Thursday, May 26, 2011

Girl Scout Outing at Conway Observatory


On May 21, Calumet Astronomical Society hosted a group of Girl Scouts and their families at Conway Observatory in Lowell. I got to the observatory about 5:45, 15 minutes before the cookout was supposed to start. CAS members Maureen and Kim were our liaisons for the Girl Scouts. They are both deeply involved with them, and Maureen is a Girl Scout representative to NASA.

The forecast called for scattered storms throughout the afternoon and evening, but from 4 PM on, the general trend was a clearing sky. There was concern that we might not be able to observe after dark, but we were glad to have dodged the afternoon storms, and nothing looked to be approaching. When I arrived at Conway, Chris, Mike, Larry, Maureen, and Kim were getting ready for the visitors. Mike was setting up the grill for the cookout. The solar scope was set up, and the roof was open in the Hunter Astrophoto Lab. I’d seen the night before that the telescope and cameras were installed. The Girl Scouts (and families) hadn’t started arriving yet, so I opened my car, and staked out my piece of the concrete observing circle.




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I put my scopes out, but left the dust caps on. Chris was working the solar telescope, and asked me if I wanted to view the Sun. Of course I did! I had borrowed the society’s Coronado personal solar telescope without realizing it rides piggyback on a 6” refractor with a white light filter. He pointed out that there was a prominence off the limb, and also I noticed a filament near the opposite limb.


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The Sun with a white light filter...


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...and with the Coronado hydrogen alpha filter.


When the visiting families started showing up, Chris asked if I wanted to operate the solar scope for the guests. I jumped at the chance. He showed me how to work the right ascension and declination controls, and I was off. I also used my solar set up, explaining how Galileo first observed sunspots.


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CAS members with their telescopes and binoculars set up around the observing pad.


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By 6:30 Mike had hamburgers and hot dogs off the grill. Waiting for the kids and visitors to eat, I sat and talked with Jim and Larry.


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Mike cooking on the grill.


After getting a plate of food for myself, I wandered around the observatory and grounds, talking solar astronomy and explaining how the 16” telescope works with families who asked questions.

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When the cookout was over, Maureen and Kim had activities planned for the girls, so I had time to get my telescopes ready. I walked over to the Hunter Astrophoto Lab to check out the new telescope. The telescope will be controlled by a netbook computer, or even remotely through a laptop with the proper software installed. The computer had not been installed yet, so I was a little surprised when the telescope started slewing while I was looking at it. I hadn’t touched anything, so I had a feeling Chris was messing with my head. I looked over to the observing pad and saw Chris with his laptop looking back at me. He was testing the system, and I heard later even tried imaging Saturn before dark.


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Kim goes over a crater making experiment with a group.


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Girls dropping rocks into different powders, creating craters and ejecta.


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Of course I showed off the 16" LX200 to visitors checking it out.


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My first real look at the Hunter telescope. Little did I know Chris was controlling it with his laptop from below.


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With no Moon, everybody was getting anxious waiting for the first stars (and Saturn) to appear after sunset. Finally Arcturus and Saturn shined through the twilight, and there was a buzz around every telescope. There was too much twilight for deep sky objects, so Saturn and double stars such as Alcor/Mizar, and the Double Double in Lyra were the prime targets. The crowd was already thinning out before full darkness set, and even the Calumet astronomers were packing up by 10:30 PM. We did see a few meteors and a bright, high Iridium flare, the Beehive open star cluster, and globular star cluster M5. I tried the galaxies M65 & 66, and M104 to little fanfare.


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It seemed like forever before the Sun dropped out of sight and twilight faded so we could observe the night sky!


It was a fun time, even though conditions were not the best. We knew we were lucky to see anything at all given the evening’s forecast. As the last CAS members were getting ready to leave, I knew I was going to stay out until the clouds came in, however late that might be, and I would have the observatory to myself. Just a few hours before I had never seen so many people and telescopes on the grounds, but now I was going to be able to explore the universe alone. Either way is fine with me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cold, Fun Star Party at Chicago's Union Park

I will submit a proper posting when I can, but for now, please read the Chicago Astronomer thread about this star party.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Clouds Slightly Hamper Public Observing at Conway Observatory

Last Friday, May 6, Calumet Astronomical Society was hosting it's monthly public open house at Conway Observatory. The forecast all week had been decent, but of course when showtime came around, it started getting iffy. The sky was clouding up as Hillary and I were on our way to the observatory. We got there very early, let ourselves in, and I called for advice as to how I should update the CAS hotline that night. After updating the hotline, I planned to work on picture editing and writing without the distraction of the internet, but the sky was calling out to me. We went outside.

Conditions were good for sundogs, and we'd seen one while I was driving. I was expecting more, and wasn't let down.


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Hillary shot this sundog while I was driving. Better ones awaited us once we arrived at Conway Observatory.


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Sundogs are caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting sunlight. The ice crystals are arranged so that the light is refracted by 22 degrees, so sundogs are always found 22 degrees from the Sun. With the Sun about an hour before setting, I had no real good reason to be looking almost straight up, but I looked there anyway, and saw another sort of refraction, something I'd never seen before.


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This might have been the coolest thing I have ever seen in the sky! A circumzenithal arc!


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Once that weird refraction dissipated, I saw a cloud moving in the direction the refraction had appeared. I told Hillary to keep an eye on that spot, because we might see it again. I was right!


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With the Sun setting, the clouds were thickening, and the session started looking doubtful. Other members started arriving, opening the roof and setting up telescopes despite the conditions.


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Hillary and CAS member Jim, who we sat talking to while watching the clouds roll in at sunset.


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Our only look at the Moon early, getting swallowed by clouds almost as soon as it became visible.


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Hillary, CAS member Craig, and a reporter from the Post-Tribune in the observatory control room just after opening the roof.


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Craig removing the dust cover from the 16" Meade LX200 observatory telescope. We joked with Craig to roll back the clouds when he opened the roofed, but he failed.


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Looking down from the observing deck at my car and telescopes on the observing pad.


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Jim setting up his telescope. We were planning on handling the observing down on the pad while Craig worked the 16" LX200.


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A view of the new Hunter Astrophoto Lab, the newest addition at what is now called the Calumet Astronomy Center, which includes CAS facilities Conway and Hunter, and the nearby Purdue University Calumet NiRO research observatory. The Hunter Astrophoto Lab building is now completed, and the telescope and operating system should be installed this week.


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Hillary.


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Me.


It was slow at first, but we had a few families show up for the open house on this mostly cloudy night. A few weeks ago I had bought the DVD of "Hubble IMAX," and was watching it in the basement media center to kill time. When visitors arrived to cloudy skies, I told them they could stay and watch the movie, and we would monitor sky conditions for any possible viewing. The Hubble movie was a hit, but when two of the younger girls started dozing off, their parents decided it was time to go. Walking out of the media center, I immediately noticed a sucker hole over the Moon! I was at my Dob in a flash, inviting everybody over for a quick look. As we were showing the Moon, another sucker hole opened up over Saturn, and Jim slewed to it as fast as he could. Just like that the skies were opening up for us, rewarding those who stayed to watch the Hubble movie with celestial delights.

Our targets were few, but Luna, Saturn, and a few bright Messier galaxies were worth the wait for those who stayed. As the visitors left, the rest of the CAS members were closing the observatory. I wasn't going to give up on a clearing sky so quickly, however, and asked them to leave the roof open. I wanted to stay as long as it was clear.

The clear skies didn't last long, however. As I was looking through a star atlas for possible targets, the clouds began marching in again. I had to settle for a quick view of Saturn with the big scope before closing the observatory for the night.

Although we were mostly clouded out, the public open house was deemed a success since our March and April events were totally clouded out. The brief viewing pleased our few guests, and I think they are all eager to return with better weather. Due to other commitments, I won't be able to work another CAS public open house until October, but I hope they have great sessions the rest of the summer, and can't wait for some of our private society observing nights.