Today (Wednesday 25th February 2015) we went down into a hole at the Titan Missile Museum and up a very big mountain (Mount Hopkins) to see the huge mirror in the Whipple Observatory….
I must admit to not really looking forward to the visit to the Titan Missile Museum, but it turned out to be very interesting. I think this was primarily due to the tour being led by someone, Fred, who used to work at the site when it was operational. That gave a whole extra dimension to the tour.
Fred also made the tour interactive – learning by doing not listening (where have I heard that before recently?!). He chose a member of the tour and got her to do things which staff members would have done – including turning a key to launch the missile. (Personally, I think this would have disturbed me given my recollections as a child about nuclear war and bunkers etc.).
I was also pleasantly surprised by the non-jingoistic approach. It was just stated matter-of-factly that this was a deterrent – effective only because each side knew that retaliation would be swift and efficient. The safeguards were also reassuring – 4 phone calls with codes to enter, no-one allowed to be on their own, multi codes for operations, and 2 keys which could not be operated by one person. It was also interesting to hear that the launchers wouldn’t know the target.
The engineering was impressive – although the thought of its potential impact was frightening. It was a thought-provoking morning.
The afternoon was very different, up to the Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins. This started with an interesting journey to the visitor centre (lesson: the satnav isn’t always right!).
At the visitor centre we met with our guide for the afternoon Emilio and boarded a school bus for an even more interesting journey to the top of the mountain – 20km of winding, gravel, mountain roads with only occasional passing places and barriers. Thankfully the driver was extremely competent and knew the road well, and radio contact was frequent too.
The weather was glorious as were the views on the way up. We reached the first plateau and Emilio showed us some new developments, and then two of the smaller scopes. Again there was talk of mothballing scopes because of funding constraints.
Then we boarded the bus to venture to the top of the mountain and the main attraction – the 6.5m telescope. The last part of the road was too steep for the bus, so we walked (which at altitude was a bit of a workout).
The sign is now slightly misleading as the Multiple Mirror Telescope is now single mirror (we’d seen the former multiples at the visitor centre earlier).
The building housing the scope was another different design to ones we’d seen previously. This time it wasn’t a dome, but a regular-shaped building. The sides opened and the whole building rotated.
We got to see inside the control room (and I ended up in the control seat again!) before going in to see the HUGE scope and mirror. We were fortunate in that the mirror cover was off so we could see it in all its glory. It was an amazing piece of engineering.
As well as the huge scope, the Whipple Observatory runs the Veritas programme – a four scope array of 12m scopes each containing 350 smaller mirrors, built to observe gamma rays emitted from supernovae, black holes and neutron stars. This is seeking to help in the detection of Dark Matter. The scopes are based on the Whipple 10m telescope.
We ended the day with a Mexican meal with Emilio. Another memorable day!by