Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Telescope Tourists

Stargazing Fanatics Go to Ends of the Earth; 'The Great Refractor'
By GEORGE ANDERS, May 18, 2007

MAUNA KEA, Hawaii -- Two-and-a-half miles above sea level, David Monahan inches forward in the dark, popping open his cellphone to serve as an emergency flashlight. Nighttime temperatures have plunged below freezing. Snack food atop this dormant volcano consists of a bucket of dried squid.
For Mr. Monahan and five fellow adventurers, this is bliss. They have slipped inside a dome at the W.M. Keck Observatory, home to two of the world's biggest optical telescopes. While astronomers prepare to search the skies, the newcomers shiver excitedly alongside celestial-imaging equipment, perched on a catwalk 75 feet off the ground. They look like stowaways on a space ship.
The Bolshoi Azimuthal Telescope on Mount Pastukhov, a windy slope in the Russian Caucasus.
Ordinarily, security guards would dash into the dome and eject such intruders. These visitors, however, have special privileges. Like Mr. Monahan, a hotel executive, each has donated $1,000 or more to the observatory, entitling them to an up-close glimpse of the frontiers of astronomy.
Stargazing conjures up staid images of field trips to the local planetarium or puttering with a backyard telescope. But a new breed of obsessed fans is crisscrossing the globe to visit legendary observatories. Destinations include remote deserts, mountaintops -- even the South Pole.
Many of these travelers are engineering buffs, people who love nothing more than to gawk at the one-of-a-kind quirks of multimillion-dollar machines. Even the smell of old telescopes' lubricants -- a bit like crayons -- intrigues them. Others are astronomy pilgrims retracing great moments in scientific history. Some simply like pioneering their own form of extreme travel.
For observatories, affluent tourists can become welcome new funding sources. In Hawaii, the Keck has collected more than $6 million from private donors in the past few years to help pay for new instruments. Other sites regard steady visitor traffic as a good way to build up astronomy's image, particularly with school groups, which may include future scientists. Some popular sites get more than 100,000 visitors a year.
One of the most ardent telescope tourists on the circuit is 47-year-old Louis Berman, who says he fell in love with stargazing as a boy. His passions turned to theater lighting as a young man before more job changes led him to become chief technology officer at a New York-based hedge fund. About seven years ago, Mr. Berman rekindled his infatuation with astronomy.

For a close encounter with galaxies far, far away, here are a few observatories to consider.
Now he plans to visit one major observatory a month until he has enough material to write a book, which he plans to call "Scope Seeing." So far he has completed more than a dozen U.S. trips and is working on a European jaunt in August. His wife isn't too thrilled about his new hobby, he concedes, but if she doesn't want to come along, he travels alone.
"Visiting observatories is like going to a scientific church," Mr. Berman explains. "There's something wonderful about seeing stars that are so far away that you're looking back in time by billions of years."
The longtime king of telescope tourism is William Keel, an astronomy professor at the University of Alabama. His adventures started in the 1980s, right after graduate school, during a research stint in Holland. He and his wife used their weekends to dash across Europe exploring old observatories, some dating back to the Renaissance. In Bonn, Germany, they saw the telescope that Friedrich Argelander used to compile the first major atlas of the stars in the mid-19th century. "It's almost mystical," Prof. Keel says. "You're in touch with this romantic legacy of the lone observer gazing into the sky."
Prof. Keel has since trekked to observatories ranging from Chile to West Virginia. On his Web page (, he provides photos and chatty commentary about each stop, including his 1990 visit to Russia's Caucasus mountain range, home of the enormous -- but poorly engineered -- Bolshoi Azimuthal Telescope. Russian astronomers told him about a design quirk that made the Bolshoi, known as the Cyclops of the Caucasus, so elongated that it couldn't withstand strong winds. At one point astronomers there were forced to cover cracks in the telescope's mirror with black cloth in hopes of salvaging image quality.

'The Great Refractor'
Amateurs are crisscrossing the world in search of stellar adventures, too. Some 200 of them belong to the Antique Telescope Society, which attracts engineers, woodworkers and casual historians. The ATS meets at a different observatory each year. This October the group will gather in Greenville, S.C., to see "The Great Refractor," a 125-year-old instrument that once belonged to Princeton University, and next year, it's off to Holland to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope.
For many members, old-fashioned craftsmanship is everything. "These older telescopes are controlled by amazing clockworks," says Peter Abrahams, an ATS member in Portland, Ore., who builds computer workstations.

The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis.
One of Mr. Abrahams's favorites is at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. Completed in 1897, it was built in a gaudy Victorian style, with celestial and mythological figures rendered in ornate terra cotta inside and out. One of the last big telescopes to be built with lenses, rather than mirrors, to focus light, Yerkes was used for important scientific work until the 1980s. Academics hardly bother with it anymore, making it easier for amateur stargazers to use the instrument at night.
Another ATS member, Walt Breyer, spent most of his career as a chemical engineer at Scott Paper Co., designing diapers and toilet-seat covers. Retired now, he says his growing interest in astronomy makes for better dinner-table chatter. Among his favorite tales: visiting Birr Castle in Northern Ireland, home of a huge, 19th-century telescope, and staying for dinner with Lord Rosse, whose forebears built the observatory.
"There we were in sweatshirts and other casual clothes, suitable to explore the telescope, having dinner in the castle," Mr. Breyer recalls. "I wonder what Lord Rosse and his wife thought of the Americans who came to dinner so casually dressed."
Modern facilities usually aren't as obliging. Visitors' galleries provide daytime glimpses of some equipment, but doors are generally locked at night so that astronomers can work without distractions. An extreme case in point is the South Pole Observatory, funded by the National Science Foundation. Created in 1957, it hosts as many as 200 visiting astronomers at a time. Scientists there study submillimeter radiation from stars, which usually is obscured by water vapor in the earth's atmosphere. Visibility improves at the South Pole, however, thanks to the extremely cold, dry air.
Travelers who stop by for a quick tour might get a cup of coffee or a meal -- but that's all, says D.A. Harper, a former director of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, where he oversaw the South Pole outpost. "Space is very tight," Prof. Harper explains. "The rule is, if they want to spend the night, they've got to bring their own tent."

Star Party, $600
That frosty welcome -- plus the $40,000 round-trip cost of flying to the Pole from the Antarctic coast -- has kept unplanned tourist traffic down to 10 guests or fewer most years, Prof. Harper says. Still, a few teachers, journalists and politicians who make the trip each year get friendlier treatment, as part of the NSF's outreach efforts. Arlene Sharp, a Chicago educator, spent six days at the South Pole Observatory in 1996 with a middle-school student. She says she has been sharing her experiences with teachers and parents ever since.
A technician at the W.M. Keck Observatory, inspecting the laser guide star beam on the K2 telescope.
In Texas' Big Bend region, the McDonald Observatory offers tourists a pragmatic compromise. Nighttime access to its largest telescopes is highly restricted. But for $600, the observatory will throw a private "Star Party," letting guests spend hours gazing at planets, nebulae and distant galaxies through three of its smaller scopes.
"Being out there is elemental, wild and simple," says Mike Halperin, a Seattle-area doctor, who took such a trip in April. He was especially moved by up-close views of Saturn's rings.
Some of his friends on the trip were ex-Microsoft Corp. employees who had hoped to see one of their former colleagues, Charles Simonyi, orbiting the earth during his brief stint as an astronaut. No luck. Mr. Simonyi's spaceship was in too low an orbit to be visible. But other spectacular attractions, such as globular star clusters, made up for it.
In Hawaii, about 100,000 visitors a year come to a viewing station partway up the slopes of Mauna Kea, where they can see the night stars through relatively small telescopes. About 25,000 make it to the 13,796-foot summit, usually for a daytime look at the Keck and eight other major observatories operated by European, Japanese and North American universities.
As for getting inside the Keck at night, that's a rarer experience afforded only about 60 major donors a year. On such trips, the observatory's development officer, Debbie Goodwin, cheerfully barges through doors marked "No Visitors," her guests in tow. A popular stop is the "mirror barn," where the observatory stores spare hexagonal tiles for the Keck's two, 32.8-foot primary mirrors. The 4-inch-thick tiles are polished to within one-millionth of an inch of design specifications and cost more than $800,000 apiece. Visitors can't touch them, but no one stops people from cavorting in front of them, watching their reflections as they giggle and make faces.
To some visitors' surprise, there aren't any chances to see actual stars through the Keck's main telescope. Images are captured digitally, turned into columns of numbers -- and transmitted to astronomers at computer stations miles away. That helps researchers do their work more efficiently, but it creates a sightseeing experience that isn't much different than watching bond traders adjust their portfolios.

Into Thin Air
There are other stops on the tour that are crowd pleasers, however. One involves a thin orange laser beam that's shot into the sky, helping the Keck's telescope produce images so clear they rival those of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The thin air atop Mauna Kea reduces the sort of atmospheric distortion that makes stars twinkle, but doesn't eliminate it altogether. Fancy computer software can correct for this, as long as astronomers are able to calibrate their adjustments on a precisely defined object in the heavens.
Thus the laser. Its thin orange beam excites atoms in the upper atmosphere, creating a disk-shaped image that's 60 miles away -- and just 20 inches wide. Software analyzes that artificial "star" and makes adjustments until its image is as crisp as possible. This tinkering, known as adaptive optics, greatly sharpens the images of celestial objects.
As the orange streak lights up the Hawaiian sky one evening, visitors inside the dome involuntarily lift up their arms and point to it. They try to guess how far out it can be tracked -- a mile? two miles? -- before it disappears into the infinity of space.
Among the most delighted spectators is Clive Davies, the retired president of Linear Technologies Inc., a Silicon Valley chip company. Forty years earlier, he was a graduate student in physics, curious about all kinds of things, but it's been a long time since he has thought about lasers, optics and the heavens. Now he's enjoying the chance to revisit that part of his life -- so much so that he has donated more than $20,000 to the Keck in the past few years.
"It keeps the gray cells active," Mr. Davies says.

Write to George Anders at george.anders@wsj.com2

Astronomical Views
For a close encounter with galaxies far, far away, here are a few observatories to consider:
Palomar Observatory Palomar Mountain, Calif.
open daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., no nighttime hours; free; www.astro.caltech.edu3
Edwin Hubble worked here. Completed in 1949 and formerly the world's biggest optical telescope, it took 21 years -- and much turmoil -- to build. Within driving distance of Disneyland.
Royal Observatory Greenwich Greenwich, England
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; free; evening stargazing for private parties;
Founded in 1675; the Prime Meridian that separates Eastern and Western longitude runs through the middle of the site. Visitors can put one foot in each half of the world.
U.S. Naval Observatory Washington, D.C.
limited evening tours; must book 4-6 weeks in advance; free;
Founded in 1830; an astronomer here discovered the two satellites of Mars in 1877. The official source of time for the Global Positioning System.
Southern African Large Telescope Sutherland, South Africa
open Mon.-Sat.; day and evening tours; advanced booking required; about $3-$5
Daytime visitors can see a newly constructed, 11-meter optical telescope that is being readied for scientific use. Nighttime guests are limited to two smaller, visitors' telescopes.
Very Large Array Socorro, N.M.
open daily, 8:30 a.m. to dusk; free; www.vla.nrao.edu7
This is a cluster of 27 radio antennas, each more than 80 feet wide, spread across the desert, listening to the sounds of outer space.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Commercial Space Travel Exempt From FAA Oversight... For Now

Law Protects Those Who Take Risk Of Early Flights
In the latest commercial US space race, aviation safety regulators occupy a new niche... it's hands off, until someone gets killed.
Federal Aviation Administration officials have a unique relationship with the emerging space-tourism industry, which was discussed at a recent gathering of air and space lawyers this month in Memphis, TN according to USA Today.
"We're going to kill some people," says Tracey Knutson, a lawyer who has advised the FAA and who moderated a panel discussion on the topic. "The question is how the relationship then changes."
Laura Montgomery, senior attorney in the FAA's Office of the Chief Counsel, said once somebody dies, "we then have the authority to act and we would." Until then, Congress "told us to keep our mitts off."
Congress, in an effort to allow commercial competition among potential commercial space carriers, has exempted the space industry from FAA oversight, and protects space bound private citizens.
The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 treats the industry more like mountain climbing adventurers who are exploring new routes, or like visionaries who are learning from fatal mistakes.
FAA officials agree that participating passenger in commercial space flight will have to sign waivers explaining their risks, and agree not to sue the federal government for the thrill of space's weightlessness, should they be killed.
"This is an ultra-hazardous business," Patti Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation told attendees at an American Bar Association forum on air and space law. She said part of the agency's effort to promote the industry's success means giving it room to fail.
The FAA however is restricted and can't provide safety regulations by law until 2012, unless there is a fatal flight accident. FAA will watch launches and space flight programs closely, promising to work with the companies involved, according to government officials. Read more>>

Source: Aero-News Network.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Risky space tourism gets a boost from a hands-off FAA

By Robert Davis, USA TODAY
MEMPHIS — In the latest space race — to lift paying customers out of Earth's atmosphere — aviation safety regulators occupy a new niche: They are promoting an industry expected to suffer deadly accidents instead of applying strict safety rules.
Federal Aviation Administration officials detailed their unique relationship with the emerging space-tourism industry for a gathering of air and space lawyers this month.
Several firms are racing to serve people willing to pay a steep price for the privilege of floating briefly in space, perhaps in as little as two years. Some scientists believe commercial competition will fuel rapid development of space travel technology.
In the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, Congress told the FAA to treat the industry more like an adventure business than an air carrier. The law protects the rights of those who wish to be among the first private citizens to go into space — likening them to visionaries and adventurers who knowingly take other risks like climbing mountains — while giving the people who operate the new types of unproven spacecraft the scientific latitude to learn from their first fatal mistakes.
"This is an ultra-hazardous business," Patti Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation told attendees at an American Bar Association forum on air and space law. She said part of the agency's effort to promote the industry's success means giving it room to fail.
By law, the FAA cannot impose safety regulations on the industry until 2012 unless there is a serious accident in flight or if the agency — which will attend every launch and is working closely with industry professionals — detects a safety threat that companies refuse to fix.
Read more>>

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Int'l space station ticket price climbs

By MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press Writer Wed Jul 18, 8:13 PM ET
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - When it comes to complaining about poor exchange rates for the U.S. dollar, American tourists traveling to Europe have nothing on tourists headed into space. The cost of flying to the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spaceship has increased from $25 million earlier this year to $30 million. Trips planned in 2008 and 2009 will cost $40 million.
"It's mostly because of the fallen dollar," Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures, said Wednesday. His company brokers the trips with Russia's space agency.
A U.S. dollar currently is worth about 25 1/2 Russian rubles, compared with 32 rubles in 2002.
Five space tourists have paid $20 million to $25 million to visit the space station via the Soyuz vehicles through trips arranged by Space Adventures. The company announced Wednesday that two more Soyuz seats have been purchased for tourists to fly in 2008 and 2009.
Anderson said the space tourists flying in the two new seats likely would be an American and an Asian, but he offered no details. Prospective space tourists must put down a 20 percent deposit, pass physical examinations and later undergo training at a Russian space facility.
About a dozen prospective space tourists are in the process of reserving flights to the space station, even as the number of available seats on the three-man Soyuz vehicles is likely to diminish after space shuttles are grounded in 2010.
NASA is going to rely on the Soyuz vehicles to deliver astronauts to the space station between the end of the shuttle program in 2010 and the expected first manned flight in 2015 of the next-generation spacecraft, Orion, which NASA hopes takes astronauts back to the moon by 2020. Additionally, the three-member space station crew, consisting of U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, is expected to double in size in 2009.
"We're certainly working out ways to get more seats," Anderson said. "With the competition at that point, it becomes more difficult."
On the Net:Space Adventures at