My Astronomy Saga……

06 Dec

I’m struggling a bit putting together a blog about Arlyne as I had promised.  It’s a lot of work and I want to give it my best.  It will happen however.  My next blog after this current Astronomy post will be another chapter of the Steve Athan story, The engineer who went to Yellowstone.  

In the meantime, I will post this piece about my fascination from an early age with telescopes and the night sky.  This blog has been in the “can” for a while.  You probably have to be an engineer to really like this story.

Early Days.  My brothers and I grew up in Arizona in the days of wonderfully clear skies, night and day.  We would lie in our dad’s half-full cotton trailers and look up at the night sky in summer.  I learned many of the constellations and the stars that made them up.  It was fantastic and I loved it.  My high school chemistry teacher gave me a 1950 edition of the Skalnate Pleso Atlas of the Heavens, which is a set of large celestial charts that covered the entire sky.  These were marvelous charts that included galaxies, star clusters, Messier Objects, variable stars and all stars brighter than magnitude 7.75.  (another thing I used to have but don’t anymore) These charts were discontinued in the 1970’s.

Now, I don’t want to bore you but, as a teenager, I used to spread these charts out on the floor and try to learn all the big stars, nebulas, and other astronomy stuff.  I wanted a telescope but only had binoculars at the time.  I learned quite a bit but couldn’t really put it into practice.

I went to college, had other hobbies, graduated and went to work in Los Angeles at North American Aviation (NAA), which much later merged with Rockwell.

Roger Coulomb.  I met several interesting people at NAA as many of you have learned.  One of the engineers I met was Roger Coulomb. He told me he was a descendant of Charles Augustin Coulomb, the famous British scientist.  I believed him.  Roger was probably the great-great (great?) grandson of Charles.  Having studied electrical engineering, of course I knew of Charles Coulomb, who developed important theories and laws.  Charles Coulomb is considered one of the great engineers of eighteenth century Europe.  He did research in friction, mechanics, physics, electricity, magnetism, and structures.  In his honor, the electrical charge of electrons and protons (and other particles) is measured in coulombs.

I had wonderful conversations with Roger, including discussions of astronomy.  I learned that he had built a 14-inch Newtonian telescope.  He told me he was working on a photographic map of the moon with this telescope.  I also discovered that North American, having so many engineers, had a shop in our building where we could make our own telescope mirrors!!  A 14-inch mirror is HUGE and was not often found in the amateur world at that time.  Urged on by Mr. Coulomb, I started making a (small) 8-inch mirror.  I spent several evenings at NAA, using their grinding plates to make a spherical mirror, which I would eventually polish to give it the parabolic surface needed for a telescope.

One evening I borrowed Coulomb’s telescope, took it to a nearby park and set it up.  Even back then the Los Angeles night skies were pretty bad but I was impressed by the power of this instrument.  Setting it up horizontally, I looked in an apartment window a few hundred yards away, saw a man reading a book and could almost read the book.

Alas, I moved from Los Angeles to the SF Bay Area, leaving my own partially completed telescope mirror in my Grandmother’s garage.  Pretty quick, a few major things happened:  I moved to Florida on an assignment, I got married, we had a child and my grandmother’s garage burned down.  End of that telescope (but not my interest in astronomy).  the-completed-telescope

Several years later, I again got interested in making a telescope.  Arlyne wasn’t thrilled but I set up a “station” in the garage and ground a spherical glass mirror again, by hand, this time a lowly 6-inch.  I finished the grinding and started the polishing process.  I then used what is called the “knife-edge” lighting technique to determine how close my glass surface was to a parabola.  It was pretty close when I was done.  I sent the mirror off to be “silvered” with a nice, shiny, reflective coating.  I used an air-conditioning duct, PVC pipe, shot, plywood, various screws and bolts along with lenses and lens holders and a few other cool things I had to buy.  Lo and behold, a Newtonian telescope finally emerged.  I set it up and had a great time looking at Saturn’s rings, the moons of Jupiter, double stars, red giant stars and distant nebulas and galaxies.  Our friends and neighbors loved to see these things they had never seen before.   This adjacent picture is not my scope but it’s quite similar including the tripod pedestal it sits on.

The grand sighting.  All this went along for a few years.  Computers got better and we got a Compaq.  Dennis Santocono, a colleague of mine, and I then purchased a great software program that could accurately produce beautiful images of astronomical objects, including stars, galaxies, the sun, the moon, the earth itself, and all the planets. We had great fun with this.  Then a marvelous, unprecedented celestial event occurred.

In 1993, the Shoemaker-Levy comet was discovered as it entered our solar system, heading for Jupiter.  As scientists predicted, the comet approached Jupiter, entering the planet’s immense gravitational field.  Astronomers around the world were excited, as no one hadcomet ever witnessed such an event.  No one really knew what was going to happen when the comet struck Jupiter.  The enormous gravity from Jupiter shattered the comet and broke it into several pieces as it approached Jupiter, forming a bright “string of pearls.”  (You can see these pieces in the official photo, just below Jupiter)  Finally, in 1994, these pieces struck our biggest planet over the course of a few days, making dark smudges on the surface.  (Look it up)

The software company that sold the previously mentioned astronomy program then offered an update to their product, fragment-a illustrating the Shoemaker-Levi comet as it struck Jupiter, including an accurate depiction of the smudges on the planet’s surface where the pieces of the comet hit.

Dennis and I bought this update and ran the new program, setting the date as the present.  The program showed the precise position of the dark smudges on Jupiter.  I then set up my little 6-inch telescope on a clear night in San Diego and after letting my eyes adjust, I focused on Jupiter.  To my surprise, I could actually see three of the smudges.  When I went inside and checked with the astronomy program, it illustrated exactly where the smudges should be and there they were, just as I had seen them.  jupiter-with-smudgeWhat a thrill for a teenager who loved astronomy!  I was practically a scientist.  I was the only one I knew who could be astounded by this.  It was a beautiful, unforgettable sight.  The smudges gradually disappeared, my telescope is gone, and it’s all just history now.  But, thanks to Roger (and Charles) Coulomb for getting me started.  I was finally rewarded.


Thanks for hanging in with Arlyne and me.

Bob Draper


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