THE GALACTIC GAVEL

The Galactic Gavel is such an important part of of our club heritage that it deserves its own page apart from the main narrative of our club history. We present here the story of how it came to be, and what it means to DFAC.

Back in 1995, Dan Heim was the moderator of the Brophy College Prep Astronomy Club. He had purchased a nickel-iron meteorite from the Canyon Diablo fall from Robert Haag, a prominent Tucson collector, and uncle of then-student Michael Haag. Heim decided to donate the meteorite for use in a “galactic gavel” that would be used to start and end Astronomy Club meetings. The Galactic Gavel was created by drilling and tapping the meteorite, threading a brass rod for the handle, and epoxying the two together. Woodworking guru Roger Serrato constructed the carrying case from kingwood and the sound block from ebony. Interior plaques were fashioned to record the names of club presidents, as well as info about the gavel and Brophy Astronomy Club founder Jack Mitchell, S.J. This original Galactic Gavel is shown below.

At our March 28th, 2007 meeting, Bob Holmes, Meteorite Man, our guest lecturer for the evening, presented DFAC with a meteorite from his collection. The 166.3 gram specimen was from the Campo de Cielo fall in Argentina, dated ca. 3000 BC. After some discussion regarding its ultimate disposition, we decided to incorporate it into our own “Galactic Gavel.” The concept was to create a unique gavel that would represent the authority of the DFAC president, be passed on to succeeding presidents, and be used to start and end our meetings. The raw meteorite is shown below.

The first step was to drill a hole that could be tapped to accept a handle. With the Canyon Diablo meteorite, this was an arduous task. Whatever the nickel-iron ratio, it was a very hard specimen. We wore out three titanium bits just drilling the hole. With our Campo de Cielo specimen drilling went more easily. Though also a nickel-iron, it turned out to be a much softer alloy. Only two titanium bits were required.

After the hole was drilled it had to be tapped to accept the handle. We had decided on a 5/16″ brass handle, so that dictated the rest of the specs. Again, due to the softer alloy, tapping went fairly well with no stripped threads or broken taps. The meteorite was drilled and tapped to a depth of one inch.

After cleaning up all the metal shards, the threads looked pretty nice. Unfortunately, the specimen was now 14 grams lighter. It pained us to dispose of these “shards from space,” but they were no longer part of the Galactic Gavel. These extraterrestrial shards were sprinkled on the grounds of Heimhenge, at the location where Heim plans to build his observatory.

The next step was threading the brass handle. Brass is much softer than nickel-iron, so the only challenge here was securing the brass handle against the threading torque without scratching it. A couple of wood blocks inside a bench vice worked well. The wad of tape around the handle was needed to prevent the lubricating oil used on the die from running down to the vice. On first attempt, that’s what happened. Of course, when the oil reached the wood blocks, the handle start rotating from the torque of the die. After taping, there were no more slips.

The handle was threaded along the first inch of its length to match the tapped hole in the meteorite. Brass is a joy to work with, and it was easy to go 1/4 turn at a time as the threads were cut. In contrast, tapping the meteorite required about 1/8 turn before it was necessary to back off and release the shavings.

The handle was screwed into the meteorite and secured with red ProLokā„¢, buffed with some #0000 steel wool, and the DFAC Galactic Gavel was born! The finished product is shown below.

Of course, we needed a sound block too. Heim had this nice piece of walnut. It was a sample sent to him by Adler Pool Tables, previous to his acquisition of one of their products, so we gave it a shot. Walnut is a hard wood, but wood just won’t stand up to a metallic gavel. Notice the several dents in its surface after just one meeting.

So it was decided that, rather than waiting for the inevitable cracking and splitting of the walnut block, we’d fabricate a new one out of a slab of 1/2″ aluminum stock Heim had left over from an earlier telescope project. Aluminum will still dent when hit by nickel-iron, but it’ll never crack. In fact, it will accumulate record of sorts over the years, with a grouping of dents for each meeting it was used. Eventually, the pattern will begin to resemble a globular cluster of dents in a Gaussian distribution around the center. It started out as a rectangular slab, and it could’ve stayed a rectangle, but that was too easy. We wanted something truly unique, and a circle just seemed right for an astronomy club. Hey, circles worked fine for Ptolemy.

After some work with the band saw and bench grinder, we had a nice aluminum disc about 2.75″ in diameter. That’s a good size target, not likely to be missed by an incoming nickel-iron meteorite.

The wood base will protect whatever it sits on. It was made from a scrap of ebony, and epoxied to the aluminum disc. We put a gentle round-over on the edge to prevent chipping.

The DFAC Galactic Gavel was first used at the May 30th, 2007 business meeting after the formal election of Dan Heim as DFAC President. Seated at the table, left to right, are Bob Doerzbacher, Ron Walker, Dan Heim, George Kantarges, and Jim Renn (all charter members of the club). Photo by Roger Serrato.

Construction of a carrying case for the Galactic Gavel is a work in progress. No doubt this saga will continue …