From the Director

Rex
by Rex Parker, Phd director@princetonastronomy.org

Astronomy in Summertime.  The AAAP Observatory at Washington Crossing State Park is up and running and ready for members to see the stars!  We are still limited by the state to having  no more than 12 people in the building at a time, but there’s no limit on the observing field.  A benefit of membership is using the telescope equipment whenever a Keyholder is present to open up and help operate the equipment.  Members can also set up personal telescopes on the observing field next to the building.  Varying sky conditions make it hard to plan sessions, but outside of Friday night public open-house, if you want to access the observatory you are encouraged to send an e-mail to the Observatory Chair (observatory@princetonastronomy.org) or me (director@princetonastronomy.org). We’ll attempt to find a Keyholder who can come out to the Observatory that night. 

It is encouraging that life is trending towards normal around the state.  Princeton University announced the intention to resume on-campus operations this fall.  Later this summer we hope to learn if and when AAAP can return to Peyton Hall auditorium for monthly meetings. 

The Edge of Space.  The past couple weeks have seen some astounding advances in privately developed aeronautical/space adventures.  Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flight took it to ~86 km (53 miles) while Blue Origins rocket reached ~106 km (66 miles) above sea level, passing through the von Karman line.  Although it may mean bragging rights between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos and their companies, the von Karman line is not really a true boundary of outer space.  The von Karman line at 100 km altitude above sea level is an internationally accepted altitude for where space begins.  But of course physics doesn’t correspond to nice round numbers.  This altitude corresponds only approximately to where aerodynamics stops and astronautics begins, where the atmosphere becomes so thin that aeronautical lift cannot be sustained.  But original citations of the von Karman line indicated  275,000 ft (83 km), and the 100 km definition appears to have been the result of US-Soviet geopolitical agreements in the early 60s.  An astronaut is still defined by the USAF as a person who has flown higher than 50 miles (80 km) above sea level.

Light Dome Dimmer.  The mandate from the New Jersey Supreme Court to expand affordable housing has resulted in big plans for development across the state.  This is a very good thing at many levels, but the increase in light pollution that would result is a problem for all who appreciate the night sky.  Two large residential developments (1077 and 379 units) going forward now in Hopewell Township are located close to the AAAP Observatory (one is only ~2 miles away).  To reduce skyglow, the Environmental Commission and the Planning Board requested significant changes in the developer’s outdoor lighting plans.  In the last few weeks, the developer formally agreed to reduce the number of lighting fixtures by 62% overall (from 545 to 199, and 141 to 58, in the two subdivisions).  They will use sky- and wildlife-friendly 2700K LEDs (amber-tinted) and install adaptive controls which lower light output by half after midnight.  Compared to where it was originally headed, this is a big improvement that will help protect what’s left of the night sky at our Observatory.  There will be significantly less skyglow coming from the intensive development and the “light dome” above them at night will be proportionately dimmer.

The take-home message is that you, citizen amateur astronomer, can make a difference in the future of our night skies. Tune in to the development plans happening now in your town, and speak up at your planning board or environmental commission.  Right now most meetings are being Zoomed, a great way to make your concerns heard. 

SATCON2 Workshop – Astronomers Respond to the Onslaught. As if we don’t already have too much light pollution, the night sky is being disturbed by an unexpected threat — the tracks of satellite “constellations” reflecting sunlight.  Hundreds, soon to be many tens of thousands, of low earth orbit satellites have begun to appear in the night sky.  The good intentions of the Starlink project from SpaceX, and similar efforts planned by others, are to provide fast, low-latency internet access to underserved areas of the planet.  The problem with all this is not only future space debris, but night sky light pollution of a special kind.  Depending on your angular position with respect to the satellites, the low orbital trajectory results in bright visible trails from reflected sunlight as the trains of satellites cross the sky.  Of course North America is the most profitable market, so the satellite intensity will initially be highest here.  The streaking trails of these satellite constellations are seriously damaging to data collection and can overwhelm sensitive instruments for many scientific projects at the big professional observatories.  They disturb the natural darkness of the night sky and can ruin astrophotographs.  Instrumental and software remedies are proving to be extremely difficult.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) and NSF’s NoirLab are leading the effort to respond to this growing problem that caught the astronomical community off-guard.  There is an opportunity for amateur astronomers to be among the diverse voices of stakeholders for the sky.  I urge you to read up on the issues and consider becoming an amateur member of AAS in order to participate in the expanding conversation on this major topic.  You can become a member of AAS through this link (use AAAP as your affiliation on the application).  https://aas.org/join/classes-membership-and-affiliation. 

Last year, experts joined to assess satellite constellations impact on astronomy and consider possible mitigations.  The meeting in July 2020 was titled, “Impact of Satellite Constellations on Optical Astronomy and Recommendations toward Mitigations”. The findings are summarized at this link:  https://aas.org/satellite-constellations-1-workshop-report    I participated this July in the second workshop, SATCON2.  The main topic was how to implement the strategies and recommendations emerging from SATCON1. The summaries from SATCON2 can be found at this link: https://noirlab.edu/public/media/archives/presentations/pdf/presentation026.pdf 

One of the key recommendations was that the obligation to reduce detrimental effects of satellite constellations on astronomy should be a condition of FCC licensing.  The community engagement section of the workshop stressed that further involvement of amateur astronomers is needed to help amplify the concerns and seek solutions.  The situation seems convoluted, with some people finding the sightings enjoyable, not realizing the havoc they may reek when there are 50,000 of them aloft.  One activity for AAAP members would be to observe the satellite constellations at specific predicted times, and share our impressions within the club. Here’s a link to a site that predicts when they could be seen:  https://findstarlink.com/.  If we can work out the timing, let’s aim for members to meet at the Observatory during a Starlink sky crossing this summer.

Posted in Mid-summer 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

An invitation to participate in the ’20th Annual Stirling Street Fair’

by Victor Davis, Program Chair

I’ve just been invited to participate (again) in the annual Stirling Street Fair. I normally do this solo, setting up solar telescopes and what not. There are generally a lot of people who come out, and the day is a lot of fun. The latest Covid resurgence is scary, but I’ve said that I’ll participate if the weather and health restrictions cooperate.

I’m inviting any other AAAP members who wish to participate to join me in this outreach opportunity. There’s also an opportunity to turn this into an “AAAP sanctioned event” where we pass out literature and promote the club.

The street fair is within walking distance of my house, but a bit of a drive from the Princeton area. It will take place (hopefully) Sunday, Sept. 5. Please contact me at program@princetonastronomy.org if you’d like to participate.

From the Long Hill Chamber of Commerce:

  • The Long Hill Chamber of Commerce will sponsor its 20th Annual Street Fair on Sunday, September 5 from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM on Main Avenue in Stirling.
  • The Street Fair will feature shopping, food, all-day entertainment, kids’ rides, local vendors and organizations and a chance to see fire and first aid equipment up-close.
  • Main Avenue residents should move their cars to a side street before 7:00AM.  Churchgoers should allow extra time for detours around downtown Stirling.
  • Long Hill merchants who want to participate should visit www.jcpromotions.info and and click on the “Vendor Registration” button.

Posted in Mid-summer 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Minutes from the May 11, 2021 Members General Meeting (Online)

by John Miller, Secretary

The June meeting convened at 7:30 PM via Zoom and Yahoo (online).  There were initially about 49 Zoom attendees.

●   Rex Parker introduced the evening’s topics and included a video of a model rocket launch (several members recalled launches when they were younger), a review of Zoom meetings versus live gatherings at Peyton Hall if the building reopens (live gatherings edged out). Also reviewed briefly – the current night sky.

●  Victor Davis introduced the evening’s guest speaker: Anna T.P. Schauer – a NASA Hubble Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.  Her presentation was titled: “First Star Formation and the Lunar Ultimately Large Telescope.”  It was very well received.

● The upcoming June 10th partial solar eclipse (as viewed from NJ/PA) was discussed. Long-time member Ron Mittelstaedt put up a conglomerate of views from the May 10, 1994 partial solar eclipse he took in NY State. Some present members discussed a field location for the forthcoming event.

●  Rex mentioned a new remote imaging group using a PlaneWave 24” in the Hurtado Valley, Chile.

●  The Washington Crossing Observatory repair status was reviewed.  AAAP Treasurer Michael Mitrano continues communications with State Park officials in an effort to re-secure permits.

●  Observatory Co-Chair David Skitt reviewed keyholder preparations.  A discussion ensued reviewing where the optimum EAA (Electronically-Assisted Astronomy) screen placement would be on the outside of the observatory building.  There was some concern voiced regarding the interference of field visual observing, astrophotography and public naked-eye observing caused by the bright light of the optical screens.

●  A lengthy discussion regarding the Space X StarLink satellite programs was shared. The topic concentrated on the detrimental effects on both the amateur and professional astronomy environment.

●  The meeting adjourned at 10:30 P.M.

Posted in Mid-summer 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

S.P.A.C.E.–The First Frontier?

by Sam Sherman

During the May monthly meeting, member Ira Polans spoke about his travels to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I smiled as he shared details about their wonderful exhibits and tours, including the bus tour of the NASA complex a short ride away. I smiled because not only is that location home to the museum, but it is also home to Space Camp, an incredible place where I spent a week for three consecutive summers. If not for COVID-19, it might have been four! They do have programs for adults and families, though, so I sincerely hope to return one day as a camper.

            Since Mr. Polans already spoke to eloquently about the complex itself, I wanted to share a little bit about my experiences with Space Camp itself. The first time I went, I was a rising sixth grader. It was my very first time away from home, and I was nervous and did not know what to expect. I did not need to worry! Camp kept us busy all day long, between flight simulations, learning the various Mission Control positions, including Flight Control, CAPCOM, EECOM, and so many other roles! I even had the experience of trying to repair a satellite upside down in a zero-gravity simulator. And then there was the multi-axis trainer and all of my new friends from around the world. One year, I roomed with several kids my age from Argentina. Their English wasn’t too strong, and my Spanish was non-existent at that time so we communicated in the one language we shared—soccer.  I could go on and on. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to go—and to go multiple times.

Me and Hoot Gibson:

            That appreciation got me thinking, though. I am fortunate that my parents not only paid my camp tuition but incurred the cost to travel to Huntsville and to stay the week three times. Many of my peers do not have that same opportunity. As a student in the Pennsbury School District, economic diversity among the students is both a strength and a challenge in our community.  After my third summer there, I decided that I wanted to do what I could to make sure that other kids could have the same opportunity to attend Space Camp that I did. In 2018, I founded S.P.A.C.E.—Scholarships for the Promotion of Astronomy through Camp and Education. We are a Pennsylvania Nonprofit organization, with federal 501(c)(3) status still pending. My goal was to send even just one student who would not otherwise be able to attend Space Camp, though we have also looked to finance other local opportunities for students interested in space and astronomy as well. The project was put on hold for a few years—first because I was ill for an extended period of time, and later because of COVID-19. I am extremely proud, however, that the organization is now up, funded to the point of being able to finance at least one student to Space Camp, and open for applications for the Summer of 2022. 

            If you know of a student who may qualify, please encourage them to apply. Though my goal was, initially, limited to the Pennsbury population our charter is broad enough to extend the opportunity to other students as well. I will be fundraising for the remainder of the application period, and will make available as many opportunities as we can to share this opportunity with as many students as possible. Sending one student would be a dream come true; sending more than one student would be truly amazing. Information about S.P.A.C.E., the application process, and how to donate can be found at http://www.spacecampscholarship.com. Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or comments about the program to sammymsherman@gmail.com.

Posted in Mid-summer 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Going into space

by S. Prasad Ganti

In a space of ten days, two spacecraft carried different sets of people to the edge of the space and brought them back to Earth. There are differences in their approaches to their respective missions. Much is being made of the billionaires involved in the so-called space race. With some questioning on the priorities for going into space instead of solving the worldly problems. What does it mean for the future of space travel ? Can lesser mortals like yours truly be likely to get there ?

Richard Branson went in a plane called Spaceship Two – “VSS Unity”. This plane had to be carried to a certain altitude on top of another aircraft. Once free from its mother aircraft (called “White Knight”), VSS Unity fired its rocket engines on its journey to the edge of space. And came back and landed  on a runway. As a result, he went a little lower. Jeff Bezos went to the official edge of space called the Karman line about 60 miles above the Earth’s surface by launching in a rocket called “RSS Next Step”. His capsule separated from the rocket and came down with  a parachute to land. He also spent a lot more fuel and wasted a part of the rocket in doing so. Only the first part of his rocket which came back and landed, is reusable. Branson’s model seems to be more economical but complex from an operational standpoint.  

Branson’s spacecraft needs two pilots and the mother aircraft another two. While Bezos rocket is totally automated. No pilots onboard ! Branson’s total journey time was about an hour while Bezos was done in about ten minutes. What these missions have accomplished is just grazing the edge of the space and falling back. They did not circle the Earth nor go to any other world like the moon or any other planet. Those will come later. But it is a small step for mankind.

These space rides sound very much like the airplane rides of the earlier years. Wherein passengers were taken in an airplane for a few minutes around the airport for hefty sums of money. They were not even travelling from place to place, just circling in the sky over the same place. But from those humble beginnings we have arrived at transcontinental and intercontinental travels. Today, air travel is not a newsworthy item. Unless there is a crash.

One way to look at billionaires going into space is that it is all private sector sector investment which is building up new business models – whether it is Elon Musk launching cargo and crew to the International space station or Bezos and Branson launching space tourism or establishing colonies in space. No tax dollars are funding any of these initiatives. Governments cannot be accused of mis-prioritizing. 

Existence of the world hunger problem does not mean that five star restaurants stop serving elaborate meals, it does not mean that someone should stop going to Starbucks to have a cup of coffee. Progress on the Earth and in space can happen in parallel. Space technologies do solve problems on the Earth. Satellites enable weather prediction and global communications. It is all about business models which sustain economies which can help the poor. When there is spending, whether buying a cup of coffee or going into space, it creates employment for others.  

Where I see this going is that in the next year or two, there will be routine flights carrying passengers to the edge of space. Much like Elon Musk’s Space-X routinely carries cargo and crew to space now. It will still be very expensive and be only for the elite. A decade down the line, the costs will come down which may still be beyond the reach of the common man. But in the next three to five decades, space travel will become like what air travel is today. It will not be a newsworthy item anymore. May not be the subject of any blogs either! Unless there is an accident. Maybe there will be private pilots like me flying those spacecraft, but I will be long gone by then into the space without the help of any spacecraft!

Posted in Mid-summer 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Cosmic Queries

by Richard Sherman 

Cosmic Queries by Neil deGrasse Tyson 

Published 2021  

Grade:  A- 

Hardback $19.49 on Amazon  

312 pages 

Well-known author and personality Neil deGrasse Tyson authored (or co-authored) his 14th book this year, titled Cosmic Queries. The book is published by National Geographic, so the images and page layouts are slick, and the writing is clear and concise. It is one of those books that touches on everything—from the cosmic microwave background to black holes, from dark matter to quarks, and from how our star/solar system/universe started to how it will end. The topics addressed in Cosmic Queries were extracted from questions and conversations from the author’s StarTalk multi-cast (podcast, etc.).  

So here is what I liked about the book: 

  • Concise and clear explanations. I especially like concise writing. 
  • Lots of good analogies and deGrasse Tyson has a knack for helping the reader understand the scale of astronomical topics. For example: “Earth’s moon is five times more massive than Pluto,” and “If a football field were a timeline of cosmic history, cavemen to now spans the thickness of a blade of grass in the end zone.”   
  • There are lots of good facts, figures and historical information in the “callout” boxes.   
  • The book’s structure is logical. It doesn’t start with the Big Bang and end with the Big Rip, but instead the chapters build on the knowledge and science of the preceding chapter(s).  
  • It is a heavy, well-built book with thick pages, and lots of high-quality images—and it costs less than $20. 

Here are a few things I didn’t like: 

  • The author shares a lot of his tweets in other boxes on the page. There are probably too many of them and most add little to the chapter’s topic.  
  • There were a couple topics that I expected him to address in a comprehensive astronomy book, but deGrasse Tyson skipped several of them. For example, he discusses evolution of intelligent life and the conditions likely needed to achieve it (as well as a dive into the Drake Equation), yet he does not address the critical role our moon has played in helping to sustain such conditions.  

In summary, Cosmic Queries is a beautiful book well-suited for the beginner to intermediate hobbyist, but probably not the right book for an advanced amateur astronomer who has assuredly read several other books like this.   

Posted in Mid-summer 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Snippets

compiled by Arlene & David Kaplan

David Ducros/IPGP

NASA Releases First Detailed Map of the Insides of Mars
NASA’s InSight mission revealed Mars’s inner workings down to its core, highlighting great differences of the red planet from our blue world. A trio of papers reveal the red planet to be something like a colossal candy treat, its crust split into layers of volcanic chocolate, the mantle rigid and toffee-like and the planet’s core light and syrupy….more

-BBC
-BBC

Nasa’s Perseverance prepares to drill first rock sample The US space agency’s Perseverance rover is getting ready to take its first sample of Mars rock. The core, about the size of a finger, will be packaged in a sealed tube for eventual return to Earth. Scientists say their best chance of determining whether Mars ever hosted life is to study its surface materials in sophisticated home laboratories…more

-NYT

Moon wobble to bring surge in coastal flooding in 2030s, NASA study predicts Nearly all US mainland coastal areas will see a surge in high-tide floods in the mid-2030s, when a lunar cycle will amplify rising sea levels, a NASA study found. The rapid increase will start in the mid-2030s, when a lunar cycle will amplify rising sea levels caused by the climate crisismore

-CC0 Public Domain

Glauconitic-like clay found on Mars suggests the planet once had habitable conditions A team of researchers from Spain, France and the U.S. has found evidence of a glauconitic-like clay on Mars that suggests the planet once had habitable conditions. In their paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the group describes their study of clay minerals extracted from Gale Crater by Curiosity rover back in 2016 and what they found….more

-space,com

Winchcombe meteorite gets official classification The Winchcombe meteorite is now official. The rocky material that fell to Earth in a blazing fireball over the Cotswold town of Winchcombe in February has had its classification formally accepted. Details have just been published by the international Meteoritical Society in its bulletin databasemore

-NASA/ESA

 Subsurface Ocean of Enceladus Has Currents, New Theory Suggests A novel theory proposed by planetary scientists from Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory challenges the current thinking that the saltwater global ocean of Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn, is homogenous. In 2014, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered evidence of a large subsurface ocean on Enceladus and sampled water from geyser-like eruptions…more

-space,com

Scientists Accidentally Find a ‘Very Exciting’ Unique Exoplanet Has More Water Than Earth Scientists have accidentally discovered details about a “very exciting” planet orbiting a nearby star system, which is thought to contain more water than Earth. The scientific interest in the planet, known as Nu2 Lupi d, was sparked after researchers spotted it using the European Space Agency’s Cheops satellite…more

-BBC

Meteor wows Norway after blazing through night sky Norwegians have been left awestruck by a bright meteor that illuminated the night sky in the country’s south-east. Footage shows powerful flashes of light over Norway, followed by what witnesses described as loud bangs on Sunday…more

First Detection of Light from Behind a Black Hole Watching X-rays flung out into the universe by the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy 800 million light-years away, Stanford University astrophysicist Dan Wilkins noticed an intriguing pattern. He observed a series of bright flares of X-rays – exciting, but not unprecedented – and then, the telescopes recorded something unexpected: additional flashes of X-rays that were smaller, later and of different “colors” than the bright flares…more

Posted in Mid-summer 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged , | Leave a comment