Guest blog: The Bucket List Astronomy Tour Class — the Very Large Array and onto Australia

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The past few days have been busy for the Bucket List Astronomy Tour (BLAsT) Class, a group of 10 Sam Houston State University undergraduate students on a journey to witness some of the best astronomical events of a lifetime. The students finished up their time in the Southwest and moved on to Sydney, Australia, where they will view next week’s transit of Venus. One of their professors, C. Renee James, updates us on the BLAsT Class’ visit to a famous radio array and their first reactions to the sky Down Under:

This has NOTHING to do with astronomy, but it should be on everyone's Bucket List — standin' on the corner in Winslow, Arizona. // Photo by C. Renee James
A long drive through 50 mph winds, and we found ourselves at the Karl Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) on Saturday, May 26. OK, we did stop in Winslow, Arizona, to stand on a corner (and confuse the twenty-something students). And we might have made a brief stop in Pie Town, New Mexico, to find out if pie on the Continental Divide was as tasty as elsewhere. Like the continent, I'm divided on that one. Then, after driving through the thick smoke from nearby wildfires, we saw the giant dishes of the VLA looming ahead. They look deceptively small from afar, and in fact appear huge only when you stand next to them. Judy Stanley gave us a tour of the facilities. The antennas were stowed in their locked and upright positions because of the high winds, but the operator moved the array to a more photogenic angle so we could have an “ooh … aah” moment.

What was a bit hard to digest for the students is how radio astronomers can work even in the blazing Sun. Because radio waves aren't scattered by the atmosphere like the blue light from our star, the radio daytime sky isn't "contaminated" by dispersed sunlight. Basically, unless you're staring straight at the Sun with a radio telescope, you won't see it. In addition, clouds are no hindrance, so Judy gleefully explained how the May 20 eclipse could be observed in radio waves even though clouds were passing overhead, annoying the visible-light astronomers at the facility.

C. Renee James reenacts a scene from the movie Contact at the Very Large Array. // Photo by Megan Willmore
We saw the control room, some of the hardware, and the doors that Jodie Foster flung open in the movie Contact. This, of course, meant that I had to reenact the iconic Contact scenes. Take 1: Sitting on a car hood with a laptop and headphones. Take 2 (shot in video): Tearing past the dishes (unfortunately in a minivan instead of a convertible) while screaming out, "Right ascension 18 hours, 36 minutes, 56 seconds, declination 38 degrees, 47 minutes, 1 second! Do you copy?! "

Interestingly, the star Vega has played quite a large role in our overall trip. Rising over the cabin in Flagstaff, Arizona, it was a great reference point for learning various constellations and the right ascension and declination/alt-azimuth coordinate systems. It also has helped with spectral types, parallax, star colors, apparent and absolute magnitudes, (B-V) scales, etc. So having it star in an assigned movie has been quite handy.

On Sunday, 27 May 2012, we drove to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to board a flight to Los Angeles and ultimately to Sydney, Australia. And this is when the fun began.

The class witnessed sunset at the Sydney Observatory on one of its first nights in Australia. // Photo by C. Renee James
The first thing we noticed prior to landing Tuesday, 29 May, around 6 a.m. Sydney time was that the constellations outside our plane window were nothing familiar. Then we realized that everything's confusing. The leaves are turning because it's autumn. The days are shorter … because it's autumn. The Sun cuts low in the sky, but our internal compasses are telling us that the low winter Sun cuts left to right across the southern sky, not the northern one. So it felt as though it was tracking the wrong way — right to left across the south, but it was in fact tracking right to left as we faced north. Follow?

Then the Moon had the nerve to scramble our brains by appearing like a Last Quarter moon, but upside down (you never realize just how familiar the Moon's face is until you see it upside down). But it was in fact a First Quarter Moon in an upside-down and backward  Leo. Whaaaaat?! We hiked to the Sydney Observatory, where Ernesto Del Bosque, a sophomore business major, lay on the grass, looked at the Moon, and literally felt as though he was upside down on planet Earth. We're not sure how much jet lag had to do with this.

A banner outside Sydney Observatory in Australia. Your father is, too, so this could be a good sentiment for Father's Day. // Photo by C. Renee James
Adena Crider, a senior majoring in criminal justice, was the first to verify a sighting of the Southern Cross as we trekked through downtown Sydney. We'd grown so familiar with Corvus, though, that most students actually guessed that it was that constellation first, somewhat ruining the mystique for a few of us, but there was a good bit of excitement at finding and identifying a constellation here in the Southern Hemisphere. More observing is planned to see just what else appears to go the "wrong" direction to us “Northern Hemispherians.”

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