After a warm night of stargazing and astrophotography, the Saturday morning of October 5, the unofficial start of the Okie-Tex Star Party, greeted me with clouds. I went over to The Blue Bonnett for breakfast. It was filled with what seemed to be ranchers. Older men. Thick, bony fingers. Burnt faces, criss-crossed with faults that look like the crevasses of the Valles Marineris. But unlike the ones on Mars, the human faults were caused by the outdoors elements: sun, wind, working outdoors their whole lives. A long life. Probably a hard life. I seemed like an extra-terrestrial visiting another planet, not just because of my funny accent. "Yes, Ma'am, more coffee please." - "No, Ma'am, the check please."
Everybody drives a big truck. Dollar General and Tractor Supply Company stores. There was a little print on the wall in the diner that read: "The Second Amendment makes all the other amendments possible." People here LOVE their guns. I am glad I rented a Ford. American car. Were the old times better? Or are things just the same today with different names? Who knows. There certainly was less light pollution 50 years ago.
I spent some time downloading and organizing pictures from last night and then drove to Camp Billy Joe, the hosting site of the Okie-Tex Star Party 2018. A hard-to-miss sign on the highway indicated the entrance to the camp site.
Pretty big campsite with a well organized layout, power supplies, community buildings for gathering and food service for the whole week, and a tent for presentations. On Saturday afternoon, the site was maybe a quarter full. I roamed and admired the magnitude of the telescope equipment, setups, wind and light covers, campers. Most owners were in the main building for supper or in the local town. As dusk closed in, so did the clouds and it was a blanket of grey clouds, foreboding doom for the astro party.
As I spoke to some people and finding out where they were from (Texas, Utah, Colorado, California) one gentleman, who drove with his wife, had to stop every 3-4 hours to meet with relatives. I could tell by his demeanor that he seemed really happy to finally be in the middle of nowhere with his nerd friends. Too bad, there was no stargazing to be done. It got chilly and started to drizzle Saturday evening. I left to drive back to my motel.
The whole Sunday was a washout. Not only that the weather absolutely sucked - there was no CHANCE for any break in cloud cover. You could really go gaga in a motel room or camper with this kind of a forecast:
BUT! As a hobby astronomer, you always have a Plan B in your rucksack. There isn't much to discover in the area, which is why it is so great for stargazing as there is no light pollution. Let me rephrase: to the naked, unaided eye there is not much to discover. If you start training your eye to observe things on a geological timescale (thousands and millions of years) there is an incredible amount to discover and explore. Mine was to hike the Black Mesa Preserve to the highest point in Oklahoma (4,973 feet elevation). The Black Mesa (Spanish: table) gets its name from the black lava that covers the area. While researching the source of the lava, I came across two seemingly conflicting explanations: a.) the Raton-Clayton volcanic field, which was active between 9 million and 40,000 years ago; and b.) the Piney Mountain Volcano in Southeastern Colorado, which supposedly blanketed the area with basalt 180 million years ago. I have reached out to volcanologists and geologists to reconcile these two explanations and will update this section once I have heard back. One explanation could be that Piney Mountain is a hotspot and part of the Raton-Clayton volcanic field and no one has bothered to make that specific description.
If you change your perspective, you can observe the bigger picture as in this Google Map satellite shot, which shows the extent of the lava fields and flows and respective erosion of the surrounding softer material.
Here is the gallery of images from my visit to Black Mesa:
The roundtrip hike from the parking lot of Black Mesa State Park's parking lot to the obelisk is suggested to take a minimum of four hours. I am not sure whether it was the drizzle or the inclement weather but it took me 2 hours and 18 minutes for the approximately 8.5 miles out and back. Somehow, I didn't have the patience to "soak" it all in that day.
A few observations on volcanic activities (I grew up in the Hegau region in Southern Germany which due its prehistoric volcanic activity and the reminiscent volcanic cones is called "God's Bowling Alley") are necessary. Our planet is in the habitable zone of our Solar System where water is available in liquid form. The Earth is also big enough to have captured and maintained an atmosphere and has residual heat that drives the geodynamo and hence a magnetic field, which shields us from the deadly cosmic rays. Importantly, our planet is rife with volcanic activity. Why are volcanoes so important for potentially providing the elements of a habitable environment if they are so deadly, eruptive and catastrophic?
1. Volcanic activity carries water vapor and carbon dioxide to the planetary;
2. Volcanic activity provides material for tectonic resurfacing and new land masses (Hawaii);
3. Volcanic ashes provides nutritious soil for surrounding areas.
4. Volcanic activity can be a source for global cooling due to ejecta in the atmosphere blocking incoming solar radiation.
I know what you are asking on 4.: global anthropogenic carbon dioxide activity is estimated to be around 50 to 60 times higher than carbon dioxide production by volcanoes (~0.3 ± 0.15 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year). Volcanism is so fascinating and requires a lengthy post on its own. Maybe another time.
On those long straight roads in Oklahoma, where the prairie blends into the horizon and the monotony of the country radio puts you into a haze, you start seeing things (like marks on Mars that look like canals or clouds in the sky that look like UFOs!) or giant opossums at the side of the road waiting to pounce on and devour you. The term is called "pareidolia."
Long straight roads... What do you do if you grew up on the Autobahn? Pedal to the metal. But there is a speed limit on the country roads as opposed to the free flowing racetracks in Germany. And on this particular Sunday, a state trooper pulled me over for, guess what, speeding. I admitted right away, owned up to my infraction. We talked about the Black Mesa, about the Okie-Tex Star Party and New York. After all the politeness, I was issued a warning as I was "very cordial and didn't bullshit him." Being impeccable in your word seems to pay off.
RADAR (RAdio Detecting And Ranging) uses radio waves to determine the range, angle, and velocity of objects. The Doppler radar, specifically, uses the Doppler effect to determine the velocity of objects at a distance. You probably have heard the siren of an ambulance when it approaches (higher pitch - shorter wavelength) and moves away (lower pitch - longer wavelength). This can be used to measure a car, airplane, storm front, or even an galaxy when measuring light waves. American astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 measured a redshift (red light longer wavelength - blue light shorter wavelength) of the light of distant galaxies concluding that they are moving away from us. This resulted in the hypothesis that the Universe must have started out in a concentrated point, the Big Bang. There is science all around us, every day.
So my trip to Oklahoma was eventful, full of science, with a rained out star party and plenty of anecdotes to share. Behind all the science after all, are people. Curious, courageous, adventurous, and a lot of time stubborn people. You never know, who you meet in the middle of nowhere or that a person growing up in Amarillo, Texas, my departure airport, watched the same night sky and set out to become an astronaut. Space travel is inherently risky and many astronauts have paid with their life, just like Rick Husband, NASA astronaut and Amarillo native, who was aboard the space shuttle Columbia, that disintegrated in 2003 on its re-entry.
Whatever it is you do with your life, do not go out gently into that good night...
Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Aber, S.W. and Aber, J.S. (2017): Rocky Mountain Geology South-Central Colorado. Hyperlink.
Bellis, M. (2018): RADAR and Doppler RADAR: Invention and History. Hyperlink.
Hegau: Vulkane and Geothermie. Hyperlink.
Hubble, E. (1929): A relation between distance and radial velocity among extra-galactic nebulae. Hyperlink.
Okie-Tex Start Party. 2019. Hyperlink.
Oklahoma Historical Society: Black Mesa. Hyperlink.
Pareidolia. Wikipedia. Hyperlink.
Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field: Capulin Volcano. New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. Hyperlink.
Scott, M. and Lindsey, R. (2016): Which emits more carbon dioxide: volcanoes or human activities? Hyperlink.
Thomas, D. (1951): Do not go gentle into that good night. Hyperlink.