100 Hrs of Astronomy with the OCA

Posted On May 7, 2009

400 years ago an Italian mathematician aimed a small tube with some glass lenses at the sky. With that simplest of gestures, man's view of the universe was forever changed. That man, Galileo Galilei lived at a time when people thought the Earth was the center of the Universe and everything else revolved around us.  When Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter, craters and mountains on the moon, the rings of Saturn (though he did not recognize them as rings) and sunspots he gave further evidence that the Earth was not the center of the Universe as previously thought. He was labeled a heretic by the Catholic Church and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

At this, the dawn of modern Astronomy, thousands of people looked at the heavens through the crude telescopes of the time. Today, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the telescope, the United Nations and International Astronomical Union declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy. Part of this celebration was a world wide outreach event/star party from April 2nd - April 5th 2009.  The idea was to get as many people as possible to look through telescopes during this 100 hour period.

Here in Orange County, the Orange County Astronomers (OCA), have always had a very active outreach program and we decided that this was a great chance to show some people that we normally don't reach what they could see through a telescope. There were several events that we participated in: One was held at a school in Garden Grove up against the 22 freeway. One was supposed to be held at O'Neill Regional Park in South Orange County, but alas that got canceled due to skies being too overcast to see anything. The University Of California Irvine (UCI) had Star Parties Fri, Sat. and Sun. members of the OCA were present all three nights. Cal State Fullerton also hosted a viewing both for solar during the day and the usual night time objects. We also had an event at the Mission Viejo library, which included a panel of professional and amateur astronomers and web casts from several major observatories. There was also an event held in conjunction Irvine Valley College and Celestron. For a report on that event see Barbara Toy's President's Message in the May Sirius Astronomer.

I participated in the school at Garden Grove, Cal State Fullerton's night time event and UCI's Sunday night star party.  During those three events, I showed the wonders of the night sky to over 500 people.  There were more people in attendance but with several telescopes and limited time not everyone had a chance to see everything being shown.

For my targets I chose Saturn to start the evenings since it was high in the sky at sunset and it is an object no one ever tires of. Once the sky got dark however I decided to show folks something unique. I've always been a fan of observing planetary nebulae. Those smallish round looking fuzzy objects that signal the end of some star's life (and any possible planets orbiting them). In the summer I'm partial to the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra, or The Dumbbell Nebula (M27). But the late winter/early spring has its share of nice planetaries.  Among my favorites are the Ghost of Jupiter, The Blinking planetary, and the Cat's Eye Nebula. But for various reasons such as they were too dim for the light pollution, rose to late etc... I did not choose them. Instead I set my sights on one of my favorite planetary nebula, NGC2392, often called the "Clown Face" or "Eskimo" nebula.

At low power this nebula is nothing spectacular, just another grayish fuzzy spot that frustrates novice viewers with small telescopes. But throw some power at it (around 150x or more) and a scope with at least 8" of aperture, and you will start to see some of the detail which gives this exploded star its name. As the guests stepped up the eyepiece, I would tell them to relax and take their time and tell me what they saw. Virtually all the people saw the same thing in the eyepiece at first glance; two bright stars. When I asked them to describe them, one was always seen as fuzzy or out of focus. Upon further examination they were usually able to see the central star and then the shells of gas surrounding the star and making it look fuzzy and like an Eskimo wrapped up in the hood of his parka.

When I explained that they were looking back approximately 3000 years in the past most people were shocked and amazed. Then I tell them that they are looking at the remains of a star similar to our Sun that had ended it's life they always asked how long we had before the sun did that. At 4.5 Billion years out, no one had anything to worry about.

Another object I showed during the outreaches was the Orion Nebula. Which I explained was a stellar nursery some 1500 light years away and 15 - 20 light years in size people were again amazed.

The one event I did not get a chance to go to was the event at the Mission Viejo library. I did get a report from OCA member Rich Stember who was the coordinator of the event. His description of it is below:

"I would say that the Mission Viejo Library event was a success - well attended

and very well received. I estimated that a total of 250 - 300 people attended

over the two days.

The panel discussion was very lively. Our three panels, Bob Buchheim, Jennifer

Tan and Minor White each gave very interesting and entertaining presentations.

While it drew a small audience (~ 30 people) it was indeed a very lively

discussion with a lot good questions coming from the audience.

Our photography and astronomy image exhibit drew a lot of compliments. Special

thanks are owed to Wally Pacholka for lending us his wonderful photographs.

The web casts from IYA I thought were really superb. While technical diffulties

interupted the broadcast several times the interviews I did see were really


And finally the star party was a big success. We had 7 volunteers at telescopes

and yet there were people lining up until almost 10 pm.

A big thank you to all of the OCA members who helped. And thank you to our

panelists who did a fabulous job. And last but not least thank you Stephanie

and Russ Tanton and the rest of the Mission Viejo Library staff (especially the

person who donated the Moon Pies!). Stephanie and the library staff were very

generous with their time and labor. They have agreed to making this annual

event at the library."

For me; spending the time under the stars showing the night sky to over 500 people; explaining what they were seeing, how to recognize constellations, discussing light pollution (which was very prevalent at all the events I attended)  and other aspects of astronomy was time well spent. I look forward to the rest of IYA 2009 and introducing more people to this wonderful hobby.