High Energy Astrophysics

Posted On April 13, 2000

The event - "the High Energy Astrophysics workshop for Amateur Astronomers" was sponsored by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and hosted by the American Association of Variable Star Observers.

My introduction to this event was via an email from OCA president Russell Sipe. The email was asking for interested amateurs to make an application to the AAVSO before being admitted onto the workshop. I am definitely not an expert in High Energy Astrophysics, however I do have an interest in the exploring the knoweldge and ideas in this are - and in view of the fact there was only a few days left to apply - I decided to submit an application myself.

To my surprise about 10 days later I received an email from the AAVSO informing me I was accepted onto the workshop - and that I had also received a small grant from NASA to help with travel costs.

Although I am not a member of the AAVSO, I was somewhat aware of what this organization does from the fact that we have many members within the OCA who submit their own variable star observations to this internationally recognized organization.

I had very little idea on what to expect of the workshop and I must admit to a certain feeling of trepidation when I finally arrived at Huntsville Airport especially when I found myself sharing the hotel shuttle with a gentleman from NM who runs a 24" telescope privately and was the first amateur astronomer to observe the visual afterglow of a Gamma Ray Burst. I was beginning to think I was perhaps out of my league.

Imagine also my surprise to look out the window of the shuttle bus as we were approaching the hotel and find myself looking at a full size Saturn 5 rocket towering to the sky. The Hotel is sited adjacent to the US Space and Rocket Center - also the official space camp where hopeful future astronauts get a chance to immerse themselves in every aspect of NASA exploration.

Thankfully I found out that I was one of a wide spectrum of amateurs - in fact over 85 of us in total. The first evening (April 12th) the AAVSO and NASA put on an informal reception where attendees could meet and socialize together and with some of the AAVSO management and NASA scientists who would be presenting some of the sessions over the next few days.

The OCA Webmaster - Liam Kennedy was one of just 85 amateurs from around the world to be chosen for a unique event which took place in Huntsville, AL on April 13th and 14th 2000.

This photograph, taken at the welcome reception includes some of the major organizers and contributors to the event including Janet Mattei, director of the AAVSO (center seated) and Dr Jerry Fishman of Nasa (Top left).

This is what Janet has to say about event and the people who were selected to attend;

"We selected the attendees in part by asking how they would share their knowledge with others," says Janet Mattei, director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), which is co-sponsoring the meeting along with the Marshall Space Flight Center. "We got some fantastic responses from astronomy club presidents, planetarium workers, and teachers ... just wonderful responses. There's a real need to bring high-energy astronomy to the attention of the public, and we think these are the right people to do it."
* quote from news article from NASA on the event.

Below is a photo showing all of the attendees and most of the presenters as photographed outside the Space & Rocket Center

The workshop started in earnest on the Thursday morning with introductions from Janet leading into the first introductory session by Dr Jerry Fishman (chief Scientist for Gamma Ray observing at NASA). Jerry provided a great overview of the wide spectrum that High Energy Astrophysics covers - which was an excellent introduction to the remaining seminars we were to be treated with.

The workshop continued into the evening with a special lecture on the Crab Nebula given by Dr Martin Weisskopf (chief scientist for Chandra) at the Vonn Braun Planetarium.

Not knowing quite what to expect of the sessions - and how detailed they may be - I decided to video tape as much of the workshop as possible using my own Digital Camcorder. I came away from the workshop with over 10 hours of recorded DV - which I am now going through in detail. I have created a VHS tape and CD-ROM of the presentation by Dr Weisskopf on the Crab Nebula - which I will be sure to share with the club members at an appropriate time.

I left the workshop having made contact with numerous amateur astronomers and groups from around the country and even further afield. The workshop was fantastic both for the technical information that was presented - but also for the connection that Amateurs and Professionals made with one-another. I was certainly very privileged to be able to attend this great event.

I will be creating a much more detailed report on the event - and some further articles on the whole area of High Energy Astrophysics.

In the meantime you can check out a summary of the event as created by NASA here and also by the AAVSO here