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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