Observatory highlights accomplishments, to showcase telescopes

(Editor’s Note: The following was written by Bill Cloutier of the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford.)

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and the first moon landing.

Before the Apollo program ended in 1972, 12 astronauts would walk on the moon.

The moonwalkers collected almost 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil for study back on earth. NASA sent about 50,000 individual samples of the material returned by the Apollo missions to 500 research labs in more than 15 countries.

Since most of the samples were very small, in total, they accounted for only 20 percent of the lunar material returned (the remaining 80 percent was placed in protective storage for future generations).

NASA’s foresight paid dividends. There are several examples in our September newsletter where new discoveries in lunar science have come from technology that wasn’t available in the 1970s.

This year, NASA will give nine research teams access to some of that pristine lunar material that has been in storage for almost 50 years for analysis with 21st century technology.

The moon has turned out to be the guardian of the solar system’s secrets.

Relatively unchanged for billions of years, lunar rocks retain the history of the early solar system, providing scientists valuable information on planetary formation — insights that can be useful in investigating the more than 4,000 confirmed exoplanets orbiting other stars.

On the lighter side, Elon Musk’s red Tesla sports car, launched on the inaugural, demonstration flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket in February 2018, has complete one circuit around the sun.

The roadster is currently 186 million miles from Earth and moving away from us at a speed of 1,333 mph (towards Mars).

About a week after the launch, the McCarthy Observatory imaged the rocket’s upper stage (upon which the roadster was mounted).

It was quite the challenge as the object was rapidly becoming dimmer as it moved away from Earth, was highest in the sky early in the morning hours (around 5 am) and low in the south (only 20 degrees above the horizon and right in the midst of the skyglow from Danbury and other surrounding towns).

Despite the difficulties, on the 13th, a small group of sleep deprived enthusiasts at the McCarthy Observatory persevered and the roadster was found as a faint speck moving among the background stars. The data, sent to the Minor Planet Center, was accepted and included in their bulletin for artificial satellites.

During that same time period, an informal competition developed among amateur astronomers world-wide as to who could image the sports car at the greatest distance.

The team at the McCarthy Observatory decided to take up the challenge, despite the odds (we would be competing against observatories with larger telescopes, superior locations and with better seeing conditions).

Poor weather delayed our initial attempts and with each passing day, the object grew fainter.

By the weekend, the forecast had improved and on the morning of the 17th, preparations were underway by 3 a.m. to maximize our chances of finding an object at the limit of our equipment’s capabilities (for example, removing any stray dust particles from the telescope’s corrector plate, calibrating the imaging equipment, and reviewing the data available on the sports car’s trajectory from previous observations).

As the images were downloaded from the CCD camera, everyone gathered around the monitors looking for anything that might be different from the previous image (indicating motion).

Images were combined to reduce electronic noise (improve the signal-to-noise ratio) and compared again (while the soundtrack of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western played in the background).

Shortly before the intrusion of morning twilight, we were convinced that we had found our target, 2 million miles from Earth and heading towards Mars at almost 7 thousand mph!

The website spaceweather.com, which had been following the competition, reported on Feb. 18 that a new record had been set: “Last night, observers at the McCarthy Observatory in Connecticut photographed it (Telsa roadster) streaking almost invisibly among the stars of the constellation Hydra,” noting that “The current record will almost certain fall again and again in the nights ahead, so stay tuned.”

As it turned out, the McCarthy Observatory’s record fell two days later to an amateur astronomer using a robotic observatory located in Chile.

The loss of the record didn’t diminish the accomplishments of the very talented team at the McCarthy Observatory.

We will be featuring the observatory’s oldest telescope at September’s Second Saturday Stars Sept. 14. A hand-crafted relic from a bygone era, visitors will be able to experience new light through old glass (if the weather cooperates).