Sunday, September 27, 2009

Big Dreams Do Come True

I just got back from a tremendous experience located 18 miles north of Ithaca, New York. The place was a planetarium attached to Southern Cayuga Central School. This is not all there was. There is also an observatory behind it as well. It is all operational thanks to two dedicated individuals that saw an opportunity to bring Astronomy to the people. And bring it they did with style and ingenuity.
The Planetarium was built in 1968 in a time when space exploration was the next big thing. This was one of many planetariums that went up about this time. One of the main reasons was cost of the projector. Spitz was an American company. They at the time were in competition with Zeiss. Zeiss planetariums were very expensive. Spitz decided to bring the price down considerably to make astronomy more affordable and increase their share in the market. As a result, there were many schools that could afford to put a planetarium in and they did. It was a great time to be alive.

As time marched on, the planetarium here at Cayuga as well as many others was used less and less as teachers were not trained to use the instrument. Programs were getting dated which eventually caused the planetarium to fall into disuse. Enter Alan Ominsky, director and Rob West, assistant director. They knew of a man that was running the planetarium from time to time but his heart was not in it. Together they took over the planetarium. They have cleverly added digital projectors to the 1968 era electronic architecture. That in it's self should be applauded. The Spitz projector works like a champ still. Mr. Ominsky has a graphic arts background so bringing new life to presentations was a no brainer.

On the night of my visit I saw a typical planetarium presentation with Mr.Ominsky pointing out and describing some easy to see constellations and how to locate "stuff" This was getting the audience familiar with the sky for the observing program later. then I was treated to a presentation of Hubble Vision. It is an updated presentation using three screens and different effects. I was impressed with the entire production. There was a minor timing glitch on this occasion. It really did not affect the program very much. If Alan had not pointed it out to me I would not have noticed.The monthly presentation was well attended drawing 40 or so people. Alan tells me sometimes he has to do two shows because of overflow. Now that's a successful endeavor!

Is this the end of the story ? Not even close... Alan and Rob were not satisfied to tell about the skies they wanted to let the people actually experience the grandeur of the night skies. In 2004 they with the help of many built an observatory behind the planetarium. It was made operational in 2005 with the ribbon being cut by a state congressional member and a senior at the school. It is a pretty large structure as observatories of this nature go. There is room for two piers. One spot is already filled with a Meade LX200 GPS 14" Schmidt-Cassegrain scope. This scope was the only one in operation at the time of my visit. On very big nights they supplement the 14 with an 8" LX90 , a Unitron F15 refractor and an Orion 8" Newtonian reflector which incidentally was awarded to a past student for a paper written on the Hubble space telescope. On this night the experts were Alan Ominsky and Moe Arif Alan handled the scope and Moe kept the audience engaged by describing the constellations and noting some interesting items like the Andromeda galaxy (M31) This observatory sits under Mag 6.2 skies on moonless nights!. I could see the Milky way as well as all the stars in the little dipper (ursa minor) even with the parking lot lights on in the distance. Mr. Ominsky brought the scope to bare on double stars and then on the moon, and Jupiter. He ended up showing the Andromeda Galaxy along with satellite galaxy M32.

The future for this magnificent piece of work is bright Colleges have contacted the observatory and have added a SBIG Astro camera and Laptop so they can use the facility for Cepheid Variable research. I tip my hat to these men of vision. There are many more improvements that need to be done. Here is a grand opportunity for a grant writer out there. The link to the planetarium is Here. I encourage all to attend this place if you get the chance. Maybe you are a person of vision. There are many opportunities in your community just like this one. There are many Planetariums sitting unused. Here is your big chance to do something that matters. Go for it! Alan and Rob have proven it can be done!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Green Bank Telescope Experience Was Almost Heaven

Greetings to all, I had an opportunity to speak at the Almost Heaven Star party about Meteors and again on Exoplanets it was a great honor to do this as NOVAC does such a great job at this party. I was in the midst of a class act for the entire visit. There was one good night for observing and that was on Friday while I was in Cincinnati attending the Cincinnati Astronomical Societies annual elections. I am now the 2nd Vice President for the club. (polite applause here) I look forward to being a part of the future of this great club.

I arrived in West Virginia at the star party on Saturday @ 3:30 PM. I must have brought the clouds with me for when I showed up the clouds showed up in droves. I did not get all the way set up with my scope when I noticed all that was left were a couple of Sucker holes. The picture here is of my tripod. That is as far as I got setting up. The star party had sold out and all 350 people were there on Friday and Saturday. I had a great time meeting folks from all over and talking to them about public outreach. Saturday evening brought a raffle for everyone. I had donated an iron meteorite Sikote Alin to the cause and was delighted to see such interest in that piece of space gravel. I saw my NOVAC Liaison named Katherine Scott put in 90 dollars worth the tickets. Now she really wanted that rock! A young man named Jacob won it and I was happy to present it to him. I had the opportunity to give him some details on this 1947 fall. He was very excited about winning it. I hope he starts collecting because every meteorite is different. It is a very satisfying hobby.After the drawings I went to the observing field and asked the gentleman across the way for a peep in his setup Dobsonian and did mange to see a hint of Jupiter sitting in a sea of soup before the sky went gray. That was the last chance I had to use a telescope on the field. I turned in a little early because I was tired from the two days of driving and the lack of sleep.

Sunday brought more clouds, But no matter this was the day of my meteor presentation starting at 4:00 PM. I had some time, so I took the opportuity to go to a tour of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory(NRAO) in the early afternoon. I was treated to a behind the scenes tour of the place. It was a tour of the control room the labs where they made the receivers for not only the Green Bank Telescope but also for the VLA(Very Large Array) and all others associated with the NRAO . There was an overnight for the NRAO and I really wanted to go on that but alas there was not enough time to do it.While in the Control room of the Green Bank Telescope, the guide was going on about this and that. It was real fascinating stuff about Faraday Cages , a cage in a cage for the microwave so no RF interference gets out. The GBT is so sensitive you cannot even bring a digital camera with you as the GBT can hear it go off when it takes a picture!!! I asked the operator pictured here while the guide was going on if he knew all of that stuff too or does he just keep the thing from falling over He just grinned and said Pretty much just keep it from falling over... Now that was funny.

Well on that note I had to leave the tour and get back to the Almost Heaven Star Party held at the Mountain institute. Yes that was a shameless plug for the Mountain Institute but they are without a doubt the best hosts for a star party. No offense TSP and the Ranch. I arrived in time to give an engaging presentation on Meteors with great questions and follow up! I love the mix of this crowd as there were novice to expert in the room. I was standing there after the presentation talking to Phil Wherry of NOVAC and he asked me'" Hey you might be interested in this Steve. We have an overnight event scheduled tonight at the NRAO would you like to come?" Now you know what I said. You bettcha and off I went back down the road 30 miles south to the NRAO where I found out I would be a part of a team (Our group) that would operate a 40 foot dish that night. The dish was built in the 80's for an experiment or search that did not require all the bells and whistles the other dishes on the site had so they built this one. All the equipment in the building was analog.This dish received a bonus amount of equipment when the 3oo' fell down. We were given a short lesson on how to use the equipment and Presto! We were now radio astronomers. When we walked through the doors we took a thirty year step backward. This was a fascinating adventure to take. The dish operated in one motion along the meridian, so if you wanted to observe a target you would set the dish in altitude to match the target then let the target drift through the center of the dish where readings will be taken. It was really a simple process NRAO gave us targets for all night. and we found them without issues. The team got so good at it they started looking for additional targets like Jupiter that drifted through the meridian and a couple of galaxies and an additional planetary nebula. I enjoyed every minute of it. We hit Cygnus A right on and the neutral Hydrogen signal went off the top of the chart. That is strong. That was one of those no doubters. While we were in the bunker we could take pictures so I did a few of the crew. You might notice a kind of right of Passage going on here in the radio shack . There were drawings and posters drawn representing everyone that has worked this dish signed by all there so what the hey! we did one also. I had to knock off a bit early 11:00 PM to get some sleep because I still had an additional presentation to cover at 2:00 PM on Sunday and then rush back to Ithaca NY before I fell asleep at the wheel.

Sunday brought a grand breakfast in the Cafeteria and then off to the Mountain institute for a little more heaven. Unfortunately most everyone had cleared out and I was left with just a handful of an audience. the weather was not cooperating very well as a light rain descended upon our Star party. This was a blessing for good reason. My PowerPoint did not play nice with the Mac running the Projector. The bad part was I was giving an introduction to Exoplanet research. The reality was I was giving it to folks that review papers on the subject. There were a few questions that were way over the level of the presentation but I managed to struggle through it. I did have some new data about Kepler that some of them had not seen. I try and have a little something for all levels of knowledge when I do a presentation. I really enjoyed the after discussion as we talked about how Amateurs might look for these elusive Exoplanets using photometry. I hope some interest was sparked in this field. How exciting would that be to add John Smith, Amateur to the list right in there with the JPL, Lowell and Keck teams etc.

I had a grand time even though I did not get on my scope and observe the oh so dark skies of this part of West Virginia. All the folks from NOVAC, Katherine Scott to Phil Wherry to David Haynch and everyone in between were great to work with. so if ever you get the chance to stay overnight and play with a 40 foot dish do it. It will be one of those moments in your life to look back on. I also encourage you to look into The Mountain Institute . They have some great programs for young people. I was surely impressed with the way these young men and women carried themselves. They have a deep love for nature and practice it daily They also have an observatory there to connect the importance of dark skies as a resource. It is just as important as good clean water.That might be a little overstated...

Oh one more thing, Katherine got her wish. I had another meteorite from that 1947 fall and presented it to her. Anyone that would drop 90 dollars in hopes of getting a 40 dollar Meteorite deserves one. I know she will take good care of it. Until the next high adventure or Sunday ...

Clear skies and great seeing too !

Steve T

Sunday, September 13, 2009

In The Land of Cosmos, Sagan's Turf

Greetings from Ithaca New York. My work takes me places and has now landed me in the " Land of Sagan" which is a good thing. Now that got me thinking about the size of our universe or more accurately the size and shape of our galaxy. I was reading my Astronomy magazine about the REAL structure of our galaxy. I had to chuckle about all the revisions Man has made to our little slice of the Cosmos. Hey so lets take a look at this thing called the Milky Way Galaxy or more simply the Galaxy( depends on what camp you hang out in). For me I can think of better things to argue about than the correct name of our encampment of stars. The way on back machine is set for ancient Greece right around 500-370 BC. There were two Philosophers named Anaxagoras and Democritus Now these two folks proposed that the Milky Way was made up of stars. That was a far better than the Mythological belief that some how some baby unknown to Hera (It was Zeus's illegitimate child) latched on to her breast and when she happened to notice Hey wait a minute that is not my Kid! She jerks the baby off her breast and milk shot out across the sky. While this might be plausible (snicker) I am going to go with the two Greek guys for now. Lets go forward a few years to 384 -322 BC to Aristotle's day Now where he got this idea I have no clue, but here is what he thought. Aristotle thought the Milky Way were a fiery exhalation from nearby stars were large numerous and tightly packed (that has a bit of a ring of truth to it). It seemed to always be a scale problem with the ancients. It was just very hard to imagine the universe as a unbelievably huge place. The ignition happened in the atmosphere. Now that might needs some work, at least that's what the Arab astronomer, Alhazen thought some 1300 years later he measured the apparent movement of more distant stars and deduced that the Milky Way was really far out because it had no parallax about this same time there were several theories floated about what that thing was. we now know they were all hitting around the bulls-eye they were everything from it is a sphere of stars to a large quantity of nebulous stars whet ever those are but the point is here these early Astronomers were using the information at hand and science to explain what they saw. Now keep in mind here the telescope had not been invented yet so these were all from visual observations.

1608 brought about the invention of the telescope and here is where this Milky Way thing really started to take off. Galileo observed countless stars within the Milky Way. Thomas Wright and later Immanuel Kant (1750s)pictured here.In a treatise, Kant deduced the Milky Way was a rotating disk of stars. It had the same kind of orbiting mechanics as the solar system. We are starting to get the picture now. Kant also went on to say he believed these Spiral nebulas being discovered were island universes of themselves. Galaxies/nebula located outside our Galaxy.

But hey! What does that picture look like? William Herschel took a stab at it in1785 He did it the old fashioned way; he started counting! Herschel and his sister Caroline divided the task into different areas. What a chore that was. At the end of the count they came up with some interesting conclusions. One was the counts were consistent where ever you looked so the solar system must be in the center of the Galaxy. Lord Rosse had just built a huge scope for the day and was taking a fancy to these spiral nebula until he notice individual points of light within the "nebula" That dang Kant might be on to something! Well it took almost72 more years before the island universe theory got some real traction. Now we put those two versions together and we come to Edwin Hubble. He discovered these were indeed galaxies and in the shape of a spirals barred spirals or ellipticals etc.using the famed Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson California. He also believed that our galaxy was a spiral galaxy.This occured between the nineteen twenties and thirties.That is what I was taught growing up. Along with all of this the diameter has increased from a few miles (Aristotle) to 120,000 light years! From millions of stars to nearly 400 billion.

So Now Ladies and Gentlemen We have now got a difinative view of what our galaxy really looks like (until they change it ). We hang our hats in a barred spiral. This spiral has 4 arms two more prominent than the other two. For years we thought it had 4 major arms.We call the Orion spur of the Sagittarius arm home. Sorry Herschel old buddy. Nice try though to be sure! Now how in the world do we know this is the real deal?
New equipment Got to love new toys! We started looking at the Milky Way in the infrared and other wave lengths that allows us to see through all the dust and mess to the core of the Milky Way . How cool is that? We have a pretty good and accurate map of the home Galaxy right now but scientists are still wondering about definitive arm structure etc... and Now the mystery is solved or has it just opened up a whole new box of questions needing to be answered.It is a wild and exciting world we live in. What a cool time to be an Astronomer! So I guess there is no crying after spilled milk after all. Sorry Hera!

Clear skies and great seeing too!

Steve T

Sunday, September 6, 2009

When a Star is Not a Star. (Hint) It's a Planet!

It is 11 PM just this past Friday and I get a call from my 20 year old daughter Meghan. I am out of town working. I hear on the phone,"Dad is Jupiter in the sky by the moon?" I said,"yes it is Mug(nickname). Why do you ask?" The story went that she was there at a party and there were about 15 people around Meg telling her that was a star. She was the only one to say No Boys... That is Jupiter. So she called the world famous Astronomer ( one guy down in Australia likes my blog) Steve T, AKA Dad for confirmation. That phone call stirred several emotions. One being pride. My Meg actually listens to the Dad drone on about the sky and another more important one fear; fear for our scientific future. It is hard to believe that one out of 15 people did not know that was a planet. With that Ladies and Gentlemen, this is for the fifteen folks that surrounded my Meg on Friday night.

I am going to make you a Planet Officianado (PO) 5th class in one easy lesson. So to begin, let's start by getting to know the night sky just a little bit. All planets orbit the Sun on pretty much the same plane so all planets can be found in a single swath in the sky called the Ecliptic. That is where the Zodiacal constellations hang out.The word planet comes from the Greek word meaning move. The stars stay in a fixed position while planets slowly move along through the zodiac. Getting to know these constellations is pretty easy to do. There are some like Cancer the crab that are dim and have no bright star in the area so if you have a bright object sitting where Cancer is supposed to be then that has got to be a planet. Constellations like Leo have a main star associated with it (Regulus) and if you have two Bright objects battling it out then you get the picture... Another feature of planets is they do not twinkle. The reason is they are really small disks and not points of light. It is a distance thing. Stars are light years away(one light year is 5,878,630,000,000 miles away). Planets are only( Yeah I know, ONLY) hundreds of millions of miles away so that they can be seen as a disk and not a point of light. So now you have an idea of what to look for. Now let's figure out what planet you are looking at.

We are going to take a look at the inner planets. First Mercury and Venus as they share some interesting features. Mercury never strays far from the sun so we can see this small bright planet right after sundown and right before sun up Mercury never gets too high in the sky so it is only visible to earth when things are perfect (Mercury East and west Elongation) for about 1 hour 7 minutes or less. If you put your Telescope on Mercury you might notice it has phases like our moon crescent, quarter etc... only inner planets have this feature. It is all about relative positions of earth, inner planet and sun. The orbit of Mercury is 88 days so there are many opportunities to see this fast little planet throughout the year. When you can point out on the horizon and tell your buddies, that my friends, is Mercury. They will be impressed or they might call you a nerd. It is hard to tell about friends sometimes...

Ah the goddess Venus has imparted her name upon this God forsaken rock of green-house effect hell. Venus is no place to visit but it is a real jewel to see in the night sky It is known as the evening star or the morning star. This planet is a bit farther out from the sun so it will hang around longer, 2 hours 48 minutes for elongation or less for your viewing pleasure. It is the brightest object in the night sky coming in at about-4.1. Venus can sometimes be seen in broad daylight if you know where to look. This planet also can be seen in its phases. Venus in a rare event transited the sun in 2004 It will transit the sun again in June 5-6 of2012 then not again until 2117 Dec 11 and 2125 Dec 08. This event has been witnessed only 6 times since the invention of the telescope. Put this on your to do list. Now lets get to the outer planets but we will only cover the naked eye visible Planets, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. I hesitate doing Uranus because for most folks, this dim little planet is not visible for a couple of reasons, mostly being light pollution. Hey I know I would get letters from lawyers on behalf of Uranus if I excluded it.

Mars is a wonderful red planet to look at. It appears as a reddish little disk in the sky. You can see it anywhere on the Ecliptic as it is on the outside of earth's orbit. The fact that it shows up with a reddish tint is a huge clue to identifying it in the night sky.This planet named after the God of War is bright going some where in the +1 magnitude range. Mars has two moons Deimos and Phobos tiny little things that orbit this planet. You cannot see them from the front porch here on earth but you can add a little fabric to your talk when you identify it to your friends Mars is available when it's orbit is behind the earth in relationship to the sun. When Mars crosses that line it will still be there in daylight, but you cannot see it because of the brightness of the sun. or if in opposition (directly inline with the sun). Mars also has a cute little thing it does called retrograde as it appears to go backwards in the sky as the earth passes mars because of its faster orbit. all outer planets have this feature It really had the early astronomers puzzled in that they thought the earth was the center of the universe. You should take a look at the tweeks to the existing systems of the times and how they explained retrograde motion. It is worth the exploring

Jupiter is the "King of the Planets". This gas giant is the largest planet of this solar system. There are much bigger planets circling other stars but that is for another time... The really cool thing about Jupiter is the 4 moons you can see with a good set of binoculars or a telescope. When Galileo first took a look at Jupiter there were only three showing then a couple of days later there were 4 there Hmmm where did that come from? He soon discovered that the moons were indeed orbiting around Jupiter. Jupiter is the second brightest planet to be seen from Earth and much brighter than any star out there in the night sky. Jupiter comes in a -2.8 even though it is bigger than Venus. Venus is way closer and thus is brighter. If you get the chance take a look iat Jupiter in a Telescope of sizable aperture you will be impressed by all the bands satellites a great red spot (GRS). There is always something different about the view.

Saturn is probably the coolest planet out there with its ring structure so elaborate . This beautiful creamy yellow planet can be seen quite well in the night sky when viewable. When Galileo first took a look through his not so perfect scope, he saw what appeared to be three planets; Saturn and right and left side of its rings. I get more requests for Saturn than any other object in the sky when at a public star party. Saturn also has bands to look at albeit pale in comparison to Jupiter's. You will see a few moons as well circling this Gas giant as well. Titan is the second largest of all moons orbiting all planets in this solar system and it has a atmosphere!

Uranus was originally named, Georgium Sidu by Sir William Herschel(discoverer). After his death it was changed to Uranus as suggested by German Astronomer, Johann Bode. This hard to see planet has a magnitude of about 5.7 making it a very dim object for the human eye. It will appear blueish in color (due to methane). The best way to locate this beauty is by looking in an astronomy magazine like Sky and Telescope or online at a number of sites. I have located Uranus from my scope many times but have yet to see it naked eye from a dark site. ( I am usually chasing down dim galaxy). I might try this September 18 through 22nd as I will be in West Virginia at the wonderful Almost Heaven Star Party doing a presentation on Exoplanets and one on meteors.

You now are a PO fifth class You should be able to identify and babble on a bit about the planets that can be seen with the naked eye!!! As for Neptune alas Perhaps in another Blog piece

Clear skies and great seeing too!

Steve T