From the Director

by Rex Parker, Phd

The third decade of the third millennium brings great opportunities for AAAP.  Where is amateur astronomy heading in the New Year?  What actions and decisions, what different directions might AAAP take as central New Jersey slowly emerges from the pandemic?  Will the caution, restrictions, and suppression of physical gatherings dissipate?  Or will the virtual e-meeting approach to most activities stick with us, even if no longer required by the state.  What will be Princeton University’s policy towards gathering in large venues such as Peyton Hall auditorium?

These questions provide a backdrop for thinking about how AAAP can operate in 2021.  They’re worthy of a membership-wide discussion.  So, I’ll take the option of weighing in with my own opinions and perspective here, and look forward to hearing your views.

  • Philosophically, the value of this organization to its members has never been more meaningful than now. This extends also to the wider pool of the interested and curious public and young people in schools.  The benefit stems from the fundamental essence of astronomy as the science that focuses beyond earthly issues.  Astronomy is an excellent pursuit in the best of times – and a godsend in the worst.  By opening intellectual doors and thinking outside the difficult social horizons around us, we are helping set a positive tone that gives confidence to forge ahead in the New Year.  For some of us astronomy might seem one of the best medicines available short of an RNA vaccine.  
  • Guest speaker programs, long one of AAAP’s main attractions, have been released from the bounds of regional travel limits. At the same time, the credentials of speakers and the scope and depth of topics at our monthly meetings via Zoom will continue to be at the highest level.  I am grateful that new Program Chair Victor Davis and colleague Bill Thomas have embraced this approach and are developing a slate of upcoming speakers that will impress and enhance our tradition of great live speaker programs.  
  • How will the meeting format change after herd immunity is achieved? It seems that a future meeting model will likely be a hybrid, with some speakers present in Peyton Hall auditorium with members attending, and some connecting remotely via Zoom.  For some speakers, previously recorded presentations may be preferred.  It is likely that members and guests will have the option of attending in person in the cozy surrounds of home PC environment.
  • Observatory activities evolved faster last year than a meteorite blazing through the night sky. I’m sure you’ve heard the media describe that in American corporations a decade of digital advancement occurred in half a year. In a similar way AAAP’s observatory and observing members advanced with astrovideo technology.  The recent hardware and software upgrades at Washington Crossing Observatory played a major role in our being able to offer celestial observing experiences that exceeded pre-COVID capabilities.  Observatory chair Dave Skitt, Jennifer Skitt, Tom Swords, Bill Murray, and other members used their ingenuity to innovate solutions to the problems we faced.
  • Astrovideo live sessions came truly alive in our club in 2020 and will be even more important in 2021. We have seen a growing interest in the club, much like the rest of amateur astronomy, in being involved with electronically assisted astronomy (“EAA”).  The ability to do telescope astrovideo requires less “high end” equipment and much less patience than full bore astrophotography.  That’s why we started up a members’ Astrovideo Interest Group, with ~25 members getting onboard this past fall.  A monthly astrovideo live session via Zoom began airing on the new moon Fridays, which currently is the Friday night following the monthly meeting.  Approximately 50 devices were connected to the Zoom sessions for the past several events (devices viewed by more than one person in many cases).  With running commentary and multi-site telescope video streaming, the team of Bill, Dave & Jennifer, Tom, and me had a great time bringing some of the night sky to viewers.  But there’s nothing as cool as doing it yourself.  The 2021 goal is to bring more AAAP members into the live astrovideo stream with personal telescope/video setups, as well as participating at the Observatory in the live Zoom sessions.  

Amazing nebulae in Orion that you can see in January.  Now is the best time to get out your telescope and eyepieces or camera to observe the amazing deep sky around the constellation Orion.  Probably the best known object is Messier 42, the Great Nebula in Orion, in the sword a bit below the belt stars.  There are other less frequently seen nebulae in Orion, such as the Horsehead Nebula (IC434) in Orion’s belt, a dark nebula next to an H-II star-forming molecular cloud region about 1400 light years away from us.  Another interesting Orion object is the lesser known Monkey Head Nebula (NGC 2174), an emission nebula in Orion’s upper arm above the bright star Betelgeuse (Figures below).  These were my targets during a couple of clear nights around Christmas.

For each of these two Orion nebulae, data were collected for ~5 hours with 15 min subexposures using a color sensor CMOS camera and 12.5” reflector telescope, along with a guidescope equipped with CCD guide camera. In the resulting images I was surprised by the appearance (see Figure below) of what seems like beams of blue rays shining down onto the Horse’s Head, like rays of hope and inspiration in the heavens!  Actually the blue beam in the image is a diffraction effect due to the bright star Alnitak (mag 1.8) just above the field of view.  The Monkey Head Nebula (Figure below) emits mainly red light of ionized hydrogen from a gigantic H-II region of condensing interstellar gases where new stars are continually being born, about 6500 light years away.  The surrounding star field is catalogued as the open cluster NGC 2175.

The Horsehead Nebula (Nebula IC434) in Orion, with radiant blue beam highlighting the Horse’s Head.   Astrophoto by RAParker, 12.5”reflecting telescope with ASI-071C camera.

Monkey Head Nebula (NGC 2174), an emission nebula and star forming region in Orion.  Astrophoto by RAParker, 12.5”reflecting telescope with ASI-071C camera.

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From the Program Director

by Victor Davis

The first AAAP meeting of 2021 will take place (virtually) on Tuesday, January 12th at 7:30 PM. (See Joining the Meeting with Zoom below for details). This meeting is open to AAAP members and the general public. Due to the number of possible attendees, we will use the Waiting Room. This means when you login into Zoom you will not be taken directly to the meeting. The waiting room will be opened at 7:00 PM. Prior to the meeting start time (7:30 PM) you may socialize with others in the waiting room. The meeting room has a capacity of 100 people.

For the Q&A session, you may ask your question using chat or may unmute yourself and ask your question directly to the speaker. To address background noise issues, we are going to follow the rules in the table below regarding audio. If you are not speaking, please remember to mute yourself. You are encouraged, but not required to turn your video on.

Meeting Event Participant Can Speak? Participant Can Self-Unmute?
Rex’ General Remarks Yes Yes
Victor’s  Speaker Introduction Yes Yes
Speaker Presentation No No
Q&A Session Start All on Mute Yes
Business Meeting Start All on Mute Yes

Only the Business part of the meeting will be locked.

Featured Speaker: Longtime AAAP member John Church will give a talk entitled, The Fourth Condition: A Spyglass Drama. John’s presentation will summarize the steps leading up to the design of well-corrected doublet achromatic refractor objectives.

The starting point for such a design is to choose an aperture size and the desired focal length.  Next to be considered are what kinds of glasses are available, how best to minimize secondary color, spherical aberration, and finally coma. These design methods date from the pioneering researches of Alexis Clairaut, Jean le Rond d’Alembert and others in the 18th century, since then adapted and republished by many others.  Equations for implementing their design principles were converted into a BASIC program published in Sky & Telescope (November 1984; V. 68, No 5, pp. 450-1).

John will discuss the design and performance of AAAP’s historic Hastings-Byrne 6 ¼ inch refractor, with remarks about Charles Hastings, the maker of its objective lens. He will show lunar photographs taken with this instrument. For a bit of drama, John will describe the scientific rivalry between Clairaut and d’Alembert.

Speaker’s Biography: A native of Richmond, John Church graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and then earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.   His thesis work was concerned with the reaction of crystalline carbohydrate derivatives with oxygen under relatively mild conditions.  He spent his career in research and development with American Can Company at their Corporate R&D laboratory in Princeton and then with Colgate-Palmolive at their Corporate Research Center in Piscataway.

John is the author of sixteen scientific, historical, and technical publications, including several on the optics of refracting telescopes as well as one on close conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn.  He holds ten U.S. patents and is the author of a book chapter on the chemistry of bleach. He has written three books and edited several others.  One of his Sky & Telescope articles traced the history of the 6 ¼ inch Hastings-Byrne refractor now installed in our observatory in Washington Crossing State Park, which he and many others helped build in the late 1970’s.

John has served as Assistant Director, Director, and Program Chair of the AAAP.  Next year will mark his 50th year as a club member.  His civic activities include presently serving on the West Windsor Township Zoning Board of Adjustment.  He is married and has three children and six grandchildren.

Using Zoom: While we are, social distancing the AAAP Board has chosen to use Zoom for our meetings, based our belief that many members have already have used Zoom and its ease of learning. One of its great features is you can choose whether you want to install the software on your computer or use it within your browser.

How to Join the January Meeting: For the meeting, we are going to follow a simple two-step process:

  1. Please make sure you have Zoom installed on your computer. You do not need a Zoom account or need to create one to join the meeting. Nor are you required to use a webcam.
  2. Please visit our website for the link to the meeting

NOTE: We plan to open the meeting site 30 minutes to the 7:30 start time. This way you won’t have to rush to join the meeting. A maximum of 100 attendees can join the meeting.

More Information: The Zoom site has many training videos most are for people who are hosting a meeting. If you’re unsure how Zoom works you might want to view the videos on how to join a meeting or how to check your computer’s audio and video before the meeting.

January’s Journal Club Presentation: Bob Vanderbei will kick off the new year’s Journal Club presentations by showing some of his excellent and timely astrophotos and explaining how he accomplished them. In addition, Bill Murray will tell the story of Project Diana, in which a small local team of radar experts first probed a celestial body by bouncing radio pulses off the moon, 75 years plus two days ago.

We hope to make these short presentations a regular feature of our monthly meetings. If you are interested in presenting a topic of interest, please contact either or We’d like to keep our momentum going!

Upcoming Programs: Here’s a look ahead at upcoming guest speakers. We’re expecting to conduct virtual meetings for the remainder of this academic year. In an effort to turn necessity into a virtue, we’re casting our recruiting net a bit wider than usual, inviting speakers for whom a visit to Princeton would be impractical or inconvenient. Suggestions for guest speakers for September, 2021 and beyond are welcome.

February 9  – Guömundur Kári Stefánsson: Dr. Stefánsson is the Henry Norris Russell Fellow in Princeton’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences. He will speak on innovative techniques he has helped develop for Detecting and Characterizing Exoplanets.

March 9 – Keivan Stassun: Prof. Stassun is the Stevenson Professor of Astrophysics at Vanderbilt University. He will describe The Life and Death of Stars, the title of a course he delivered for The Learning Company.      

May 11 – Alexandra Kroll Davatzes: Prof. Davatzes is an Associate Professor at Temple University. Her talk will describe Precambrian Meteor Impacts and Implications for Early Earth.

May 11 – Alex Hayes: Prof. Hayes is an Associate Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University and Director of its Spacecraft Planetary Image Facility. He will speak on Ocean Worlds of the Outer Solar System, plus he will give a brief report on the Mars 2020 mission.

June 8 – Anna Schauer: Dr. Schauer, a new mother, is the NASA Hubble Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. She leads the team researching what she’s nicknamed the Ultimately Large Telescope, a lunar liquid-mirror telescope that will aim at investigating First Star Formation.

End of an Era: For more than five years, we have all benefitted from Ira’s efforts in recruiting an impressive array of interesting guest speakers. Their expertise and scholarship, often on the cutting edge of astronomical research, are a defining characteristic of this club. Ira took on a vital role, and he did it very well. As they say in showbiz, he’s a tough act to follow. As Ira transitions from Program Chair to Active Member, I want to express my gratitude to him not only for his past contributions, but also for generously sharing his information, experience, and advice with his successor (i.e. me). Through his judgment and thoughtfulness, I am confident of a graceful and seamless transfer of power.  Thanks also to Bill Thomas, who contributes research and advice to help identify topics and presenters. I’m thankful and relieved to have Bill’s and Ira’s help.

Though I’m officially taking over as Program Chair, Ira will still be quite visible as Zoom maven, and of course as an active member of AAAP. He can be reached at

Looking forward to you joining us on Zoom at the January meeting!

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Minutes of the December 8, 2020 AAAP General Meeting

by John Miller, Secretary

● Online meeting, via Zoom, began at 7:30 pm. There were about 62 attendees.

● Rex Parker reviewed current membership count, which the Secretary records at 28 paid new members (2020); 52 paid renewed members (2020) and 52 unpaid members    (as of 11-24-2020).

● Rex presented an overview of current sky objects with a reminder of the December 21st Jupiter/Saturn conjunction (nearest separation on the date).

● Victor Davis was announced as new Program Chair, replacing Ira Polans.

● Guest speaker Kimberly Arcand, Science Communicator  with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, gave an excellent overview of the project. It was very well received.

●  Rich Sherman gave a “Journal Club” presentation. He reviewed a new book titled, The Planets

●  Rex and David (Skitt) talked about their astrovideo sessions produced at the WC  observatory and invited members to contact them to learn more regarding EAA (Electronically-assisted astronomy).

 ●  The meeting adjourned at 10:00 PM.

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Minutes of the December 1, 2020 AAAP Board of Trustees meeting (online)

by John Miller, Secretary

● A discussion on methods to draw more Zoom attendees to the AAAP General monthly meeting was undertaken.

● Ideas and enticements to draw more speakers via Zoom.  It was agreed our cache is now exponentially larger for potential guests, now that no travel is required.

● With the advent of online guest speakers and a limitless reach for attendees, it was suggested, we might consider reaching into other regions or States, via Zoom.     

● Advertising ideas were reviewed.  Return to local paper announcements (which we did every month long ago); utilize the Princeton University radio station; pin            announcements on campus, supermarkets, Kiosks.  Email K-12 STEM coordinators.

● The Fund Raising initiative (headed by Assistant Director Larry Kane) currently has 2 committee members. It was agreed we need to draw the general membership into this task, e.g. acquaintances who have a background in fundraising  methodologies.

●  Dues payment for FY 2021 are required by January 1st. Our fiscal year is July 1st through June 31st. Payments not received by that week will forfeit membership and be removed from the promotions mailing list. The board will do its best to notify members regarding renewals. Renewal may be quickly accomplished online at the AAAP website.

●  There was a general welcome for member Victor Davis as he takes the reins of            Program Director, replacing “retiring” Ira Polans.  A review of the outreach process was also undertaken.

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Bob Vanderbie’s Lucky Shot!

While most of the astro photographers had given up in New Jersey, Bob waited and waited for a break in the clouds and boy, did he get lucky! This picture was taken at 5:45 on December 21, the day Jupiter and Saturn came closest to each other.
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Greetings from the Observatory Co-Chairs

It’s been a memorable year.  Some parts I’m sure we’d all like to forget.  Others will be in our minds forever.   Who knew how much the heavenly body(s) could bring us close together even when we’re apart?  

Dave and Jennifer Skitt
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We Wait

by Gene Allen

In early 2020 Celestron introduced a line of low-end telescopes which include some very high-end technology. They did themselves and their customers a great disservice by re-using the StarSense label, because this new tech is orders of magnitude different from all earlier components bearing that name. I purchased and use a $300 StarSense accessory on my AVX mount. It is a camera that does a respectable job of automating a 3-star alignment. It picks up the data from the GPS accessory and, on a GEM, requires that a decent polar alignment has been otherwise accomplished. Similar tech seems to come included on some fork-mounted SCTs, but it is just that: automated multi-star alignment.

To distinguish the new technology one must use “StarSense Explorer,” and so far that only describes four below-entry-level, alt-az, push-to scopes. The genuine magic of the SSE tech is that it uses your fairly late model smartphone to actually plate solve a view of the night sky and present arrows to direct you to your chosen target. The cellphone clips into a bracket with a mirror that offers the phone camera a sufficient chunk of sky. Using a distant target in daylight, you tweak the center of the camera view to match the center of the eyepiece view, and you’re done. No pole star, no star alignment at all – ever. A free app runs the camera and does all the calcs internally, so no internet needed. It is reported to do a great job in all but the most heavily light-polluted skies. It can even be interrupted to answer a phone call without having a seizure. If the tripod is kicked or moved to get a target out of the trees, it re-solves in moments and happily continues. The catalog includes only Messier and Caldwell entries (and their NGC equivalents), but the two big disappointments are that the app needs an activation code to provide the pointing directions, and the code and phone dock are only offered with a telescope purchase. They are not (yet?) available as a separate accessory.

Having read through the 27 pages (as of this writing) of the leading SSE thread on CloudyNights after Dave Skitt brought it to my attention, my conclusion is that the only possible contender of the four is the 130mm reflector for $400. Most components are plastic and flimsy, stretching for bottom dollar. The 114mm reflector is of the discredited Bird-Jones design, and the two LT models ($180) have even less capable tripods and slo-mo control of only altitude. One respondent upgraded the focuser, diagonal, and eyepieces on the 102mm refractor, and then returned it because it still provided inadequate views when compared to his WO 102. Part of the issue is that for nearly the same money as the somewhat better DX models one can buy significantly better optics with conventional go-to automation and tracking.

As one might expect, the CN crew jumped right on it, cannibalizing scopes to jury rig the docks onto capable tubes of all types. My informal sense of the more than 600 entries is that the majority deal with just that. There are numerous appeals for Celestron to offer a semi-universal, maybe dovetail-mounting version of the dock plus the activation code as a separate accessory. Will Celestron do so, or offer it on better tubes? They will miss a tremendous opportunity if they persist in limiting SSE to dismal hardware. The good part is that now that they have shown what’s possible, others are likely to take up the cause. Open source plate solving algorithms are reportedly available, and some wizard will likely reverse engineer the app or come up with their own. Designs to 3D print a lighter weight (though less universal) dock are already underway.

So, returning to Dave’s original query, StarSense Explorer scopes offer unmatched technology on hardware that cannot be recommended with any confidence. Please do your own research and draw your own conclusions. Mine is that they offer exciting potential but are sadly not ready for even beginner prime time. Artemis says, “We go.” I say, “We wait.”

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From our new member Titus

Titus and wife Karen

My name is Titus Magnanao. I am new member of the AAAP. I became interested in astronomy after I watched Carl Sagan’s PBS Cosmos series. I am a recently retired environmental engineer from the NJDEP. After not owning a telescope after all these years my wife bought me a telescope on our 20th wedding anniversary. I am thrilled to have it and have diligently been scanning the night sky the past few months. Thank you and I am glad I joined the AAAP. Happy New Year!

Posted in January 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged | 1 Comment


compiled by Arlene & David Kaplan


Jupiter, Saturn Will Look Like Double Planet Scientists have been greeted by the sight of jet black chunks of rock and soil from an asteroid after opening a capsule that returned from deep space a week ago. It’s the first significant sample of material to be delivered to Earth from a space rock and was grabbed last year by Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft…more


Nasa’s Mars rover and the ‘seven minutes of terror’ The US space agency (Nasa) has released an animation showing how its one-tonne Perseverance rover will land on Mars on 18 February. The robot is being sent to a crater called Jezero where it will search for evidence of past life. But to undertake this science, it must first touch down softly…more


Nasa’s new ‘megarocket’ set for critical tests Nasa has been developing a “megarocket” to send humans to the Moon and, eventually, Mars. The last critical tests of the giant launcher’s core section are expected to take place within the next few weeks. Sometimes compared to the iconic Saturn V, can the Space Launch System (SLS) help capture the excitement of lunar exploration for a new generation?…more


This May Be the First Complete Observation of a Nanoflare Researchers may have found the long-sought “nanoflares” thought to heat the solar corona to its incredible temperatures. A new study published in Nature Astronomy marks the first time researchers have captured the full lifecycle of a putative nanoflare – from bright origins to blistering demise…more


Astronaut Scott Kelly: How to survive a year in space Astronaut Scott Kelly tells the BBC how he managed to live for a year on the International Space Station and why, four years into his retirement from Nasa, he would go back if someone asked. It’s 16 July 2015, and all three occupants of the International Space Station are squeezing ..more


A Martian Roundtrip: NASA’s Perseverance Rover Sample Tubes The tubes carried in the belly of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover are destined to carry the first samples in history from another planet back to Earth. Future scientists will use these carefully selected representatives of Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust)…more


 NASA Approves Heliophysics Missions to Explore Sun NASA has approved two heliophysics missions to explore the Sun and the system that drives space weather near Earth. Together, NASA’s contribution to the Extreme Ultraviolet High-Throughput Spectroscopic Telescope Epsilon Mission, or EUVST, and the Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer, or EZIE, will help us understand the Sun and Earth as an interconnected system…more

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From the Director

by Rex Parker, Phd

Join us for the great conjunction tonight, Friday, December 18 on solstice day, December 21 right after sunset (4:37pm).  You can join the live astro video session via Zoom produced by the AAAP astro-video group.  If conditions are favorable we will stream from the club’s Washington Crossing Observatory with the Celestron-14 as well as with additional member telescopes.  Weather permitting, we will begin shortly after sunset at 4:37pm as soon as the skies are dark enough to use the imaging cameras.  It will be tricky because of the low position in the southwestern sky, only 17 degrees above the horizon at 5:00pm.  A conjunction occurs when two planets reach their minimal angular separation in our skies.  This one will be remarkable because the Jovian planets will be only ~0.1 degrees apart, close enough to fit within the field of view of the telescope/camera setup.  Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn happen every ~20 years but this one will be the tightest since 1623!  

The link below will take you to Zoom meeting information posted on the website.  Friends and family are welcome to join the session (if we hit our limit you may need to wait).  If weather dictates, the date may shift a couple days either way – stay tuned to the website announcement.

Zoom Meeting and YouTube Live Information 

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