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All posts for the month November, 2004

A couple of entries ago I talked about observing on Mauna Kea in 1996. I suppose I went into it with only a little bit of a romantic view of Big Astronomy Observing, knowing that it wouldn’t quite be like the days of old with the lonely astronomer sitting in the cage while the selfless night assistant monitored the proceedings and moved the telescope at my command. For one thing, I knew that modern observatories use computers to position their telescopes precisely, and that most observers sit in nice, comfy control rooms and not in drafty chairs on the telescope, peering through eyepieces.

Our own observations on Mauna Kea made heavy use of computers to quickly capture images and do some quick processing to make sure we got what we wanted, before moving on to the next target. Our observing runs were chock full of targets: Comet Hale-Bopp, Comet Machholz, an assortment of asteroids, and just for grins toward the end of the night, we targeted a few deep-sky objects before we shut the systems down. If we’d had to go out on the observatory floor and manually position the scope for all those objects? Well, it wouldn’t have happened.

Control room at the UH 2.2-meter telescope in 1996

Control room at the UH 2.2-meter telescope in 1996

Computers revolutionized astronomy and nowadays you see amateurs routinely hooking up their Dells and IBMs and other systems up to guide their telescopes. Many amateur scopes have their own onboard guiding systems, complete with star ephemeris information and more. Heck, you see them being run from laptops and Personal Digital Assistants! It’s a far cry from the early days when the computers at observatories were pretty much limited to guiding the telescope for precision pointing. Today they also monitor the instruments attached to the telescopes, record data, and in some cases do what is called “pipeline” processing to get it ready for the observer who got the telescope time in the first place. It’s safe to say that most of modern astronomy would be impossible to do without computers.
There are those who bemoan the loss of the “old days” when the observer had complete control of the process, sort of like a king on a throne, but I think those folks are few and far between. Far from computerization being a tool to remove power from lofty astronomers, it has democratized the process for more observers and made a great deal more science possible. Without it, the wonderful images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Gemini Observatories, Spitzer Space Telescope, the myriad amateur astronomers who turn out breathtaking work, and so many others would not exist.

Way back in the Dark Ages, before I got out of graduate school, I took a planetary science course or two at the university. Our field trips were great! We went to places on Earth that had similar characteristics to Mars. That would be deserts, volcanoes, and meteor craters. The West has these in various places, and so over the course of several trips we went to Arizona Meteor Crater, Sunset Crater (a volcano in northern Arizona), the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado, and the Big Island of Hawaii, where we studied volcanoes and sapping valleys.

On one of the trips to Meteor Crater we actually had permission to go into the crater to study the layered rocks and the ejecta hurled out when the incoming space asteroid chunk impacted the desert some 50,000 years ago. We were led down by the world’s foremost authority on the crater, the late Dr. Gene Shoemaker. Descending to the bottom of the crater we examined each layer of rock and gleaned its depositional story. Fascinating stuff and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us.

Over the crater rim; Mars Exploration Rover

Over the crater rim; Mars Exploration Rover

When I saw the latest “rim country” image from the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity (currently finishing up its exploration of Endurance Crater) I felt transported back more than a dozen years to that hot, dusty day when we explored the layers of Earth’s history in the Arizona desert. The scene here is so familiar that I had a strong memory of Gene’s voice calling out to us across the rock faces and crumbling layers to “come see this!”

This is Mars exploration today, limited by the speed of a couple of slow-moving rovers serving as our eyes and geological tools on the Red Planet. It’s providing tantalizing glimpses of an alien planet that looks so familiar, yet lies so far away. In a funny way, however, looking at pictures like this make me homesick for the wide open spaces we once explored as we readied ourselves to study Mars. I think Gene would say the same thing, but like me, he’d be champing at the bit to go there and see it for himself.