Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message for July, 2007

A decidedly short post this month…

This will be a somewhat abbreviated monthly message as more work gets put into preparing for the Summer Seminar, for which an email and website will be sent out with all of the details in plenty of time for all not previously aware to change all their August 10th-12th plans. In the interest of having a modicum of celestial eye candy on the SAS site, however, I include a link below from the Cassini Imaging website (appropriately named CICLOPS, or Cassini imagine Central Laboratory for Operations) of the “odd world” Hyperion. It’s spongy appearance is indicative of low-density, all the more reason to float above Saturn’s active atmosphere.

Credit: CICLOPS. Click on the image for a larger view.

Hot (But Below Boiling) Off The Press, Number 245!From the “why didn’t we start that one first” department, the The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia ( reports that the study of exoplanet HD 189733b reveals water vapor in its atmosphere, the first conclusive evidence from among all the exoplanets thus studies for atmospheric content (atmospheric content being what we can currently measure when the planet passes in front of its neighbor star and the spectral fingerprint of the star changes as atmospheric contents absorb various frequencies of light). An interesting bit of news for the water cooler, with the addition of the website to the roster of sites to appear on in the SAS perhaps the more useful add-on as many, many, MANY more such exoplanets are reported. Quelle excitement!

From Across The Galaxy To Across The Pond…

While all websites are intrinsically global (and beyond!), it’s not often that a website gets recognized as such! The SAS recently made an appearance in the browser of Graham Cliff of, a sister organization (of sorts) of SELENE-NY, of which our own John McMahon is an active member (who Cliff knows from the YAHOO Outdoor Lighting Forum). With a pleasant exchange passed, we now have someone we can get the official 5-hour warning from when the Sun begins to go nova.

From Across The Pond To Across The Street…

I’m very pleased to report that the SAS board has been/will be involved in a few public service/outreach programs for the year. Coming up this Friday (July 13) our own John McMahon will be giving an introductory astronomy lecture for Planting Knowledge: Summer of Exploration 2007, with our own Stu Forster taking duties for the 2nd semester August program. On December 7th of this year, the SAS will be giving a lecture at the DeWitt Community Library just in time for the Geminids meteor shower (which promises to be quite the display this year as Earth passes right through the center of the cosmic debris field of 3200 Phaethon). More info to follow for the public DeWitt Library lecture as the date begins to approach.

Technology Alliance of Central New York

This past June 28th I attended one of the yearly organizational meetings (as the SAS representative) of the Technology Alliance of Central New York (TACNY). I openly admitted to not even knowing of its existence before the email invitation but, as both a member of a local, technology-based society (certainly one of the sciences to benefit most from technological improvements) and a technologist of a sort myself, I thought it very good to know that there’s an organization working to interface with all of the many societies in the area. Their mission, from the website…

The Technology Alliance of Central New York exists to enhance and facilitate the development, growth, and advancement of education, awareness and historical appreciation of technology within the Central New York Community. Through its programs and support efforts, the Technology Alliance seeks to further serve members, as well as educational groups and institutions with similar missions, and be the key link among technical societies in Central New York.

A number of interesting cooperative events that could include the SAS and its Observatory were mentioned and it is my hope that we find ourselves hosting a few society parties with a very narrow range of conversations going on between the numerous stargazes. If you’re an SAS member, a member of any other society or organization in the area and don’t know about TACNY, I highly urge you getting in contact with their organization. More info is available at their website,

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message for June, 2007

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website.

The June Extraterrestrial Eye Candy Issue

Just in time for the summer, this month’s message is going to be heavy on the visuals, including the 10,000 year-or-so gamut of civilization’s ability to see beyond our own atmosphere, from the naked eye in Pulaski to the Hubble pixel-full out of JPL.

Hubble’s Take On Spiral Galaxy M81

…in case anyone ever needs to justify a Hubble repair. The full-sized image of M81 is absolutely stunning. I’ve provided the link below to the site reporting the view (including several other images) and have also snuck the full-sized version as a direct link (just click the image for the full-sized, 25 MB (!) image).

From the website:This new image of the nearby spiral galaxy Messier 81, taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows stunning detail in a galaxy that resembles the Milky Way in many ways. This color composite was assembled from images taken in blue, visible, and infrared light.

Let’s all urge our own Stu Forster to spend a few hundred million dollars and see what he can do.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
Click HERE for more information.

The Carina Nebula

Another stunner of the Carina Nebula. If this is not a real image, then it’s art from the world’s foremost authority on Photoshop (a legitimate possibility if you’re convinced we never landed on the Moon). In the interest of retaining a copy of the press release for our records (the great beauty of government-funded research is that, by our paying into the system, we always have this work for free download so long as we can find it), the description of this figure is provided below. Click on the image to be taken to the current webpage holding this image.

From the website:In celebration of the 17th anniversary of the launch and deployment of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers is releasing one of the largest panoramic images ever taken with Hubble’s cameras. It is a 50-light-year-wide view of the central region of the Carina Nebula where a maelstrom of star birth – and death – is taking place.

Hubble’s view of the nebula shows star birth in a new level of detail. The fantasy-like landscape of the nebula is sculpted by the action of outflowing winds and scorching ultraviolet radiation from the monster stars that inhabit this inferno. In the process, these stars are shredding the surrounding material that is the last vestige of the giant cloud from which the stars were born.

The immense nebula contains at least a dozen brilliant stars that are roughly estimated to be at least 50 to 100 times the mass of our Sun. The most unique and opulent inhabitant is the star Eta Carinae, at far left. Eta Carinae is in the final stages of its brief and eruptive lifespan, as evidenced by two billowing lobes of gas and dust that presage its upcoming explosion as a titanic supernova.

The fireworks in the Carina region started three million years ago when the nebula’s first generation of newborn stars condensed and ignited in the middle of a huge cloud of cold molecular hydrogen. Radiation from these stars carved out an expanding bubble of hot gas. The island-like clumps of dark clouds scattered across the nebula are nodules of dust and gas that are resisting being eaten away by photoionization.

The hurricane blast of stellar winds and blistering ultraviolet radiation within the cavity is now compressing the surrounding walls of cold hydrogen. This is triggering a second stage of new star formation.

Our Sun and our solar system may have been born inside such a cosmic crucible 4.6 billion years ago. In looking at the Carina Nebula we are seeing the genesis of star making as it commonly occurs along the dense spiral arms of a galaxy.

The immense nebula is an estimated 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina the Keel (of the old southern constellation Argo Navis, the ship of Jason and the Argonauts, from Greek mythology).

This image is a mosaic of the Carina Nebula assembled from 48 frames taken with Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The Hubble images were taken in the light of neutral hydrogen. Color information was added with data taken at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Red corresponds to sulfur, green to hydrogen, and blue to oxygen emission.

Click the image for more information.

The Official HiRISE Site

The last of the eye candy in this series is the official website of HiRISE, the camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This site is a repository of the most detailed images of Mars ever assembled, provided by the “most powerful camera ever to leave Earth.” We can only hope that NASA or one of the international space agencies puts that moniker to the test in the near future.

Click the image for more information.

“Fathers Of The Zodiac Tracked Down”

This was a rather interesting find, sent to the SAS Board by our own John McMahon. That the professor would be the first to report this news is of no surprise, especially to anyone who’s had the pleasure of hearing one of his lectures on ancient astronomy. Despite how much more we know about the heavens above than ever before, we still rely on a stellar organization (that we call “The Constellations“) that goes back several millennia. The mythology and magic may change, but the bookkeeping remains ever the same. As an interesting aside, a number of comment posts to various blogs reporting this work were rather put off by the feature of an astrology-related study. Such comments are multi-dimensionally ridiculous, both because the Zodiac has been the basis of our entire understanding of our place in the universe since the Assyrians (if not before) began to use the night’s sky to mark out significant events of each year (our “Dog Days” of summer have nothing to do with Goofy and Pluto, but the prominence of the star Sirius (the “Dog Star”) in the summer sky) AND, and this is always interesting to note, astronomy was once the “quack” science to the finely-honed practice of astrology. Scientific progress, like any assembly process, is entirely a function of the tools one has available at the time.

Unfortunately, the Nature press release reporting the article reporting this finding has reportedly disappeared from the Nature free-info site, so what follows is all I have to, er, report.

From the press release:Using modern techniques – and some rocks – a US astronomer has traced the origin of a set of ancient clay tablets to a precise date and place. The tablets show constellations thought to be precursors of the present-day zodiac.

The tablets, known collectively as MUL.APIN, contain nearly 200 astronomical observations, including measurements related to several constellations. They are written in cuneiform, a Middle-Eastern script that is one of the oldest known forms of writing, and were made in Babylon around 687 BC.

But most archaeologists believe that the tablets are transcriptions of much earlier observations made by Assyrian astronomers. Just how much older has been disputed – the estimates go back to 2,300 BC.

Now Brad Schaefer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, says he has dated the observations to 1,370 BC, give or take a century.

Pitch Black Stirring The Imagination

Yet another place on Mars for people to make unsubstantiated predictions about life. As a brief aside, as a practicing scientist with his eyes to the sky and head in the clouds, I watch the NASA news conferences reporting major findings from all of the space missions (the Mars Rover conferences being among the best for this) and commend the self-restraint of the scientists at the table reporting the “likely evidence” and “strong circumstantial indicators” for this-or-that feature or phenomenon. One might image these same people playing the lottery, only to have their numbers drawn, yet still saving the celebration for the first arrived check despite knowing that check is in the mail.

Holes! Real, round, pitch-black holes in the ground! There is very little to report about the specifics of these features on the Martian surface, only that some geological activity or another has yielded the kinds of pictures where one would otherwise be convinced that someone has removed a circle for no reason. The hole in the top picture is the most publicized of the bunch (couldn’t you tell?), but at least seven such features have been detected, making them the “Martian Seven Sisters” to complement the brightest stars of the Pleiades.

Click the image for more information.

Highlights From The Dague NEAF 2007 Report

When it comes to fiscal responsibility, virtually no habit costs less to begin than astronomy. From the lunar calendar to the seven liberal arts, the night’s sky was something prince and pauper all had in common. If you’re frugal and patient, amateur astronomy can be an absolutely free past time to last a lifetime.

And with that, I’m reposting a few pictures Observatory Director Raymond Dague took at NEAF 2007, the North-East Astronomy Forum. Perhaps the only thing keeping anyone from purchasing a scope at these festivals is the inability to get the case into the sub-compact hybrid that got them to the auditorium in the first place. The images, from left, are (1) Ray (left) with Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, S.J., planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, author of the best-selling “Turn Left at Orion,” and presenter at Le Moyne last year, (2) an absolutely massive Schmidt-Cassegrain (note the position of the eyepiece!) and (3) a very ornate telescope that, I suspect, would never leave the owner’s living room.

Click an image for a larger version.

Amassed Astronomy Media Part 4: Month-At-A-Glance

Let’s face it. In a place like Central New York, where the number of “good viewing” nights almost add up to a month, planning around major astronomical events can be an exercise in futility. I’ve resigned myself to a number of web-based viewing sessions this year and it’s only half-over. Alternatively, sometimes you walk out your front door, see as perfect cloudless night, and simply don’t know where to start to maximize your Big Bang for your buck. For those of you that are members of the Syracuse “I want to know what’s up right now and I want to know NOW!” Society, I suspect that the following five links will serve you well. These five pages provide lists of major events, important stellar features, what planets are out and about, etc., all in a span of only a few scroll wheels. In one case, a free pdf book of the year’s viewings, always handy for browsing in the 4:00 pm hour of a Friday afternoon.
This is Sky and Telescope’s “This Week’s Sky at a Glance.” The descriptions are broken down by day with very clear illustrations provided for interesting multi-day phenomena AND each planet is accounted for, be it visible or not (yes, even Pluto still). The further information links take you to, as one might guess, subscription information. Those in the SAS that have taken advantage of their discount subscription to Sky+Tel are already ahead of the game, as the monthly issues include much of the information on this quick-list.
This is the monthly sky calendar from, quite possibly the New York Times meets Drudge Report of all things space-related (including regular stories and a very rapid response system to significant findings in space science and technology). The page includes the days for the Moon Quarters and major highlights at top, followed by day-by-day breakdowns for significant astronomical events (which includes icons to let you know bino-friendly vs. scope-friendly vs. eye-friendly viewing opportunities).
A monthly multimedia event from This isn’t just a list of events, but a complete narrated presentation of sky views, hints of how and where to find objects, and some basic physics all in one. Polished as one would only expect from the web face of the solar system’s most important camera.
Straight from the BBC, this website would be your “5 hour warning” for astronomical events if it were a radio show. As expected, major highlights from above, sky maps, and breakdowns of each visible planet for the month. This site’s also good about describing exactly what constellation, Messier Object, etc., that each planet will fly through, which always makes for great scope viewing.
Tammy Plotner and Universe Today have teamed up to provide you, for FREE, one of the most useful astronomy viewing books out there in a format where you can print out the view and take it with you. Each day has its own page with an object or event and a thorough description, the images for which alone are worth the 23 MB pdf download.

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

A7438/S4364: The Healthy, Safe And Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act or “I Hate Light Pollution And I Vote.”


Far be it from me as a computational quantum chemist to complain about technology and expect people to pay attention, but I’ve begun to take a dim view of the bright idea of outdoor lighting.

8/14/2003: Some of you may remember the great Northeast Blackout of 2003. I was working in my basement studio apartment (ah, graduate school) at Hidden Valley Apartments listening to the Jim Reith Show on WSYR when the radio went out and the kitchen-half of my apartment went black while my living room side stayed powered (no, I have no idea who wired the apartment). While I remember losing days worth of calculations when my computer cluster powered down, I distinctly remember going to the Darling Hill Observatory in Tully for some clear sky observing. Having the power turned off over much of Syracuse (to the North) and Cortland (to the South) made for the best Central New York stargazing I’ve ever experienced. And then, within a few days, it was gone. The difference was so significant I imagined entire neighborhoods turning on every lamp within reach en masse to celebrate the power coming back on.

The text at the bottom of this post is from a letter crafted in largest part by the elegant hand of John McMahon (someone with a long history of fighting the good dark-sky fight) and sent on behalf of the Syracuse Astronomical Society (SAS) to Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal and Senator Carl Marcellino in Albany, acknowledging the glowing support by the SAS for the passage of A7438/S4364: The Healthy, Safe And Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act. Our specific interest (dare I call it a “special interest”) is in combating light pollution, that glow from cities and towns that effectively washes the sky at night and greatly diminishes our (yes, the society’s, but everyone wanting to look up is increasingly taking a hit) view of the heavens above.

And who cares? One of the realizations that has come from burying myself in the hard sciences is that I am acutely cognizant of the fact that we are not here because of our political viewpoints, our cultural heritage, our religious upbringing, our feelings, or our academic background. We’re here because fundamental particles coalesced into matter, because stars went nova and seeded the universe with clouds of heavy atoms that collapsed into solid objects like new stars and planets. If the valley of the Nile River is the cradle of civilization, then Earth is the cradle of the Nile River, and the spiral arm of the Milky Way where we reside is the cradle of the Earth, and all the way out to the edges of the universe. We’re here because of what’s out there and it’s only recently that civilization has begun to ignore that realization.

The night sky is the intellectual cradle of religion, physics, calculus, agriculture, philosophy, and, by the fact that all the matter on Earth came from the cosmic matter “up there,” the source of everything else. If we gave as much respect to the night sky as we do to television shows, sporting events, video games, and all those other things that keep us indoors the same way the constellations kept most people outside until only a few hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have to be asking residents and businesses to please use a different type of lighting fixture, please turn off the light if you’re not in the room, or please turn off some fraction of your parking lot lights after business hours, and we certainly wouldn’t have to be trying to get legislation passed towards that end. Besides posting about it, I do my part by using low-Watt bulbs and by not having any lights on my second floor (of course, downtown Syracuse is sufficiently bright to not need them).

IMHO, It is good legislation. It’s green-friendly, it saves money, it looks like you’re being community-conscious when you use it in advertisements. I’ll endeavor to frequent your establishment if you help cut light pollution and happily tell others to do the same. The Nice N’ Easy in Tully has taken efforts to cut their light pollution and, accordingly, I make it my final pit stops before the observatory when I need something instead of stopping in Syracuse for the same. No joke. If you own a business, please consider implementing changes to your outdoors in line with the proposed legislation. If you’re a NY resident, please consider sending a letter of support for A7438/S4364. And turn off those lights!

For more information on light pollution and legislation, I recommend visiting (and supporting) SELENE-NY and the International Dark Sky Organization. We also have a page (written by Dr. McMahon) at the SAS website.

Dear Assemblywoman Rosenthal and Senator Marcellino:

The members of the Syracuse Astronomical Society (SAS) strongly endorse A7438/S4364, the Healthy, Safe and Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act, which would regulate outdoor lighting in the State for the general benefit of its citizens.

Our starry night skies are one of our most precious natural resources, inspiring young and old alike to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. For over a half a century the SAS has reached out to the public here in Central New York to educate neighbors and visitors alike about the marvels of the heavens. Unfortunately, in recent years the view of the cosmos has become increasingly degraded by the misdirected and excessive glow of outdoor illumination.

For the members of our society who observe from their own backyards this problem has become especially troublesome because of general sky brightness and from excessive light from nearer sources that intrudes onto their private property. Likewise, for the SAS’s Darling Hill Observatory (located in a semi-rural location on Vesper Hill in the Town of Tully) the sky glow from Syracuse to the north and, increasingly, from the Cortland area to our south has progressively affected our view of larger and larger portions of the sky.

Despite the recent forward looking actions of the Town of Tully in changing over its roadway lighting to full cutoff optics that reduce offensive and distracting glare, save energy, and reduce lighting costs by over 40%, without decisive action to stem the process of needlessly and destructively lighting up the night elsewhere, the light pollution problem will only worsen. It will continue to hamper our ability to bring the wonders of astronomy to others, to degrade the nocturnal environment, and to waste precious energy and taxpayer dollars.

The Healthy, Safe and Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act would begin the process of restoring the glories of the night sky to everyone and will help us to continue our educational mission. It will render other benefits to the general population as well.

Therefore, the Syracuse Astronomical Society formally urges all members of the New York State Legislature to act promptly and decisively to pass the Healthy, Safe and Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act.

If the SAS and its membership can, in any way, be of service in emphasizing the importance of issues raised by A7438/S4364, please do not hesitate to contact myself at (315) 559-4737 or

Thank you.

Damian G. Allis, Ph.D.
President, Syracuse Astronomical Society

cc: Senators Bruno, Valesky, DeFrancisco; Assemblymen Kolb, Silver; Governor Spitzer,+NY…