Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message for May, 2007

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

Meeting/Public Observing This Weekend

Provided the weather holds out, the society meeting this Friday/Saturday (18/19) will be an open-ended observational free-for-all, perhaps a first chance for the year to begin preparing one’s observing roster (i.e. getting one’s bearings) for the summer skies. We’ve been lucky with the small number of days already this month to get viewing time in. In my case, I’ve been able to get three other pairs of eyes (courtesy D. O’Shea, M. Brady and J. McMahon) to gaze through my Tachyon 25 x 100 binoculars to confirm that, in fact, they were worth the price (another story). Having Saturn high overhead in Hydra and Leo during most of the recent late evenings and very early mornings made for exercises in contortion, but the Cassini Division was clearly visible in the few microseconds every few seconds that the atmosphere calmed sufficiently. Jupiter has been very slowly making its way back into the “reasonable hours” of the night sky and, famed as the best non-Moon target for large binoculars and small scopes, makes the next few weeks into mid-June an ideal opportunity to get one’s eyepiece box in order!

Society Board Meeting Round-Up

The society held its second board meeting of the year this past Thursday (10th) to discuss plans for the Summer Seminar and a proposed (upcoming) Darling Hill beautification day. The Summer Seminar, dubbed “Meteor Madness” for its overlap with the very beginning of the Perseid Meteor Shower (peaking on August 13), will run Friday night (the usual Public Viewing for the first night) and Saturday (roughly noonish through nighttime observing). The program is still being formalized, with much more to follow (times and speakers) in the June and July newsletters.

A general Darling Hill Clean-Up is being planned for either the first (2nd) or second (9th) Saturday in June, with the plan to give the Observatory proper a thorough cleaning out and to deal with some drainage issues at the Hill entrance (the Observatory entrance is halfway down a reasonably steep incline and the run-off this past year has been considerable). Our neighbor to the south is intending on removing some of the dead trees at the property boundary, which may inch us ever-closer to a view of the southern Horizon (as much as the city lights in Cortland will allow). There will be a follow-up post and society-specific email to follow. If you’ve time and equipment, we’d love to see you. If you’ve only time and old sneakers, that will also count for plenty.

“The World’s Oldest Star”

That is my monthly poor attempt at astronomy humor. In a world where much of the heated debate is currently centered around energy efficiency and sustainable resources, a shining example of energy for the long-haul was announced this past week with the identification of a star in our own galaxy determined to be 13.2 BILLION years old. Scientists at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the same facility that reported the discovery of the first extrasolar Earth-like planet just a few weeks earlier, identified the age of the star, named HE_1523-0901, by way of radioactive decay dating of the elements thorium and uranium. This is the same procedure as used for carbon-14 dating, a primary tool of archaeologists for following human history, with the difference being that the half-life of specific isotopes of thorium and uranium are on the order of billions of years (14.2 billion for thorium-232, a paltry 4.5 billion years for uranium-238). That may be long for element lifetimes, but nothing compared to the fundamental atomic particles that make these elements up. Protons, for instance, have a lower-limit lifetime of


years. For those that don’t want to count, the t and u denote the power of 10 at which the half-life of thorium and uranium fall. With a new estimate of the time of the Big Bang at 13.7 billion years, this discovery sheds considerable light on the rapidity of the formation of stars and even galaxies very close to our celestial beginnings.

Click for a larger version

Webb Telescope Revealed

The successor to the Hubble telescope was not only announced this past week, but an official mock-up of the final design was made available to the public in Washington D.C. The James Webb Space Telescope, named for the second administrator of NASA and set for an on-or-after June 2013 launch, will have a light-collecting area 6 times that of Hubble, the marvels of which need not be expounded any further here. As the completed telescope will not fit into the Ariane 5 rocket set to lift it into orbit, the actual mirror will be composed of 18 hexagons that will (hopefully) fold out into a honeycomb pattern once the telescope is in place.

The Webb final design is slated to run the assembly agencies $4.5 billion (If you’ve ever gone from a 10 x 50 pair of binoculars to a 25 x 100 pair (as I recently did), you know that the cost of the optics does not scale linearly with the increasing radius (especially if you started from a cheap pair of 10 x 50’s!)), which is made all the more expensive (but no less money-well-spent) by the proposed placement of the scope at L2 (Lagrange Point 2) beyond the orbit of the Moon AND the fact that a mission to correct any problems during unfolding and positioning is considered out of the picture.

from Click for a larger version.

Amassed Astronomy Media Part 3: Project Gutenberg

Yet another corner of the Internet that relatively few seem to know about but that is one of today’s great treasure troves of yesterday. The Gutenberg Project, named for Johannes Gutenberg, the father of movable type, is a repository of mostly VERY old and out-of-copyright texts that have been converted to ASCII and HTML format, checked and rechecked by volunteers for accuracy in translation (as necessary) and reproduction, and made available through an easy to use searchable format.Included among currently 17,000 books ranging from ancient Greek and Roman texts to “modern” science fiction books (20th century) are old treatises on astronomy, the direct links to which I provide below. It is, of course, worth searching for any type of book that tickles your fancy. It is always enlightening (amusing) to read scientific texts from past centuries, keeping in mind how future generations may look back at the state of OUR science and technology. Links to six astronomy books are provided below. Note the dates!
The Uses of Astronomy, An Oration Delivered at Albany on the 28th of July, 1856
Everett, Edward, 1794-1865
History of Astronomy
Forbes, George, 1849-1936
Side-Lights on Astronomy and Kindred Fields of Popular Science
Newcomb, Simon, 1835-1909
The Future of Astronomy
Pickering, Edward Charles, 1846-1919
Recreations in Astronomy With Directions for Practical Experiments and Telescopic Work
Warren, Henry White, 1831-1912
A Field Book of the Stars
Olcott, William Tyler

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

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message for April, 2007

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

Observatory Opening And Messier Mini-thon

It is that time of year again! When the snow is melted enough that the Darling Hill grounds become a soup of mud and leaves just thick enough for a vehicle to make it up the driveway and into a parking spot (angled down back towards the driveway, of course). The opening, slated for this Friday (20) or Saturday (21, weather date) will also be the official make-up for the Messier Marathon in mid-March that was snowed-out. Regretfully, I post this from Utah, where steep mountains obstruct everything but the zenith, and will have to review the Observatory log at our next meeting to see what I missed.

MOST Space Science Series Recap

“Politics politics politics politics politics!” – Mel Brooks

The final MOST Space Science Series lecture provided a very insightful look into the differences between science, scientists, and truth in general (an appropriately broad range given the lecture content). After a brief history of our Solar System and how we have classified it since Galileo, the discussion turned to the recent demotion of Pluto and the original attempt to either classify 12 objects in the solar system as planets or, at the very least, grandfather Pluto into the classification scheme to keep our current 9 planet count.

The foundation of Prof. Margot’s lecture can be found at the “What Is A Planet?” page at his own website.

His discussion eventually settled into the very non-scientific aspects of the debate concerning the classification of Pluto and how the opinions of people added to the tension of the final decision. Do we hold on to the standard model we’ve all grown up with because it makes people feel good? Well, we’ve certainly not fallen into that rut in the “hard sciences,” with Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein certainly shaking the foundations of science, leaving others to come to terms with the “new math.” Ultimately, Pluto is just a solid object orbiting a star and, pending further investigation, could not care less what it is called. It is very likely that there are so many objects in orbit around the Sun that we will never have an official number. Despite blatantly political maneuvers among members of the IAU (and, to a far, far lesser extent, the efforts of and its many, many ilk), the final decision was made to remove Pluto from the formal “planet” list, classifying it instead as a “dwarf planet.”

After the events of late 2006, how quickly does the scientific consensus enter the mainstream? Just to check, I asked my 11-year-old cousin Nicholas “How many planets are there.” “8,” he said, with some small fraction of a look that said “isn’t it obvious?” “Pluto’s just a secondary planet.” No surprise, it has been a whole 6 months, of course. I think all civilized people would agree. Someone will have to explain to children in a generation what that last white dot on many of our best solar system images is…

Click for a larger version

ET On Meteors

The following came to us from Ed Tarney of Baldwinsville, NY regarding a March 11th light show between 8 and 8:30 pm. When we hear about meteors in the news, it is usually in the context of meteor shower announcements that happen predictably all year. We are, of course, constantly bombarded by debris from space. Any amateur astronomer or night observer with any number of days under their belt will know that a streak could appear at any moment. I suspect at least 3 or 4 trails are seen a night during SAS observing activities, with one person seeing and several others trying to spin their heads in time. One can only imagine what our ancestors must have thought was happening to the falling sky before we became aware of meteor origins.

The meteor reported by Ed must have been a real winner, as his original email included a news clip about police calls stemming from the meteor in the March 11th Edition of the Toronto Star. It’s also worth being reminded that a meteor is a meteroid entering the atmosphere and burning up. A meteroid is, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “A solid body, moving in space, that is smaller than an asteroid and at least as large as a speck of dust.”

From Ed:

The only other meteorites I have seen have been the “meteor shower” types, and they are nowhere near the brightness or color or apparent size of this one. This one was sparkling, almost iridescent green & white, with the “head” showing some substantial width (as opposed to the showers, which are mere streaks, only linear, hardly 2 dimensional at all), a bright but quickly diminishing whitish yellow tail, a solid streak of color against the sky, and a hearty “Hi Ho Silver” – oh no, not that last part! From where I was, in Radisson in Baldwinsville, it was streaking from just above Baker High School into the Seneca River at the lock. I would guess I saw it appear about 15 degrees above the horizon, just a little south of due west from my vantage point, and pass from N to S (right to left) at about a 10 degree angle. If I close my eyes & try to reconstruct it, it seems like it passed through about 30-40 degrees of the horizon, in perhaps a second, before it passed out of view. (I was just looking at a protractor & trying to recreate the scene!) I am trying to recall how the size compared to Halley’s comet from a few years ago, but unfortunately I cannot seem to construct a good comparison. I want to say this meteor was noticeably larger in apparent size, but I don’t recall many clear & studied looks at Halley’s.

I hope this is useful,

Ed Tarney

And On A Far Heavier Note…

We mention the passing of 2006 VV2, a 2 kilometer wide asteroid that came within 2.1 million miles of hitting us (or 15 billion light years of not hitting us) on April 6th. News otherwise unnoticed, even though the asteroid was naked-eye visible. Provided no other surprises, our next great asteroid viewing is slated for 2029, when Apophis makes its first close-pass to Earth. It’s return pass, in 2036, has had the mathematicians at NASA number crunching for quite some time, as the odds of it impacting the planet have ranged from one in several hundred thousand to a mere 1 in 300. I, for one, will be making nothing larger than minimum payments starting in 2032.

Big Sky Astro Correction And Links

And now, a correction. In the “Pale Blue Dot” section of February President’s Message, I noted that the image Carl Sagan used as a base for his discussion of our place in the universe was being hosted by the Big Sky Astronomical Society in Montana (the site was dugg at digg, where I first found the Big Sky site). Lo and beholde, this organization is, in fact, the Big Sky Astronomy Club. As it happens, just North in Alberta, CA lies the REAL Big Sky Astronomical Society. Both are relatively new to the scene, with the Club forming in August 2000 and the Society forming in October 1998. My thanks for James Durbano of the Big Sky Astronomical Society for looking this far East.

Amassed Astronomy Media Part 2: Websites

Having covered a small number of astronomy podcasts in the March Message, we turn now to a list of websites. – The official website of the Hubble telescope. More likely than not, your favorite desktop background lies somewhere in the Hubble gallery. On this site you’ll also find Hubble history, technical information about the Telescope, a link to the SkyWatch podcast, and much more. – This site keeps track of the ISS, space shuttle, major satellites, and the ever-impressive Iridium satellites. The predictive power of physics never ceases to amaze. As if the website weren’t enough, they also provide a mobile service through AvantGo so you can identify what’s above anytime, anywhere (handy at Darling Hill when one can get reception). – My primary bookmark for checking the weather online is the ClearSkyClock (which will receive its own post at some point), which I only check to see if there’s hope for observing that night. The thorough climatologist or meteorologist knows that all weather events begin at the Sun, without which the Earth (if it were still here) would be a frozen rock with weather conditions (frozen) more predictable than those of San Diego (nice). is the site for keeping track of the Sun’s conditions, including Solar winds, sun spots, solar flares. – Astronomy Picture of the Day. Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell have done the work for you! The pictures are as beautiful as the descriptions and exhaustive web links are informative. – A pro-space science news service that manages to collect just about every space news story that hits any internet wire. Topics range from NASA policy to major astronomical events to Space Science Research, all in an easily scannable interface.

Amateur Observers Society of New York AOS Starfest 2007

Our own Mike Brady forwarded us the following:

The Amateur Observers Society of New York is proud to announce the AOS Starfest 2007.

Date; June 15-17, 2007

This event will be hosted at the Stone Tavern Farm, under the exceptionally dark skies of Delaware Co. NY. The Stone Tavern Farm is a 400 acre working farm located near the Catskill town of Roxbury, NY This site is within a 3 to 4 hour drive of most of our members located on Long Island. Click HERE for directions.

Facilities on the farm include a Bunk House and a wood floored “MASH” style tent with bunks, a large Pavilion with enough seating for all the attendees, comfortable and private bath & showers, and a large grassy field that we can use to set our telescopes on. In addition there is a 12000 sq. ft indoor arena that can be used in the event of inclement weather. The farm also has enough space for camping, which is included free with your registration.

This is a family friendly Starparty with activities for both kids and adults planned throughout the day.

“Barlow Bob” will be bringing his incomparable H-Alpha telescope and “Tri-Spectra” Solar telescope, and along with others, be providing solar observing for attendees.

We have two of the top speakers in the astronomical community coming to give presentations at the AOS STARFEST; Bob Berman, writer for Astronomy Magazine, and author of several books, most recently “Cosmic Adventure: A Renegade Astronomer’s Guide To Our World And Beyond”, and Long Island’s own Phil Harrington, Astronomy professor, contributing editor for Astronomy magazine, and author of many books like “StarWare”, “StarWatch,” and his latest book, “The Illustrated Timeline of the Universe”. Phil will be also be staying with us Saturday night to observe, and help us celebrate our very first Starparty!

Friday night there is a free “Pizza Party” to welcome attendees, and meals will be available to purchase Saturday, including breakfast, lunch and dinner. Saturday Dinner we’re having a special “Star-B-Que” featuring the best of the Stone Tavern Farms “farm fresh” food.

You get camping, the outstanding speakers, activities, solar observing, and free HOT refreshments all night Friday & Saturday night with your $45 registration fee. Also for families, all children 14 and under are free!

As you can see we’ve tried to think of everything we can to make this the best Starparty you’ve ever been to. Attendence is limited to the first 100 adults, so please register soon before all the spaces are taken.

Whether this is your first Starparty or 50th, it’s going to be an event that is not to be missed!

Our website is;

For more info email Geoff Cintron;

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

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes),_New_York…shtml

Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message for March, 2007

In the interest of keeping track (yet again) of where anything I commit to the web goes and what good it may be, I’m reposting my monthly messages to the Syracuse Astronomical Society (SAS) here. If, by chance, you find me first, are local (Syracuse), and have any interest in SAS activities, do drop a line. We’d love to see your featureless outline at our observatory this year.

President’s Message for March, 2007

This Month’s Newsletter…

Stu Forster has outdone himself this month with the March Newsletter. I will not go into detail here, but highly recommend the preparatory material for the Marathon this weekend and the extended discussion from Jordan Blessing of Scopetronix.

2007 Messier Marathon

It is that time of year again! The SAS is having its annual Messier Marathon this coming weekend (March 16th/17th). I will not expound on the man (Charles Messier) or the mission (The Marathon) here, instead directing you to a few thorough websites on each. Between mid-March and early April, it is possible to observe all 110 objects in a single night. This, of course, requires the use of a number of “IFs” (IF the sky’s clear, IF the moon’s new, IF you’re far enough from very bright light sources, IF the grease in your focus knob doesn’t turn to stone in the freezing conditions, etc.). As has been usual, the Marathon will be held at “little Eridanus,” otherwise known as Stu Forster’s driveway. Friday the 16th is the expected night for it, with Saturday the 17th being the weather alternate (be sure to check the website Friday afternoon to confirm the date). For directions to Stu’s house, email him at

As an aside, I was, at first, surprised to discover that critics of the Marathon exist, complaining that this “race to the finish” doesn’t allow people to enjoy the beauty of the Messier objects. Well, I said there are critics; I did not say they had deep philosophical arguments with it. Everyone’s a critic, I suppose. Sunday drives down 81 South to the observatory are always relaxing in the Fall, but many more people are at home watching NASCAR, somehow symbolic of the high-speed nature of our society. If nothing else, the Messier Marathon gives everyone their first orchestrated “dusting off” of their knowledge of the night sky before the seasons change and the nights become comfortable enough to enjoy being out in.

But wait! There’s more! We are currently being graced by the presences of Venus (the bright object to our West and, of course, the third brightest object in our sky) and Saturn (to our East, in the vicinity of Leo and Cancer for most of the night). Venus will disappear quickly on the nights of the 16th and 17th (around 8 pm, but visible early in the pre-night sky), while Saturn will come within 20 degrees of our zenith by midnight.

Courtesy Thierry Lombry,
Click on the image for a larger version.

Prof. James Cordes MOST Space Series Recap

Those of us at the MOST on March 8th were treated to an excellent lecture by Prof. James Cordes of Cornell University. The title itself, “Radio Telescopes And The Search For Life In The Universe,” may have done more to bring out the Syracuse X-Filers than the amateur astronomy community, but the search for life does not just entail listening for celestial Morse Code. Radio astronomy enables us to study the entire universe as well as our nearest neighbors (see the radio imaging of Jupiter and the Sun below), through which we can come up with models of universe age, formation and layout. From that, we can begin to consider how the universe may or may not be hospitable to one, few, or many forms of life and, perhaps, where best to look. It is from our understanding of the existence of life in the universe and what we assume to be the requirements for life on other planets (water, heat, raw materials), that we even have the notion of a “Habitable Zone” that drives astrobiology research.

(c) National Radio Astronomy Observatory / Associated Universities, Inc. / National Science Foundation. Click for larger versions.

The progression of the field (proof our tax dollars do go to some good) is best summarized in the two images below. The first, from a 1924 issue of the magazine “Radio Age,” shows Corp. John H. Sadler “listening in” to radio signals from Mars, no doubt hoping to intercept the sounds of the Martians so that Orson Welles‘ prop manager would only have to make one trip to the Acme Sound Effects Store. A mere 83 years later, Dr. Cordes spent the end of his talk presenting the S.K.A. (Square Kilometer Array, not that hip sound from way out the kids dig in Central New York), a massive radio telescope facility that will, among other things, explore fundamental questions about the “origin and evolution of the universe.

A collaborator of Dr. Cordes that did NOT go unnoticed is astrophysicist Dr. Volker Springel at the Max-Planck-Institute for Astrophysics in Germany. His work in simulating galaxy formation and the evolution of the universe makes for some incredible animations (and many publications). As an example, I direct you to the gallery of galaxy formation images and movies from the Millennium Simulation project.

Amassed Astronomy Media Part 1: Podcasts

In case you didn’t yet know (and who doesn’t?), there’s plenty of material available online to make you a better, more informed astronomer. In Syracuse, we often have to learn more from looking down at the screen than up with the scopes! In the interest of saving everyone google searches for the astronomical “best of the ‘net,” I’ve added a new astronomical media page to the website, at which the plan is to keep an accurate list of useful (and favorite) podcasts, image galleries, and general astronomical info. We welcome feedback and (more importantly) links to your favorites.

The list begins with podcasts, which have gone from obscurity to ubiquity over last few years. If you’re still unaware of what podcasts are, I direct you to one of several websites that explain the 5W-H’s. There are a number of phenomenal podcasts out there that deal with astronomy education and general stargazing. The media list begins with four of my favorites. I have made direct links to the podcast feeds on the list below that will subscribe you to these podcasts automatically in iTunes (which is freely available from Apple. Podcasts do NOT require iPods!).

1. Stardate [iTunes Podcast Link] – The best 2 minutes on radio. Until the show became available as a podcast, I would endeavor to make sure I was by a radio tuned to WRVO at either 6:58 am or 6:58 pm for my daily fix of Sandy Wood and the night’s festivities. If our own Mike Brady were to begin handing out seals of approval, I suspect Stardate would get the first.

2. Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer [iTunes Podcast Link] – I suspect anyone that grew up watching WCNY knows the name Jack Horkheimer, whose Star Gazer program has run on Sunday evenings (around 6 pm) for as long as I can remember. Easily the most enthusiastic man in Astronomy with, very likely, the most easily understood descriptions you’ll find about the week’s best night views. Both audio and video podcasts are available, the video version being the same as seen on PBS stations.

3. Astronomy 161/162 [iTunes Podcast Links For 161 and 162]- Prof. Richard Pogge (pronounced Po-Gee) is a Professor of Astronomy at Ohio State. The Astronomy 161/162 podcasts are the audio from his classes, which cover general astronomy at an undergraduate level. These lectures are excellent material for reminding yourself of things you forgot (definitions, methodologies) and learning about much of the best history and basic science in astronomy (do you know why a “foot” is divided into 12 inches?). College level astronomy for the cost of a few megabytes on your hard drive. I don’t think there’s a better deal out there. If that weren’t enough, his department website includes all of the lecture notes from the class, so you don’t even have to go hunting for an H-R diagram. Also a Mike Brady favorite.

4. Astronomy a Go Go [iTunes Podcast Link] – This podcast appeared early in the history of the iTunes Music Store and has a good, long run to date. Show host Alice Few has been providing podcasts on most everything astronomical since late 2005. In addition to the regular shows, the podcast features a monthly “Tour of the Night Sky” where Alice walks you through what’s up there in a relaxed, easy to follow manner (plenty of time to convince yourself you’re seeing what you think you’re supposed to be seeing!). As if the podcast weren’t enough, the Astronomy a Go Go website is quite possibly the most content-rich site for amateur astronomy on the web.

This is the beginning of the list! The plan is to include many other links in the Astronomy Media page. If you have favorite links, please send them along and, if you like, include a description of why you like it.

NASA Night Sky Network

Click here to watch an introductory video.

Some of you may have noticed that we went national with the latest web update. The SAS joined the NASA Night Sky Network late last year. The NASA website describes the Night Sky Network as “a nationwide coalition of amateur astronomy clubs bringing the science, technology, and inspiration of NASA’s missions to the general public.” This Network was put together by NASA, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Astronomical League, and is kept going with the help of the many (many) societies across the US, including our selves and our friends to the East, the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society in Clinton.

It is an excellent arrangement for ANY astronomical society. NASA provides materials, connections, and a base of operations at the NSN website for helping people find local astronomy clubs. We continue to do what we try to do best: get people to look up! One of the active membership benefits is the arrival of Toolkits, self-contained projects including videos, documentation, and demonstration materials. The purpose of these Toolkits is to present some topic with visual aids in detail. We currently have the “Shadows & Silhouettes: Phases, Eclipses, and Transits” Toolkit ready for presenting at the Darling Hill Observatory opening in April.

While the purpose of the Night Sky Network is public outreach, our activity as of late has hovered… somewhere below the tree line recently, a result of the down-time in activities for the SAS that comes with the winter months and life in Syracuse. The opening of the observatory in April and monthly Spring/Summer viewing will be serving as the bulk of our contributions to the Night Sky Network, with the specific activity roster for the year’s viewing in the works and the current schedule available on the Meetings and Public Viewing page. As always, we’d love to see your dark, featureless outline at our public viewing sessions.

As this post has gone a bit long, the review of the Celestia program will be spared for the next message, at which any update from the Messier Marathon and new additions to the media page will be posted.

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

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)…-how-to-podcasting-get