President’s Message – March 2008
Posted On March 1, 2008
By Barbara Toy
Amazingly enough, spring is on its way – after a much wetter winter than we’ve had for the last couple years. That’s good news on the drought and wildflower fronts, but it also means we’ll most likely have a bumper crop of weeds out at Anza this year. For those with pads and observatories – please keep your areas clear! And for everyone who uses the Anza site – please help keep the common areas clear of weeds and gopher/rabbit/other critter holes!
Two Pad Licenses Available
Two generous members have donated their pad licenses to the club – one was Harry Miller, who long-time members remember for his many contributions to the club in its early years and who bequeathed his pad license to the club when he passed away several years ago. The other was the recent donation by Roland Borey, who has moved out of the area. After the major expenses of replacing the moving roof on the observatory and the roof over both halves of Anza House, the club needs money, and so the Board decided to make these licenses available for $2500 each, which is less than what we expect it will cost to build a pad in the new area when we are finally able to start construction there.
The licenses are for Pad UP-7 (in the Upper Pad area) and LP-8 (in the Lower Pad area). Word has already been sent out to people on the current Pad Interest List, so it is possible that the licenses will already have been purchased by the time you see this. If you are interested in either of them, please contact Charlie Oostdyk (firstname.lastname@example.org or 714-751-5381), for the latest information on their status and/or to buy the rights to one of the licenses.
If you want to be on the Pad Interest List or Observatory Interest List but aren’t yet, please email me at email@example.com, and I’ll be happy to add you to either or both. Besides opportunities like this one, we’ll be letting people on those lists know first when we’re finally able to move ahead with construction in the Northwest Territory – so, if you’re interested at all in building a pad or observatory in that area, please be sure you’re on the list!
The Spring Equinox is March 20, when night and day are of equal length – of even greater interest to at least the amateur astronomical community is the fact that around the equinox it’s possible to see all 110 Messier objects in one night, which is why March is when we do the Messier Marathon. Unfortunately, the equinox this year is just one day before the full moon, and our March Anza star party is at the beginning of the month (March 8, to be precise, the night that Daylight Savings Time now starts). Even though it may be a bit early for ideal conditions, the March Anza star party will be the club’s official Messier Marathon night, with the April star party as a backup in case the weather’s bad on March 8. By April the nights will be shorter, and it will be a lot more challenging to find the beginning and ending objects in the twilight of sunset and sunrise – but at least the dimmer objects won’t be blotted out by the moon!
For those who might not have run into this particular event, the objective is to view all 110 Messier Objects in one night, which for most of us means an all-nighter (some optimistic souls take a nap in the gap before new objects rise that occurs for most people around 2:00 – and many of the nappers fail to wake up in time to finish the objects that come into view in the last couple hours before sunrise). Marathoners generally use lists of objects in a recommended order for viewing, and note down on the list when each one was seen (some just check each one off). Even if weather or a too-short night make it impossible to truly see all of the objects (that is, genuinely making the object out instead of assuming it must be there because your goto system or computer says it is – a real temptation as sunrise approaches!), it's a lot of fun to find all of the objects you can, and a great way to visit Messier objects that are often overlooked in favor of more spectacular or popular objects.
Right after sunset and right before sunrise tend to be very busy times in the Marathon – sunset because you’re trying to get the first objects in the brief period between the time they become visible in the darkening sky and the time they set, and dawn because you’re trying to get the last objects between the time they rise and the time they’re lost in the glare of the rising sun. In the long hours between those two races against earth’s motion, take some time to really look at the objects you don't normally view, to get a sense of what makes them unique. In the open clusters, you can look for blue and red giants to get a sense of their ages, and look for indications that they are in the galactic plane, along with nebulas of different types. Globular clusters are generally much older structures, and circle in the halo of our galaxy – their compact symmetry is generally quite a contrast to the looseness of the open clusters. Visually, the galaxies in the Virgo cluster tend to be little smudges in the eyepiece, but it is possible to get a sense of which ones are spirals and how they are oriented toward us, which makes them more interesting. Although it takes a photograph to bring out much detail in most galaxies, you can train your eye to see a surprising amount of detail with practice.
We plan to have forms for the Marathon available in the club Observatory and at Anza house for both March and April star parties, and you should also be able to download one from the club website. You don't need to be at Anza to do the Marathon, or stay up all night – a partial Marathon is also fun and challenging, and could inspire you to try a full Marathon next year. Unfortunately, we can’t offer the Black Star Canyon star party as an option for doing the full Marathon, as we only have the site until around midnight, but you could certainly do the first part there. Wherever you are when you do it, the challenge is to do it all in one night – you can try it again another night, but you’re not doing the real thing if you do part on one night and part on another and try to count it as a single Marathon. However you do it, be sure to put your name and contact information on your Marathon form, indicate where you did the Marathon and when, and turn it in to me or send it to me at the club’s post office box, so we can give you an official Messier Marathon certificate.
Some Great Astronomy Classes – For Free!
We have our own Beginners Astronomy Class, which has always been presented by club volunteers and offered to the general public for free, but I’ve recently discovered a different kind of free astronomy course – podcasts of college-level courses that are now posted by a number of different universities. They’re generally unedited recordings of class lectures, mainly intended as a study aid for students in the classes, but anyone can download them free of charge – a real boon to public education!
One of the first professors to experiment with using podcasts in his astronomy classes was Richard Pogge, Professor of Astronomy at Ohio University. I was given a copy of the first set of lectures he recorded and posted, which were for the second half of their two-course sequence on basic astronomy for non-science majors, and discovered that they were a great way to help me get through such things as traffic, housework and exercise – he’s got a lively style and a way of presenting the material that held my interest and taught me a lot. That set of lectures started with stars – how they form, their structures and how they work at different stages in their life cycles, the different paths followed by stars of different sizes, and what happens when they die. He went on from there to talk about collections of stars, different types of galaxies, the universe as a whole, the Big Bang and scenarios for the end of the Universe, taking in Relativity and its implications along the way. It was great, and I was really sorry to reach the end. Then I found he recorded his lectures for the first course in that sequence for the Fall term of 2007, on the solar system and history of astronomy, and I’m listening to that now.
If you’re interested in these particular lectures, you can find them at http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast161/Audio/ and http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Audio/. You can also get them through iTunes. The webpages with some of the diagrams, notes and other information for these lectures can be found at http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/ and
Another set of free courses I haven’t had a chance to try out for myself yet but hope to in the future is from MIT. They are posting a wide range of class lectures for free as part of what they call their “OpenCourseWare” or “OCW” program, specifically intended for access by the general public. An article was posted about it on Astromart at http://www.astromart.com/news/news.asp?news_id=771. While looking for Dr. Pogge’s lectures on iTunes, I found another set of lectures posted by a professor at Stanford (on “Stanford at iTunes U,” http://itunes.stanford.edu/) – it seems that iTunes is making it easy for different universities and colleges to post podcasts on “iTunes U,” and they have quite a list of universities that are taking advantage of it for a wide range to topics, not just astronomy. Some don’t seem to leave them up for long, thought – I found several of the podcasts listed on the Yale website, for instance, were no longer available. These podcasts are a growing resource, though – one that can give us all a lot of pleasure and learning!
On Night Friendly/Efficient Outside Lighting
If you look at the club “Contacts” list, you might note that I’m listed as our “Dark Sky Coordinator.” That is an area I’d really like to see our club more active in – both in attempting to improve lighting conditions in Orange County and in protecting the darker skies in the area of our Anza site. Unfortunately, I haven’t had as much time to devote to that as I’d hoped when I took on that position. We do have an email list for dark sky issues – firstname.lastname@example.org – and I hope you’ll join it if you have any interest in dark sky issues and aren’t already a member. One of the benefits of the email group is that Scott Kardel of the Palomar Observatories (and our featured speaker at the February general meeting) is a frequent contributor and gives us updates on issues that affect the Palomar area (which generally also affect our Anza site, as it’s in the Palomar Protected Zone), including his successes in working with some of the local tribes regarding casino lighting.
One way we as individuals can help improve the outside lighting situation is to be more aware of what types of outside fixtures give effective light in a night-friendly way – which, happily, is generally a more energy-efficient way as well. The light domes we see over populated areas are mainly from thousands of outside lights that send a lot of their light up into the sky instead of projecting it down onto whatever they are intended to illuminate – some may be due to reflected light, but most is from light that’s wasted as it doesn’t illuminate anything. Besides dimming out the stars, that misdirected light creates unnecessary glare (a real problem for those of us with aging eyes!) and wastes a lot of energy. A “night friendly” light puts its light where illumination is needed and stops it from going in directions where it’s not needed – out to the sides, where it causes glare, or up, where it lights the sky but nothing useful.
The most effective of these are “full cut-off” lights, which have an opaque shield that hides the source of the light itself entirely when viewed from the side and that reflects all of the light that would otherwise go up or out so that it goes instead where the fixture is pointed, giving a lot more illumination to that area than a fixture with an exposed light source could give. Since as much as possible of the fixture’s light is going to illuminate what it is intended to illuminate, these are also the most cost-effective types of lights for a given level of illumination. The most astronomy-friendly of the full cut-off lights are the low-pressure sodium versions, which minimize the amount of sky-glow they produce and limit it to a type of light that can be worked around fairly easily. You can see a lot of these types of street and parking lot lights on Highway 79 in Temecula if you happen to drive through there after dark, though their benefits are probably swamped by the glaring white lights in the areas around them.
There are a lot of outside fixtures you can see that have shields that leave the light source partly exposed when seen from the side – these aren’t as efficient or effective as full cut-off lights, as they allow light to shine out the sides where it creates more glare than illumination (we see things in reflected light, which is what gives illumination, and our ability to see them is blocked by glare – whether we’re looking into the glare of the sun, oncoming headlights, or a badly directed light fixture). Generally, some shielding is better than none, and the more shielding a fixture has the better. If you find that you have poorly shielded lights around your home that you don’t want to replace with better fixtures, you might consider finding ways of adding some kind of shielding, either to the fixture itself or its location, to minimize the effects of stray light.
For more information on lighting fixtures and other dark sky matters, please check the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) website: http://www.darksky.org/. And, if you aren’t an IDA member but want to help protect and improve the condition of the night sky – IDA is a major player in that area and well worth joining!
© Barbara Toy, February 2008