Lockwood Custom Optics visits the Clarks
at the New
Mexico Astronomy Village
"March is our windy month", said Tom Clark over the phone. He was right.
After getting a tune-up and being recoated, Tom's 42" mirror was crated and loaded into a minivan for the trip out to New Mexico. The first day of driving was sunny through Illinois and Missour, but we found cloudy skies on much of our drive across the flat lands of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. Looking out the window in the middle of nowhere I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some dark skies, but I saw only clouds.
Late in the evening we rolled into Clovis, NM and found a hotel room. We both noted the terrible lighting present on the streets and businesses - clearly the statewide lighting ordinance requiring that fixtures over 100W be fully shielded had not been fully observed here. Rising early, we were greeted with rain and ice on the van windows - welcome to New Mexico!
It was generally gray, and appeared to be on the verge of being foggy as we passed through wonderfully desolate rolling regions in eastern New Mexico ("do you see any building in sight - I don't"). After a coupld of hours of driving, we stopped in Roswell and attempted to get some coffee at a Dairy Queen that seemed to be both in need of cleaning and operated by morons. Noting the conditions while I waited for my coffee that never came, I got a refund, and we fled.
The drive west of Roswell was a bit more interesting and scenic, passing through a variety of small towns, all of which appeared to have prominently marked post offices.... and that was about it. Seriously, some "towns" appeared to just be a post office, and not much more.
Winding through the scrub-covered mountains, we finally found the sun an hour or so before descending into Tularosa, and more pine trees appeared on the mountains. I noted beautiful silver shields on many pole lights, and many fully-shielded "cobra head" fixtures lighting streets. That was more like it. During that descent we got our first glimpse at White Sands, as seen in the photo above. In Tularosa we stopped at Subway for lunch.
We had plenty of time to get to the Clarks' before dinner, so we decided to visit one of the interesting sites in the area that was right on our way - White Sands National Monument.
The dunes at White Sands are truly almost white. The photo above shows the view from the top of one of them, looking north where sand and dust was being kicked up. It was windy at the stop we chose along the access road, but the sand and dust was not blowing. If it had been, we wouldn't have stopped.
There was approximately a one-mile path marked off where we entered the dunes, but we decided to pass on that and just explore some areas near the path.
It was a comfortable day, I'd say in the upper seventies with a nice breeze. I can only imagine the heat on a hot summer day if the wind was not blowing with the sund beating down from above and the reflected sunlight beating up on you from below.
I didn't notice any wildlife, but did see some insect tracks here and there. It has to be a very interesting place it night when all of the desert creatures come out. I also saw some interesting wind-eroded banks of sand.
Where we explored, I'd say the dunes were 20-30 feet high, and there was limited vegetation that appeared to help keep them put. I'm used to the giant Sleeping Bear Dunes in west central Michigan - those are three hundred feet tall in places, and make for a very tiring ascent should one decide to scramble down to the lake from the top of the highest one.
Before getting in the van we poured copious amounts of sand out of our shoes. In the photo at right, a yucca plant clings to the shifting sands, and below, the path leads from the parking area to the edge of the dunes.
Upon departing we drove through the southern part of White Sands Missile Range, and noted a few shiny telescope domes in the distance. Clearly these were not meant for looking at astronomical objects - they are meant for tracking missiles.
The one above was seen as we ascended to cross the last mountain range before coming down into Las Cruces.
It was not long before we were on I-10, headed for Deming, NM. Dust storms raged around us as the wind howled, and the mirror on the van "whistled" in an annoying manner due to the air speed. We were a little bit concerned about how dusty it would be when we reached the Clarks'. We exited the highway in Deming, and after heading north a bit, we arrived at the New Mexico Astronomy Village and parked the van. Note the dome right next door!
The mirror and cell were unloaded, photos were taken, and Tom and Jeannie were very happy to have their mirror back safely, in better condition than ever. Due to the dust, we left the cover on!
We checked out Tom's new shop. It looked like Tom's old shop, but arranged differently. There are lots of drawers, cabinets, tools, photos, and bumper stickers.
After a nice dinner, we eagerly awaited darkness and our first glimpse at the skies over this part of New Mexico. We were not disappointed - despite somewhat reduced transparency due to dust, it was dark and the sky was magnificent. More on the skies later in this article.....
The next day we started helping Tom install the DC motor and gearbox we had brought along. This would lift the dome slit up and over the dome so we could observe.
Above Tom measures the mounting bolts for the gearbox so that it could be bolted to the bracket that is seen on the work bench.
Above I am figuring out how to bend some new brackets to serve as safety clips for the 7" m.a. secondary mirror. I was in charge of mounting it. The mirror is quite thick, and was glued at its center to hold it. Three points constrain it on the back, and side clips that don't touch the mirror serve as a safety backup.
Above, Bob works on wiring the DC speed control and reversing switch. The switch allows the motor to both open and close the dome, and the speed control allows it to be done gently while the door is being "tuned".
At left, Tom is on the ladder at left, and I'm on the ladder at right. Tom and I are hanging the bracket and motor that will lift the dome slit/door.
The motor has a gear on it that engages the white strip running down the center of the slit/door. So, it's sort of a rack-and-pinion system, but not in the traditional sense.
There are also metal guides that slide on either side of the "rack" and keep it properly aligned with the gear.
The gearbox gears the 1/4 HP motor down by 40:1. This allows the fairly small motor to lift the door. The door is not very heavy, but a good amount of force is required to lift its weight when at its limit of travel. Relatively little force is required when the slit/door is on the top of the dome.
The slit does not go completely overhead - that is, the zenith is not available for observing. This is done on purpose, because the 42" f/3.86 "Beast" is not used at the zenith.
The door was finicky, and required much adjustment. The rollers and guide wheels were adjusted in position, but the door still wouldn't open all of the way. Occasionally it would stick and we'd have to help it to close. It appears that the opening width didn't stay constant as the dome was put up, likely due to the wood warping a bit.
Tom has a plan to fix all of the issues, either by widening the track that the door rides in, or putting wheels on the outside of the dome.
The moral of the story is - domes aren't easy!
Above we see dusk falling on the Clark compound. The red light is in the garage, where the 42" has been in storage for quite some time. That connects to the shop. The house is at left, and the motor home "carport" is behind the dome.
Here's the garage, with the 42" tube and cell awaiting reassembly in the nice new dome. Some of Tom's model airplanes are at left.
With the 42" not assembled yet, Tom rolled out the 24" Tectron. Bob helps him put the shroud on in this photo.
Above Tom aligns the scope as Orion, Canis Major, Taurus, and the Pleiades pop out of the darkening sky above him. Steve Coe works on the collimation of his 16" in the background. With a misaligned laser, that proved tricky, but we eventually got the job done.
In a word, the sky was beautiful.
Yes, there was some dust in the air and the transparency could have been a little better. Yes there are a few (fully shielded) streetlights nearby. However, it was very dark.
I can only imagine how good the sky is there on a perfect night, probably darker and more transparent than I have ever seen, with the possible exception of a night or two at the Okie-Tex Star Party when the dust in the air was minimal.
Of course, being New Mexio, it's also dry, lacking the almost permanent humidity layer that I experience in Illinois (also made reference to in the phrase "underwater observing").
Even better? Most nights are clear too, about 300 per year!
At right, Tom looks at something, probably M42, in his 24" scope while Bob looks on. My red flashlight painted Tom and the telescope.
The fairly strong winds eased as the sun set and darkness fell. This is typical of the high plain area, at about 4500 feet, and quite flat. Mountains rise on the east and west of this plain. Tom says the plains have relatively good seeing, while the mountains have poor seeing. Elevation comes with tradeoffs.
We enjoyed some nice observing this first night, despite fairly cool temperatures. Subsequent nights were warmer. The winds did persist, though.
On the first night, I set up my 25x100mm binoculars to look at Comet Pan-Starrs as it set in the west. I barely found it before it was very near the horizon.
The glorious sky can be seen above. Steve sits hear his scope, and Bob in the closer chair, just enjoying the night.
No, that's not light pollution or a search light - the zodiacal light is seen shooting upward from the bottom right of the frame up to Jupiter in Taurus. I don't think I've ever seen it that bright, since the sides of the canyon at Okie-Tex probably block out most of it there. Just look at that winter Milky Way.
Tom's new place has something that I have here on the prairie - horizons. Some light pollution is visible to the southeast from Deming, but it doesn't really affect observing.
The photo above really put things into perspective. At bottom is a fully-shielded street light that is pretty much invisible to anything except a camera. It's a bit pointless too - put up by a non-astronomer neighbor, but at least it doesn't degrade the sky or wide-field, ~30s exposures.
The Zodiacal light is so bright that the cloud in front of it seems very dark. It was blatantly obvious, which is why I took this image. I think that was the only cloud in the sky at the time.
Finally it was the day to get the 42" ready for its new home.
Tom touches up the paint job in his mirror cell. After this, we flipped it over and I helped sand it and put on a fresh coat of polyurethane. I think it dried in about 5 minutes in the New Mexico sun.
Jeannie sweeps out the observatory. Dust is unavoidable in New Mexico.
Here's the assembly crew, ready to bring the scope to its new home. Note that the dome door is most of the way open.
After wheeling the tube assembly over near the dome, we lifted it off and slid it into the dome.
Yes, the doors open just wide enough to fit the tube assembly inside. Of course, if you're tall like me, you'll repeatedly whack you head on the top of the Tom-sized door frame!
The assembly of the telescope involves installing two chain hoists and lifting the tube up. Then it is set in the rocker box and the upper tube assembly and mirror cell are installed.
Here is the tube assembly, less UTA and mirror box, with hoists ready to go. I took the photo from Tom's observing ladder.
There's Jeannie, sweeping again. She just can't help herself.
Here Tom and Steve ready the UTA for attachment to the tube. The secondary is not yet installed. (In reality they were calling me names while I took photos of their ugly, retired mugs.)
With the UTA on, it was time for everyone to take photos. Tom's head lamp works very well in an observatory that has the inside painted black! He would also find it helpful in another place he didn't expect to be..... more on that later.
This was the least fun step. I think Bob has the camera while Steve, Tom and I wheel the massive thing out through the dirt. This was definitely the most awkward piece to move and get through the door. We partly picked it up and slid it through the door, and I smashed my knuckles in the process. Oh well, I took one for the team.
Tom hams it up while wheeling the 42" f/3.86 mirror out to the observatory for installation in the mirror cell. Bob assists in spirit. Tom had waited a long time to make this move, and he enjoyed every second.
The mirror cell hinged down and the mirror safely placed in it, Jeannie admires the fresh coating, which is blissfully free of dust for about five seconds before New Mexico began to cover it. Oh well, it will wash off.
The mirror box is hinged upward using a hoist to lift it, latches at the top are closed, and screws are installed in the sides of the tube to secure the mirror cell. We actually did this operation twice, the second time after we realized during the first night of observing that the sling supports (to which the sling attaches) were pinching the mirror by applying slight pressure across the horizontal axis.
Above: At last the BEAST IS BACK TOGETHER! The hoists are still attached, and Tom is working on removing the hoists.
Of course Mr. Murphy (that evil bastard with a law named for him) had to rear his ugly head again.
We installed the secondary mirror, and then it was time to collimate the huge instrument.
Of course, first we had be able to see the primary mirror. I attempted to open the shutter doors that protect the mirror, but they hit something. I tried again, but still no luck. They would not open, and I pointed this out to Tom.
So, Tom thought for a bit, and realized that a reinforcing piece that he had installed in the tube didn't quite have the proper clearance to allow the doors to open.
Tired from a long day of moving and assembly, but without missing a beat, we fetched carts, tool boxes, pieces of wood, etc, and made cribbing out of them to safely support the ends of the telescope.
Tom put on his trusty head lamp, climbed up a ladder, and went "telescope spelunking", cordless drill in hand, crawling down into the tube of the 42".
I have to say, this was a first for me to see, and of course I had my camera ready! Tom was thrilled that I was capturing this unique event, and he let me know how pleased he was with my photography through his creative use of language. I'm guessing I may hear some more of it when he sees the photo.
Doors open, cribbing removed, and mirrors aligned, we enjoyed first light very late in the evening. It was sure nice to be observing in the dome again. While the dome door had some issues to be taken care of, it was nice observing in the dome, sheltered from the wind, with an excellent red and white lighting system set up by Tom.
At last the Beast had come back to life, and we enjoyed observing despite the pinched mirror. I guess you could say the Beast was a bit grumpy after a long sleep. That pinch was remedied the next day, and images improved greatly.
The last step will be to install a cable sling to replace the seat-belt sling that is also pinching the mirror, but in a more gentle manner. One step at a time.
One afternoon we took a short drive up the road a few miles to City of Rocks State Park. The view shows the type of country - very flat between mountain ranges. A dust devil is faintly visible in the distace.
These rocks were formed by a volcanic eruption, and have eroded into the strange forms seen here. It's an interesting place to hike around, and there's even an observatory that is operated by the local astronomy club.
This is what back porch sittin' looks like at the Clarks'. The "lawn" is some sporadic grass that doesn't need mowing. Their dog Bear patrols it, seen through the railing just left of center. A dust devil churns in the distance. The dust devils marched quite steadily down the valley to the southwest, one after another, all afternoon. Occasionally one may pass near the houses or over them, but it was not a regular occurrence.
It is often freakisly quiet sitting there, and I like that.
To the left, the dome awaits darkness. The breeze stirrs. The occasional flutter or chirp of a bird is all that is heard. A cold beer is the final piece in the idyllic puzzle.
This is the view looking down the throat of the Beast. This was right after performing a careful collimation following the un-pinching of the primary mirror.
Darkness finally begins to fall, and the red lights illuminate the inside of the dome.
In the images above, Jeannie observes on the left, and Tom on the right.
Finally, I'll include a final shot of the dome with the white lights on inside. They're really not that bright inside, but the exposure makes it look that way. The stray light from a fully-shielded street light that's tilted and not level lights up the top of the dome. No doubt that will be remedied in the future.
Some red and green sky glow is present in the background, which is the southern spring sky.
Well, that's most of it. Other highlights for me were playing my first round of golf in about ten years, and I didn't play too badly on my third ball - thanks to the rest of the foursome for their patience.
Tom is taking a break from the dome work after his "big push" to get it done. I'm guessing Jeannie is still sweeping the dust out of the observatory, though..... damn dust.
Clear, dark skies (okay, those are almost a given there), light breezes, minimal dust, and big apertures.
-Mike Lockwood, Lockwood Custom Optics