CNYO Observing Log: International Sidewalk Astronomy Night, 7 March 2014

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

CNYO members Larry Slosberg and Michelle Marzynski, John Giroux, and I used the available clear skies of Friday, March 7th (and forecasts of far worse conditions on the official night of March 8th) to host the CNY branch of the International Sidewalk Astronomy Night (ISAN 7). ISAN 7 was made more significant to the amateur astronomy community with the passing of John Dobson on January 15th of this year (instead of reproducing more content about John Dobson in this post, I will instead refer you to the official announcement of our ISAN session. Needless to say, he left quite a legacy).

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Our session was held at our favorite downtown location – along the length of the Creekwalk between the MOST/Soundgarden and the Syracuse University Architecture School/Warehouse, on the same block as Walt the Loch West Monster. The location is definitely bright, but this limitation to observing can be overcome with the judicious selection of Messier Objects and planets (no galaxies!). The last two astronomy events held at this same location – the 2012 Transit of Venus and 2013’s NASA/MOST Climate Day, featured an easier target (the Sun), but also gave us plenty of on-the-ground time to find the Creekwalk a great spot to have both reasonable parking and a regular stream of passers-by to coax into looking into strange telescopes.

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“And so,” you might ask, “how long was your observing list for the evening? And what’s the point of observing from such a bright location?” I’ve run into such questions a few times in my own travels, and I assume that some other outreach-centric amateur astronomers have been asked the same questions. The answer for ISAN 7 over a +2 hour session was the Moon, Jupiter, the Pleiades (M45), and the Orion Nebula (M42). That’s it. Didn’t try for anything else, didn’t want to.

And, importantly, those four were plenty.

At the heart of sidewalk astronomy is getting people who’ve never looked through a scope before to take in a detailed batch of photons a few seconds (the Moon), several minutes (Jupiter), or even several light years (M42, M45) older than the ones they’re usually exposed to. As some people are hesitant to even get their eye near the eyepiece, the very best way to run a sidewalk astronomy session (or any public viewing session) is to put the easiest, most obvious, and brightest nighttime objects into the field of view to draw the observer in. Any fuzzy object, 16th magnitude asteroid, or even Uranus and Neptune are the last things a trained observer should try to expose a new observer to (IMHO) given that the passers-by at a sidewalk astronomy event will only stick around (as we discovered) for about 4 minutes (a few definitely stuck around longer, while a few others we surgical about their inspection of the Moon and Jupiter before continuing on. I think they half-expected us to “pass the hat”).

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The Moon to a new observer is a jaw-dropper. Assume wow-factor imminent as soon as you see the Moon’s light projected out the eyepiece onto the face of someone slowly making their way to the focuser. Jupiter (and Saturn, for that matter) is also a treat at the right magnification (enough to see surface detail, but not so much that the image becomes dull and unsteady. A Barlow’ed 6 mm is NOT the way to go without a very large aperture and rock-solid mount). The Orion Nebula was our “advanced topics for the persistent observer” object, as it was bright enough to still show some nebulosity and additional detail.

Over the course of about two hours, we put the total count at about 60 (which wasn’t bad, given the temperature and the fact that we were on the far side of the restaurant-heavy part of Armory Square). Larry, John, and I made our way into a few pics (intermixed in this post – we were mostly too busy to stop and take snapshots. Thanks to Brad Loperfido for taking them).

And then there was Pedro Gomes, who single-handedly brought ISAN 7 (and CNYO) to Watertown on March 8th. Some of his image gallery from Facebook is reproduced below and we thank him for sharing his excellent scope run with us!

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Look for future Creekwalk sessions in the near future, including a few solar sessions and the next NASA Climate Day at the MOST.

3 Thoughts on “CNYO Observing Log: International Sidewalk Astronomy Night, 7 March 2014

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