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Eye on the Sky

A high-powered telescope in Grant County brings star science down to earth and sends it to students and researchers around the globe.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Somewhere in Grant County, in an undisclosed location nearly as secret as those reserved for high-ranking government officials, Bill Neely operates a telescope so powerful and accurate it tells the famed Hubble Space Telescope where to look for objects in the vast expanse of space. His instruments have discovered quasars and narrowed down the logistics of stars. The real-time observations and experiments they can perform have inspired, assisted and educated hundreds of students, from grade school to grad school.

Bill Neely works manually with an eyepiece on the telescope.

A doctor of emergency medicine at Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City, and the director of pre-hospital emergency services for three counties, Neely somehow finds the time to build research-quality telescopes, teach university classes in astronomy and run the NF/Observatory (NFO), a nonprofit research and education program that brings astronomy into local classrooms and universities farther afield.

"I was a physics major in college, and when Halley's comet passed through our solar system (in 1986), it got me more and more interested in astronomy," Neely says.

Despite his somewhat serious "doctorly" demeanor and deadpan delivery, a small smile shows his own amusement when he reflects on his substantial astronomic activities. "I guess you could say it's a hobby that's spun out of control," he says wryly.

Or perhaps something that's spun Grant County, itself, into a different orbit.

Employing Neely's own passion and astronomic smarts, working in partnership with several university professors of physics and astronomy, and getting a respectable influx of funds from NASA, the telescope's services are requested by professors, students, organizations and researchers from around the world. The NFO serves a consortium of universities from here to Maryland, and has provided more than 600 local grade- and high-school students with the opportunity for real-time space experiments and exploration.

After that "close encounter" with Halley's comet, Neely designed and built his "first generation telescope" in 1987, a 17-inch instrument that operated for more than 10 years in the Mimbres Valley. (The 17 inches refers to the size of the optical mirror inside the telescope. The body of the instrument is much larger, he explains.) The completely automated, remotely operated telescope observed supernovae, asteroids, galaxies and stars, some in conjunction with data from the Hubble and other ground-based observatories.

Neely's next telescope project — a bigger instrument for which he had more ambitious goals — began to take shape when he met Al Grauer, a now-retired professor of astronomy from the University of Arkansas in Little Rock.

Grauer recalls, "My wife and I bought property in the Silver City area, and were working on our house in 1989. I met Bill in the Corner Cafe," which used to occupy the space now housing Isaac's Bar & Grill at the corner of Broadway and Bullard Street. "We got to talking about astronomy and he offered to show me (the star) Betelgeuse — in the daytime. That's when I knew he knew what he was doing." Though an amateur — as opposed to professional — astronomer, Neely is "way beyond your average amateur," Grauer says admiringly.

The scientists' coffee chat meandered down an interesting path. Grauer knew of an old telescope out at the University of Arkansas that was underused. "I asked Bill if he was interested in working with it. It was only rusting away out there," he jokes, noting how the pollen and humidity of Little Rock take a toll not only on the undercarriages of cars but on sensitive high-tech scientific equipment, as well.

In the summer of 2001, after a whole heap of arrangements were made and agreements forged, astronomers from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Neely of the NFO dismantled the sizable telescope, this one with 24-inch mirrors, and moved it to Grant County, where Neely began working on rebuilding it. Grauer notes that professors Claud Lacey at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Wilhelm Richter at the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences in Hot Springs, also were involved in the project. All three universities were interested in having their students use the telescope, Grauer says, and formed a consortium, together with NFO and the Silver Schools system. Funds from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock helped in the instrument's rebuilding.

"I built circuit boards in my kitchen sink," Neely recalls with a laugh. He also completed some 120,000 lines of software code for the telescope. To give perspective on the scope of that figure, he explains that professional computer programmers might work on some 50 lines of software in a day.

Lacey worked on the telescope's pointing corrections, orientation and image corrections, Neely says, and Grauer worked on the camera system.

"Our goal," Neely says, "was to get it to work well enough to do science with it. There were many corrections and calibrations that had to be made, but improvements in computer technology made it all possible."

Over the next few years, the instrument was mounted, drive gears were built, and power was established out to the remote site. The telescope and its operating computer system are now housed in a building with a fully automatic protective roll-off dome. With eight computers from here to Arkansas working together, the telescope took its first electronic images of space in 2004.

 

"It's not a place where the public can visit," Neely explains of his telescope. "I can show it to you, but then I'd have to kill you," he jokes. Dryly. Maybe.

Joking death threats aside, hoping to show what the telescope can do and how it interfaces with students and researchers, Neely offers a private tour of his gizmos.

He unlocks the door of a white, domed building not unlike a big shed, but a shed with some unusual bells and whistles. A small machine with an odd little propeller is suspended on a pole outside the domed structure. It tracks the weather, Neely explains, and feeds the information on atmospheric conditions into the telescope's computer. The computer, in response, will automatically close the overhead sliding dome — or even prevent it from opening in the first place — to protect the telescope.

The interior of the small building is bare bones. The focal point, the huge white telescope, rises from ground level up through an opening in a simple steel mesh floor. Open metal stairs lead up to the actual telescope itself.

Neely hoists the top off a large wooden box, maybe 10 feet wide and a few feet deep, along the back wall of the building. Inside are a whole series of linked computers and like instruments.

"This is really what does it all," he says. "Think of that as just the camera," he adds, gesturing toward the impressive telescope above his head.

He punches some information into a computer keyboard and the domed roof begins to crank away from the building. Its motor makes some noise, yes, but actually is surprisingly quiet and smooth.

The sky above is that brilliant, clear New Mexican sky blue. This is one big reason the telescope finds itself here in the Land of Enchantment, Neely says. Our clear, dark skies offer top-notch viewing conditions for days on end.

"We have many more chances and much larger windows of opportunity for observation," he explains.

A clamber up the steel-mesh stairs to the platform above yields a view of rolling hills dotted with nothing much, save yucca, cacti and a few trees. A well-worn chair in the corner hints that Neely might spend time up here admiring the heavens above the old-fashioned way, too — with the naked eye.

Though images from the telescope come in through the computers, the instrument is also fitted with typical-looking — if very, very large — eyepieces. Joking about doing things the old-fashioned way, Neely looks through a viewfinder and makes some adjustments by hand. He hopes to show off the scope's ability to locate Mars, even in this broad daylight. A few more adjustments, a little more fiddling, and he steps away from the eyepiece, a look of thoughtful puzzlement on his face. Then he says, "Oh," and a look of recognition comes over him. "I think it's going to override me," he explains. Evidently the scientist has done his job very, very well — one of his programs must be convinced that it's in the telescope's best interest to shut down and not allow this manual operation. A few moments later, the dome begins cranking back into place.

Neely climbs back down the steps and punches a few more bits of information into the computers.

"Let me show you how I access this from my computer back home," he offers.

 

Bill Neely says one of his prime motivations for establishing the NFO and building telescopes — and his greatest reward — is the educational value and applications.

Silver City's Sidewalk Solar System

Take a walk on the cosmic side — at 10 times the speed of light.

Traversing a special section of humble Swan Street in Silver City, interested pedestrians have the tools at their fingertips — or perhaps at the tips of their toes — to gain perspective on the vastness of space, to imagine a view of the sun from, say, the planet Jupiter, and to move — relatively speaking — at a pretty brisk clip.

"Walking at a normal pace between the markers for the planets, you're covering a million miles. You would be moving at around 10 times the speed of light," says Bill Neely. "If you were on the Starship Enterprise, like on 'Star Trek,' you'd be traveling at Warp 2," he adds with a smile.

Neely, a medical doctor with a passion for astronomy, is explaining Silver City's Sidewalk Solar System, the one-of-a-kind, self-guided, built-to-scale model of earth's solar system that he designed and — "with the help, generosity and cooperation of many others," he says — installed on Swan Street.

Hoping to build interest in astronomy, create a hands-on tool for students and, heck, have some fun indulging his passion for astronomy, too, Neely conceived of the Sidewalk Solar System project as part of a course he taught at Western New Mexico University.

With the Sidewalk Solar System built on a mind-boggling scale of three-billion-to-one, each step the average human takes represents more than one million miles. The walk starts with Earth's sun — there are others, after all — a scale replica of which is mounted on the second power pole south of the intersection of 32nd and Swan Streets. The spot corresponds with the 50-yard line of the neighboring Fox Athletic Field. Earth's life-giving star is identified, and instructions for the walk are noted on a bronze plaque in the sidewalk.

Proceeding south, the celestial-strider encounters other bronze plaques, each identifying one of the planets in our solar system. Images depicting the sun and each planet — along with their name, size in comparison to Earth and distance from the sun — are set into bronze plaques embedded into the sidewalk at carefully measured intervals.

At each stop, the walker can turn around and see how the sun would look to an observer standing on that planet.

"You can still see the sun quite well at Jupiter," Neely notes. Another 227-or-so average human strides and the walker arrives at Saturn. The sun, from this vantage point, is now just a speck, visible only if the traveler steps to one side or the other to see around the line of power poles. (Perhaps the poles could represent discarded shuttle parts and other "space debris"?)

The journey ends with Pluto ("now demoted to a 'minor planet,'" Neely acknowledges), located at Swan Street's intersection with 12th Street, 1.2 earth miles away, across Hwy. 180 from the rest of the solar system.

"Our next closest star after that would be Alpha Centauri," Neely says. Actually, he's simplifying. The closest star to earth's sun is Proxima Centauri, but Alpha, its brighter double-star neighbor, is so nearly the same distance that data are usually given about it instead. But whichever Centauri one is speaking about, Neely notes with a laugh, to continue walking in scale with the sidewalk solar system, the bronze plaque denoting that heavenly body would have to be placed another 8,000 earth miles along a theoretical Swan Street, down around the South Pole.

For more information and instructions for the Sidewalk Solar System, go online to nfo.edu/solar

— Donna Clayton Lawder

"Education is a big drive of mine," he says. "I love getting kids interested in science and in astronomy. You show them something and you see that spark in their eye. And they want to know more," he says. "I'm trying to find the next generation of astronomers."

Since 1993, he's worked with the local school system and as an adjunct professor at Western New Mexico University. He's built a to-scale model of the solar system into the sidewalks in Silver City. (See box.) He's developed a portable planetarium, called "Star Lab," and has taught astronomy in classrooms at Aldo Leopold High School and La Plata Middle School in Silver City, and at schools in Cliff and Reserve.

The IDEA Grant Program promotes math and science programs in K-12 schools by integrating NASA space and astronomy programs into the classroom. NFO received its first IDEA grant in 1995 for a research project with the Hubble Space Telescope. In spring 2006, Grauer was awarded another IDEA grant to support a two-year educational pilot project, working with classrooms in New Mexico, Arizona and Maryland.

Project Astro, a NASA-funded program that pairs astronomers and teachers in the classroom, brings the starry science of exploring the universe into kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms. Neely notes that Project Astro is currently active at the La Plata school.

Back at his home computer, Neely brings up a screen for one of the NFO's educational programs. This is one used by the grad students, he says. Students punch in the specs of what they want the telescope to view for them, and when the instrument should take an image, and get their results.

He clicks through some more screens to bring up the program used in the grade schools.

"They get to do exercises, and we quiz them and reward them to get them to go on through the program," he explains. Bits of history are interspersed with images and, then, questions.

"They take the quiz to show their comprehension," he says. "If they pass, it prompts them on to another screen for another exercise. If they get it wrong," he pauses and enters some erroneous data to demonstrate, "you see, it kicks them out and tells them they can't continue. They have to wait six minutes, then they can review it and take the quiz again, and when they get it right, they can move on."

The program rewards its young pupils with customized images from space, personalized with their names.

"The telescope images are black and white, but we put them through colored filters so you get something like this," he says, holding out a dazzling postcard-sized image. "That's a supernova that exploded in 1054." Adding the students' names to the cards builds a sense of connection to the science and personalizes their experience, he adds: "It inspires them and motivates them."

 

Al Grauer allows that there seems to be a resurgence of interest toward and support for space exploration these days.

Part of that is simple survival instinct, as we come to appreciate our fragile place in the universe. In 1995, NASA and the US Air Force began a project named Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT). From an observatory in Hawaii, the program searches for asteroids in an orbit that might threaten Earth. Astronomers have found more than 200 asteroids with orbits that intersect Earth's orbit around the sun, and believe that there are about 1,500 out there that are large enough to cause global disaster.

"Congress passed a law that by 2008, we are supposed to discover up to 90 percent of the nearest asteroids with the potential to harm earth by collision," Grauer says.

He also talks about robotic advances, how technology may soon allow us to use raw materials found in space — water, minerals — to manufacture things in space, rather than having to bring elements down to earth for assembly.

And he notes the rapid expansion and improvements in technology, and how they have allowed astronomic knowledge to grow exponentially.

"In 1973, we built an instrument that went on the back of a telescope that measured one thing at a time," he says. "By 1978, we had instruments that could measure two things at a time: one bright object, which was the main object of study, and a comparison object. In the '90s, we had instruments that could measure three things at a time: the bright object, a comparison object and the sky. With today's technology, we can measure hundreds, even thousands of things at once. It's a whole different world."

Like Neely, he stresses the importance of astronomy research in the schools. "The real educational value of a 'scope like this, especially with elementary and high-school kids, is that we're training the next generation of scientists, with real data and real time experiments," Grauer says. Bringing the science, experts and lessons "out to the farther-flung areas, like the schools in Reserve and Cliff, is of tremendous importance," he says.

Grauer notes that one of his own grad students couldn't have done her research anywhere else, referencing the NFO and its large windows of opportunity for observation. The student's area of exploration dealt with X-ray binary stars — two stars that orbit around each other. The student keyed in specifications for images to be taken every night over a long period of time, then compared the changes in the stars' stats. New Mexico's long periods of clear skies made the observations possible.

What scientists know about the skies above us, Neely adds, has grown in quantum leaps in recent years. "Fifteen years ago, there were around 10,000 named asteroids. Today there are over 30,000," he says. "That's a huge change.

"We're still not sure how the earth formed. Comets give us more information about the earth, so exploring comets can help us learn about ourselves." With a wistful smile, Neely adds, "It's good to promote wondering. You never know what may come of these seeds that land."

 

For more information on the NF/Observatory, go online to nfo.edu.

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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