Saturday, July 21, 2007

Launchpad Finale

The final observing night looked as though it would be a washout, or rather a cloud-out. We drove some distance to get to the WIRO Observatory in the mountains that from Laramie are a part of the horizon. Cloudy, cloudy. A drive up the winding, dirt mountain road made me think I was back at Cedar Point. When we finally reached the top, the conditions looked hopeless for even opening the observatory dome. So we looked at the telescope instead:

And gathered in the control room while our enterprising grad-student operators tried to get the aging computer system to cooperate:

And even posed for a group photo (shot by Jeremiah Tolbert):

Gradually, though, the sky began to clear—just a few stars, at first. Hoping for the best, we opened the dome. By the time the system was up and running, more of the sky was clearing—and within an hour or two, we had a spectacular view of the Milky Way overhead (for those of us who wandered outside to stand in the dark). In the meantime, the telescope was starting to pull in images.

It was instructive to watch the process. Telescopes take photos in black and white, not color. To achieve color images, successive pictures are taken in red, blue, and green, and combined on the computer to produce a final image. And that is exactly what we did in the end. Most of the group had left by midnight, but the few of us remaining watched images come in of the Pelican Nebula. We left with the gray and white images on a CD. In the morning, someone who knew how to do the computer wizardry combined them to produce the photo that we have adopted as our workshop badge: the Pelican Nebula, in glorious color:

We're done with all the sessions now, with only our closing party to look forward to. It's been a great week, and while I look forward to getting home, I'm also sorry to see it end.

I'm going to end with this quote that seems utterly appropriate to me.

"I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children's books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe." —Madeleine L'Engle

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