Sunday, June 3, 2018

Austin Under the Stars

Last night, Laurel and I attended a star party hosted by the Austin Astronomical Society and St. Stephen's Episcopal School. Laurel recommended it on the advice of a friend of hers from a Saturday morning kaffee klatsch for computerists. I went because I knew that there would be about 20 telescopes there, more powerful than my own, operated by people who know the sky better. Even though she is not into astronomy, we both had a good time. Laurel integrated some “Star Trek science” into her general knowledge base.

As is my routine, before the event, I referenced the current night via the US Naval Observatory site I made notes on what I wanted to see. Unfortunately, at the event, I was not able to view Markanian’s Chain (NGC 4406). However, as so often, serendipity delivered the M3 globular cluster, which I never saw before. Most of the telescopes were aligned to Jupiter and Venus. Venus was gibbous. But other than that, it does not grab the eye as does Jupiter, which most instruments were on for most of the night. In a Dobsonsian, it was bright enough to hurt.  

Laurel’s friend has a neat little instrument. The housing is aluminum and titanium; the optics are “folded.” This kind has been used by NASA and the CIA. “You can parachute it into the field,” he said. “Mercury and Gemini astronauts used them to look at Russia.” Even though the small aperture (about 2-1/2 inches), precludes deep sky objects, Rob knows the sky. (I bought two of his astro-photographs at an artists walk last winter.) He had all four Galileans in view. And he took out his cellphone and accessed an app to identify them. 
Pretty much as it looked to me
As with all knowledge aids since the first notched stick, phone apps and computer controls come with a cost. I saw one dad using an app to line up Leo for his daughter. But Leo is one of the three constellations of the Sumerians that actually looks like what it is: The Lion, the Scorpion, and the Bull. (The Giant is probably older, but not on the ecliptic.) On the other hand, it may just be my own perspective, but looking up the relative positions of the Galileans on your phone seemed no different than looking them up in an ephemeris. Without repetition, you can only keep so much in your head.

Knowing the sky makes all the difference. I was dismayed to discover that no one could answer my questions. People with Dobsonian “light buckets” knew even less than I do. According to Space dot Com, Ceres is in Leo right now, but that echoed as arcana when I asked. Then I met Frank Mikan, the science teacher at St. Stephen’s. As far as I can tell, he knows everything. I learned a lot that will help me when I am star hopping in my backyard.  

Messier Object 3 from Wikipedia
See also
See also
See also

Finally, one of the astronomy club members had his 10-inch reflector lined up on M-3, a globular cluster near the zenith. Actually Messier’s own very first object (May 3, 1764), it is catalogued as M-3. The elder Herschel resolved it 20 years later. It contains about 500,000 stars; is 8 billion years old (or 11.4 according to the latest research); lies 31,600 LY above the galactic plane and 38.8 kLY from the center and 33.9 kLY from us. It is coming toward us at 147.7 km/sec. According to the astronomer last night, globular clusters do not show relative orbital motions: the stars are just out there together. It will give me something to chase with my 5-inch reflector, though it will probably not resolve to a cluster.

The Austin Astronomy Club provided many hands-on learning opportunities with books laid out, and stickers and paper models from NASA. They also provided little glow-in-the-dark hand rockets. With a QR-activated app, you could “walk the solar system” and listen to transduced “sounds” of the sun and planets.

Laurel and I are working our way through Star Trek: The Next Generation. We are up to Season 6. In "Ship in a Bottle" the Enterprise is sent to witness the collision of two gas giants which is expected to create a proto-star. Laurel asked me what a "gas giant" is. I replied that it is like Jupiter and Saturn. That led to more questions, including the subject of hydrogen as as metal. Last night was Laurel's first view of Jupiter.


1 comment:

  1. So many people move back and forth between Austin and Madison. It sounds like Madison. It makes me want to go to an astronomy event on Observatory Drive.