By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
That’s a question posed by a brochure from IOTA, the International Occultation Timing Association, that amateur astronomer Ned Smith has handed a puzzled Sentinel to explain his demonstration.
Smith and the Sentinel are sitting in the control room of Smith’s observatory in Wildwood. It is a miracle of rare device, a combination of high- and low-tech, with the most powerful telescope this side of Atlanta, a computer that talks to you in a drop-dead female voice like in Star Trek, and a roof that retracts into the walls to expose the starry firmament.
But the roof is operated with a garage door opener Smith, a prototypical ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, picked up at maybe Lowe’s when he home-built the observatory in the field behind his house. “To take that telescope out on the porch every night to watch these occultations, my back couldn’t take it,” explains Smith. “And it’s warm in here.”
But also, to speak metaphorically, seriously cool: The roof is just the beginning. Three of the walls can also be dropped if the telescope needs a different angle, which Smith says might be the case if you wanted to track Jupiter from the horizon up.
Smith explains that an occultation is a mini-eclipse that happens when one celestial body, say, an asteroid, passes before another, say, a star. Obviously, this is daytime, not the best time for astronomy and anyway, it’s not like occultations are that thick on the ground – er, sky. But after a brief consultation with the haughty computer voice, Smith brings up on the monitor one he has previously recorded.
Smith and the Sentinel peer intently at a black velvet sky studded with diamond points. At the bottom of the screen numbers count off the time in thousandths of seconds. “See that?” cries Smith, voice quivering with excitement.
The Sentinel looks up in blank incomprehension. “Do what?”
So Smith replays the occultation, and this time the Sentinel notices: one of the diamond pinpricks has disappeared. It stays gone a few seconds – one, Mississippi, two, Mississippi – and abruptly winks back.
That’s what all the excitement is about.
“You can see me jump up and down when it blinks out,” says Smith. “You only get a hit maybe one in 20 times.”
Smith explains that when an asteroid is expected to occlude a star, he and fellow IOTA members all over the world are notified of the projected time and location, and all sit awaiting it eagerly with their telescopes, GPS systems and specialized computer programs at the ready.
If all goes well, one observer at Point A may track a 5-second occultation, one at Point B a 14-second occultation, one at Point C zilch. They all record their findings and submit them to an astronomy institute where the data is compiled to get a composite picture of the size and shape of the asteroid.
“It’s the grunt work of astronomy that guys with PhDs don’t have time to do,” says Smith. “But it makes me feel good because I feel like I’m contributing.”
In connection with another amateur association, Smith and co-hobbyists perform similar periodic measurements of double stars. Parenthetically, did you know that 85 percent of the stars in our galaxy are double stars? Our sun just doesn’t happen to be, says Smith.
If you have read this far, it’s probably because you’re the kind of person who finds astronomy fascinating, and if so the Sentinel is happy to tell you that you are shortly in for a treat: Smith will be in Veterans Park on the Trenton town square from 7-8 p.m. next Thursday, Dec. 1, to provide Dade County a free look into the universe. If the demonstration meets with enthusiasm, he’s considering doing it once a month.
Smith says he got the notion of sharing his hobby with the general public while attending the annual “star party” at Fall Creek Falls. The observation field where Smith and his fellow astronomers had set up their telescopes was near the resort’s restaurant and hotel, so that as they stargazed they were flooded with “civilians” curious as to what they were doing. “I got more fun out of showing the kids – look at this, what are we are looking at? – so that’s why I wanted to try it here,” says Smith.
Occultations will not be on the menu next Thursday but there will be plenty else to look at thanks to Messier’s Catalog. In 1735, says Smith, a comet hunter named Messier – pronounced Mess-ee-yay, he was French – got so sick of being sidetracked by things that looked like comets, but upon examination were not, that he made a list of 101 of them visible throughout the year. These “Messier Objects” originally a nuisance list, are now a prized star chart. “It has some wonderful things that are easy to see,” said Smith.
Logistically it would be difficult to lug Smith’s 24-inch-mirror telescope from the Wildwood observatory to the square – remember Smith’s poor back – but he will bring his second-biggest telescope, an eight-footer with a 10-inch mirror, to the demo along with his laptop computer.
Smith, who grew up in Ohio, got interested in astronomy via splashy kid-lit – “I’m a big science fiction reader since the fourth grade, when Heinlein came out with Space Patrol” – and built his first telescope at 11 from a box of tubes and rings provided by the local natural history museum.
Smith’s early life goal was to work in the space program, and actually shortly after college he did have a job in Huntsville helping develop guidance software for Saturn rockets. “It was cool to say you were working on it,” he says, but adds he never got to Cape Canaveral himself.
One of his coworkers did go to the Cape with a bucket, says Smith, to scrape ice off the tanks of super-cold liquid hydrogen to help the team calculate how to compensate for the extra weight. “That’s as close as I got,” says Smith. “I knew a guy who went down there.”
After that job, Smith moved even further away from the field, taking his computer skills to Atlanta for a career in the business sector. It wasn’t until he came to Dade County – where, by the way, he fetched up as a result of another sky-related passion, hang gliding – that he returned to astronomy.
Smith built his home in Wildwood in 2001 and retired to live there full-time in 2003 with his wife, Lynne Dorsey, who works at Blue-Cross/Blue Shield in Chattanooga. “That’s my retirement plan,” says Smith. “You work hard, save your money, and marry a woman with a good job.”
Smith gave up hang-gliding shortly after his 70th birthday and now devotes most of his time to the stars – except of course, for seasonal experiments with yet another hobby, viticulture, or growing grapes for wine-making.
But that’s a summertime pursuit, and Smith says winter, when, cold, shmold, the skies are clearer, is the best time to stargaze. He invites both kids and adults – anyone interested in “Messiering around” with astronomy – to attend his Dec. 1 demo in Veterans Park.
For more information, you may email Smith at email@example.com.