About a week ago, I was assigned the task of collimating the primary mirror on the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Large telescopes like the WIYN work by using large mirrors to collect and focus light from distant stars onto a camera or a spectrograph. When the telescope is disassembled for regular maintenance, the mirrors have to be precisely realigned so that we get the very best possible image quality. Here you see a photo of me with my daughters in front of the WIYN primary and tertiary mirrors.
Although I work with optical telescopes all the time, my specialties are more in the electrical and mechanical aspects of telescopes than with the optics, so this precision job was, to be honest, pretty scary. Sure, I’d helped the site engineer collimate the telescope plenty of times, but this time he left me with a set of instructions and went off to bed. I did my best, followed the instructions and everything seemed to go well. It was especially gratifying over the next three nights when the visiting astronomers reported getting half-arcsecond images. What that means is that stars subtended no more than half a second of arc on the sky, which is pretty tiny. That also means we’re minimizing the blurring one would expect to see from the atmosphere. I have to say, it’s the kind of thing that makes me feel pretty good.
The whole idea of characters being challenged to do new things they didn’t think they could do is an important part of my fiction. Recently, in Lightning Wolves, Larissa Crimson is challenged to find a way to make a set of unwieldy lightning guns portable enough to be practical in combat. She’s not sure if she has the skills necessary to do the job, but she gives it a shot and finds a solution.
WIYN’s newest instrument is a camera called the One-Degree Imager. It’s a camera that takes pictures of a large swath of the sky at high resolution, which means you can see things at great detail. If the telescope mirrors are misaligned, the camera cannot take pictures with the kind of detail it was designed for. So, the litmus test for the alignment exercise came this past Monday, when an observer took images of globular clusters with the One-Degree Imager. She also reported half-arcsec images, much like in the photo below. This photo, by the way, was taken with WIYN, but with the old mini-Mosaic camera before the One-Degree Imager was implemented.
Globular clusters such as the one shown above, are immense balls of ancient stars that orbit our galaxy. As it turns out, they feature prominently in my Old Star/New Earth series. Those novels are:
The ebook of the first novel is free. The paperback editions feature wonderful illustrations by Laura Givens. So, why don’t you start an epic voyage to the stars today!