Monthly Archives: March 2014

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New NEAF Announcement – Cosmos, Pluto, Webb & More! – April 12-13, 2014

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

NEAF – The Northeast Astronomy Forum (& Telescope Show) – a.k.a. THE all-in-one amateur astronomy event for those of us in the Northeast – is soon approaching. To the ever-entertaining collection of solar observers, educational talks, and equipment (let’s not forget!) has been added three great headliners composed of Neil deGrasse Tyson (‘Cosmos‘ and everywhere else), Alan Stern (on the New Horizons mission to now-demoted Pluto) and Matt Greenhouse (on the James Webb Space Telescope). Of the three, I have to admit that I’m most interested in hearing about the state of the James Webb, our successor to the great Hubble Telescope. Consider everything that the Hubble has done for astronomy in the last 24 years (desktop images aside), then think of what the James Webb will do with 7 times the light collecting power (plus all the other bells and whistles developed over the last two decades)!

And (provided the sky holds) don’t forget to pay Barlow Bob a visit during the NEAF Solar Star Party!

New announcement flyer below (click to go to the NEAF website). At least a few CNYO members are guaranteed to be in attendance!

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NASA Space Place – Old Tool, New Use: GPS and the Terrestrial Reference Frame

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in March, 2014.

By Alex H. Kasprak

2013february2_spaceplaceFlying over 1300 kilometers above Earth, the Jason 2 satellite knows its distance from the ocean down to a matter of centimeters, allowing for the creation of detailed maps of the ocean’s surface. This information is invaluable to oceanographers and climate scientists. By understanding the ocean’s complex topography—its barely perceptible hills and troughs—these scientists can monitor the pace of sea level rise, unravel the intricacies of ocean currents, and project the effects of future climate change.

But these measurements would be useless if there were not some frame of reference to put them in context. A terrestrial reference frame, ratified by an international group of scientists, serves that purpose. “It’s a lot like air,” says JPL scientist Jan Weiss. “It’s all around us and is vitally important, but people don’t really think about it.” Creating such a frame of reference is more of a challenge than you might think, though. No point on the surface of Earth is truly fixed.

To create a terrestrial reference frame, you need to know the distance between as many points as possible. Two methods help achieve that goal. Very-long baseline interferometry uses multiple radio antennas to monitor the signal from something very far away in space, like a quasar. The distance between the antennas can be calculated based on tiny changes in the time it takes the signal to reach them. Satellite laser ranging, the second method, bounces lasers off of satellites and measures the two-way travel time to calculate distance between ground stations.

Weiss and his colleagues would like to add a third method into the mix—GPS. At the moment, GPS measurements are used only to tie together the points created by very long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging together, not to directly calculate a terrestrial reference frame.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of serious effort to include GPS directly,” says Weiss. His goal is to show that GPS can be used to create a terrestrial reference frame on its own. “The thing about GPS that’s different from very-long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging is that you don’t need complex and expensive infrastructure and can deploy many stations all around the world.”

Feeding GPS data directly into the calculation of a terrestrial reference frame could lead to an even more accurate and cost effective way to reference points geospatially. This could be good news for missions like Jason 2. Slight errors in the terrestrial reference frame can create significant errors where precise measurements are required. GPS stations could prove to be a vital and untapped resource in the quest to create the most accurate terrestrial reference frame possible. “The thing about GPS,” says Weiss, “is that you are just so data rich when compared to these other techniques.”

You can learn more about NASA’s efforts to create an accurate terrestrial reference frame here: space-geodesy.nasa.gov/.

Kids can learn all about GPS by visiting http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/gps and watching a fun animation about finding pizza here: spaceplace.nasa.gov/gps-pizza.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: Artist’s interpretation of the Jason 2 satellite. To do its job properly, satellites like Jason 2 require as accurate a terrestrial reference frame as possible. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/

Regulus Occultation Update – We’ve Got Erigone On Our Minds

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

Despite the torrential snowfall at present, we remain ever optimistic (and it’s too far out to trust any weather predictions anyway) about the possibility of clear skies on the early-early morning of March 20th, when the Main Belt asteroid Erigone will occult the star Regulus in Leo the Lion.


Richard Nugent’s silent youtube movie about the Regulus occultation.

We’ve already posted two lengthy articles on the topic, including the official press release:

* IOTA Official Press Release: Best And Brightest Asteroid Occultation Ever To Be Visible Across New York State

And an article describing the occultation measurement and data-collection process itself for determining Erigone’s shape:

* Central New York: Take Note (And Help Out)! – The Occultation Of Regulus By Asteroid Erigone On March 20th

I am happy to report that the press release has now appeared on the Kopernik Astronomical Society website (thanks to the efforts of their postmaster general Patrick Manley – the Vestal observatory may be on the far, far western edge of the occultation measurement, but hopefully a good spread of members down there can cover the measurements of the asteroid’s far western side):

* Best And Brightest Asteroid Occultation Ever To Be Visible Across New York State

And a recent universetoday article on the occultation even gives CNYO a linked shout-out (which we gladly accept):

* How to Watch an Asteroid Occult a Bright Star on March 20th

Expect a small flurry of posts next week as we prepare for 14 seconds of pure adrenaline between 2:00 and 2:10 a.m. E.D.T. on March 20th (and, to clarify – because it came up – this means you’ll be staying wide awake on the 19th, pass midnight, then kill two more hours before going outside. Plenty of time to practice while you wait, and hopefully your thumb won’t freeze over waiting to push your stopwatch app).

In the meantime, if you plan on measuring the occultation time, do consider giving the official Regulus Occultation FAQ a thorough once-over: Volunteer observers invited to time the March 20, 2014 Occultation of Regulus

And, to keep track of official International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) announcements and anything else that might come across the page, consider joining the Regulus2014 Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/Regulus2014

Barlow Bob’s Corner – Ophiuchus, By Mary Lou West, Ph.D.

The following article has been forwarded along by Barlow Bob, founder & organizer of the NEAF Solar Star Party and regional event host & lecturer on all things involving solar spectroscopy. You can read more about Barlow Bob and see some of his other articles at www.neafsolar.com/barlowbob.html.

Poster’s Note: I can only imagine that there are outdoor statues all over the world reaching back to antiquity that reveal something astronomical only once a year – and no one knows that this is their purpose. This article describes a modern reminder nearly in our own backyard. This story initially appeared in the Fall 2011 Montclair State University College of Science and Mathematics newsletter. And apologies for the image graininess (exported out of Microsoft Word).

Ophiuchus, the Serpent carrier is an ancient myth from the Middle East, a constellation in the summer sky, and a sculpture on the Montclair State University campus in Montclair, NJ. But how many times have you bypassed it on your way to and from the library or College Hall and wondered what it might be, other than an abstract metal sculpture?

The sculpture, the story of a young man’s victory over “the snake of all knowledge,” consists of a concrete disk, an iron tripod, and aluminum artwork. It was designed in 1988 by Mac Adams and Montclair State University professor of sculpture. This victor changed his name to “Ophiuchus” (snake carrier in Greek) because he then carried the snake wrapped around his walking stick as he traveled from village to village learning the methods of medicine from the snake. The caduceus has become the emblem of physicians and veterinarians since that time.

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The not-entirely-Ophiuchus-like sculpture.

But it is also more than just a metal sculpture. At true noon on May 24, 2011, as its shadow is centered on the disk, we were able to see a figure with his hand around a writhing snake’s throat. At other times of the day or year when the shadow is not centered, it is not recognizable, except for July 17 when the sun is at the same declination as on May 24. We chose May 24 because it was graduation day, when college seniors are celebrating their personal victories over the snake of all knowledge. The alignment calculations and surveying were done by Mary Lou West, and should hold for hundreds of years. Ophiuchus is also the (small) thirteenth constellation of the Zodiac.

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An entirely-Ophiuchus-like shadow made from the sculpture, visible on May 24th and July 17th each year (for the next few hundred years, anyway).

If you are in Montclair, New Jersey on either May 24th or July 17th, Please consider visiting this Ophiuchus sculpture at the Montclair State University campus.

CNYO Observing Log: Baltimore Woods Solar Session, 22 February 2014

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

After a rather unimpressive nighttime session the night before (because of cloud cover, that it), Bob Piekiel’s Saturday afternoon Solar Session at Baltimore Woods most definitely impressed the +20 attending observers. Bob brought the proverbial “kitchen sink” of personal solar equipment, including a Coronado SolarMax 90 CaK Solar Telescope, a SolarMax II 90 H-alpha Telescope, and a small refractor with a clip-on Baader filter.

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Observers around the Coronado scopes. Click for a larger view.

As discussed in the CNYO brochure A Guide For Solar Observing, we have to use filters to observe the Sun safely. Anyone who’s looked directly at the Sun can attest to the fact that it is very difficult on the eyes (and unless you need to sneeze, why would you do that anyway?). Under magnification, this major discomfort turns into instant and permanent damage to your retina as that very bright light is concentrated in the optics into a sharp beam of considerable burning power. A video of Bob demonstrating this at the previous Solar Observing Session in August is included below.

The three scopes make the Sun observable either by reflecting nearly all of the light (Baader) or by only letting a small amount of a very specific (or narrow) wavelength in (CaK, H-alpha). The views you get through the three different filters are shown below.

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The Sun in Baader, CaK, and H-alpha filters.

Baader – knocks down the Sun’s brightness by +99.99% across all wavelengths, making it excellent for looking at Sunspots (which are slightly darker than the rest of the surface normally, so dimming the brightness uniformly reveals them as dark spots).

CaK – lets through a very specific line in the calcium spectrum. You only observe the light from the relatively few calcium ions in the Sun’s atmosphere, providing you excellent surface detail (much more than the Baader filters do, but at the cost of less definition in the sunspot features because of all of the additional detail).

H-alpha – lets through a very specific line in the spectrum of the most abundant element in the Sun – Hydrogen. These filters provide surface detail, but are prized more for their ability to observe prominences along the Sun’s edge.

The views on this very clear day were all excellent despite the wind gusts that scattered the Sun blocks around. In the downtime between attendees, I managed to capture two images with my iPhone. The first (less interesting) one is of a prominence in the bottom of the eyepiece in a very over-exposed image:

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The Sun in H-alpha through a Coronado with an iPhone. Click for a larger view.

The second one is much more interesting. The image of the Sun through the CaK filter is a rich aqua blue. Something about either the glass or the detector in the iPhone produced the light pink/purple image below, which shows all of the detail one might observe in the Baader filter (but missing any additional surface detail that the CaK filter provides to someone observing without a smartphone).

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The Sun in CaK through a Coronado with an iPhone (better). Click for a larger view.

If you’ve not had the chance to observe our closest star in detail, consider attending a future solar session!