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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The O-TEAM: A Thousand and One Nights

(Late - very, very late; one night in 1989...)

As one-third of that, one-time, an infamous trio of hard-core, dedicated, 'back-woods', 'MacGyver'-ish, observational astronomers: the 'O-Team' - Mike Petrasko, Muir Evenden, and myself, who's late-night and, sometimes, 'deep-freeze' telescopic adventures, back around 1989 (typically, in below-freezing temps) -- I would never, ever have believed that one day - our telescopes would be able to, practically, "take us by the hand", and give us a detailed, orated tour of the night sky - all by their artificially intelligent selves. Nope - that's the kind of thing that only happened in sci-fi films...

Moreover, how could any of us possibly have imagined, that, variable stars - those, peculiar stellar anomalies that are light-output, vary over periods of time, from about a few hours to several days, should turn out to be *variable* - because there were planets getting in the way! - by crossing the faces of those stars (as seen from our perspective)...of all things!!

Telescopes used by the O-Team on The Woods Hole Golf Course - Illustration by Dale Alan Bryant.
Telescopes used by the O-Team on The Woods Hole Golf Course - Illustration by Dale Alan Bryant.

Many times, over the "O-Team years", some 30-something years ago, I had made painstaking efforts at trying to capture such things, as, the North America nebula, or the galactic core in Sagittarius, on film, using a piggy-backed, 35mm SLR, loaded with Fujichrome 200, acetate slide-film. With a lot of patience, and, even more, practice, something like this could be gotten - in as short a span as 45 minutes - using the telescope, as a guide scope, during the exposure. I could never have imagined (not even in any of my wilder dreams) that, film - the conventional platform for photography, since its invention - the century, before last - would soon be replaced with the microchip capable of generating an equivalent image in 10-20 seconds - un-guided!!

Unfortunately: I have missed out - entirely - on the GOTO, computerized, Dobsonian-mounted telescope revolution: that is - the kind of amateur astronomical telescopes that are capable of repositioning themselves, by 'slewing' across the sky, via, computer-controlled, stepped servo-motors - to any celestial object in the heavens, using the celestial coordinates, right ascension, and declination - by converting them into their alt-azimuth counterparts - all on command!"...

I've never used one. In fact - I've never even SEEN one (at least, not 'in person').

No. My active days (or rather, nights) as an observational astronomer with the O-Team were the kind, where, in the cold months, you got dressed for the weather using three layers of outer garments, three layers of warm socks for your feet - wrapped over, with plastic trash bags to keep the warmth in under your boots - and, at least, one wool cap and a pair of mittens (mittens hold in heat better than gloves).

If you didn't look like you were ready to start training attack dogs - you were missing some clothing.

When you were finally ready - you disassembled your scope and packed it into the back seat, trunk, or bed of your vehicle, and - if you could, still, just slide into the front seat - you were ready to drive yourself, along with your gear, to one of your, very, best-kept secrets: a chosen, dark, secluded and, preferably, isolated observing site! (We actually had two sites that we frequented, but, one, in particular, was, by far, our preferred nocturnal "delinquency". You see: on many, many starry nights, you could find me, and my telescope (well - and, my truck!), and Mike and Muir, and their vehicles, perched on one of the fairways at the Woods Hole Country Club's plush, green carpet, of highly-manicured grass. To say that we were obsessed - well, that would be a really, really accurate statement...

On any, given, clear night, we would abandon the warm, blissful comfort of our cozy beds at around 12:00 midnight, and drive out to our, apparently, God-given observing station; or any party-cloudy night, for that matter - just in case. And if you've never seen the unlikely, ominous sight of a silhouetted Volvo, parked in the middle of a golf course in the middle of the night - before, well, you just haven't lived!

From our perspective, golf courses were built, and designed, for astronomers. They offer wide expanses of sky, and - serendipitously - are covered with a durable, and, surprisingly well-kept swath of grass - which, seems to run on, in all directions, forever! Now, what philanthropic soul had done this great service for science? (I never did believe in the rumors, that, they also used these green havens, for other, unimportant 'sporting activities', as well).

Here's how it usually went...

After arriving at the golf course, and, having driven, up, onto the fairway, you set up your scope and connected it, via, mini-jumper cables w/alligator-clips, to your vehicle's battery. This was to run the electro-mechanical clock drives, that, slowly moved the scope, in synch with Earth's rotation, across the sky to follow the particular celestial object you were observing. Muir used an 8-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain. Mike had an Edmund Scientific, 4.25-inch AstroScan, and I used an 8-inch Meade Newtonian reflector.

The next step was to set up the card table and lay everything out on it: a very good, laminated star atlas with reticle templates, a red-filtered, military-style elbow flashlight, eyepieces w/case, pocket shortwave radio, tuned to WWV (for timing anything you wanted to time) along with, Mrs. Holmes' home-made brownies, if you were fortunate enough - and pray that you didn't completely drain your vehicle's battery, by dawn. (There were actually statements, like: "Oh, well; if my battery dies, I'll just call a tow truck in the morning.", made, frequently...who cared?!)

Now, all this was usually set up near the frozen, ice-covered, first-hole putting green of the WHGC - regardless of winter, its threat of frostbite, or - of the threat of getting booted off the course by the local law enforcement. You see, we once (once?!) had a brief encounter with a police officer, who, was out on his rounds and, spotting, three, parked automobiles - in the middle of a golf course - had decided to drop by our private, highly-manicured observatory.

Having noted our three, rather large-ish, optical instruments, tables, chairs, ladders, and vehicles - electrical connections and all - the officer, slowly and cautiously approach our bunker, and asked, "What kinds of weapons", we were using to, obviously, protect ourselves against, the potential, horrors of the night sky. Naturally, we all-too-excitedly broke into a rather lengthy discourse about the myriad wonders - galaxies, nebulosities, etc., that we had seen that night, and offered him a view for himself; with such fervor and passion (which, he, apparently didn't share with us), that, he probably just couldn't wait to escape the bizarre situation.

Over time, they eventually learned to ignore us, entirely and, for the most part, we continued to have the WHGC, all to ourselves for our continuing, awesome onslaught of the universe, at large.

And that's how those days went.

But times have changed dramatically. Today, all this is done, remotely, with a laptop, or tablet, or even, smartphone - right from the comfort of your own bed!!

What will the next, 30-something years in amateur astronomy bring?.....

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer


  1. Awesome article, and it takes me back to my own backyard viewing in west Texas (El Paso) where the desert nights were very chilly, but the skies~so clear and dark~ made up for the freeze. I remember as a junior in high school, going out to the desert with my other nerdy friends to gaze at the thumbprint-like smudge of Haley's comet, just hovering over the eastern horizon. These experiences helped solidify my love of science, and as we have certainly moved away from standing outside in dark, cold places, wasn't it awesome to have had that experience? I loved your story, love your posts. Thank you!

    1. You're a woman, after my own heart....
      "...helped solidify my love of science". Absolutely! The skies of the Texas desert, must be stunning. I've never seen those skies, but Mike P. has - he was able to image Hale-Bopp, from a similar desert area. I think, the best skies that I have probably seen, were in Germany, near the Black Forest. I remember camping out on a small mountain-top, face up at the stars, in an army sleeping bag!
      I thank you for your input on my memoir! I'm glad it stirred up your own memories! I'm sure that you have as many different memories as I have,that could be expressed here. I intend to write more about them! Thanks again. Clear skies!