Jay Ts Sedona Night Sky Tours

Astronomy in My Life

Astronomy in My Life

My first experience with astronomy was when I was about 2 years old. My father, who had recently received his Ph.D. degree in American History, found his first teaching job in an unlikey place: Teaching Astronomy at a military college. One day he took the family to the college's observatory, which housed a classic 6" refractor telescope. He set it up to project the image of the Sun onto a white card to show us. I still remember seeing sunspots on the solar disk. I was way to young to understand what they were, but in retrospect, that was ok because at that time, astronomers did not understand sunspots very well, either!

When I was still very young, my parents moved to rural upstate New York, far from the lights of any metropolitan city. The weather wasn't the best for astronomy; most nights were cloudy or very cold. But when the sky was clear, the view of the nighttime sky was spectacular. As a child, I was shown a few of the stellar groupings by my parents: Orion, the Big Dipper, and the Pleiades. There were lunar eclipses, auroras, and even a partial solar eclipse.

When I was 10 years old, my mother took me to a planetarium show at the local university. After the show was over, there were two telescopes set up outside. The larger of them was pointed at Jupiter and there was a long line of people waiting to see it. We were both a little tired and wanted to go home, so we went to the shorter line to a 3" telescope pointed at Mars. It made a big impression on me. The planetarium show quickly faded from my memory, while the image of Mars stuck in my mind for the rest of my life. A few years later, I received a large map of Mars for my birthday. I put it on my bedroom wall and was intrigued by the cryptic names someone had chosen for the craters, mountains, and other parts of the Martian surface. That map was the first ever of its kind; it was created as the result of a Mariner probe sent to fly by Mars by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I thought it would be cool to work for JPL someday, helping them send probes to other planets! (At the time, working with the latest advancements in technology was somehow more interesting to me than sending people into space. Maybe it was partly because it was the period of time between the Apollo program, and the start of the Space Shuttle program, when NASA was not very active with manned spaceflight missions.)

A few years later, a friend got a small (2.6" refractor) telescope from his parents, and later he upgraded to a 6" reflector, which at the time was a popular size for amateur astronomers. Astronomy became a common topic of conversation for us.

I made a little 2" telescope from a lens and a cardboard tube, and used that, along with binoculars, to view the Moon, planets, and easier astronomical objects. It was small, but still quite good for observing lunar eclipses, and it showed the moons of Jupiter, Venus as a crescent, and even Saturn's rings. Later, I got a short-focus 6" refractor, which was a big upgrade!

I received a book on astronomy for my birthday, which I read over and over, memorizing almost every important fact. Then I read all of the college-level astronomy textbooks in my father's book collection, including books on Gallileo and Albert Einstein, and his theory of Relativity.

My friend took me to a few meetings of the local astronomy club, and at one of them they played a game in which the club was quizzed on facts about the Solar System. I did better than everyone else, and won a poster for my wall. Everyone was surprised to see the new member, who was just a high school student, win the game!

One of my most memorable observations was of Comet West in 1978. I set my alarm for 4 AM to see it, and walked far behind our house to see the Eastern Horizon. The comet was very bright, and I saw a 45-degree-long tail that spread out beautifully. It was absolutely amazing.

After graduating first in my high school class, I went to Caltech (the California Institute of Technology), which was one of the very top-rated colleges in science and engineering. Caltech manages both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Palomar Observatory, which had the world's largest telescope (with a 200" diameter primary mirror) at the time.

During the week before classes started, the new students went to Freshman Orientation, which was done on a trip to the mountains. One night after it got dark, someone told me that a telescope had been set up. Of course I was interested, and I went over to see what was happening. I found a telescope with other students standing around it not knowing what to do. I learned that a graduate student from the Astronomy Department had set it up, but he had wandered off. I noticed that the telescope had an equatorial-style mount that was set up all wrong, so I corrected that and was showing the other students a few of my favorite objects, including M27, a famous planetary nebula that you may see on one of my tours.

A man walked up to the group that had gathered around me and the telescope. He introduced himself as the head of the Caltech Astronomy Department, and said he came over because he as curious about the new student who knew how to use a telescope. He told me, "My graduate students in astronomy typically don't even know how to set up a telescope! They all grew up in urban areas where they couldn't see stars at night, then went through their undergraduate studies at a university that was also in a city." At the time, I thought that was absolutely crazy, but later I learned that professional research astronomers do not operate the telescopes at observatories. Assistants are employed by the observatory to operate the telescopes for them while the scientists watch. Nowadays, the astronomers usually don't even go to the observatory!

After the school year started, I went to explore the Caltech Astronomy Building and find the 1/10 scale model of the 200" telescope, which I new was located on the roof of the building. I met the head of the Astronomy Department again, and he told me that I would be allowed to use it after being "checked out" to make sure I understood how to operate it correctly. I did not expect that! I knew it was a one-of-a-kind, historic instrument, made as a prototype to test the engineering principles of the full-size telescope before they committed to constructing it. I needed to read and fully understand directions that described how to start up its unique oil bearings - a design first used on it and the 200" telescope, in which the entire telescope was levitated on a thin film of oil under very high pressure. There were warnings of how much damage would occur if the switches were not operated in the correct order, with a minimum number of seconds in between. It was like "driver training" for a telescope! I passed the test, and the priceless telescope was mine to use without supervision.

Later that year, Christmas vacation came and I was almost completely alone and bored in the on-campus housing. Almost all of the other students had gone home. I was looking for something to do, and went over to the Astronomy building to look around. I found a schedule for Palomar Observatory showing what astronomers had time slots allocated to them and noticed that Charlie Kowal, the man who discovered Chiron (a minor planet) would be at Palomar that weekend. I found his office in the sub-basement and he was there! I was thrilled to meet him, and asked if I could go to Palomar with him to visit as a guest, and he said, "Well, sure! We could be happy to have you along!"

The trip to Palomar Observatory was unforgettable. We took a Caltech shuttle to the observatory, and upon arriving, I was given a keyring with aoub 20 keys and was told there there were keys to all of the buildings, and I was welcome to use them! I was not only trusted with untold millions of dollars of telescopes and equipment, but also the pickup trucks used to drive to the observatory buildings. I said that I didn't have a driver's license and didn't even know how to drive. The response I got was, "Well, then this is a good time to learn!" It was about then that I decided astronomers were really cool.

I did not dare drive one of the trucks, so I spent the day walking to the smaller observatories and letting myself in to inspect the telescopes and look around. The small scopes were fascinating, but I knew what I really wanted. While in high school, I found a book at the local library about the making of the 200" telescope. It had detailed drawings of the design of the observatory building, and showed a lengthy staircase that started on the observatory floor and led to a ladder that curved along the inside of the dome, gradually turning into stairs and then a horizontal walkway and a platform directly above the enormous telescope. This was used by astronomers to access the prime focus cage, where they rode inside the telescope while exposing photographic plates, using the telescope as a huge camera. Of course, I had to be there. My goal was to get to the platform so I could look down at the telescope. Even though I was terrified of heights, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I forced myself to climb up there. WHile climbing the ladder, it was difficult to keep my grip because the ladder was made of steel and my hands were sweaty because of my state of terror! But I made it, and got to look downward, taking in the circular panoramic view below me that included the telescope and equipment on the foor of the observatory. During the climb, I could fainly hear the observatory's technical staff talking to each other while they set up for that night's session. They never noticed I was in the building!

Following my first year at Caltech, I got a summer job working in the photographic darkroom of the Solar Astronomy Department, which was located in the same building as the rest of the Astronomy Department. My first paying job was actually in the field of Astronomy! Most of my time was spent printing images from long rolls of film produced by robotic telescopes at Big Bear Solar Observatory, and another on the roof of the Astronomy Building. They all took photos of the Sun every 10 seconds, and the rolls of film could be viewed as movies, very much like the videos produced by modern space-based solar observatories. The photos I printed were used by astronomers to develop theories about sunspots, flares, prominences, and other phenomena observed on the Sun.

Sadly, I decided out of practicality not to pursue a career in astronomy. At the time, there were few telescopes and far too many astronomers. Instead, I became interested in computers and the semiconductor industry, which was new and exciting in the early 1980s. That led me to fulfill a teenage dream: I got a job working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Working at NASA and another job after that showed me that I did not enjoy 9-5 employment, and I realized I needed to be self-employed. I had also become interested in metaphysics and spirituality, which is what brought me to Sedona - a place with much warmer weather and clearer skies than the area I grew up in, and without the city lights and pollution I suffered through in Los Angeles, and Tampa, where I ran a computer consulting business.

For many years after I moved here, I did not even own a telescope. After visiting the world's largest telescope and using the 1/10 scale model of it, getting any telescope would have been a big step down.

I found that I absolutely loved watching the night sky with just my unaided vision. At the same time, I continued to monitor news about recent discoveries and theories in astronomy to increase my knowledge and understanding.

It was fun and intriguing to study the motions of the planets, Moon, and stars from night to night and montyh to month the way ancient people did, but from the perspective of a modern astronomer.

Later, I bought a very inexpensive 3" refractor, very similar to the one I saw Mars through when I was a child, and primed my interest. It was useful for observing planets "up close", and also rare events like lunar eclipses, and the Venus transit across the Sun, along with the annular solar eclipse in 2012 that was visible in Arizona.

In 2021, my girlfriend and I decided to get a "real" telescope, a 12" Go-To Dobsonian. It is large enough to show many astronomical objects really well, and allows me to share what I have learned about astronomy, including things like planetary science and astrophysics, to her and other people. Combined with the clear, dark skies of Sedona, it is an amazingly effective tool for observational astronomy.

Sedona Night Sky Tours

Click the link below to go back to the Sedona Night Sky Tours page.

Sedona Night Sky Tours