March 2020

The Rocket Ship

the_Rocket_Ship.jpgFriday night February 14th could not have been better weather for a public observing event. Folks seemed to know it, too, as they traveled to Schulenburg from as far away as the east side of Houston. Inside a warm classroom, I gave a brief talk about what we were going to see, and why, to a couple of dozen stargazers ranging in age from 3 to 63. For this crowd, Lepus became the Bunny Rabbit and Orion the Hunter was armed with shield and club. We did have several teenagers, so Messier 35 in Gemini became Castor’s toe ring. One 12-year-old boy didn’t see the Big Dipper asterism rising in the north but the Rocket Ship! You can see it, too, if you extend the end stars of the dipper bowl to the snout of the Big Bear. I told him I’d be using that asterism of his from now on.

We continued with questions as we walked across the Blinn College parking lot to line up with South Street, a straight as an arrow boulevard running east to west and conveniently lined with large oak trees. After pointing out Venus blinding us from above, we started navigating down to Mercury which had just crested a tree and was making its way front and center. Not many in humanity have seen Mercury so one-by-one the adults and teens thrilled to spot it. It took a little while for the under 12 crowd, but parents would not give up until their children had seen it too. My funny wizard hat saved the day for one mom as she was able to position me so that Mercury was at the hat’s tip and lifted her son to her eye level to spot it. “Oh, that orange dot?” And after a chuckle, we moved on to the observing field. 

COVID-19 update from the Houston Astronomical Society

Dear friends,

As we monitor the latest developments of the COVID-19 pandemic, the leadership of the Houston Astronomical Society has been meeting regularly to identify the impact this has on our club and any activities we currently have scheduled.

First and foremost, the health and safety of our members is of paramount importance to us, and the decisions we've made have been done so with this in mind.  Therefore, beginning today, Friday, March 13, 2020, we will be placing a moratorium on all club activities that require in-person attendance.  This includes, but is not limited to, regular and novice meetings being held at the Trini Mendenhall Center, group observing classes and events, astronomy and telescope training of any kind, and all public outreach events - basically any activities in which a physical gathering of people in close proximity is required.  This moratorium will be in place until April 15, at which time, we will reassess the situation and make a decision on either lifting or extending the moratorium. ...

The Messier Marathon is fast approaching!

Snag your pad at the Dark Site—plenty of social distancing—and observe when the weather allows! New moon is Saturday March 21, but the nights before and after, if clear enough, will allow a mini-marathon.
The hot beverage bar will not be open so bring an insulated coffee mug. Bring your own eyepieces and extra to swap out for your guests. Also bring whatever hygiene products are needed to wipe down surfaces.
Have fun. But keep safe.

Observing Challenge - NGC 3628

Since the upcoming new moon is Messier Marathon time, I decided this latest observing challenge ought to be an object that won’t take you too far away from the Messiers.  So, I introduce you to NGC 3628, the third member of the famed “Leo Trio” which also includes Messier objects M65 and M66.  NGC 3628 is somewhat fainter than the two Messiers, but still probably could have been bright enough for Messier to view, though there is no record of him observing it.  Instead, 3628 was discovered by William Herschel in 1784, four years after Messier’s discovery of the other two galaxies.  Though it

Changed your e-mail address? Moved?

 H.A.S. uses the e-mail account and physical address you used when you joined the club to send you info about upcoming events, send you dues reminders, and to mail your Astronomical League Reflector magazine. If you’re using a new e-mail account or if you’ve moved, you’ll want to update your member profile. Here’s how:

  • If you’ve forgotten the username or email address you used to log in, send an e-mail to [email protected] with your current address and e-mail and I’ll set you up.
  • If you know your username or e-mail but have forgotten your password, request a new one by clicking the Forgot Password link. newPassword.JPG

 

 

 

  • Once you can log into the website, click the blue Edit Profile button as shown below. The Username and Password form opens. Enter your current password and type your new e-mail address in the E-mail address field. Then click Save at the bottom of the page. 

EditProfile.PNG

 

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  • If you’ve moved, or if the above steps aren’t working for you, please contact [email protected] with your current e-mail address and physical mailing address, and I’ll update the membership database for you. You’ll receive club news to your new e-mail immediately. The Reflector magazine will arrive at the next full quarter after the change is made.

Have you renewed?

2019members.PNGAs different as we are, we’re a unique group. Amateur astronomer. Astroimager. Stargazer. 

If you haven’t renewed your membership yet, please do. The membership grace period ends March 31. 

Questions? Contact Rene at [email protected]

Letter from the President - March 2020

Original article appears in GuideStar March, 2020.

It’s Messier Marathon Time!

Just a few weeks ago, several members of the H.A.S. leadership group met to conduct our annual planning meeting for 2020.  We spent every bit of allotted time we had – before gently being reminded that the Mendenhall Center was going to be closing – coming up with ideas and programs to provide more for our members to do this year.  If you’ve taken a look at our club calendar at all lately, you’ll see a whole slew of events – from outreach star parties, Novice Labs at the dark site, and Loaner Scope training to help members familiarize themselves with the telescopes they borrow from our inventory.

M51, Image credit: ESA/HubbleOne of those upcoming events is the Messier Marathon. which we’re going to host at the H.A.S. dark site near Columbus on Saturday, March 21. 

What is a Messier Marathon, you ask?  Well, to answer that question, you first need to know who Messier was. In brief, Charles Messier was a French astronomer and comet hunter who lived in the 18th and early 19th century.  He scoured the night sky for comets, which often appeared as faint, fuzzy objects in the heavens above.  Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for the rest of us), comets aren’t the only faint, fuzzy objects that one could expect to see using the telescopes of Messier’s day.  The sky was littered with these objects – nebulae, globular clusters, open clusters, galaxies, and a supernova remnant – and, in an attempt to avoid these objects in his hunt for comets, he and others cataloged more than a hundred “faint fuzzies” so that he wouldn’t mistake them for his desired targets in subsequent searches. Others came along after Messier and completed his list, which now stands at 110 of the finest and brightest deep sky objects we can see with our telescopes.   … 

Observatory Corner - March 2020

Original article appears in GuideStar March, 2020.

_Obs_Nite_12_01_18.jpg

I'm a reader, not a writer. At least, I think that's how the saying should go. When I was asked to write a "short" Observatory Corner piece, I had my trepidation. I prefer to leave the wordsmithery and coining to the experts; i.e., not me. How does one start when writing these things? How do I start? With a deficit of creative juices in the written word arena, this will have to do:

The past:
2019 turned out to be a fairly busy year if you look at the amount of maintenance that went on out at the Dark Site. For the major jobs, we replaced the well pump that failed and added an iron breaker to improve the quality of the water. The air conditioner and dehumidifiers in the main observatory were replaced with more energy efficient units and a couple of the large breaker boxes were replaced. The main roof motor was replaced along with the gear reducer and a few electronic components.

The present:
We continue to work on the roof electronics of the observatory and are getting closer to a fix. It's been a particularly complex problem with dozens of different logical steps and components involved.
Mowing season will be upon us soon and with that comes tree trimming and all the other things that spring brings. We’re just about to bring an extension of the WiFi online and will provide better coverage on the east side of the observatory and the picnic area. Observatory training will resume once the roof operations are complete and training for the RC/MX will start shortly after. I know, I know...finally.  ...

Betelgeuse and the Crab Nebula: Stellar Death and Rebirth

Original article appears in GuideStar March, 2020.

NSN.pngThis article is distributed by NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Betelgeuse and the Crab Nebula: Stellar Death and Rebirth

David Prosper

What happens when a star dies? Stargazers are paying close attention to the red giant star Betelgeuse since it recently dimmed in brightness, causing speculation that it may soon end in a brilliant supernova. While it likely won’t explode quite yet, we can preview its fate by observing the nearby Crab Nebula.

BetelgeuseM1.PNGBetelgeuse, despite its recent dimming, is still easy to find as the red-hued shoulder star of Orion. A known variable star, Betelgeuse usually competes for the position of the brightest star in Orion with brilliant blue-white Rigel, but recently its brightness has faded to below that of nearby Aldebaran, in Taurus. Betelgeuse is a young star, estimated to be a few million years old, but due to its giant size it leads a fast and furious life. This massive star, known as a supergiant, exhausted the hydrogen fuel in its core and began to fuse helium instead, which caused the outer layers of the star to cool and swell dramatically in size. Betelgeuse is one of the only stars for which we have any kind of detailed surface observations due to its huge size – somewhere between the diameter of the orbits of Mars and Jupiter - and relatively close distance of about 642 light-years. Betelgeuse is also a “runaway star,” with its remarkable speed possibly triggered by merging with a smaller companion star. If that is the case, Betelgeuse may actually have millions of years left! So, Betelgeuse may not explode soon after all; or it might explode tomorrow! We have much more to learn about this intriguing star.

The Crab Nebula (M1) is relatively close to Betelgeuse in the sky, in the nearby constellation of Taurus. Its ghostly, spidery gas clouds result from a massive explosion; a supernova observed by astronomers in 1054! A backyard telescope allows you to see some details, but only advanced telescopes reveal the rapidly spinning neutron star found in its center: the last stellar remnant from that cataclysmic event. These gas clouds were created during the giant star’s violent demise and expand ever outward to enrich the universe with heavy elements like silicon, iron, and nickel. These element-rich clouds are like a cosmic fertilizer, making rocky planets like our own Earth possible. Supernova also send out powerful shock waves that help trigger star formation. In fact, if it wasn’t for a long-ago supernova, our solar system - along with all of us - wouldn’t exist! You can learn much more about the Crab Nebula and its neutron star in a new video from NASA’s Universe of Learning, created from observations by the Great Observatories of Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer: bit.ly/CrabNebulaVisual                   

Crab Neb_0.jpgOur last three articles covered the life cycle of stars from observing two neighboring constellations: Orion and Taurus! Our stargazing took us to the ”baby stars” found in the stellar nursery of the Orion Nebula, onwards to the teenage stars of the Pleiades and young adult stars of the Hyades, and ended with dying Betelgeuse and the stellar corpse of the Crab Nebula. Want to know more about the life cycle of stars? Explore stellar evolution with “The Lives of Stars” activity and handout: bit.ly/starlifeanddeath 

This image of the Crab Nebula combines X-ray observations from Chandra, optical observations from Hubble, and infrared observations from Spitzer to reveal intricate detail. Notice how the violent energy radiates out from the rapidly spinning neutron star in the center of the nebula (also known as a pulsar) and heats up the surrounding gas. More about this incredible “pulsar wind nebula” can be found at  bit.ly/Crab3D     Credit: NASA, ESA, F. Summers, J. Olmsted, L. Hustak, J. DePasquale and G. Bacon (STScI), N. Wolk (CfA), and R. Hurt (Caltech/IPAC)

 Check out NASA’s most up to date observations of supernova and their remains at nasa.gov

Outreach report for Valentine’s event at the Schaefer Observatory

Original article appears in GuideStar March, 2020.

the_Rocket_Ship.pngby Rene Gedaly

Friday night February 14th could not have been better weather for a public observing event. Folks seemed to know it, too, as they travelled to Schulenburg from as far away as the east side of Houston. Inside a warm classroom, I gave a brief talk about what we were going to see, and why, to a couple of dozen stargazers ranging in age from 3 to 63. For this crowd, Lepus became the Bunny Rabbit and Orion the Hunter was armed with shield and club. We did have several teenagers, so Messier 35 in Gemini became Castor’s toe ring. One 12-year-old boy didn’t see the Big Dipper asterism rising in the north but the Rocket Ship! You can see it, too, if you extend the end stars of the dipper bowl to the snout of the Big Bear. I told him I’d be using that asterism of his from now on.

We continued with questions as we walked across the Blinn College parking lot to line up with South Street, a straight as an arrow boulevard running east to west and conveniently lined with large oak trees. After pointing out Venus blinding us from above, we started navigating down to Mercury which had just crested a tree and was making its way front and center. Not many in humanity have seen Mercury so one-by-one the adults and teens thrilled to spot it. It took a little while for the under 12 crowd, but parents would not give up until their children had seen it too. My funny wizard hat saved the day for one mom as she was able to position me so that Mercury was at the hat’s tip and lifted her son to her eye level to spot it. “Oh, that orange dot?” And after a chuckle, we moved on to the observing field.

Winter is a great time to talk stellar evolution while pointing out naked eye objects like the Pleiades—stars in their childhood; the Hyades—teenaged stars who prefer some distance but still hang out together; and, of course, the most spectacular stellar nursery the night sky affords us—the Great Orion Nebula. Winter is not known for globular clusters, but Lepus came to the rescue with Messier 79 to round out the other end of the stellar life cycle. Equipped with printed Skymaps, clipboards, soft pencils and red flashlights, we began the constellation tour. Both of my tested green light pointers gave out, but I needn’t have worried. Moms and dads used their flashlights to identify objects from map to sky, calling me over to check, and I got a kick working the line of star gazers who finally got to put a name to stars they’d heard about or had seen in their own childhoods.

On deck we had two Dobsonian reflectors with part-time operators (myself and a teenaged sister and brother) and one Celestron NexStar 8se. GoTo scopes take a while to get aligned, but once they do, they’re a great tool for outreach. Hats off to Phil Bracken who tag teamed it with me for the second half of the night with his NexStar. I suggested objects to see, he got us to them, and then I ran folks up and down the stairs of the observatory to show them the ‘70s era Celestron 14” SCT on an equatorial fork mount. I consider this a museum piece as the 9x50 finder needs serious nighttime alignment to the scope's view, plus the dome needs three adults to open the window and turn the dome manually to follow the sky. Oh yes, and a crowbar to lift a temperamental track wheel back onto the rail when it hops off. But the visitors were charmed (so was I) to be in the dimly red-lit dome peering through a narrow slit to look out at the dark sky they’d just seen outside. We followed M 42 in the finder but never got anything of note in the eyepiece. Maybe I can convince Blinn to give me a night to get things aligned before the next public event.

I can’t end this report without mentioning the police officer who joined us. And then another, and another, evidently taking turns. They were three of six locals to check things out and told me how much darker it was where they lived; one even had a scope of his own that he’s trying to learn how to use. Soon I may be sending out the call to an invitation-only star party and training session in Fayette County. We’ll definitely need to figure out other ways to publicize this event as there’s a large, underserved community in this area. But our members have seen it on our website event calendar and are attending or plan to. I was pleased to be able to caravan back to our own Dark Site in Colorado County to show two new HAS members our astronomers paradise there.  

Rene S Gedaly
Membership Co-Chairperson
[email protected]

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