential collision course with the planet is probably not uppermost on their mind. News of the 2 asteroids that just missed us a while back is disconcerting because the encounter took us by surprise. Nevertheless, it is worthy of our attention. Moreover, the increase in the frequency of asteroid close encounter reports and the renewed interest in what’s going on near the planet are noteworthy.
If one looks for information about potential asteroid encounters one can find a number of potential candidates on the Internet. Much has been written about the asteroid called Apophis. CLICK HERE to read about the Friday the 13th near approach of that bad boy. Did I mention it is scheduled for April 2029, almost a decade away from now? I will check my calendar tonight to see if I will be available to watch it go by. In the meantime, we need to know what is happening right now regarding near-earth asteroids?
I have a personal rule of living that states: If an event is more than five years away then I do not care to know about it, so when we get to 2024 I will start thinking about Apophis. Even then it will be just for fun.
In my school daze, I had a science teacher that made a point of telling the class that in one billion years or so, the sun will run out of solar fuel and the earth will be doomed. Wow, alert the media, and by the way, what’s for lunch? Why does anyone care about events 1000 years from now let alone a billion years? Has there been a dramatic change in life expectancy and I missed the memo? Meanwhile, back in 2020…
The incidents of near-earth asteroid passings appear to be more frequent now or maybe the detection is getting better. It also could be in part due to the Internet and other modern communications methods getting the word out. Accurate records of asteroid activity are kept by the people and agencies responsible for tracking them. Those data would reveal if there is a recent increase in asteroid activity and/or a recent increase of asteroid close encounters. Astronomers and other people who watch the skies for a living are in a position to know the level of risk. I wonder if they are holding back information from the public?
The European Space Agency (ESA) reports:
…such intense levels of international scientific collaboration are driven in part by the fact that an asteroid impact could cause devastating effects on Earth. This is a testament to the fact that we are at a point in human history where we are considering that we should do something about risky asteroids.
According to recent ESA estimates, there are 878 asteroids in the ‘risk list’. The ESA catalog brings together all asteroids we know of that have a ‘non-zero’ chance of impacting Earth in the next 100 years. Non-zero means that an impact, however unlikely, cannot be ruled out.
What are the odds that there is something out there that has yet to be discovered? Something that for a number of reasons has not yet shown its crater-pocked face. Something that is not yet seen by the astronomical community at large. Not possible you say, well we just missed one not long ago and it made the closest approach to Earth of any asteroid known to our scientific community. Even the asteroid hunters admit that blew it, but in fairness, they are doing a remarkable job with the resources they have available to them.
Several near-earth asteroid passes are slated for the rest of 2020. We are told that only a very few could possibly collide with earth, and more are being reported as “big.” By virtue of the timing, the most famous one is the election day asteroid. The scientific community is in agreement that it is very small and poses no significant problem unless of course, it hits your polling place on November 2nd. (Wow…we dodged the bullet!)
I will continue to post significant asteroid updates in my blogs, and as the situation warrants it, present timely updates on any asteroid activity that might affect us. In a future post, I will also share the bombshell information that I received during my face-to-face meeting in 2019 with some professional astronomers. In the meantime, look at the night sky as often as you can and enjoy the majesty of the universe.
There are many powerful telescopes on the planet and an increasing number of telescopes in orbit. I have been interested in telescopes and astronomy since I was a kid growing up in Detroit and over the years I have attempted to keep up with the never-ending discoveries being made in astronomy. One day I read about a telescope known as the Large Binocular Telescope located at the top of Mt. Graham in Arizona. I was instantly fascinated with it and I just had to see it in person.
I am not exactly sure of the date, but I remember that my discovery came from the internet. Once I learned what it was, and what it did, I knew that I had to visit this big window to the stars and see it in person. Was it the telescope, or was the mission that most interested me? It turns out that it was both so in 2018 I decided I would go to Arizona to get up close and personal with this special window to the universe. However, getting there was not as easy as it should have been.
What should have been a simple journey up Mt. Graham was not. In 2017 I was ready to go, but thanks to “mother nature,” my first two attempts failed. The first attempt was thwarted by a forest fire on the mountain that almost destroyed the telescopes. My second attempt was thwarted by water. The heavy seasonal “monsoon rains” in Arizona washed out parts of the road to the top of Mt. Graham ending the public trips for the rest of the season. The forest fire destroyed the trees and vegetation that would normally mitigate the effects of the rainwater and the resulting water damage to the road from the rains closed the mountain to the public. I was forced to wait yet another year for my visit.
In September of 2019, my quest to visit the telescopes on Mt. Graham became a reality. I finally made it to the top of Mt. Graham and it was a magic moment. I was able to get up close and personal with all the telescopes and I also saw firsthand the danger the forest fire presented to the telescopes and just how close it came to destroying the mountain top complex.
Fire and water notwithstanding our guide, John Ratje, pointed out that the real challenge of getting to the complex is in the winter when sometimes five or more feet of snow can cover the road. I live in the tropics, so it is extremely unlikely that I will ever have the joy of that experience.
When there is no snow, no fire, and no floods, getting to the top of Mt. Graham is very easy. The Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park Campus is the agency that provides public tours. They operate a multi-passenger van that takes the tour participants to the telescope complex at 10,000-feet. However, before one can climb aboard the van there is a briefing and a short video presentation to describe the tour and to inform each participant what is expected of them.
After the video, each participant is required to read and sign two documents. The first one is a standard release form to hold harmless The Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park Campus in case of an accident, altitude sickness, or an alien abduction while roaming around the mountain top compound. The observatories are located 10,000 feet above sea level, so it is a legitimate concern that some folks might be negatively affected by the altitude. It does happen sometimes. If one were coming from a sea-level community, then I can understand there might be a reason for concern. I am on the far side of 70-years-old, but for the past 25 years, I have lived at or near 5,000-feet, so I knew that I was somewhat acclimated to the 10,000-foot altitude, and as it turned out I didn’t even notice the altitude. Each participant also had to affirm that they were not suffering from any of the health problems listed in the document. I was sure none of the items on the list applied to me, especially the one about being pregnant.
The second document was to make us aware of the Red Squirrel population that inhabits the area. The squirrels are an endangered species protected by federal law. Their habitat is marked by yellow tape similar to the tape used by the police to mark the boundaries of a crime scene. Each tour participant had to warrant that they would not disturb, harass, or otherwise interact with the little critters because to do so is a federal offense and they were not kidding.
My trip was to visit telescopes so it seemed strange to focus on Red Squirrels, but the legal ramifications of disrespecting their habitat are quite serious. We needed to understand that there were consequences associated with transgressing their area. To cross the yellow tape that marks the boundary to their habitat would invite problems. Their piece of the mountain was the first thing we were shown upon our arrival at the telescope community.
Before I leave this topic, I feel compelled to say that, at no point did I ever see a red squirrel. That was okay because I came to see telescopes, not interact with the cute red squirrel population. However, I make wildlife videos in Central America so all wild animals are of interest to me.
The trip to the telescopes starts at the Discovery Park Campus in Safford, Arizona. It takes about an hour and a half to get to the telescopes but that includes the 30-minute lunch break. About 20 minutes after departure, the van is headed up the mountain. The many switch-backs and curves present marvelous views, and dramatic photo opportunities of the valley below, but the last eight miles of the trip is the real adventure. It is on a dirt and gravel road that seems best suited as a vehicle shock absorber test track. Along the way, the acres of burned trees from the forest fire give the area a foreboding look, not unlike the dark forest in the Wizard of Oz. On the trip up we stop at a nice campground to eat lunch. It is included as part of the tour. The food was welcomed, but the break from the bumpy road was also appreciated. The area is wild and I was hoping to see a bear. Sadly that never happened, but I did get some nice video of a beautiful deer.
The trip from the picnic spot to the top was quick. The final mile or so is on a single-lane road that requires radio contact with the top of Mt. Graham to ensure that there is no downhill traffic. It would not work well for two vehicles to confront one another on the narrow one-lane road. Lester. our driver used his two-way radio to call “Moon Base.” Say what? I thought we were headed to a mountain top. Just how high are we going? After three attempts at calling “Moon Base,” there was no response. We had to move on so Lester broadcast our intentions over the radio and we started up the hill. In less than 10 minutes we were there. We came around a curve, and there it was. I was looking right at the giant structure that houses the Large Binocular Telescope. After two failed attempts I had finally made it. I am sure that I was grinning from ear to ear.
After exiting the van, our guide, John showed us just how close the fire came to destroying the telescope complex. That must have been a very scary time on the mountain. After the welcome to Mt. Graham briefing, he took us inside the Vatican advanced technology telescope (VATT) complex owned and operated by the Catholic church. It is a place that allows the Jesuit astronomers to observe the heavens in comfort. Unlike yesteryear, astronomers no longer 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.
There are several computer screens inside the VATT complex that can display images coming directly from the telescope so the days when an astronomer must brave the cold to see the heavens are found only in the history books. Today a warm room with some hot coffee or tea, and maybe even some ethereal music is the recipe to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos.
John provided us with 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 more like a master class on how telescopes, and everything else on the mountain works. In addition to presenting an excellent class on the operation of the telescope, he showed us the other aspects of the operation, including the living quarters, and support facilities. During the lunch break on the way up the mountain, he told us that the bedrooms were small. Ha…they were truly as small as he told us they were. I am a former sailor, and quite 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 world’s most dramatic photographic images are taken by astronomers. They are among the best photographers on the planet.
After touring, and examining the living quarters, we take the elevator up to view the telescope. It was impressive, and standing below it, my perceived kinship with the astronomers started to deepen. I do not have their scholarship, but I do have their interest. Throughout the entire day, John presented a splendid nonstop presentation on the hardware and the operation of the telescopes. He even told us a bit about the mission. However, as good as it was, it just scratched the surface of something as big as—well, as big as the universe.
I was happy that I have a decent background in things astronomical. The tour allowed me to reconnect with my knowledge of astronomy and having that background made John’s presentation even more meaningful. Nevertheless, after about an hour into the tour, my brain went into overload. Nevertheless, the geek that I am wanted more, and I got it.
The work that the Catholic Astronomers are doing on Mt Graham is yielding knowledge about our universe. It seems as if they are looking for life in the cosmos. One (unnamed) source told me that among other things they were looking for God. I find that very interesting but have no idea if that is a stated part of their mission. However, it would not be surprising if it is.
After a thorough explanation of the telescope that towered above us, the tour of the VATT facilities was complete. Now it was time to move on to experience what I had come to see. The Large Binocular Telescope.
THE LARGE BINOCULAR TELESCOPE: (LBT)
When we look through a telescope, we are looking back in time. I have, on occasion, referred to space as the great cosmic lie laid out above us, and it is. To varying degrees what we see does not 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 disappear until 100 years after the event, so strictly speaking what we experience as “real-time,” is 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 introduction to the telescope 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 into a master class on the telescopes and how they are used.
Looking at space in the infrared spectrum reveals things that we cannot see because of the limitations of our eyes. By using an infrared device, one can see sights not visible in the normal light spectrum. It also produces photographic images not available using typical optical telescopic photography. The device that accomplishes that on the LBT is was originally named LUCIFER.
LUCIFER (Pronounced LU-CI-FER) is an acronym for Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Spectroscopic Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research. Please remember this because it will be on the test. However, the name LUCIFER was considered to have a negative connotation, so the device is now referred to as LUCI. For the technically minded among us, I will present an in-depth explanation at another time. For the rest of us here’s the deal.
Astronomers have known for years that looking into space with an optical telescope does not present the entire picture. Therefore, to reveal or enhance what they can see 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 examine celestial bodies. It is an incredible tool for astronomy.
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. 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 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 discoveries made along the way, 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. To have a guaranteed “did I just see that” experience, do the following.
On a pleasant summer night go out in your backyard, or someplace away from lights and with some soft (dry) grass. Take a pair of binoculars with you, as well as a pair of infrared binoculars. (spoiler alert…infrared binoculars are crazy expensive. ) 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 not just amaze you, it will blow your mind. You will wonder what’s going on up there. You won’t believe your eyes. Human eyes are really good for some things, but they are, by design, limited in some respects.
Usually, Arizona is very hot and very dry, but when the rains finally come they can be very heavy. 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.” On my first night in Safford, Arizona, the closest city to Mt. Graham, it rained very hard. I loved it because after spending the summer in a high desert, it was the first rain that I experienced in three months. I live in the tropics of Central America, so I am accustomed to rain.
Everyone associated with the telescopes on Mt. Graham understands that during the monsoon season, viewing is not usually possible. Consequently, the astronomers take this time to return to their respective communities around the world. While in Arizona, I did interact with some astronomers, but on the day of my visit, there were no astronomers on the mountain. I was disappointed about that because I wanted to speak with an astronomer at the LBT. 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 there. 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 there. That was eye-opening, and a bit frightening. Don’t ask.
The complex on Mt. Graham is a lot like a small town. It has the same needs as every small town, but it is quite 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 life in any remote location differs from life in a city.
Like any other community, Mt. Graham has its own police force. At one time it was substantial because of the organized opposition to the telescopes by the “green community,” and some Indian tribes. Strictly speaking, they were not actually against the telescopes but against the intrusion into the area. Today, a department of only one or two officers is required to serve the needs of the mountain top.
We couldn’t look through the third telescope on Mt. Graham. Why I hear you ask? Well, that 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. Optical telescopes are the main observing instrument used in traditional astronomy which looks at the light wave 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, space probes, and Satellite TV. 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 equipment to enhance them. to avoid electromagnetic interference (EMI) from radio, television, radar, motor vehicles, and other man-made electronic devices radio observatories are preferentially located far from major centers of population. With the advent of the Internet, Radio Telescopes located hundreds or even thousands of miles apart can be linked together. Since my visit to Mt. Graham, a worldwide network of radio telescopes 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 tour lasted several hours, and when it was over my mind was overflowing with facts about the giant windows to the heavens. I was mentally and emotionally drained from the experience. I took several photos and made a video of the experience so I have something to keep the experience fresh for me. Sadly because of the low light in some of the locations, much of the video I took is not suitable for public presentation. However, it does serve as an excellent reference for my time at the LBT and the entire Mt. Graham experience. I would like to know more about the dangers to the planet that are lurking “out there.” What is currently known by only a relatively few people must be shared with all of us.
The Covid-19 Virus has for the time being curtailed public visits to the Mt. Graham Complex. Maybe in late 2021 or 2022, the visits will resume. I am holding out hope for that. I want to return to Mt. Graham to make a proper documentary on the telescopes and the astronomers.
CLICK HERE to go to The Telescopes of Mt. Graham – Part 1