With an Eye to the Heavens

Published 4:19 pm Wednesday, February 1, 2017

With the sliding roof secured in place, images are easier to see on the monitor, such as Comet Lovejoy discovered by Australian Terry Lovejoy in 2014. One of Randy’s objectives is to discover Comet Flynn.

With the sliding roof secured in place, images are easier to see on the monitor, such as Comet Lovejoy discovered by Australian Terry Lovejoy in 2014. One of Randy’s objectives is to discover Comet Flynn.

Written by Vincent Verrecchio; Photos by Randy Flynn & Vincent Verrecchio

On the next clear and moonless night that you’re outside away from city lights, settle into a comfortable stance and look up. Invisible to you in the dark distances between the stars and planets is the next asteroid that will slam into the earth. Of the millions of space rocks out there, only 15,000 are known and tracked as NEOs (Near Earth Objects), all exceeding the speed of practical comprehension. The question is not “if” but when, how big, how fast, and exactly where one of the unknowns will strike. But, there’s no reason for you to concern yourself with troubling probabilities. You can simply enjoy the star show for as long and as leisurely as you want with no urgency to watch and wait. One of your Foothills neighbors is doing that for you.

Randy Flynn, owner/operator of the Squirrel Valley Observatory in Columbus, has been watching since about the time Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind.”

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“I was about 10 on my grandparents’ patio on Lake Lanier and remember staring up into the night and thinking ‘wow.’ Santa gave me my first telescope, a department store refractor that gave me a good look at the moon. Not too many years later, my grandparents bought me my first real telescope, a 4.25-inch reflector. I could see the M13 Hercules Globular Cluster. I still have that telescope as a cherished keepsake.”

His equipment, facilities, skill, and international credentials in astronomy have come a long way since then, moving forward ironically in parallel with a career of looking to the ground. Based on a fondness for science in high school and a degree in mechanical drafting and design, he has worked as a draftsman/estimator on many projects, for example, upgrading the Greenville sewer system and construction of initial site work and underground utilities for Tryon Estates. For his career by day, he’s been with the same company since 1988, and in the evenings, curiosity continues to focus his attention upward on an average of two hours a night, and up to five hours when the sky is particularly clear.

He now has another five “real” telescopes. His three refractor telescopes each use glass lenses in the classic long tube design with the eyepiece at the back. Two of them feature apochromatic lenses to correct the false rainbows caused around some objects by standard lenses. They provide sharper, crisper images and a wider field of view than his reflector telescope.

“Newton invented the first telescope to use reflecting mirrors rather than glass lenses,” explains Randy, “A reflector telescope is less expensive, more barrel-like with the eyepiece on the middle-front side. I built my 10-inch scope and used it for deep sky viewing and relatively wide field imaging. I’m refurbishing it now.”

He next gestures to a telescope mounted on a concrete and steel pier. “And that is my 8-inch Aplanatic Flat-field Schmidt-Cassegrain. An evolution on reflector technology in a category of its own with improved optical properties. This is now my go-to, all-purpose scope for planetary and deep sky imaging as well as asteroid astrometry. Field of view is not as wide as the refractors, but I really like the results.”

The pier involves about 8,500 pounds of reinforced concrete. “My images are such long time exposures that I need maximum stability for the necessary precision and sharpness. For all practical purposes, it’s a permanent part of the house.”

The house is within a palisade of trees that helps minimize light pollution on property that has been in the family for more than 125 years. His observatory is a 10 by 10 foot addition to the house with a roof that slides smoothly aside. “I got an observatory in 2015 and my wife got a deck,” smiles Randy. He showed me his drawing for the project and it was as professionally precise as one would expect of an experienced draftsman.

Precision, professionalism, and patience are three of the qualities that in September 2016 earned Randy an MPC IAU W34 observatory code for the detection, observation and tracking of minor planetary bodies and NEOs such as hazardous asteroids. MPC is the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics operating under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). At the time, Squirrel Valley was one of only 1,972 observatories worldwide to have a code. Many are universities or major installations such as Caltech’s Mount Palomar or Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile with 14 telescopes.

“I had five asteroids in my initial W34 submission, which included 138 single point observations. I had to show consistency and accuracy of data within one arc second of error.” That’s 1/3600 of a degree, and of his 138 measurements, only four were out of spec.

As a further recognition of Randy’s work, the European Union’s NEOShield project selected his 5143 Heracles Asteroid images and data as one of three winners in the International Capture the Asteroid Contest. His entry included an animated gif that showed the progress of the “Mercury grazer” NEO first discovered in 1991.

“I’ll continue with imaging, planetary and deep space observation, and, of course, asteroid astrometry for the Minor Planet Center,” he says. He is also collaborating with the Swedish Meteor Network on testing camera software for detection and tracking, and is actively involved with education outreach for astronomy with Polk Central Elementary. In his future is exoplanet research and photometry, supernova detection, discovering an asteroid or comet to name, and finishing the conversion of a spare room into a remote control center for students of all ages who want to learn about the skies above the Foothills.

On February 3, perhaps about the time you are reading this, a NEO of more than a half-mile in diameter will be passing earth at more than 8,200 mph. At the closest point, it will be little more than 15 million miles away, a sure miss in stellar terms, but well within the 25.5 million miles between us and our nearest neighboring planet Venus. The news media will little note and you most likely would never have been aware, but Randy Flynn will know with certainty that NEO 413002 (1999 VG22) is right where it belongs. •