NOTE: This is an entry from my personal blog that I am going to cross post here. I wasn't going to post this here but I decided that this journal should reflect my personal journey as well. It also shows the importance of carrying the torch that has been passed...
Monday was a bittersweet day. I ended up finding out an old friend, of sorts, had died… quite some time ago.
Right after graduating from high school in 1982 I attended the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS). I took a year of Astronomy as a freshman. The instructor was a wonderful gentleman named Terry Schmidt. Terry was a personable guy, if a bit arrogant at times, and knew his stuff when it came to physics and astronomy. I got to know him fairly well because he would recruit volunteers from his classes to help at Tiara Observatory near Eleven Mile Reservoir some 50 miles west of Colorado Springs.
From 1982-1986 I helped with observing meteors, lunar eclipses, comets (including Halley’s), and determining rotational periods of asteroids using photometry. This sounds kind of dry but let me put it into perspective.
I think my most common trip to Tiara Observatory involved watching meteor showers. On a typical night Terry would pick the crew up in his station wagon and barrel up Ute Pass at just under light speed. Those trips were fun and got the heart racing. Once there we would open up the building. We would load the cameras with film (remember film?) and plug the heat tape in to keep dew from forming on the lenses.
Remember that observing takes place at night so it was generally cold. However that doesn’t mean we were uncomfortable. The “meteor building” was open to the sky but had a wall about 3 feet high surrounding it to cut the wind. Chaise lounges were spread out within the building for the 4-5 observers. Terry’s wife had the brilliant idea of sewing space blankets on to the back of electric blankets. We used those to keep warm as we sprawled out on our backs to take in the night sky. As we watched we noshed on Dunkin’ Donuts and hot spiced tea (another gift from Terry’s wife) and listened to various music on the 8-track which was pumped out in rocking stereophonic sound. Before you dis the 8-track remember that at that time it was the only media capable of looping. This was important because the shifts generally went in hour increments.
As meteors were seen we recorded the data including magnitude and whether it was part of the particular shower we were watching or sporadic. Each hour we had to advance the film in the cameras and open the shutters. If a particularly bright meteor passed one of the crew would push a button to close the spectrometer shutter, get up, advance the film and open the shutter again. The spectrographs would be carefully analyzed later. The other cameras would pick up passing meteors across the night sky. I still have a couple of those lying around.
On other nights we would use a photometer on the 16-inch reflector telescope to determine the rotational period of asteroids. This was done by measuring the brightness of the asteroid over several hours on a few different nights, sometimes weeks apart. The idea was to graph the rise and fall of the brightness then extrapolate the rotational period by noting the trends. From an observer’s standpoint this was a two person job. One would operate the scope and keep the tiny dot inside the red circle. Then every 3-5 minutes you flipped the mirror (meaning you lost sight of the target) to take the photometric reading. The second person recorded the reading. It was long, tedious work but we were rewarded after the session with views of various deep sky objects (DSOs). I think these peeks were the key to reigniting my interest in astronomy after so many years.
Anyway, Terry published the rotational periods in whatever places those were noted. I do recall on one instance me asking about some of the details of an asteroid including size etc. Terry didn’t have much for me but the next day he mentioned that he should have done his research before we went. Apparently someone else had attempted the same asteroid and determined that the asteroid rotated in such a manner that we were looking at the asteroid’s north pole and determining it’s rotational period was impossible. Essentially we wasted some five hours of time. It was still fun ;-)
On another occasion we went to view a lunar eclipse in December. This was the coldest I have ever been, before or since. As we got out of the car we were changing into our outer gear and everyone remarked how chilly it was. A quick glance at the local thermometer showed -17F. But this was only the beginning as it plummeted to -30F. We had difficulty preventing the film from shredding in the cameras and, even worse, it was a very dark eclipse. This was problematic because my job was to try and take photometric readings using the 16-inch scope on a crater that could not be discerned once the eclipse went into totality. I ended up being a spectator which wasn’t bad, but it was extremely cold!
I have to say the highlight of my experiences with Terry came not at the observatory but on a deserted road east of Colorado Springs. Terry and I were photographing a comet which meant that Terry was guiding the camera on a telescope as I timed the exposure using a stopwatch. During one of these exposures I was staring at the ground when the gravel road lit up. I was dismayed because I thought a car had come over the ridge and would ruin the exposure. It took only a moment to realize that it was a sporadic meteor blazing by at a whopping -6 magnitude. [For reference, the sun is -27, the full Moon is -12.5 and Venus, at full brightness, is -4.5] The meteor’s train was visible using binoculars for more than 45 minutes and I was able to observe it as Terry was guiding the scope.
My relationship with Terry Schmidt spanned from the autumn of 1982 to the summer of 1986. At that time I took a divergent path. I heard he passed away either in the very late 80s or early 90s. He was entirely too young. When he passed I wondered who would take care of and use Tiara Observatory. I found that answer yesterday….
The family and I were vacationing in Colorado. My parents have a piece of property relatively nearby so we went up there and I decided it would be neat to see what was going on at the observatory. We drove up there (only made one wrong turn after not having been there in more than 15 years) and the sight was almost more than I could bear. There were more houses nearby which was disappointing but the observatory… The once tidy white paint is chipped and peeling. The door in the dome of the building that held the 16” telescope is damaged and open to the elements. The meteor building is falling apart. The entire site is dilapidated.
As I took in the view I choked back the tears. It was as if, when Terry died, this piece of land died too. Terry’s dream was to observe the universe and to instill his love for it on those that would listen. I am one of those people. To see this dream crumbling into the dust breaks my heart.
So in writing this the love is renewed. The romantics and the movies say, “As long as you remember him he is not truly dead.” I don’t think I realized this truth until yesterday. Terry E. Schmidt and Tiara Observatory live on within me, if only in my memories. But their influence burns bright. Others may never know the joys of my personal astronomy journey but, perhaps, I can help them start on their own….