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December 2006 President's Message
By: Barbara Toy
November 24, 2006 10:13PM PDT
Views: 8205

Some joy for the holidays - the Griffith Observatory reopens, and Mike Simmons' project to bring astronomical equipment and assistance to amateur astronomers in poorer areas of the world, "Astronomers without Borders" becomes a reality!

President’s Message

By Barbara Toy


Well, it’s really winter – as evidenced by the fact that the Winter Solstice is upon us (along with the Holiday Season and all that entails!).  I hope all of you have a great time with family and friends for whatever celebrations you indulge in during this time of the year!  And, while you’re celebrating, please take a few minutes to vote – the OCA elections end with the January general meeting, which is on January 12, 2007.  The directions on what to do are on the ballots themselves, so download the ballot from the website (it’ll be posted soon after the December general meeting) or get your copy from the January Sirius Astronomer and send it to the address on the ballot or bring it to the January meeting.  If all else fails, there will be ballots available at the January meeting, so come to the meeting to vote as well as to enjoy the program!


In keeping with the spirit of the season, here are some recent developments that should bring joy to our astronomical community:


Griffith Observatory Reopens…And LAAS Returns Home!


In case the general publicity has somehow passed you by and you missed Chris Butler’s impromptu presentation on the subject, the beautiful, venerable and memory-filled Griffith Observatory has finally reopened after its long renovation.  Chris has been very much involved in the process, and advised us to wait two or three months for a lot of the furor to die down – as I write this, there have been stories in all of the local papers about the reopening, at least one TV special and a lot of other TV coverage, etc., etc., sparking a tremendous amount of well-deserved and welcome public interest.  This means that there are now crowds of people who want to see the expanded and refurbished observatory and museum right away, so reservations are currently needed, and people need to park down the hill from the observatory and take a shuttle up from the parking lot.  This fever-pitch of excitement will undoubtedly die down, and those who wait with a bit more patience will be able to see the New Griffith in a lot more leisurely way and without having to plan for it well in advance.


That was my own game-plan, as I don’t really enjoy visiting places like the Griffith in a crush of other people, but I was given the opportunity to visit the observatory as a guest of one of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society members who was going to their first meeting at the Griffith since it reopened.  LAAS has a long-standing close relationship with the observatory, and the club’s monthly meetings have traditionally been held at the observatory – they shifted their meetings to the observatory’s temporary quarters after it closed for the renovation, and were understandably eager to return to the observatory proper when it reopened.  Monday, November 13th, was the big night, and 80-plus enthusiastic members of the LAAS and their guests convened at the observatory for their first monthly meeting in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater.  I’m happy to say that the group included several people who are also OCA members – we have quite a few members who also belong to LAAS and other clubs, and we really benefit from the knowledge and experience they gain from their other memberships (I hope this works both ways!).


The observatory is closed to the general public on Mondays, which meant that parking was a lot easier than it would have been otherwise – we parked on the road just below the observatory and walked in.  The observatory itself looked spectacular as we approached, in part because it’s a beautiful building, and in part because of the dramatic lighting.  The first gathering point for our party was off to the side, where there is a set of wide stairs going down the hillside to the new display area below the main observatory and the grounds in front of it.  We had the run of that area before the meeting, and a lot of people continued to explore it after the formal meeting was over – it was well worth it!


If you’ve heard that the display area, along with the gift shop and other facilities, are underground and have concerns about claustrophobia, you can forget them.  These may be underground, but you’d never know it from the entrance or from the areas themselves.  The entrance is very open, entered through a courtyard at the foot of the outside stairway and flanked by the gift shop and the cafeteria.  The display area inside is an immense open space, dominated by a mural that’s two stories high and covers the entire back wall, showing a tiny portion of the Virgo galaxy cluster in a way that’s reminiscent of the Hubble Deep Field (though not as deep, of course).  The upper level of this room has telescopes for viewing portions of the mural more closely, and scale models of the planets (the set includes Pluto) are mounted along the wall below the telescope area, so you can look at them from above and from below.  The lower area has numerous stations covering a variety of astronomical phenomena, and there’s a screen to one side of the mural that was running a series of images from the Hubble (the theme was “Wonders of the Universe,” but that specific display will probably change frequently).  To give you a sense of the size of this area, the theater seats about 150 people, and is located to one side of the display area and is completely surrounded by it.


Well, we wandered around before the meeting got started, but in half an hour only had time to skim the surface of all that’s there.  It’s truly impressive, and I’m looking forward to going back when I’ll have more time to explore – and when the upper areas of the observatory and the planetarium are open.  However, in addition to the pleasure of seeing at least part of what the Griffith crew has created in the long period the observatory has been closed, we also had an interesting and informative talk by Akkana Peck on observing the moon (including different types of features you can see and comparisons with terrestrial analogs), and the pleasure of seeing one of our neighbor clubs return to its traditional home – truly a wonderful evening!


Besides its monthly meetings at the Griffith, LAAS plays an important part in the Griffith’s public star parties.  If you’ve been to any of those star parties in the past, generally all the telescopes you see in front of the observatory are brought by LAAS volunteers.  I remember going to the Griffith in 1994, in the period that the pieces of Comet Shoemaker-Levy hit Jupiter – there were crowds of people wanting to see the spectacle, with more arriving all the time I was there.  I was impressed by the telescopes set up on the lawn area in front of the observatory, and by the patience and good will of the people running those telescopes – and was even more impressed when I learned that these were all LAAS volunteers who had brought their own telescopes for interested members of the public to view through.  This was long before I got my own first serious telescope, and I had no inkling then that one day I would be a volunteer running a telescope at similar events myself.  I still remember those volunteers with gratitude, and I’m glad that they’re now able to set up their telescopes again for public viewing in front of the observatory and to help the Griffith introduce people to the wonders of the universe around us.


Astronomers without Borders


At our November general meeting, Mike Simmons gave us another interesting talk about his trips to the Middle East to visit the amateur astronomy community in that area.  People who attend our meetings regularly may recall his past talk about visiting amateur astronomers in Iran, and the problems Iranian astronomers have had in obtaining equipment, both because of lack of resources and because they have been cut off from the international market for so long.  He had another trip to Iran planned after that talk, and, largely because of the response of a number of OCA members to his talk, he was able to collect several pairs of binoculars and other astronomical equipment to take to the astronomy club in Tehran and to a small town that had built its own public observatory as an enthusiastically-supported town project.  Liam Kennedy went on that trip as their official videographer, and, in the talk he gave us after he returned, showed us some great footage of the people he met there and the delighted response of the groups who received the equipment that Mike took over for them.


Mike’s most recent trip was to Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the home of what was planned to be a world-class observatory and where there is a small but very active group of amateur astronomers, the Amateur Astronomers Association of Kurdistan (AAAK).  Just as the astronomers in Iran had problems obtaining decent viewing and imaging equipment, members of the AAAK have very limited access to decent telescopes and other viewing equipment, even when they have the money to pay for equipment.  They have been enthusiastic and innovative in their use of what little equipment they have had, however, and have been determined to make astronomy an important part of Kurdish science and education as they rebuild their society.  And, though their access to the West has been limited, they have used the Internet to make contact with astronomers outside of Kurdistan, which, among other things, has led to a strong friendship between one of their members, Rodgar Hamid, and one of our astroimagers, Wally Pacholka.  Rodgar first contacted Wally by email in 2004 after seeing some of his work on the Internet, and they have been exchanging emails ever since, some of which Wally has generously shared with me and with others who have an interest in that area.


Mike was originally going to Kurdistan last spring, and the main official reason for the trip was to do an article on what has happened to the Iraqi National Observatory, which was nearing completion when construction stopped during the Iran-Iraq war (as he showed us, the dome has been seriously damaged by a couple of missile strikes, but the concrete structure is intact, though stripped of anything usable.  The hope is to refurbish it and obtain a new telescope instead of trying to use the one originally ordered for that observatory).  His trip had to be postponed several times, but he finally was able to go in October.  From what he saw while there, Kurdistan is an island of peace in war-torn Iraq, with its own government and security forces.  Since he was able to fly directly to Kurdistan without stopping elsewhere in Iraq, he reported that he did not feel he was in any particular danger during his trip, in spite of the war and sectarian violence affecting major portions of Iraq.


When his trip was set up in the spring, members of the AAAK managed to raise about $800, and asked Mike if he could buy them a telescope with these funds.  When Mike put the word out to the local astronomy community, he was delighted when several people came forward with offers of telescopes as well as other equipment, more than he could use on this trip because of the limits on what he could take with him.  The response to his request for help was so positive that Mike decided to move ahead with a project he had been thinking about since his last trip to Iran – an organization that would collect astronomical equipment and other donations to help astronomers in areas that don’t have access to the telescopes and other equipment we are used to here and in the other more developed parts of the world. 


This organization is “Astronomers Without Borders," and he has started the process to have it incorporated.  I am not sure whether it will be a charitable nonprofit or educational nonprofit, but any donations will be tax deductible.  From Mike’s experience traveling in different countries in the Middle East, the experiences of those, such as Liam Kennedy, who have traveled with him, and the experiences of others traveling in other parts of the world, astronomy truly is a universal interest, crossing all cultures.  As has been said before, we all share the same sky – in the Middle East, this is literally true, as we are located at about the same latitude – and helping our fellow astronomers in other countries can truly help build bridges between different cultures in a contentious world.  When you moved on to other interests within our hobby or upgrade your equipment, wouldn't it be nice to know that equipment that is no longer useful to you can help other, less fortunate astronomers in other parts of the world to explore the sky and inspire interest in a subject we all enjoy?  Astronomers Without Borders can help us all achieve that.


For more information about Astronomers Without Borders, including information about making donations or otherwise helping out with this exciting project, please email Mike Simmons at msimm@ucla.edu.  And at the next general meeting you attend, please be sure to look at the beautiful “thank you” plaque that Mike presented to OCA on behalf of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Kurdistan for the assistance our members have given them – the picture doesn’t really do it justice!


In Closing …


Some other positive developments I should mention are that things are moving forward on the new development at Anza (though more slowly than we were hoping), with the observatory roof project, and with fine-tuning the Kuhn, among other things – more details will be coming.  We’re looking forward to a busy and exciting year in 2007 – which just happens to mark the 40th anniversary of when our club got started.  We’re open to suggestions on ways to celebrate this milestone, so let me know what ideas you have (email them to btoy@cox.net).  And, to help give us the resources we need to continue with all of our programs and to improve on them, remember that the fundraising program through eBay is still going on – so, as you clean things out to start the new year off right or look for possible tax deductions for 2006, please think about what you can turn over to Larry McManus that he might be able to sell to raise funds for the club. 


Best holiday wishes to all of you and your loved ones!

                                                                                                                        © Barbara Toy, November 2006

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