President’s Message – September 2008

Posted On September 1, 2008

By Barbara Toy

My apologies – I’m afraid I fell down a bit on the job last month, as I didn’t realize until after the August issue of the Sirius Astronomer went to press that I had forgotten to give notice of the fact that our September general meeting had been moved to the first Friday of the month instead of our usual second Friday, because Chapman University needs to use the Chapman Auditorium for another function on our usual night. In case you see this before the first Friday of September – unlikely, but miracles sometimes happen – please remember to come to the meeting on the first Friday of the month, September 5th, instead of the usual second Friday of the month. We will resume our usual schedule in October...

The end of August and beginning of September mark the end of summer vacation and beginning of the new school year for many people. September also marks the beginning of the next new cycle of the Beginners Class, which runs for six sessions, one each month (September through February, then March through August). September is the month of the autumnal equinox, and also the Harvest Moon, which (or so I’m told) was important in agricultural societies because it gave enough light that the harvest could continue through the night hours. However good it might be for farmers, and even though the Harvest Moon can be a very pretty sight as it rises opposite the setting sun, the full moon is generally not a real favorite of most astronomers, particularly those of us who enjoy the dimmer fuzzies of the night sky – if you’re thinking of viewing that night, I doubt you’ll see much of anything dimmer than Jupiter.

Although it can get chilly in September, usually viewing temperatures are still very comfortable at night, and the winter constellations are rising well before dawn, so you actually have a chance to see them in reasonable comfort compared to the winter months, though, of course, much later in the night than in winter. It’s worth a late night to see Orion without need of a heavy jacket and gloves – at least once!

The First Annual Pacific Astronomy and Telescope Show (PATS) Is Almost Here…

People who are familiar with NEAF on the East Coast have frequently commented that we need a similar large astronomical conference on the West Coast, where people can have access to all kinds of vendors and be entertained and educated by a variety of speakers and other activities. It's a lot easier to spot the need than to pull something like this together, but the folks that have been bringing us RTMC for many years decided this last year to undertake this challenge.

As a result of their efforts, the very first PATS conference will take place at the Pasadena Convention Center on September 13th and 14th, starting at 9:00 a.m. each day. Why should you as a member of the local astronomical community go to this event? There are a lot of reasons, ranging from enlightened self-interest to a desire to support the fine folks that put so much time and energy into bringing us a truly wonderful event. And, while it may be a bit small-minded to think of it this way, as true Californians, do we want to give people on the East Coast reason to think that they can put on an event that that we can't duplicate or improve upon?

For those who may be moved by enlightened self-interest, both days feature a series of speakers that include Terry Mann (President of the Astronomical League) on “What’s Out There,” Astronaut Story Musgrave on the Hubble repair mission, a panel of astronomers from Cal Tech on frontiers of astronomy, Brian D. Warner and Jerry Foote (Society of Astronomical Sciences) on doing science with your telescope, Gary Palmer on “the Sun in motion,” Robert Naeve on “Behind the Scenes at Sky & Telescope,” John Dobson and David Levy. Truly a varied set of speakers and topics!

Another reason to go as a matter of enlightened self-interest is that 70 astronomy-related vendors and organizations have already committed to being there – a wider variety of vendors than you’ll find at RTMC, as there are a lot who don’t want to deal with the dust and other damaging conditions out there. This is your chance to see a more kinds of imaging equipment, software, and astronomical goodies than you could find in any other single location in Southern California – and, if this goes well, there should be even more next year! So, come out and support this great new addition to the local astronomical scene! And do plan to stop by the OCA booth while you’re there!

Dennis Mamana Class

If you came to our July General meeting, you may recall the many beautiful photographs that Dennis Mamana, our main speaker for that meeting, showed in the course of his talk on night sky photography (which he carefully distinguished from astroimaging, defined as imaging using a telescope instead of just a camera on a tripod). If you weren't there – well, you missed a very good talk.

Dennis teaches classes in night sky photography, and takes genuine pleasure in seeing what other people are able to do with his techniques. After the July meeting, I exchanged several e-mails with him about setting up a class specifically for OCA members, as I’d heard from a number of people who were interested in taking one of his courses. The upshot was that he scheduled a special class for us, which took place in Borrego Springs on August 9, and turned out to be longer and filled with a broader range of information than I’d expected.

Dennis’s style of night sky photography aims to get pictures close to what people can see with their own eyes, without magnification, though there are some differences as a camera gathers more light than the human eye. He particularly enjoys taking naked-eye objects in the night sky with interesting foreground objects that are part of the terrestrial landscape, such as rock formations or trees. Anything that can provide an interesting foreground or frame to the celestial object of interest is fair game, whether they are generally considered "natural objects" or not, so buildings, cars and people can be interesting additions. The point is to have an interesting picture that includes the celestial target(s) as part of the composition.

The class was only $55 per person, and we started shortly after noon. Since our group ranged from beginners to experienced photographers, he covered a lot of photographic basics as well as areas more directly related to taking these types of photographs, such as composition and when the best lighting conditions occur for this type of photography. Although we were generally a quieter group than many he’s taught, his enthusiasm never waned, nor did his desire to be sure that we really did understand what we needed to know in order to get some good images.

After an entertaining dinner at the local watering hole (which had excellent food, though I can personally attest only to the Mushroom Swiss Burger), we headed out to the desert to take the pictures. Specifically, we headed to a canyon area outside of Borrego Springs, and we got there before sunset, so we could get pictures in the sunset light as well as through the various stages of twilight.

It was great fun wandering around the canyon, trying to set up interesting shots that included identifiable celestial objects and an interesting foreground, lit by a slightly gibbous moon (Dennis told me that he likes to take pictures when the moon is a little bigger than a quarter, but when it’s more than a couple days past first quarter it’s too bright for good star pictures). I had some success framing the moon through one of the bushes on the floor of the canyon (that picture may appear somewhere in this issue), but another shot that seemed like a really good concept – Delphinus above some rocky undulations that kind of looked like waves from where I was originally standing – didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. The ISS came through on an orbit that took it very close to Jupiter early in the evening, and I think everyone was shooting away at that but I haven’t seen many results – mine came out as a sequence of three pictures with a bright spot that visibly moved from shot to shot, but otherwise looked pretty much like the bright spot that was Jupiter in each of the shots. Alan took longer exposures and so got the ISS as a streak, which was a lot more interesting.

While we were all pretty much doing our own thing with our cameras, Dennis was helping those who were having problems with their equipment and giving helpful suggestions to all of us when appropriate, so he was kept pretty busy. We finally started to wind down around 10:30, and I think that everyone in the group got at least a few good pictures as a momento of a really satisfying and informative event.

If there are enough people interested in taking a class with Dennis, he would be willing to set up another OCA session. The minimum class size is 12. If you are interested, please email me at

Great Developments at the Centennial Heritage Museum!

Our club has had a long-standing relationship with Centennial Heritage Museum (which some people may remember under its original name, the Discovery Museum). The nature of our involvement has changed over the years, and at this point the activities we have there regularly are the monthly Beginners Astronomy Class and the Astrophysics meetings. For most people, the museum is an undiscovered jewel in southern Santa Ana near Costa Mesa, and I commonly hear comments from newcomers to the sessions we hold there that they had no idea the museum was there. You can get a good sense for the museum and its programs and facilities from its website,

The best-known feature of the museum is Kellogg House, a beautiful and historic Victorian home that was moved to the site from its original location and then renovated; it is central to many of the programs the museum runs for visiting classes (about 18,000 students visit the museum each year), where students can dress in period clothing and try out different activities that give them a hands-on sense of what it was like to live in the 1890s . A second historic Victorian home, Maag House, was also moved to the site several years ago but has not yet been renovated. There are also extensive gardens, including a rose garden and gazebo area, an orchard, a nature preserve, and an active blacksmith’s shop (run by the Orange County Blacksmiths).

This last year has been very exciting for the museum. There has been an influx of talented new Board members, who have brought a lot of energy, imagination and resources to help put the museum on a better financial footing and develop its potential, and there have been some important additions to the museum staff. You can see the signs of positive change everywhere – a completely new building has sprung up to provide needed storage and working space, another building has been completely renovated as a classroom and multi-use facility, a new area with picnic tables has been built under the trees so visiting classes have an outdoor area where they can meet (and eat), the old classroom (which was in such poor shape it couldn’t be repaired) has been demolished, the parking area has been reconfigured, one building got new windows and all of the main buildings are getting new paint – there are more improvements there all the time.

Some of these changes are directly benefiting us, as we now use the new classroom, which is clean, weather-tight, and very nicely finished – quite a contrast to the old classroom where we held the Beginners Classes and Astrophysics meetings for several years, and which was notable for such things as stuffed birds hanging from the ceiling, display cases in various states of disrepair, bins of recycled materials for crafts projects, a significant lack of temperature control, and (after the building was moved because of the construction of the new high school behind the museum), fountains of water that poured through the ceiling every time it rained. Even if you’re one of those who become nostalgic remembering happy days in the old classroom, I think you'll quickly adapt to the comforts of the new facility!

I’ve got several reasons for bringing all this to your attention. One is that some people may not attend our meetings at the museum (particularly the Astrophysics meetings) because of concerns about the facilities based on experience with the old classroom – if you’re one of these, please come and see the changes for yourself! Another is that the museum can always use volunteer help, and if any of you have some time and are looking for a good local cause, please consider the museum – and, even if you don’t become a volunteer there, it’s a great place to visit. A third reason is that the museum has had a series of really unique annual fund-raising events, and their next one is coming up on September 27 – the “Gangster Gala and Flapper Fling.” Last year’s event was the last evening on the Titanic, and was a resounding success, and this year’s event should be even better. So, if you have that evening free, you might want to consider getting up a congenial party and going for an evening of good food, drink and 1920’s-flavored fun – you can find the details on the museum website.

© Barbara Toy, August 2008