From The Director

by Rex Parker, PhD

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

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.

Posted in December 2021, Sidereal Times | Tagged , | Leave a comment

From the Program Chair

By Victor Davis

The December 2021 meeting of the AAAP will take place (virtually) on Tuesday, December 14th at 7:30 PM. (See How to Join the December Meeting below for details). This meeting is open to AAAP members and the general public. Participants will be able to log in to the meeting as early as 7:00 pm, and will be able to chat informally with others who log in early. In previous Zoom meetings, people joining the meeting before 7:30 pm were queued into the “waiting room.” Since the waiting room does not permit hobnobbing among participants, the host will now open access to the meeting as soon as participants log in. For the November meeting, we tried this scheme and it worked out pretty well. The one caution with this plan is that members enter the meeting unmuted. Please be mindful of your mute/unmute status and mute yourself before the meeting starts promptly at 7:30 pm.

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 EventParticipant Can Speak?Participant Can Self-Unmute?
Director Rex’s General RemarksYesYes
Program Chair Victor’s  Speaker IntroductionYesYes
Speaker PresentationNoNo
Q&A SessionStart All on MuteYes                                    
5-minute bio breakYesYes
Journal Club presentation (none scheduled)Start All on MuteNo
Business MeetingStart All on MuteYes
Director’s closing remarksNoNo
Only the Business part of the meeting will be locked.

Featured Speaker:  Dr. Joleen Carlberg, STIS Branch Manager at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

The Fiery Fate of Exoplanets

What happens to planets when their stars begin to die? For many of the planets we’ve discovered outside our Solar System, the answer is a trip into the fiery depths of their host star, particularly when that star becomes a red giant. What happens when a bloated star devours a Jupiter is quite different from what happens to a star that devours a Mercury! This engulfment should leave behind some easy-to-identify clues, but only if we know enough about the dying star. In this talk, Dr. Carlberg will share her investigations into what we know (or think we know) about the physical changes a star undergoes during its lifetime and how we can use this knowledge to search for evidence of planetary engulfment. One of her research goals is to disentangle the several processes that affect a red giant’s lithium abundance to identify stars for which “lithium enriched” translates into “ate a planet.”


Dr. Carlberg earned a B.S. in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Villanova University, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Virginia. She was a Vera Rubin Postdoctoral Fellow in Astronomy at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where she measured key characteristics of red giant stars in open clusters and verified new open cluster candidates in the Milky Way’s disk. She was a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow, studying the origins of lithium-rich red giant stars within open clusters. Currently, she supports users of HST’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS). Her research interests include understanding the effects of stellar evolution on a star’s planets, and characterizing stellar properties such as rotation and composition using ultraviolet, optical, and infrared spectroscopy. Toward that end, she’s been awarded substantial observing time on some of the world’s premier telescopes, including HST.

Dr. Carlberg is active in astronomy outreach, leading public observing sessions, presenting in-school and after-school sessions at local schools, and conducting “Astronomy Chats” at the National Air and Space Museum.

AAAP webcast:  This month’s AAAP meeting, beginning with Rex’s opening remarks and ending at the break before the business meeting, will be webcast live on YouTube and recorded for subsequent public access on AAAP’s YouTube channel. Be aware that your interactions during this segment, including questions to our guest speaker, may be recorded for posterity. 

YouTube Link:

This session will be recorded and saved on YouTube. Send me an email at if you have any concerns. 

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 December 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 Zoom link.

This session will be recorded and saved on YouTube. Send me an email at if you have any concerns.

NOTE: The Zoom site has many training videos. 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.

Journal Club: Surabhi’s Icelandic Adventure This month, Surabhi Agarwal will recount her very recent experience of observing the spectacle of the Aurora Borealis from Iceland.

We hope to make these short presentations a regular feature of our monthly meetings. We’d like to know what members are doing or what members are thinking about in the broad range of topics encompassed by astronomy. A brief ten-minute (or so) presentation is a good way to introduce yourself and the topics you care about to other club members. If you are interested in presenting a topic of interest, please contact either or

A look ahead at future guest speakers:

January 11, 2022 Robert Williams, former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), will talk about his (at the time) controversial and courageous decision to commit about 100 hours of time on the HST to staring at what was at the time considered to be a relatively bare patch of sky, creating what is now known as the Hubble Deep Field.
February 8, 2022Chris Spalding, a 51 Pegasi b postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at Princeton University, will talk about his research to understand planet formation by way of simple theoretical descriptions of planetary dynamics.
March 8, 2022Rosanne Di Stefano, of the Center for Astrophysics/Harvard and Smithsonian, led a team who used the Chandra X-ray observatory to search for brightness dips in X-ray binaries. They may have detected a transiting exoplanet in the spiral galaxy M51. To date, all exoplanet candidates (4,000+ and counting) have been discovered within 3,000 light-years of Earth. An exoplanet in M51, 28 million light-years away, would be thousands of times farther away than those in the Milky Way.
June 14, 2022Bill Murray, AAAP Outreach Chair and astronomer at the New Jersey State Museum will once again (following a Covid hiatus) give club members a private sky tour at the museum’s planetarium. He’ll show off the refurbished planetarium’s state-of-the-art Digital Sky 2 8K projection system. This is an opportunity to put aside Zooming and commiserate with astro-buddies in the real world.

Thanks to Bill Thomas, Ira Polans, and Dave Skitt for their valuable advice and assistance.

As always, your comments and suggestions are gratefully accepted.

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The AAAP Merchandise shop is nearly ready to launch

Members (and public) will be able to securely purchase AAAP-emblazoned shirts and other wearables on-line.  In the future other items may be added as well.  Member Rich Sherman has been developing the on-line merchandise project, which may be launched at the upcoming Dec 14 meeting.  The link will be featured on the AAAP website for easy access.

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Comet Leonard on the morning of December 3, 2021

Straight from the oven, baked by our own esteemed member Prof. Robert Vanderbei, Princeton University.

Leonard and M3 

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Postcard from Lisa Ann Fanning

Hello Fellow Members,

I wanted to share my compilation of images from the Partial Lunar Eclipse of Nov 19, 2021. I began photographing the moon through the clouds at around 2AM EST and took my last photo just prior to 6 AM EST.    

Equipment used – Canon SX70 HS – taken from Marlboro Twp, NJ.

Thank you, Lisa Ann Fanning

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

Lunar Eclipse — November 19, 2021

by Robert Vanderbei

I’m teaching a Freshman Seminar this fall called Sizing Up The Universe. There are 12 students in the class. A few weeks before the eclipse, I told my students that the eclipse was an upcoming event and I asked them if they would like to do an eclipse observing event at Poe Field here on the campus of
Princeton University.

Of course, right at the start of the conversation I told them that the time of near totality would be at about 4am and therefore that I’d arrive at Poe Field at about 3am and probably leave at about 4:20am. I also told them that I’d be taking astro-photographs with my 3.5″ Questar telescope and a DSLR camera and that therefore it wouldn’t be practical to show them the eclipse visually through my telescope. But, they would be able to see the photos in real time as they downloaded from my camera to my laptop computer. I also told them that I’d bring binoculars that they could use to see the eclipse up close.

Virtually all of the students enthusiastically expressed that they would like to attend such an event and that they would set their alarm clocks and show up about 30 minutes before 4am. So, that was the plan. But, over the course of a few days leading up to the event it looked like the weather was not going to be good. Rain was forecast starting about midnight and ending sometime close to morning. So, we were all expecting that the event would be cancelled. But, as we got closer to the night of the event, the forecast seemed to slowly look better and better. It was still forecast to rain but the rain was forecasted to stop by about 1am. So, we didn’t cancel the event.

It did rain and the rain did stop some hours before the event. As planned, I showed up to Poe Field at about 3am. The sky was perfectly clear. The first few students to show up arrived only minutes after I did. At 4am there were about 10 students from my class and some of them brought some friends making the total number up around 15. They had a lot of fun looking at the eclipse through the binoculars. They also were very excited to see that the eclipse wasn’t very far from the Pleiades star cluster. And, they liked seeing the pics that I was taking through my Questar.

Here’s the webpage I made showing some of the pictures I got…

The next lunar eclipse will start a bit before midnight on May 15 and will end a few hours after midnight. I’ve marked my calendar for that one.

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Check out Comet Leonard this month from your backyard!

by Surabhi Agarwal

Discovered on January 3, 2021 by Astronomer Gregory J. Leonard, comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) is heading inward toward its January 3, 2022, perihelion. It has the potential to become the brightest comet of 2021! It is currently in Ursa Major and is predicted to brighten until December 13, at which time it may be visible with binoculars.

An ultrafast comet, Leonard is traveling at 158,084 miles per hour (254,412 km/h or 70.67 km/second) relative to Earth. But despite its incredible speed, don’t expect to see it zip across the sky. To us it will appear as a very slow moving object because of its great distance from the earth.

According to Bob King in Sky and Telescope in October 2021 –

“Orbital calculations revealed that the object had spent the last 35,000 years wending its way sunward after reaching aphelion at the chilling distance of around 3,500 AU (3,500 times the distance between our Earth and sun].”

In other words, it is a once-in-a-lifetime event. This comet takes tens of thousands of years to complete an orbit around the sun and after this current close sweep, we will not see it again.

Check out its shifting positions on the Earthsky website. also has a very informative article on this comet.

Sky and Telescope
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The Future of Astronomy

by S. Prasad Ganti

Every decade, a survey is conducted in the US to check for the trends in astronomy so that recommendations can be made for projects like building new telescopes. It is called the decadal survey. For this decade, the survey was delayed by about a year due to the pandemic. This decadal survey is titled “Astro 2020”.  

The survey takes note of the achievements made using the current telescopes and detectors and comes up with areas which need more focus or further study. While I try to summarize the key points from the report, quoting some statements verbatim, the complete report is available at the following link. It is very educational to read the whole report.

The first trend is to look for habitable worlds. Basically, looking for exoplanets outside of our solar system, with the grand goal of finding potentially habitable worlds. As a part of this trend, the first recommendation is to launch a space telescope which can observe in the infrared/optical/ultraviolet ranges. With a mirror size of 6m, compared to 2.5m for the Hubble space telescope Such a telescope will be very sophisticated and time consuming to design and build. It is not expected to launch till the 2040s. Another recommendation is to  study to build  two strategic missions- one a Far-Infrared space telescope and second a high-resolution X-ray space telescope.

Second trend is to provide new windows on the dynamic universe – to understand the black holes and the neutron stars better. This can lead to understanding the violent events which create them and also to know more about the earliest moments after the Big Bang. Towards this end, the recommendation is to build a Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4 Observatory. It will study the polarization of gravity waves from the early universe. 

The third trend is to study the drivers of galaxy growth. As to how galaxies evolve from the webs of gases leading to star formation. Studies of gas  are usually done in the radio range. The recommendation is to replace the current radio telescopes – Karl Jansky Very Large Array and the Very Long Baseline Array. The replacement should be the Next-Generation Very Large array – an array with ten times the sensitivity to be constructed by the end of the decade. 

The current telescopes under construction have been mentioned in the survey. Recommendation is made for the US to invest in the GMT (Giant Magellan Telescope) and the TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope). GMT is under construction in Chile. While the TMT ran into trouble in Hawaii with the local population, it is being relocated to an alternate site. 

The long awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will hopefully be launched in December 2021 and will directly examine the youngest observable galaxies, The Vera Rubin observatory under construction in Chile and the launch of Nancy Grace Roman observatory is expected in 2025. They will transform the views of dwarf galaxies at the extremes of galaxy formation and the record of ancient stars they left behind. Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) (launch expected in mid2030s) should identify mergers of black holes all the way back to their earliest form. LISA is an advanced interferometer with a million and a half miles on each triangular side, to detect gravity waves. 

Gravity waves, along with neutrinos are the new messengers. It all started with the naked eye astronomy by looking at dark skies and tracing star patterns. Then came the telescope to see dimmer or distant stars. Next, Telescopes were built to detect the other invisible parts of the spectrum – radio, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays, Gamma rays etc.  And now the Gravity wave detectors and neutrino detectors. Often, incidents are followed up via multiple paths for confirmation. Getting information via all these paths paints a composite picture of the Universe.  

The recommendation is to build the next generation neutrino detector – IceCube-Gen 2. IceCube is a neutrino detector at the South pole. But this committee lacks the charter to  press upon such a recommendation. Nevertheless, hopefully, the next generation neutrino detector will be built. 

We are living in exciting times. And more excitement is in the air. 

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Astrophotography Adapters

by Rich Sherman

I recently learned about a company that builds custom astrophotography adapters, including replacement focusers and custom focuser extension tubes. The company is based in Miami, FL, and is named PreciseParts. Their tagline is: “Your online astro machine shop.” PreciseParts claims to have shipped to more than 3,000 customers in 54 countries.  You can learn more at:

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