Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Visiting Filmmakers Profile TMI in the Caves

This summer, a collaborative film project called Conversations from the Open Road visited the Spruce Knob Mountain Center and had the opportunity to go caving in the Sinks of Gandy. The film of their experience is now online! To see it, click the link:
Exploring the Caves of Spruce Knob
For more information on the project, you can also check out their blog.
The crew of Conversations from the Open Road.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A View from the Stars: The Almost Heaven Star Party 2013

Mr. Bob Traube of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club reflects on September's annual Almost Heaven Star Party.

Center of the Milky Way from TMI
Those of you reading The Mountain Institute’s Blog already know how beautiful and relaxing it is at TMI.  If you’ve visited there you also know how knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly the staff is, so some of what I’m reporting here will come as no surprise to you.  Now, imagine those fantastic facilities and that super staff coping with over 250 guests camped on the field at TMI over a long, five-day weekend.  That’s exactly what happened this past September.   For the 9th consecutive year, TMI successfully hosted the “Almost Heaven Star Party.”  Every year, volunteers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club and TMI staff organize and conduct this annual astro-extravaganza, offering astronomers and their families the opportunity to experience the darkest skies East of the Mississippi.  Those not recovering from a long night of observing also participate in numerous daytime activities uniquely suited to TMI’s setting. 
California Nebula
Solar Observing from the Yurts

Extremely dark skies over TMI provide astronomers with amazing views of galaxies, nebulas, star clusters, and planets that are the grist of amateur astronomy.   Without the light pollution and sky glow so prevalent in other areas of the country, these objects are not only visible in our telescopes - they are dazzling!  Visual observers can see faint details only available through much larger telescopes while astrophotographers are able to image delicate features not possible to capture from home.   It’s no wonder that so many amateur astronomers and their families flock to the Almost Heaven Star Party each year.  But that’s only the beginning of the fun.

While the main focus of the event is on observing and photographing the nighttime sky, a host of other activities are available during the daylight hours at AHSP; these include birding, caving, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, canoeing, and rock climbing.    Most of these are 
scheduled activities led by either a TMI staffer or a knowledgeable NOVAC member, and are open to all AHSP participants.  There is safe solar observing during the day, when sun spots and solar flares (prominences) are visible. Having the right gear is essential to doing this effectively and safely.  Never look at the sun without a proper solar filter!  You’ve been warned!

There’s another good reason to attend the Almost Heaven Star Party… the door prizes!  These amazing incentives are provided to the event by astronomy vendors, NOVAC, and even individuals, to the delight of participants.  This year, we gave away nearly 50 prizes, valued at thousands of dollars.  The door prize drawing is always well attended, as you can see…
The AHSP Door Prize Give-away

In addition to all the local events taking place during the day on the mountain, there are two big “road trips” to fill the days.

Steam Locomotive at the Cass Mountain Railroad
This classic steam rail line was built in 1901 to haul lumber to the mill in Cass, West Virginia.  The AHSP tour visits their maintenance depot and takes a breathtaking trip up Cass Mountain via their coal-fired, steam-powered Shay locomotives and coach rail cars.  The sound of live steam and train whistles accompanied by the smell of burning coal provides a visceral trip back in time to an era when steam-driven locomotives were an essential part of everyday life in West Virginia.  This trip is fun for astronomers and their families alike.

On the second tour, participants experience the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Greenbank, West Virginia. 

300ft Byrd Radio Telescope at NRAO
The site is home to the largest, fully steerable radio telescope in the world.  The tour includes a behind-the-scenes visit to the technical workshops and laboratories, rarely open to the public.  For those who register, there is an overnight workshop that includes training and hands-on experience operating a 40 ft radio telescope dish to capture and analyze radio signals from planets, distant galaxies, quasars, and black holes.  It’s certainly not the usual fare for us backyard astronomers!
Kevin Enjoys the AHSP!
TMI Campus

Perhaps the most appreciated feature of the Star Party is the hospitality shown to us by the TMI staff.   They seem to “never say no” to any request.  They go far, far out of their way to accommodate the 250+ guests and make us feel at home.  Amazingly, they never fail to help us solve the logistical problems we all have when traveling and to make us comfortable in the unique culture and environs that is TMI.  For an additional fee, TMI serves savory meals to keep us satisfied and well fed.  For breakfast, lunch, and dinner we are treated to a sometimes unusual, but always tasty, variety of food.  Their desserts seem to be everyone’s favorite, given the chef’s fondness for chocolate cookies and brownies!  Oh my!  Our thanks go out to all of the TMI staff for making us feel at home.
Andromeda Galaxy

While the sky is the main attraction at any star party, getting together with old friends from past AHSP events and meeting new ones is a key part of the pleasure of observing under the dark West Virginia skies.   Participation at the Almost Heaven Star Party is open to everyone; you don’t have to be a NOVAC member to register.  Please consider joining us next summer, August 22-26, 2014, for our 10th annual event.  Registration will open sometime early next year so keep your calendar free and check the website often for news and registration instructions.
Eyes on Ulan Bator
-Article and photography by Bob Traube

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Run for the Hills & Trilogy 2013!

The half marathon winner crosses the finish line!
 This was the 5th year for the Run for the Hills 5K and Half Marathon race and the 4th year for the West Virginia Trilogy (50K, 50 Mile, Half Marathon). Runners and their families joined us for a whole weekend of racing, eating good meals, and meeting with both old and new friends. The Run for the Hills race is a fundraising event for the the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. Race reports, photos, and this year's results can be found here. You can also check out the blog  of runner Nick Billock and see more photos of the event on the TMI Flickr!

Runners who successfully completed the Trilogy race smile for the camera!

Winners of Sunday's 5K show their smiles. 

Sunday's half marathon winners!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Northern Virginia Astronomer's Club and The Mountain Institute

Thanks to its unique location within the Monongahela National Forest, the Spruce Knob Mountain Center attracts not only school groups looking for a wilderness experience, but also an assorted bunch of other groups. These include cross-country runners, college survival groups, men and women's retreats, and - thanks to our isolation from cities and light pollution - astronomers. In late August, hundreds of amateur astronomers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club camped out on the High Plains for the Almost Heaven Star Party. As a blurb from their website puts it:

"A truly dark sky is a sight that few get a chance to see. For amateur astronomers who are used to backyard astronomy in the light-polluted suburbs, the sky at Spruce Knob will be an experience that you won’t forget. While the trip takes some time, it will be worth it. However, if your idea of roughing it is a hotel that doesn’t offer turn-down service, you might want to pass. While the amenities at The Mountain Institute make this far from a primitive site, camping is not for everyone. We recommend that you come prepared and have reasonable camping experience in order to fully enjoy AHSP."

This year's event was a sold-out success, which meant that our kitchen stayed busy as staff provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner to AHSP stargazers who had opted for a meal option. After working in the kitchen, many staff wandered out into the high plains to mingle with the observers and peer through their telescopes into the heavens above. Since astronomy is a part of the curriculum for school groups, the AHSP is a great chance for TMI staff to get acquainted with constellations. 

To give you a sense of just how awesome the skygazing can be on the High Meadows of Spruce Knob, here's a collection of photos from NOVAC member Bob Traube, a regular visitor to Spruce Knob who took these photos over the 4th of July weekend. The descriptions of photos are his as well. Thanks to the staff and participants of NOVAC and AHSP who make the August experience terrific for everyone!

This is the amazing Andromeda Galaxy.  Its full extent covers three full moons.  Designated as M31, the shot also includes two companion galaxies, M32 and M110.  The "M" designation identifies them as members of the famed Messier List. 

This image presents the North American nebula on the left and the Pelican Nebula on the right.  These clouds of Hydrogen gas glow red from the absorption of Ultraviolet light from nearby stars and remission of that energy as the red light we see.  Both are located near the star Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan also know as the Northern Cross.

This circle (actually a sphere) of glowing gas is the remnant of an ancient supernova shockwave.  As the energy of that violent explosion encounters interstellar gas, it causes it to glow,  revealing its progress.  The bright star on the upper right is 52 Cygni, placing the nebula in the constellation Cygnus.

These and the following photos are shots of a passing thunderstorm.

 As Bob Traube wrote, "It is no wonder why we enjoy our visits to TMI so much!"