ASO: One of America's oldest private research facilities now in its 5th decade of service
Now in its likely final and permanent home atop beautiful Petit Jean Mountain in Conway County, Arkansas, Arkansas Sky Observatories (ASO) is proud of its rich history in research and public outreach in a variety of sciences: microbiology, molecular biology, geology, archeology, paleontology, climatology, environmental sciences and, of course - Astronomy.
We have always been a leader in outreach, providing over 10,500 live presentations to civic, school, university, church and other organizations, never at a cost to them. Thousands of popular articles in newspapers and magazines throughout the country have kept the general public abreast and in tune with the happenings of the Sky and the Earth on which we live.
Arkansas Sky Observatories was established in 1970 as a private and independent research facility by P. Clay Sherrod, and named in 1971; its observatories have been many and varied to accomodate the need for specific research at the times of their constructions. Presently, ASO is proud to have earned and maintained four Harvard Minor Planet Center Observatory Code designation as a contributor of Near Earth asteroid and comet mesurements: H43 (Conway West); H44 (Cascade Mountain); H41 (Petit Jean Mountain North) and H45 (Petit Jean Mountain South). Nearly all research and writings now orginate from H45, the home of two observatory buildings, an extensive science workshop and other facilities, as well as a residence on site.
The current ASO H45 facility at Petit Jean Mountain 2016
[ CONTINUED: "HISTORY...." ]
Beginning in 1970-71 with the coming close approach of the planet MARS, the first facility was constructed to obtain detailed analysis of the clouds and the seasonal changes of the Red Planet as it made its closest approach to Earth since 1956. On the outskirts of North Little Rock, this was soon moved to an ideal hilltop ocation at the Edgewood Academy, where it served as a teaching center as well as a research facility. It was from that Edgewood location, that ASO began its affiliation with the Smithsonian-Harvard Observatories, serving as a confirmation station for the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams, under the direction of friend and mentor Dr. Brian Marsden, of comet fame. What has now grown to a network of hundreds of stations, with only a few dozen making serious observational reports, the 1972 ASO-Harvard affiliation was one of only a few worldwide and alerts/notifications were made by phone during the dark of night.
P. Clay Sherrod at Arkansas Sky Observatories' Edgewood facility 1980
It is important to note that Arkansas is NOT a haven for astronomy. It is not a place where large and impressive telescopes can operate due to the constantly turbulent and "boiling" moist night air. The combination of Ozark and Ouachita Mountains and the nearly sea-level Gulf Coastal Plain in the southeast, leave Arkansas as perhaps the last place that you would want to be and practice "astronomy." But the pursuits of Arkansas Sky have encompassed many other branches of science and Arkansas proved to be a wealth of geologic and paleontologic resources that needed study; in addition, prehistoric rock art and later mound building cultures appear to have exercised astronomical reckoning for calendars, recording and predicting celestial events. Eight years of study was devoted entirely to archeological pursuits, resulting in three booklength publications and dozens of journal articles.
Working in the molecular/microbiological research field at FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research, Sherrod made his decision to stay in Arkansas despite an attractive and life-changing offer to work on a life-science project for the Viking Spacecraft which visited Mars in 1976.
Because of the conditions, smaller telescopes but those equipped with the highest techology for the times, were installed in observatories statewide, providing studies of cataclysmic variable stars, novae and supernovae, Near Earth Asteroids (NEOs), comets, and atmospheric studies of Mars and Jupiter. Smaller apertures are less prone to resolve the tiny "Eddy Currents" in the atmosphere and hence can be more effective throughout the year.
ASO Conway West (H43), a completely robotic computerized remote operation. This observatory is responsible exclusively for monitoring certain categories of NEOs that have been recently discovered.
It went into operation in 1999 and soon was converted to complete computer automation and robotic control.
In 2001 plans were developed and site location search started on a major large observatory on Petit Jean Mountain's north side, this becoming Harvard Minor Planet Center's H41; first light from that facility was made in June 2002. Cascade Mountain (H44) put a large robotic Newtonian telescope into operation the next year, this owned an operated by Brian Sherrod. In 2004, Petit Jean Mountain South (H45) was completed on the south side of Petit Jean Mountain, deep in the woodlands of the mountain with far better air stability.
In 2002 construction began on the first Petit Jean Mountain facility, located on private grounds of the late Winthrop P. Rockefeller, on the northwest end of the mountain. This panoramic site afforded unobstructed views in all directions, but soon was found to have very unstable air due to strong upward winds rising from the nearby Arkansas River, which wraps around this part of the mountain. This location - MPC H41 - has had three indirect lightning strikes with substantial damage, caused by static charge surging through the iron-rich rock during thunderstorms.
The success of the stucture design and the utility of the overall construction of the building led to identical construction for both Petit Jean Mtn H41 North and Petit Jean Mountain South H45.
The second Petit Jean Mountain facility was opened in April 2004 and given the Harvard MPC designation of H45, located two miles south of H41. Although a 20-inch RC telescope was installed originally in the newest facility, it was deemed from empirical observations that air conditions dictated somewhat less aperture with stronger emphasis on digital computer enhancement of NEO and comet search programs.
[CONTINUED: "Facilities....." ]
ASO Facilities - Always a "work in progress"For five decades, ASO has operated telescopes directly and eventually remotely via computer throughout Arkansas. In addition to the work in astronomy, P. Clay Sherrod has experienced a wealth of diversified scientific research in discipline including
- Climate and climate change
- Alternative Energies
- Molecular Biology
- Evolution and life diversity
But first and foremost have always been the operations of the observatories and astronomical research.
Scope of ASO Research in Astronomy
It is important to know that dozens of opportunities to venture elsewhere into research organizations and funding institutions have come my way over the past 50 years. My choice was to remain in Arkansas with my family. Anyone who is familiar with Arkansas and astronomy knows that the two simply do not mesh together. The moist, humid and steamy summers combined with the turbulent air of a frosty winter result in very poor conditons for the study of the Sky. Nonetheless, the void of astronomical outlets in this region led me to develop my own plan and trust set aside for operating and exclusive observatory that was within the influence and direction of others.
Simply put, if a new comet is approaching the Earth and needs study, ASO can stop that night and begin studies of that comet. We are not dictated by schedules, grants or a board of directors.
When the first observatory was built in 1970-71, the emphasis and time table for completion was the upcoming 1971 favorable apparition of Mars. For several years after that, the studies focused on many realms of planetary science, primarily planetary geology and atmospheres. Cloud changes on the planets Mars and Jupiter were monitored and subsequent research resulted in papers on the balance of atmosphere and geological activities of these planets.
In conjunction with this, studies on the evolution of "microspheres" into self-replicating organic molecules and then onto functioning virus replicating on demand, were being made for nearly a decade. This interest and direction would become a leading force in the drive behind the remaining years of the Arkansas Sky Observatories.
Over time, the behavior of stars in chaos - cataclysmic variables and novae - were added to the research efforts of ASO, with careful measurements being made at first visually via the AAVSO and subsequently using some of the first-introduced photoelectric photometers available to small facilities. As sophisticated digital imaging equipment began to evolve in the early 2000's, planetary imaging by amateur astronomers took off like a rocket and soon they were producing high resolution images the likes of which were never seen before by any telescope on Earth. Direct observations of planetary atmospheres ceased in 1998 in lieu of this advanced resource, but the evaluation and analysis of those images continue at ASO today.
In 2000, the decision was made to turn the focus of the observatories of ASO to one of the most important and dangerous of all sky objects: NEOs - Near Earth Objects, asteroids that in their orbits will sometimes cross the orbit of Earth, thereby posing a major collision hazard soon or far into the future.
All equipment and observatories at that time were re-evaluated and major changes made to equip all facilities with the precise instrumentation necessary to provide as precise measurements of the motion, orbits and physical parameters as possible. As mentioned, the instrumentation of the ASO observatories has been "evolution in progress" and will likely continue to change. At present, the observatories contain the cutting edge in modern instrumentation.
Instruments and Ancillary Equipment
At present all focus for maintenance and outfitting are for the observatories located at Petit Jean Mountain South - H45. That likely, at this late point in the long history of ASO, will not change. With a residence, complete mechanical and optical workshop and all things necessary for deep woods living atop such a beautiful mountain. There are TWO observatories at this site that are used regularly, a research facility and a teaching/student facility.
The main observatory features a Technical Innovations automated dome atop an 18-foot x 42-foot building. Two rooms are separated but connected via CCTV for telescope monitoring; the office contains a small portion of the library of Clay Sherrod as well as 9 computers which operate all equipment, domes and cameras on site in a climate-controlled comfortable office that features reference areas, work tables, sleeper sofa, and memorabilia of astronomy through the ages.
The secondary observatory is a very convenient telescope equipped either for robotic computer operations or can easily be converted to strictly visual for classroom or public use. This self-contained observatory tops out with an Exploradome and custom room for comfort and ease of operation; two computers control all assets of this observatory.
A third, smaller building is equipped with a seismograph to monitor frequent minor earthquakes throughout Arkansas, this operated in concert with Conway County and the State of Arkansas. Also housed there is a 24-7 operational all-sky camera, recording bright bolides and other objects that might dramatically streak across the sky, night or day.
The observatories are both wirelessly connected to atomic time broadcasts via yet another computerize digital timekeeper that generates Universal and Sidereal time accurate to better than 0.01 second at any given instant. All computers are interfaced with the time computer and are updated to the precise time every 5 minutes.
All current instruments/cameras/computers are specifically selected/designed for the study of the motion and orbits of asteroids and comets.
From Arkansas classroom science textbook, 2014.
Some of the ASO Instrumentation
- 20" RC Astrograph, f/8 - Mathis German Equatorial Mount (H41)
- 16" f/6.1 Astrograph - AstroPhysics AP1600 GTO Mount
- 14" Meade LX200 SCT, fork mount (used in teaching observatory)
- 16" Meade LX200 SCT, fork mount (currently not in service)
- 6" f/8 Wide Field APO used for comet morphology imaging and measurements
- 4" f/4.9 William Optics Ultra Wide Field APO refractor used for comet morphology of larger and brighter comets
- 3" f/7 William Optics APO refractor for wide field captures of fast-moving or very large comets
- dozens of small and/or portable telescopes for group and travel viewing
- SBIG ST4040 XM monochrome camera, 7.4 micron pixels; very high resolution camera for NEO studies
- SBIG ST2000 XM monochrome camera, 7.4 micron pixels
- SBIG STF8300M monochrome camera, 5.4 micro pixles, large sensor high resolution for physical studies of comets
- SBIG STF8300C color camera, 5.4 micron pixels, for color publication photos of comets, deep sky
- ZWO AS-224MC cooled color camera
- ATIK Infinity Video camera for color imaging of planets and for public live presentations of sky events
- Orion all-sky video camera
Computers and Computer Programs
- Nine custom computers in main facility, two in teaching observatory, networked
- Custom dome operational control systems
- We use GUIDE (Project Pluto) exclusively as our research sky PC program to operate the telescope and to upload current NEOs and comets
- Guide's CHARON is used exclusively for precise astrometric determinations
- CCDops is camera capture program / CCDsoft is guiding and research application camera operational software
- ASO's MPECsort (see GUIDES) is used to filter and upload all current objects daily
- Telescope control via Astro-Physics GTO servo
- All telescopes are equipped with quality MOONLITE focuser with remote computer stepper control
- BRG Sidereal/Universal digital 5" LED computer networked GPS clocks
- OPTEC focal reducers, both LEPUS and NexGen Widefield
- Televue Naglers and Panoptic eyepieces for teaching observatory
- APC battery backup units
Library and Reference
- approximately 3,000 antique and rare books and manscripts of astronomy and physical/biological sciences
- numerous collections of antique science hardware
- archeological artifact collection from on site research areas
- exclusive Arkansas Index Refernce of paleontological fossil samples, spanning 370 million to 300,000 YBP
- 45-piece original artwork collection by P. Clay Sherrod
- numerous antique prints, lithographs and woodcuts, framed
- framed certifications, awards, achievements and recognititons
PLEASE NOTE: The ASO Observatories section is under construction and is far from complete. Please visit again....!