The Mars Insight Lander has been sending outstanding images of the Red planet back to Earth, and anyone who watches the night skies knows that Mars is visible with the naked eye in December just after sunset in the southwest.
But using a telescope reveals even more of the heavens and experienced stargazers know what a miraculous and highly technical instrument it is.
Community Voices producer Jim Kale has met a man from southwest Ohio who makes telescopes and traveled to the rural countryside near the tiny town of Philo, Illinois to meet him.
I’ve been driving the last few hours on narrow roads through vast fields of corn and soy to talk with Mike Lockwood of Lockwood Optical. In the wide open and dark spaces, Lockwood optical produces incredibly fine mirrors with near impossible accuracy, the heart of a great telescope.
"My interest in astronomy came from living in the middle of pitching black middle of nowhere because you can’t help but look up at the sky and, you know, watch the Northern Lights occasionally. If you live under that and you don’t get interested, then something is wrong," says Mike Lockwood.
He explains the basics of how telescopes work, and what the optics actually do.
"So the light comes down from the sky; there is a parabolic primary mirror that is at the bottom of the telescope that collects the light. The light bounces off the concave primary mirror, goes up, hits the flat secondary [mirror] and is reflected out into an eyepiece which is in a focuser where you view the image. "
After completing his master’s degree, Mike was doing research when he revisited his old telescope project he started in middle school. He found that original mirror and finished it. Then he began making and fixing telescope mirrors for friends and colleagues as a hobby.
"And eventually one of my friends brought over a so called professional mirror, and that was an epiphany because it was a piece of crap. And I said 'I can do better than this,' and I could do better. Then I did better, then I continued to fix some. I continued to make some new ones. Eventually I had a small side business going while I was still doing research at the university. "
Mike says that unless you want a funhouse view of the universe, your measurements for the mirror have to be very accurate.
"These mirrors have a surface accuracy on the order of a few millionths of an inch of error if they are made right," he says. "These are the most precise surfaces made in the world. If you blew up a mirror to the size of the United States, the errors would be on the order of a few inches tall. So you have to use techniques that are gentle and then measure with good accuracy. That’s where a lot of the art comes in. [You have to] very systematically track down all sources of error. Things as simple as measuring on a concrete floor and not a wood floor because the wood floor can change dimensions while you are testing."
It can be frustrating work.
"I have thrown things," Mike admits. "It happens. "
But ultimately, he says, "It’s just a good match. I get to do a little bit of math every now and then and think about things scientifically, but I also get to start a project and finish a project and deliver it, and there’s, you know, there is a satisfaction in that."
Mike's mirrors help feed the passions of astronomers all over the world.
I visited the Warren Rupp Observatory in Bellville Ohio, home to a 36" Lockwood Optics mirror housed in a 19 foot tall telescope named Big Blue. As it turned out, the night skies were cloudy, and I didn’t get to look through Big Blue this time, but I did get a sense of the passion and wonder of astronomy while talking with longtime volunteer and star gazer Dan Evert .
"The sky is a glorious thing and most people don’t spend enough time looking up," he says. "People have asked me over the years, you know, 'what’s the best thing you’ve ever seen in the sky?' And I say it isn’t as much the sky, but when you see a young person’s eye go to the eye piece and you see that beam of light come out and hit their eye and you hear them go 'ahhhh!" That’s the thrill, that’s the real thrill, you know."
I asked Dan what he'd look at if he only had more opportunity to use a telescope.
"I'd probably go to the Great Nebula in Hercules. I have made people cry showing them this cluster because it looks like diamonds dumped on black velvet. It will just take your breath away, it’s just beyond comprehension."
The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery Astronomy Manager Joe Childers sent us a few sights to look for in our local skies. These are better if you can get to a dark, rural spot. If you have a telescope, set it up, but you can also see these with your eyes.
Geminid Meteor Shower: “In mid-December expect to see more meteors than normal. On the night of the 13th and 14th the Geminid meteor shower peaks, with a shooting star visible every minute. Best views begin around midnight.”
Planet sightings change from month to month- here are some for December.
- Mars: “Look in the southwest after dark to find Mars. It is the brightest object in that part of the sky and reddish-orange in color.”
- Venus, Jupiter and Mercury: “Look in the southeast before dawn to see Venus, much brighter than any star. After mid-December start looking to its lower left for Jupiter and Mercury, low along the horizon as dawn brightens”
Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.