From The Director

by Rex Parker, PhD director@princetonastronomy.org

Reflections on 2021. Another year passes and we are wiser if not quite complete, and there is much to reflect upon. The year turned out well for AAAP, thanks to our members who gave time and energy to further amateur astronomy in the Princeton area. The Zoom approach to monthly meetings has been a hit even though we greatly miss Princeton’s Peyton Hall and have no clarity on when we might return. Our membership has in fact increased during the pandemic to over 100, and attendance at the monthly Zoom sessions has been around 50-60. Guest speakers, many from outside New Jersey, have been superb thanks to the efforts of the program committee (Victor Davis, Bill Thomas, and Ira Polans). We established the AAAP YouTube Channel with recordings of the meetings as well as the Astrovideo Live sessions for celestial events, such as the recent lunar eclipse and last year’s Mars opposition. Some progress on the much needed Observatory column repairs was made, though we still await the state’s issuing the construction permit. The construction funding campaign is ¾ of the way to our goal to cover expenses.

Meanwhile, public nights and member use of the AAAP Observatory at Washington Crossing State Park have seldom been better, thanks to the rapid adoption of video telescopic astronomy within AAAP driven by Observatory Chair Dave Skitt. Along with Jennifer Skitt, Tom Swords, and the Keyholders, the ingenious equipment setup now includes large LCD displays hanging from the walls inside and outside. This enabled us to show live astro images from the club’s Celestron 14 using the ZWO astro camera even in the midst of the social distancing. Our corps of trained Keyholders provided needed expertise and energy to make the Friday night public programs a huge success. We established formal COVID social distancing protocols which the state endorsed, and began to see larger public turnouts as the season progressed.

We are also making progress in 4 new initiatives with members stepping up to help move these forward (Merchandise, Rich Sherman; Social Media, Debbie Mayes; Telescope Loaner Program, Todd Reichart; Night Sky Network, Ira Polans). Finally, I give deep thanks to my fellow Board members Michael Mitrano, Victor Davis, Larry Kane, John Miller, Bill Murray, Gene Allen, and Dave Skitt, for helping make AAAP successful despite the challenges.

New Secretary of AAAPGene Allen has been appointed as the new Secretary with unanimous consent of the Board.  Please join me in welcoming Gene to this essential role in AAAP!

Beacons or Technosignatures? — Finding Evidence of Life beyond Earth, part 3 of AAAP Discussion.  A paradigm change is underway in the scientific search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence.  Scanning the sky for artificial radio transmissions for decades led to a few exciting false alarms, more sophistcated radio telecopes and algorithms, and tighter statistical limits, but no breakthrough. Then in 2017 the enigmatic extrasolar object Oumuamua drew serious attention to the possibility of finding alien artifacts rather than detecting radio waves or other electromagnetic signals.  This object’s anomalous acceleration, elongated shape, and other physical properties were bravely interpreted by Harvard astronomer and “Extraterrestrial” author Avi Loeb as a possible interstellar buoy or ancient derelict craft from a galactic culture perhaps long-expired. As Univ. of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank says, we are moving from beacon SETI to technosignature SETI.  Of course, deep consideration of how to interpret and communicate evidence of first contact with either is essential.  As I described in Sidereal Times last month, NASA Chief Scientist James Green and colleagues recently published a formal framework for reporting evidence for life beyond Earth (Nature, Oct 28, 2021). 

Linking beacons to probes, scientists are also considering searching for evidence of transmissions from within our solar system rather than only aiming outside. Michael Gillon (Univ. of Liege, Belgium) and Artem Burdanov (MIT) propose that if extraterrestrial intelligence exists, a communications network may have already been developed around numerous stars including the sun. In their proposal stars would be used as gravitational lenses to maximize communication efficiency from probe to home planet. So the idea is to search at the “solar gravitational line” of the nearest stars, which is at the opposite coordinates from us to the nearest stars. The gravity lensing of signals from a probe within our solar system, or from an exoplanet, would be detectable at the lensing focal distance from the respective star, which for the sun turns out to be near ~550AU distant from Earth. In fact, an early stage proposal for a spacecraft mission to send an imaging telescope to the solar gravity lens focus has already been made (see “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop 2017”, LPI Contrib. No. 1989). The idea of Gillon and Burdanov extrapolates this concept to other extraterrestrial civilizations as well. For more on this topic, see https://phys.org/news/2021-11-alien-probes-solar-home.html.

Be Part of the Unjournal Club.  Doing astronomy as a club is a little different when we cannot meet in person for regular meetings.  For now, the best way to keep the comm channels active is to use our monthly Zoom meetings to highlight club activities and facilitate member conversations.  This takes place during the 2nd hour after the main speaker has finished, when the informal “Journal Club” presentation by a member is slotted each month.  The objective is to help break the boundaries set by Zooming.  Here I am asking you to volunteer to give an “unjournal” club session!  “Unjournal” because these short episodes don’t need scholarly, journal-like topics at all, they only need to engage members with what you care about in astronomy.  It works great with Zoom screen sharing with PowerPoint slides, JPEG’s, etc. from your home computer or mobile device.  To get on the schedule for an upcoming meeting, please contact me or program chair Victor Davis.

This entry was posted in December 2021, Sidereal Times and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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