Transcript: Space4U podcast, Geoff Chester
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hi there. I’m Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. And this is the Space4U podcast, a podcast designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today. We’re joined by Geoff Chester, the public affairs officer for the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, DC.
A position he’s held since 1997 prior to joining the Naval observatory. Geoff worked for the Smithsonian institution’s Albert Einstein planetarium in positions that range from special effects technician to staff astronomer. He’s written numerous articles for magazines, such as astronomy sky and telescope, and start eight and has served as a consultant to Time-Life books.
The national geographic society, Addison, Wesley publishers, and the American association for the advancement of science. Geoff is an active member of the Northern Virginia astronomy club. One of the largest amateur astronomy associations in the United States, as well as the association of lunar and planetary observers, as well as the international dark sky association.
Geoff, thank you for joining space for you. My pleasure to be here, we’re on the grounds here that he, a us Naval observatory and upper Northwest Washington, DC with amazing neighbors, such as the British embassy, as well as the New Zealand embassy. But this facility has been here for quite some time. How did the Naval observatory get its start?
Well, we can actually trace our history back to a specific date, which is December 6th of the year, 1830. It was on that date that the secretary of the Navy issued orders to a Navy Lieutenant named Louis Goldsboro. To establish in Washington, a Depot for the proper care repair, and most importantly, rating of all of the Navy’s navigational instruments.
And the most important of those at the time were ships chronometer because the ability to keep time at sea was vital to, uh, the solutions that you needed for celestial navigation to determine longitude. Now I’m sure that everyone who was listening to this podcast probably owns more than one clock. And I am just assured that none of those clocks keep the same time.
So if you are going to rely on a particular clock to essentially tell you where you are, you need to know something about how that clock behaves. So Goldsboro was tasked with setting up a institution where you could basically determine how fast or how slow a particular clock ran against the timescale of known precision and in 1830.
That timescale was determined by the mean rotation rate of the earth itself. And the only way that you can measure that is astronomically. So Goldsboro was given a limited amount of funds. Uh, he rented a very small nondescript building at 17th and G street Northwest. And in that building, he set up a small observatory with what is known as a transit telescope.
That’s a very specialized kind of telescope that can only look at objects that cross an imaginary line in the sky that goes from North to South through the point directly overhead, we can predict exactly what time a celestial object is going to cross that line. So if you observe that event, you know what time it is, And you can use that determination to calibrate your chronometer hours.
So we started off from those very humble beginnings. Uh, over the course of the next few years, we moved to a couple of other locations around town, but it wasn’t until the 1840s that we finally got our first permanent site. It was located in a part of the city, which to this day is still known as foggy bottom.
Let that sink in for just a moment. The foggy bottom site, you can still see the old observatory today. It’s a 23rd street between D and E uh, just across the street from the state department headquarters. Uh, but that site in the 1840s was very different than what it is today. It was surrounded by swamp land.
It was three blocks to the North of the biggest open sewer in town. And there were a number of other things that made it a rather unpleasant place to work, especially in the summertime. So think of clouds of malaria, carrying mosquitoes, for instance. Uh, so we finally moved up to the current location here in the Hills, above Georgetown in 1893.
And we’ve been at this location ever since. So the U.S. Navy has some of the nation’s oldest records on astronomy. How did that come about and why is that important? Well, again, the primary reason that we came into existence was the determination of time. So if you’re going to determine time, you need to, first of all, determined positions of celestial objects.
Uh, so we would, uh, determine the positions of the stars that we were going to use for timing purposes. And then we could measure those stars as they crossed the Meridian and determined time from that. Um, now part of the solution again, is, uh, for celestial navigation. Is to not only know the positions of the stars, but you need to know the positions of the sun, the moon, the five bright planets, visible to the naked eye and about two dozen bright navigation stars.
Uh, so we would observe the positions of these stars and then use that information to produce. What’s called an Almanac. The nautical Almanac is a publication that we’ve been issuing continuously since the year, 1855. And it contains the hourly positions during the course of every day of every year. Of those after mentioned bright, astronomical objects with that information, you can then.
Use a sextant to determine what time it is at your unknown location. Use that to determine your longitude. And you can use the decla nations, which is a measurement of the, uh, essentially the equivalent of latitude on the celestial sphere for a particular object. Uh, you can use declinations to determine your latitude.
So we came into being as an institution to support navigation and we still do so today it’s just, the technology has improved quite a bit. So we have some different ways of doing that today. So we have the technology to do this today, where it is literally automatic. How accurate were those instruments based upon when the new technology came about, were they pretty complimentary was one way off from the other?
Well, celestial navigation is depending on how it’s done. Celestial navigation still depends to a certain extent on human interaction. So you have to make measurements with a sextant and those observations can be fudged a little bit, uh, depending on who’s making the observations and exactly when they think that a particular event occurs based on their observations, the timescales that we supplied, uh, with Marine chronometers, uh, as well as the information in almanacs would allow, uh, celestial navigator in say the latter part of the 19th century, early part of the 20th century, to determine the position of a ship, the apparent position of a ship to within about one or two nautical miles of its true position.
Now, in those days, that was. Pretty close, you know, as they say, close enough for government work, because you had someone who was up on the main mass with a pair of binoculars who was scanning the horizon, looking for whatever it was you were aiming for today. Needless to say, with the advent of precision guided munitions and that sort of thing, we’d want something a little bit more accurate.
And this is what led to the development of technologies like global positioning system. You’ve talked about some of the tools that the Navy has looked to use over time. Can you explain a little bit more about some of those tools, the sextons and those other types of tools? How does the Navy train a sailor to use those tools?
There are, uh, there’s, there’s a rating in the Navy, which is a chief petty officer known as quartermaster. Quartermasters get specific training in celestial navigation. Up until probably I think it was 2007. Celestial navigation was included as part of the curriculum at the Naval Academy. But for some reason, between they, they, they stopped offering that in 2007, but they realized that it was a very important aspect of navigation because celestial is still the only viable backup that we have to GPS.
So it helps to have someone on your ship who knows how to do celestial navigation in its basic forms. So starting with the class of 2017, the Naval Academy reinstated celestial navigation training as part of the second year curriculum for, uh, Naval cadets. It is required. That every day, a ship that is deployed has to have, at least they have to make at least one astronomical observation from the navigation bridge, just to maintain proficiency and to sort of give a check to what their GPS is telling them.
Now, today we support this in a number of ways. We still produce hard copies of the nautical Almanac. This is actually required to be on the navigation bridge of every vessel in the fleet. But we also have, uh, a product now, which is a software product called Stella. That is the system to estimate latitude and longitude, astronomically.
And basically it’s a computer program where you can input your reduction or your sightings from your Sexton and the time. And it will help you basically to determine your position. It takes a lot of the Drudge, the drudgery out of the reductions that are needed to create a position. We think of tools like this and telescopes being used at night.
But can you use these instruments in the daylight hours? Oh yes. Yeah. One of the, one of the, I wouldn’t say easiest, but one of the most common types of, uh, navigation sightings that you make with a Sexton is what’s called a noon sighting of the sun. Uh, so you essentially use a Sexton to determine when the sun is at its highest altitude above your, uh, Southern horizon.
Or if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, it would be the North, uh, the Southern hemisphere. It would be the Northern horizon, but you measure that altitude. And when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky by definition, that is local, uh, that is local solar noon. So, uh, you have a point in time that you have measured, but because the Earth’s rotation or the earth orbit around the sun is not exactly circular.
Uh, sometimes the sun crosses the Meridian a little bit ahead of time, ahead of noon. And sometimes it’s a little bit high noon. So you have to correct the sun to what’s called local mean solar noon. Once you’ve done that, then you can use that information as well as other data in the Almanac, uh, to determine your longitude.
And latitude, you mentioned that the Navy brought back in 2017, teaching the skills and the second year of a cadet’s tenure at Annapolis. Where else is the Navy teaching its officers and enlisted about the stars? If they’re not at Annapolis? Uh, well, quartermaster school, that would be the primary place.
We also have, uh, there’s there’s practical experience. That’s gained by being out at sea and actually taking celestial sightings. So, uh, typically, uh, we have members of our astronomical applications department who will go out for two weeks on a cruise and work directly with people on board, uh, that shift to help hone their skills.
We also deploy with the coast guard Academy when they do their, uh, when the cadets do their annual summer cruise on the Eagles. So we’ve, uh, for, for the past several years have actually had folks out there for that, with the advent of GPS and the, and other advanced technologies. Did the Naval observatories job get easier with these new tools or did it get harder?
Well, in some ways, uh, I would say that we were, we’ve always tried to be ahead of the curve in, in many ways. Uh, our job here has always been the mission of the observatory has always been twofold. One is to determine the precise positions of celestial objects and to determine their future positions, uh, for use in navigation I E almanacs and that sort of thing, the other is to produce and disseminate a precise timescale.
So we have been in the time keeping and time distribution business for. And in fact, I mean, we can go back to the 1840s when we used to drop a time ball. Uh, and that way there was a means that a large audience could see a signal every day at noon, that Mark the instant of local means solar noon on the Washington Meridian, starting in the civil war.
We began working with a telegraphic distribution of time to the point where by the late 1870s, uh, we had a contract essentially with Western union to distribute time signals around the country. And that telegraphic time service lasted up through the 19, uh, first part of the 1950s. We have always been looking for better ways to get, keep time.
So we have been, uh, hand in hand with developers of advanced clock technology. Uh, we worked with, uh, the national physical laboratory in Great Britain to develop the first atomic fruit frequency standards. So when the idea of GPS came along, we were already equipped to handle those requirements because we had built a clock system that was capable of doing what GPS needed it to do.
And even today with the newer GPS that is now starting to be deployed, the block three satellites, there was an increase in the, there, there was basically, uh, an order of magnitude increase. In the precision that system required in terms of a master clock system. We saw this 10 years down the road or 10 years before it actually happened.
Uh, so we basically built clocks here in house that would handle those capabilities. So we’ve always tried to be several orders of magnitude ahead of what the technology demands. So it really hasn’t been that huge, a burden for us. We’ve been able to supply those requirements pretty seamlessly throughout the development of GPS.
Uh, in the 1970s and it’s, uh, operational beginnings in the 1990s, you have a lot, a lot of people now operating in space. It’s not just the Navy or the air force. And because you have that many resources that are collecting data, does the Navy still principally rely on its own data or is it utilizing some of the other services that are out there to get its astronomical information?
No, we have our own observatory out in Flagstaff. Our dark sky site is located out there. So when we develop our star catalogs again, you know, there are many products that we have, uh, that are actually used by other services. So perhaps our biggest client in terms of, in terms of the armed services is actually the United States air force.
Uh, not only do they operate the satellites, the GPS and the reconnaissance satellites and all that, uh, that, uh, rely on our timing. Um, but they also operate telescopes that are used to track objects in the sky. They use our star catalogs as a reference. So if they see some faint little thing, that’s moving through a star field and they want to figure out where it’s going and where it’s come from.
They can make observations in near real time and use our star catalogs as a basis to determine positions of where that object is in time. So they can work out the orbit. So we actually provide a lot of services to other aspects of, uh, the armed services are astronomical applications. Department is basically.
They, they produce, uh, solar and lunar illumination parameters that would be used for special operations, uh, of course in the army. And they know they don’t have anything else. Like what you’re offering here. You, they are essentially customers to you. You are one-stop shop for all the services for, for those, uh, for that kind of support.
So what are the skills that someone needs to be a part of the U S Naval observatory we have here? This is our headquarters here in Washington. We have about 130 people that work at this campus. Uh, about 40 of them are PhD level, uh, astronomers physicists, mathematicians. We have electronics technicians that, uh, maintain our clock systems.
Uh, obviously, uh, a, a lot of computer infrastructure. The skills though for producing the products, primarily we employ, uh, in those capacities, astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians. So it’s, uh, it can be a very technical aspect, a very technical type of job. But the, the wonderful thing is that all of these, all the people who work here are there, there’s some of the most dedicated people that I know.
And some of them are, uh, there are, there are experts, they are experts in their fields. And in some cases they could probably do a lot better if they were working outside of the private sector, but they have a love of what they do. And they’re given kind of the. The, the freedom to run and do what they do best, uh, at this facility, you’ve talked a lot about time timing as well as clocks.
What role does the us Naval observatory have with what has been known as, or called the atomic clock? Right. So we have to stop just a moment and kind of dissect what a clock is and what time is for that matter. Now, you know, we could get into, you could get into all kinds of arm waving physics and everything, trying to discuss what the nature of time is.
But our chief scientist for time services, who is a gentleman who gets paid to think about time, there’s a job for you. He will tell you. So for him, time really is everything. Timing is everything. That’s right. And he will, the first thing he will tell you is I cannot tell you what time it is. But I can tell you extremely precisely what time it is.
Okay. And there’s a subtle difference in that because what we do here is we measure time. Time is one of those things that I find it absolutely incredible that of all of the things that we know of, that we can measure in the observable universe. The one that we can currently measure to the highest precision is the one that we know intrinsically the least about and that’s time.
And we measure time with this device, that’s called a clock and a clock basically consists of two components, an oscillator, something that gives you a periodic variation of some sort and a counter. And you specify your unit measurement of time, which is the second in terms of oscillations of whatever it is that you’re using to measure with.
What I find incredible is that for about 300 years, the best available technology to do that was represented by the pendulum. The principle of the pendulum was first described by Galileo in 1582. And the first practical pendulum clock was built by the Dutch astronomer Christian Horigans in 1655. We were still using pendulum clocks here at the Naval observatory as part of our master clock system through world war II.
But that was when the demand for precise time began getting more and more stringent. So we, he began taking advantage of a new technology in the 1930s called the quartz crystal oscillator. As it turns out, if you take a quartz crystal and you apply an electrical current to it, it will vibrate and give you an oscillation.
And if you can make a really, really small crystal, you can get an oscillator that now oscillates at millions of times per second. Now we would calibrate these clocks based on astronomical observations made with transit instruments. So we were still tied to the rotation of the earth as our fundamental definition of what the second was.
As we started developing quartz, crystal oscillators, we began to realize that they were actually exceeding the capacity that we had to calibrate them with astronomical observations. So we explored new technologies for measuring the stars that would allow us to make better measurements of the timescales used to calibrate the court’s clocks.
By the 1950s, there was technology which was being developed primarily at the national physical laboratory in Great Britain, where they were looking for very stable. Ultra high frequency oscillators for, uh, applications and radar technology. So they were looking at microwave oscillators that were oscillated billions of cycles per second.
And the only things in nature that could oscillate at those frequencies were electrons. Smallest bits of matter that we know now there’s a whole bunch of arm waving physics that goes on here too. Uh, but suffice it to say that if you take a specific type of chemical element, Uh, namely elements in the alkali metals, family of the periodic table.
They have one electron in their outer binding shell, and that electron can exist in one of two, what we call hyperfine state. So we can think of it as an atomic spin up or spin down. Now, quantum mechanics tells us that we can’t specify what particular state one particular electron is in, but we do know that if we shine just the right frequency of microwave radiation on that electron, we can get it to oscillate between those two States.
And we can measure that. And this led to an oscillator that was so stable and so concise that in the 1960s, 1967, to be exact, the second was redefined from something that had to do with the motions of the earth in space. To a specific frequency of resonance of a particular, one of these atoms. So basically the definition of the second went from one 86,400 part of a mean solar day to 9 billion, 192,631,770.
Hyperfine transitions of a single neutral Caesium, one 33, Adam that’s one second. Okay. Now the route it took, you tend to di it took you 10 seconds to get all of them. Yeah. So, you know, I will be brutally honest and tell you when I started working here, I thought a second was one Mississippi, which, you know, for ballpark still pretty good.
I think it’s still pretty good. Um, and it, Mississippi is probably easier to spell that didn’t remember all those numbers. Yeah. But the bottom line is, is that we now have a timescale that allows us to parse the second down into very, very tiny bits. So does the time ever slip? Not in the, not in the absolute sense, uh, but our application of time, uh, you know, time, we, we use time as a tool and I think this is the thing that differentiates us as a sentient species.
Well, if we have the ability to use time as a tool, if time is a tool, do we synchronize that tool with our allies to make sure that our clock matches up to their clock? We do. Uh, and there’s a couple of different ways that that’s done. Um, for instance, the there’s about 70 timekeeping laboratories around the world, and we all coordinate our time through the international Bureau of weights and measures, uh, which is known because it’s in France.
The acronym is BIPM. Once a month, the BIPM we’ll ask us, ah, Kela 80th and we’ll tell them what we think the time is along with everybody else, they chunk numbers. And then two weeks later, they issue a circular saying two weeks ago, this was the quarreled consensus value on what time it was. And we then try to figure out where time is going to be the next time around, but we keep our own timescale independently of everybody else.
We’re just one part of this global solution. Meaning the United States keeping ours independent of everybody else, Naval observatory. Okay. Uh, we are the timescale reference for the department of defense civilian time applications, which would be administered through, uh, the department of transportation because of.
Because that’s the way bureaucracies work, uh, civil time relies on what’s called coordinated universal time, which is kept by the international Bureau of weights and measures us Naval observatory time is our real time realization of coordinated universal time that may differ by a nanosecond or two from what the rest of the world thinks the time is.
But as far as DOD is concerned, we are the sole source. So you go to one person and they keep telling you the same thing. This is the timescale you’re going to synchronize to, uh, and everything in the enterprise then operates about as seamlessly as it can. One of the things that synchronizes a lot of people’s lives and time is daylight savings time.
Don’t get me started. Well, that’s where my question is going, you know, That if we got rid of daylight savings time, as some people have suggested, would it have any impact, what impact would it have on Naval observatory observations? Absolutely none because we keep a timescale that again is called coordinated universal time.
Uh, coordinated, universal time is essentially what used to be thought of as Greenwich meantime. So that timescale is based on the atomic timescale, the, the, the, the, what we call a international atomic time, which is time kept by atomic clocks, essentially since 1972 coordinated universal time. Is time that is adjusted by the periodic insertion or deletion.
It can go both ways of what are known as leap seconds. And these are added or subtracted based on observations of what the earth is actually doing. So we actually have two timescales going simultaneously, one to keep the physicists happy and one to keep the astronomers happy. So the big controversy, as far as we’re concerned is the leap second, as far as daylight time and that sort of thing, civil time in the United States is, uh, basically codified by the uniform standard time act of 1966.
It’s been amended a couple of times. Uh, but that dictates when you go on daylight time and when you go off daylight time and that sort of thing, and because that is legislated by Congress, it has to be enforced through a civilian agency. So if you don’t like daylight time, then you can, uh, call the office of legal counsel at the department of transportation because the department of transportation enforces the rules of civil time in the United States.
Now people wonder why department of transportation. We have to go back to 1883. That was when the country went on standard time and standard time in 1883 was basically imposed on the country by the railroads because they were tired of having to make schedules. That were in local means solar time for all the different stations on their routes.
So, you know, if you have standard time at a standard Meridian and then cross into another time zone and adjust by one hour, uh, it makes life a lot easier for scheduling. So the railroads imposed the idea of standard time on us in 1883. Uh, and that was not codified in a us code until 1918. And that was when the first daylight rules went into effect.
It has never been popular and never will be popular, but Naval observatory, we have nothing to do with that. We provide the basic timescale that you can adjust your clocks. Two, but we don’t tell you how to make those adjustments, given that the Naval observatory has so many resources to do what it does.
What role does it play if any, in tracking space debris? Well, again, our star catalogs are used by the air force for that purpose. So if you have a faint object that is moving in lower earth orbit, it will cover a certain arc of sky in a fairly short amount of time. If you ever seen like the international space station go overhead, you re you know, it’ll go from horizon to horizon in three or four minutes.
So if you have an optical telescope network that is constantly looking at the sky and looking at things that are moving rapidly against that background of stars, If you can measure the positions of that, those objects, uh, during the time they’re visible against this known reference frame of background stars, you can then basically use physics to determine what the orbit of that object is, uh, and where it’s going potentially, where it came from, uh, that sort of thing.
Um, so we have a variety of star catalogs that are available our most current one. We’re very precise. One is the us Naval observatory’s robotic Astro metric, telescope catalog, uh, number one, and that has, uh, approximately 400 million stars down to 18th. Magnitude 18th magnitude is pretty faint. And the positions of those stars are known to within a few Millie arc seconds.
Now, an arc second is a unit of measurement that we use to measure things in the sky. There’s 360 degrees around the entire sky. Each degree is made up of 60 minutes. Each minute is made up of 60 seconds. So one second of arc is roughly the equivalent size of a penny that would be viewed from a distance of about a thousand feet or so we measure positions of stars to a precision where you could look at that same penny on the top of the water, Washington monument.
So yeah, those are the positions of the stars that we use now, because these catalogs have to be in use over a fairly large amount of time. We also need to understand where those stars are moving because all the stars in the sky are moving relative to each other. So we also, in addition to determining the positions of the stars, if we take photographs of the stars at different epochs and time, we can see how far they move in that F block and then extrapolate what are known as proper motions out so that we can predict where the stars are going to be 20, 30, 50 years from now.
So if you’re keeping an eye on all of those moving objects, what am I keeping an eye on space weather? What role does the Naval observatory have with space? Whether if any, we really don’t have much of a role with space weather. We used to have actually we used to have back in the starting, Oh, through a lot of probably the first, I would say from about the 1880s, up until the 1970s, we used to take daily photographs of the sun and invisible light basically to keep track of sunspots.
But that was. That was never really, uh, uh, that, that wasn’t really a mission critical function. So our role with space weather is if there is anything, it is, uh, looking at ways to potentially mitigate some of the bad effects that it has on data that’s coming down from GPS and that sort of thing. But, uh, for the most part, we provide, again, our, our primary responsibility is to produce the reference frames that are used for, uh, situating things in three dimensional space and time.
So local events like space weather, and that sort of thing, or not really, uh, not really an area that we have a lot of expertise in having an observatory in a major city like Washington with all of its light pollution would seem to hamper the effectiveness in tracking the stars. What other research observatories does the Naval observatory have to help fulfill its mission?
Our primary dark sky site is our, uh, Naval observatory Flagstaff station. That’s located about five miles West of downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s at an elevation of 7,600 feet. And Flagstaff is a very good place to do astronomy from not only is it at a, at a high altitude, but the city has been awarded or has been designated as the world’s first.
And so far only international dark sky city by the international dark sky association, they have lighting codes out there that specify the amount of light that can go down onto the ground. And. They specify as well that the fixtures that those lights are in have to be what we call full cut-off fixtures so that no light from the fixture goes up into the sky.
So being five miles West of this sizable city of about 70,000 people is really not that much of a hindrance to us. We actually have a more light pollution from Phoenix, which is 150 miles to the South than we do with the lights of Flagstaff, which is five miles to the East. But from that site, we can again do deep sky surveys.
Uh, so this is where we had, we did the Northern hemisphere with our, uh, Astro graph telescope. And then we sent that telescope down to South America. We have cooperative agreement with the Saratoga Lolo Inter-American observatory down in Chile. And so we do the Southern sky from down there. But interestingly, we have a couple of programs that we can still operate here in Washington.
So we have what I think it is one of the most amazing instruments in the world located right here on the Washington campus. And that is the 26 inch great equatorial telescope. This telescope was purchased in 1870. Well, it was completed in 1873 and it was installed down at the foggy bottom site when it was completed, it was the largest refracting or lens type telescope in the world in 1877 of hall.
One of our astronomers used that instrument to discover Phobos. And Deimos the two moons of Mars that telescope moved up here in 1893. It still has its original lens. But the mounting is practically brand new. It was completed in 1893 and made by a company called Warner and Swayze. That telescope is still in use every clear night for a very specific type of observation or a class of objects that we call double star.
Ours. Double stars are somewhat problematic. If you are trying to predict where a star is going to be in the future. Sure. Because if all the stars were single stars, Isaac Newton says they’d move in a straight line. So single stars calculating the proper motion is fairly straight forward. But with double stars, you have this added complication that in most double stars, you have two stars that are orbiting their center of mass.
The center of mass moves in a straight line, but if you measure the positions of each star individually, it’ll have a little wobble in it. Uh, we need to know what those wobbles are because we have optical sensors that track on stars. And so we measure these double stars and double stars about two thirds to three quarters of all the stars in the sky.
So it’s not like you can pick and choose the ones that you want to exclude. Um, so we have the ability to use this 140 odd year old telescope, uh, today equipped with state-of-the-art CCD instrumentation. Uh, and we have retrofitted the telescope now, so that it operates entirely under computer control. We have this wonderful telescope that is still making these vital observations every clear night from right here in the middle of a major city.
So I think that’s pretty cool. How does the Navy fleets contribute to these observations? Are they giving you data, give you this feedback on what works? Um, we basically provide them with the tools. They need to figure out where they are on the surface of the earth. So we provide them with almanacs and we provide them with software to use those almanacs and allow them to determine their positions.
Uh, we have on staff, a senior enlisted advisor, and his job is basically to be the liaison to the fleet so that if they find a need or if they find that there is a, uh, something in the software that we provide, that’s not quite right, or they, they will provide us with feedback to make their jobs easier.
You’ve got a personal connection to the us Naval observatory here in upper Northwest Washington, DC. What is that? By a curious quirk of history. My great grandfather rear Admiral Colby, Mitchell Chester was the superintendent of the Naval observatory from 1902 to 1906. So in some ways it’s kind of a, um, sort of staying in the family business.
Now for the record, I never knew him. He passed away, uh, some 20 years before I was a thought. So I don’t think there’s any nepotism involved in that. But one of the things that it does is, uh, we are still, what most people don’t realize is that we are an active Navy command. So our command structure is, uh, we have a superintendent who is a Naval officer, Oh six, a captain.
Uh, we have a deputy superintendent who was a Navy commander, uh, and. We have a handful of junior officers in some of the support departments and a handful of enlisted that work in various aspects. These, especially at the, the superintendent and deputy superintendent level, they typically have a two year tour.
So they come and go. I am on currently my 13th superintendent since I’ve been here. So they sort of come and go, but we have a hallway that goes down to the library. And on that wall in the hallway, we have photographs of all of the people who have been superintendents of the Naval observatory. And I think that’s a total of about 55, 56 individuals.
Now I walked down that hallway and my great-grandfather is staring at me from the wall. So I feel that he’s the one that I’m really working for and it’s the traditions that were established long before he got there, but certainly reinforced by his presence, uh, that lead up to where we are today that make me very proud to be a part of this organization and very proud to have an ancestor who was a part of this organization as well.
The vice president’s residence is on the grounds of the observatory here at upper Northwest Washington, DC. What’s it like to have a famous neighbor like that? Keeping an eye on what you’re doing for the most part, they don’t keep an eye on what we’re doing. Uh, we kind of peacefully coexist. There is a fairly substantial fence between our part of the grounds and the vice-presidents part.
The residence itself was actually built. In 1893 when, uh, or completed in 1893, as we, uh, before we moved up from foggy bottom, and it was originally built as the residents for the observatory superintendent, because back in those days, our superintendents were Navy flag officers and it was considered to be a adequate Admiral’s house.
It was the superintendents residents. My great grandfather lived there during his four years here at the observatory. It was the superintendents residents from 1893 until 1929. And what happened was in the summer of 1928, the incumbent superintendent made the tactical error of inviting a number of senior Naval officers and their families up here for a picnic on a nice July day among those was Admiral Charles handlebars Hughes, the chief of Naval operations, who at the time was quartered down at the Navy yard.
And in those days, if there was one place that was probably worse in Washington to live, it was probably the Navy yard. So he comes up here and the breezes are blowing, and this is all wooded area up here. I mean, this is still very rural at that time. And he sees there’s this very nice house. In the Hills above Georgetown, the air is clean.
There’s deer roaming, the grounds it’s I mean, it’s pretty idyllic location come down to it. So he contemplates as he is writing back down to his quarters in the Navy yard, why he doesn’t have quarters that are quite as posh as that. So, uh, he gave the superintendent six months to find a new place to live.
And in 1929, he moved in and it was the chief of Naval operations quarters until 1972, with the tenure of Admiral zoom wall, when that was done. Then by that time, the story goes that the VP wound up with more friends in Congress than the CNO did. And they quickly pass legislation to designate the residents as the official residence of the vice-president.
So we have hosted all vice presidents since Walter Mondale. Uh, I have been here through the 10 years of four of them had a chance to meet all of them. They do come up on occasion for courtesy calls. They will occasionally bring guests up here to look through the telescope. At night, we have a very fine telescope on the roof of this building.
One of our newer instruments, it was completed in 1895 and, uh, it gives very nice views of the moon and planets, uh, for people that, uh, you know, especially if you want to bring guests in for a nighttime viewing or something like that. Do you have a favorite memory, uh, of one of those four vice presidents?
Oh, my, um, I think my favorite one was probably, uh, the night that Al Gore brought Jesse Ventura up to look through the telescope. Now at the time, Jesse Ventura was the governor of Minnesota, but he was an independent. And so vice president Gore was courting independence to endorse him for the presidency.
So they come up and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen, seen, or met Al Gore, but Al Gore is, he’s a big man. He’s a pretty tall guy. He’s a pretty tall. This guy, Jesse Ventura made him look small and no feather bow that night. Nope. Another bull with that night. Uh, and he came up with his wife. She was delightful and he came up and.
We’re standing in the lobby before going up to the telescope and we go through the introductions and everything. And Jesse Ventura looks at me and he says, Geoff, I’m going to ask you a lot of stupid questions tonight. And I said, governor, the only stupid questions are the ones that you don’t ask. And he clapped me on the back and said, we’re going to have a great time.
And we did, it was a fascinating evening. And you know, you, you find out a lot about people apart from their sort of public persona when you get them in a situation like that. Uh, so I learned a lot about Jesse Ventura and, you know, he, uh, he, he was, he was a pretty sharp guy when it came to, uh, when it came to what we were dealing with up here.
So I was very impressed with that. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your career here at the Naval observatory? I would say that the biggest change that I have seen here is, uh, since I’ve been here, it has been the increase of reliance on computer networks. Uh, not only here as part of our infrastructure at the observatory, but global computer networks as well.
And the reliance that those networks now have on what we do do because computer networks works will not function without precise time. If you want to get two computers that are half a world away from each other to talk to each other as efficiently as possible, essentially, they both have to keep the same time at their particular location.
So time has to be distributed uniformly around the globe. So that all of these things can function. And right now the most efficient means of distributing time globally is through the global positioning system. And we are the timescale that is used to essentially calibrate the global positioning system.
So our timescale that we keep here is the timescale that enables the global systems that we have today, the technology and communications technology, all of that is enabled by work that is done. Essentially here. We hear a lot about cybersecurity and vulnerability of networks. How vulnerable do you feel that network is?
Well, the global network, obviously the global network is subject to attacks constantly. One of the things that we strive for here is with our networks that we have internally, we have a large number of people who are working hard to keep those as secure as possible. So the products that we have here, the ability for us to disseminate time, that part will not be compromised.
The ability of others to take the end product. I E the timing that you get from GPS and that sort of thing. That’s, that’s kind of a different category. That’s a little bit out of our ballpark, but we want to ensure that our capabilities within the confines of our enterprise are as stringent and as secure as possible.
So we have a, we have a very large it department here who make sure that that happens. You’ve already, I think, alluded to this answer, but I’m going to ask this questioning, how, how do you think the Naval observatory is mission will evolve over the next five to 10 years and what will be the drivers for those changes?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think one of the important things that we have always been able to do is to try to anticipate the demands that technology will impose on us further down the road. So as far as timing is concerned, and that’s probably where we’re going to see the most, uh, that’s where we’re going to see the most change.
Right now we have proprietary devices clocks. If you will, that were designed and built. In-house. These clocks have the ability to maintain a timescale on a day to day basis. That does not vary by more than one. Femtosecond. A femtosecond is one, 1000th of a trillionth of a second, but that technology is based on physics that was basically pioneered 60 years ago.
They are essentially still microwave frequency oscillators. And in 10 years, those clocks will be obsolete. So we want to be again at the forefront of the technology. That is coming down the line. So we have a small cadre of PhD, atomic physicists. These are the people who designed and built our rubidium fountain clock, but we’re now working on the next generation of clocks.
And these are going to be optical frequency standards. Optical frequencies are about five orders of magnitude higher than microwave standards. This will give us the ability to anticipate whatever demands the technology as it evolves is going to impose on us. Because now we’re starting to look at, they’re starting to actually think that things like quantum computing, where you are looking at data transfer.
On the atomic level that will require extremely high frequencies for proper synchronization. That’s probably going to become a reality in the next decade. We want to be far enough ahead of that curve so that we can not only support it, but we can, and also support derivatives of that, that may impose even more stringent demands on us.
So the biggest change that we have here, I think is going to be in the way that time is, and that also may redefine the way time is described. Uh, right now we have a microwave frequency that describes the duration of the second. Um, I would not be surprised if within 10 years that is redefined in terms of an optical frequency transition, the technological part, we have determined.
The oscillator that we are going to use the particular atomic transition that we’re going to use to produce a coherent optical frequency, the technical, the technology that’s holding us up right now is detectors that can measure that you spent a lot of time looking through telescopes. Do you have a favorite star or planet that you’d like to look in on?
There are so many, you know, it really depends if I’m here where I can’t look at the deep sky because the lights are too bright. I’m constantly fascinated by Jupiter and Saturn. I never get tired of looking at them and anyone who was ever seen Saturn through a telescope. My favorite thing in the world is to get somebody to the eyepiece of the telescope.
Who’s never seen Saturn before. And they look in the eyepiece and they go, Oh my God, it looks just like the pictures, but it’s not a picture. It’s the real thing. I mean, it really has rings around the moon, even though we, we say in the amateur astronomy community, the moon was looked over and then overlooked.
I constantly look at the moon. It’s always, there. It is the only place that we can really see fine detail on and that sort of thing. But I also like going out to darker sites and something as simple as looking at the Milky way with the naked eye or looking through any one of the eight telescopes that I have at home, they all have their pros and cons, depending on what particular thing I’m into at that particular moment in time.
So there are nights when I just feel, I want to go out and look at something. So, and coming up this time of year is a great time to do that because we have coming up in the sky, uh, the constellations of Leo Virgo and Ursa major. If you have a good medium to large actor, telescope, and a good dark sky to set those up in, uh, you can point your telescope to pretty much any random spot in those constellations.
And you’ll see these little fuzzy blobs of light watching through the eyepiece. Those are galaxies like the Milky way, a hundred, 200 billion stars that are so far away that the light that I’m looking at at that very moment predates the extinction of the dinosaurs that stops and makes you think, what does space exploration mean to you?
I have been extremely, I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate to be alive at this moment in time, because one of my first memories of television was watching the attempt to launch Vanguard one, which as we know, it didn’t turn out that well, but I have been a space geek ever since then. So I have lived through the mercury and the Gemini programs.
I remember exactly where I was when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. We have, I remember watching live coverage of the Viking one Lander on bars. When the first pictures came in and have marveled at what we have been able to do in remote sensing in the solar system. You know, one of the things that that’s kind of interesting about working here is that, uh, our astronomer, one of our astronomers discovered Shera the large moon of Pluto, and I’ve seen Pluto in my 14 inch telescope.
It’s a dot among thousands of others. Similar faint dots. Jim Christie was able to measure a lumpy dot on a couple of plates that we had taken with our 61 inch telescope at Flagstaff for basically refined Pluto’s position for Almanac predictions, but he put two and two together and realized that this lump, that appeared on the dot moved periodically and was able to determine from those very early fuzzy images.
That that was an unresolved moon of Pluto. And now not only do we know that it’s more than a dot, but it’s a place with the most incredible landforms and that sort, I mean, this, the idea of these voyages of exploration, uh, to the outer solar system just blows me away. And of course the latest with new horizons passing by ultimate Tooley to me is just from a technological.
And just from an exploration point of view, uh, is truly remarkable. And I’ve been alive to see all that. I don’t think there has been an epoch of, uh, 50, 60 years in history that has seen as much revelation of the worlds around us than, than what we’ve experienced in what we sort of glibly call the space age.
Uh, and I’m really, really excited that I’ve been able to be a part of it. With that, Geoff, thank you for sharing your time and your experience here at the Naval observatory with us. It’s been great to share this time with you, and I know our listeners have enjoyed it as well. And with that, that concludes this episode of the space foundation space for you podcast.
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