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National Astronomy Day Celebrated at LIGO Hanford Observatory

National Astronomy Day Celebrated at LIGO Hanford Observatory

- Contributed by Fred Raab; photos by Toni Santini and Gary White

As springtime flowers and warm weather spread across the northern latitudes of the US in late April and early May, the Saturday nearest the first quarter moon is celebrated as National Astronomy Day. Doug Berger, former president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California, founded this annual tradition in 1973 to share an appreciation of the skies with the public. This April, the LIGO Hanford Observatory along with the Tri-City Astronomy Club (TCAC) joined the hundreds of astronomy clubs, museums and observatories nationwide in observance of this annual rite of spring. The official Observance of National Astronomy Day was on April 24, 2004, but LIGO and TCAC produced two free Saturday events for the public, a smaller event for beginners on April 17 and a big event on April 24.  

LIGO solar scope.
Safe solar viewing of sunspots with LIGO's Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope. Sol
obliged with two nice sunspot complexes for Astronomy Day viewers.
Girl viewing H-alph light from sun.
A young viewer watches the surface of the sun boil in an H-alpha refractor. We
enjoyed great views of convection cells and prominences.
Big Dob, perfect for small kids.
The author explains sunspots to Dad, while kids soak up the view in Raab's
Dobsonian reflector with homemade solar filter.
Looking at the missing colors in sunlight.
Viewing spectrum of the sun, while Assistant Scientist Betsy Bland (back to camera)
explains the origin of the "missing colors" in sunlight.

The warm-up event, "Spring Into Astronomy!" on Saturday, April 17, aimed to encourage family stargazing by presenting basic skygazing skills. This evening program began at 7 pm with presentations in the LIGO auditorium as we waited for the sky to darken. Despite several days of gloomy, rainy weather, about 90 people -- a nice mix of adults and 'tweens -- came out for the event. Yakima-Valley/Tri-Cities MESA and GEAR-UP helped by promoting the event within the schools they serve and busing out parents and kids. Thom Ahl, president of the Tri-Citiy Astronomy Club, presented the opening talk, "How to Get Started in Astronomy -- Cheaply," which provided helpful tips, tools and resources that are available for free, for $10, for under $50, etc. Ken Swanson, Executive Director of the Rattlesnake Mountain Telescope Renovation Project, followed with "Our Place in the Universe and What We See in the Night Sky." The crowd was totally jazzed by Swanson's artful use of Starry-Night Pro software to show how parts of the night sky would look using eyes, binoculars or a telescope and how they change with time. The talks ended at 8 pm as darkness fell and the constant clouds of the past week opened to a beautiful, clear night sky. With no moon over the dark LIGO site, the stars and planets were dazzling! Visitors were given free star charts and guides showed them how to use a planisphere to find objects in the heavens. Sirius, twinkling in a swirling rainbow of colors over Rattlesnake Mountain, fascinated the crowd and a brilliant meteor drew shreiks of excitement. At the end of the guided-sky-tour pathway, outlined in the blinking red glow of LEDs on sticks, TCAC astronomers offered close-up views of planets through their telescopes. The "big day" would follow a week later.

Model of LIGO Suspended Mirror.
Middle-school students interact with a LIGO
suspended mirror as scientist Mike Landry
explains how it works in the big detector.
MESA visitors viewing LIGO mirror poster.
MESA students learn about how LIGO mirrors are prepared
and suspended.
Roy Gephart entertaining visitors.
Pacific Northwest National Lab scientist and Tri-City Herald astronomy
columnist, Roy Gephart, discusses the vastness of the heavens.
Family viewing LIGO posters.
A family learns about LIGO's mission to detect
"spacequakes" emanating from deep space.
Looking at Aerial Photo of LIGO.
Looking over the vast 5-mile expanse of the
LIGO arms, as seen from the sky.

Saturday, April 24, dawned beautifully clear and approximately 300 visitors trekked out to "National Astronomy Day at LIGO." Ben Franklin Transit, our regional public transportation provider, kindly agreed to cosponsor this event by providing free bus service between North Richland and the observatory, so we would not need to turn away visitors if too many cars came out. The official program began at 2 pm with the first of two public tours of LIGO. This provided cover for TCAC astronomers to set up equipment for safe viewing of the surface of the sun, beginning at 4 pm. The solar viewing was great! Two sunspot complexes were visible and the "white-light" filtered scopes could zoom in nicely on the structure of these magnetic anomalies that suppress the heat locally on the sun's surface. Off in the shade of our staging building, LIGO's assistant scientists were demonstrating small hand-held spectrometers, developed by Project Astro, that split the sunlight into a rainbow of colors. Visitors could see that certain slices of color -- the so-called Fraunhofer lines -- were missing from the solar rainbow. The search for an explanation of these missing colors, first discovered in the early 1800's, would eventually lead to the underpinnings of 20th century science and technology. Now we know that the missing colors are absorbed by atoms in the cooler parts of the sun's atmosphere. "Star of Show" kudos went to two marvelous 'scopes provided by Mike Durst of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Tony George of Columbia Basin College. These two scopes incorporated special H-alpha filters to view the sun in the light of an isolated emission line of atomic hydrogen, accurate to 1/1000th of the wavelength of this reddish light. This gives tremendous contrast in viewing the sun, making the boiling convection cells on the surface and the solar prominences at the edges jump into view. WOW!!!

Night viewing with LIGO's Mak-Cass.
LIGO scope views a crescent Venus on the night shift.
A large refractor on duty.
A large refractor for planetary viewing.

Big Dob serves as "light bucket."
A big Dobsonian "light bucket" for deep-sky treasures.

Throughout the day, we had exhibits outside the LIGO auditorium from several community groups that do informal education and public outreach. They used this public event to inform visitors about their ambitious programs. The Tri-City Astronomy Club had contacted the publishers of "Astronomy" and "Sky and Telescope" magazines, requesting literature and hand-outs for our National Astronomy Day visitors. These publications generously provided the TCAC exhibit with six boxes of  free material for our visitors to take home. The B-Reactor Museum Association provided news on their orgainzation and its efforts to preserve the world's first production nuclear reactor as a museum and public park at the Hanford site. The Association for the Advancement of Science Through Astronomy provided a working scale model of the 28-inch Rattlesnake Mountain Telescope and information on their effort to restore it as a "robotic observatory" for classroom teaching. The Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology proudly showed off their traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian, "Past Visions of Tomorrow," that examines how our culture's view of the future has changed with the passing of time.

LIGO Lobby. Tri-City Astronomy Cub Info Exhibit.
The LIGO visitors area housed exhibits, including a wealth of hand-outs contributed to the Tri-City Astronomy Club by the publishers
of "Astronomy" and "Sky and Telescope" magazines.
B-Reactor Museaum Assoc. Exhibit.
The B-Reactor Museum Association exhibit, with information on
the world's first production nuclear reactor.

AASTA exhibit.
The Association for the Advancement of Science Through Astronomy
exhibit, showing a model of the Rattlesnake Mountain Telescope.
CREHST exhibit with crowd.
A crowd gathers around an exhibit by the Columbia River
Exhibition of History, Science and Technology.

Starting at 7 pm, the transition from solar viewing to nighttime sky watching was heralded by two excellent presentations in the LIGO auditorium. Roy Gephart, Astronomy Columnist for the Tri-City Herald, led off the evening with "Geology of the Moon." Roy shared his enthusiasm and many decades as a moon watcher, describing how viewing the moon through a telescope is like touring a museum of the natural history of our solar system. Tony George, Astronomy Instructor at Columbia Basin College, followed with a lively "Description of the Brightest Planets Visible Tonight." Tony described the four planets we would see across the sky that night (Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter as they appeared from West to East). Tony's humorous presentation showed not only what we would see through the amateur telescopes, but also what we would not see, using close up pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope and robotic missions to the planets as examples. By 8:15, a battery of telescopes large and small were set up, targeting wonderful sights in the sky. It was a relaxed and magical evening of "hanging out" under a gorgeous desert sky, sampling impressive views of the terrain of our Moon, the brilliant but fading crescent of Venus, the moons and cloud belts of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and penetrating glimpses of deep-sky objects. It was also a great chance for first-time and casual skywatchers to chat one-on-one with our local astronomy experts.

Bobbie provides light snacks and attitude.
Longtime TCAC member and volunteer educator, Barbara "Bobbie" Rittman (back to camera),
regals the crowd with light snacks and a light attitude for National Astronomy Day festivities.

Once the last bus left and the crowds were gone, astronomy club members savored an excellent evening and used the down time to go view some more esoteric objects, compare notes and plot our next adventure. Wouldn't a Perseid Meteor Shower viewing event go nicely around the middle of August? We shall see. Until then, "Clear Skies!"

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