December, 1999

A note from the editor...

The fall of 1999 has seen a resurgence of astronomy events in the Madison area. Some are old favorites while others are new and hopefully repeatable events that will return year after year. Information inside this issue chronicles a few of these happenings, and our calendar, located on the next page, highlights upcoming events. Madison is indeed fortunate to have resources such as Space Place, the MMSD Planetarium, the UW Astronomy Department, and Eagle Optics located right in our backyards. Also in this issue, astrophotographer Mike McDowell takes us along on his chase of the November 15 Mercury transit, and we preview the upcoming January 2000 total lunar eclipse.

The annual MAS Christmas party is coming up December 10. It will be held as usual at Space Place at 7:30, and will be a pot-luck affair. Please bring a dish to pass and come enjoy the festive, informal social atmosphere.

As most of you know by now, MAS president Bob Manske resigned his position in October. The vacancy left by Bob's departure was to have been filled at the November meeting by a special election. Neil Simmons, vice-president and acting president, was nominated, but declined based on his dearth of spare time created by a growing family. In the discussion that ensued, no further nominations were made, and it was apparent that nobody was anxious to have the job. Neil graciously agreed to act as interim president until the June elections, but made it known that it was unlikely that he would be able to attend every meeting. In this event, it was agreed that the business meetings could be conducted as long as two or more board members are present. MAS faces numerous challenges in the year ahead, and the board of directors will benefit from the continued volunteerism and support of MAS members.

MAS warmly welcomes new members to the society: Ben Senson and Greg Sellek.

Calendar

December 10 Annual MAS Christmas party at Space Place (1605 S. Park St) at 7:30. Pot-luck style, bring a dish to pass, and share the cheer of the season at this informal social gathering.

December 14 Space Place - Kurt Jaenig of the Space Astronomy Labortory will give a talk about a new type of spectrometer that has been tested on sounding rockets.1605 S. Park St., 7:30 pm.

December 15 MMSD Planetarium (Memorial High School) Public Show - "Season of Light." This delightful multicultural program will lead you through the discovery of many basic astronomy concepts as you explore the holiday traditions of several cultures and religions. Shows at 6:30 and 7:45 pm, admission $1 for children and $2 for adults.

January 11 Space Place - Professor John Mathis will give a talk on observational evidence for the big bang. 1605 S. Park St., 7:30 pm.

January 14 MAS monthly meeting. 7:00 board meeting and beginner's clinic. 7:30, main presentation: Ben Senson, "Operating and accessing the MMSD observatory." At Space Place, 1605 S. Park St.

January 19 MMSD Planetarium (Memorial High School) Public Show - "Skywatching." Join us as we explore the current night sky. Locate visible planets and constellations, and enjoy some sky lore. Shows at 6:30 and 7:45 pm, admission $1 for children and $2 for adults.

January 20 Total lunar eclipse, see article page 4.

January 25 Space Place - the annual post-Christmas telescope clinic. 1605 S. Park St., 7:30 pm.

February 11 MAS monthly meeting at Space Place. 7:00 board meeting and beginner's clinic. 7:30, main presentation TBA.

March 10 MAS monthly meeting. 7:00 board meeting and beginner's clinic. 7:30, main presentation: Donald Cox from the UW Physics dept. will give a talk, topic TBA. At Space Place, 1605 S. Park St.

April 14 MAS Banquet at CJs east (Cottage Grove Rd). Linda Sparke, astronomy dept. at UW, topic TBA.
 
 

The Mercury Transit and Pursuit of Sunny Skies by Mike McDowell

Sometimes it seems there is a correlation between how long one waits for a particular celestial event and how overcast the skies will be that day. The transit of Mercury on November 15 1999 was no exception. After waiting months for this highly anticipated event, the odious clouds rolled in like clockwork by mid-morning. As I looked out the window at work and constantly updated a weather satellite web page, I remained hopeful that the skies would clear up in time, even if only for a mometary glimpse of Mercury's comparatively tiny disc against the Sun.

I had previously scheduled to leave work at 2:00 pm to meet a friend to view the transit from a location north of Middleton. Since it was still overcast, we decided to see if there was any chance we could drive to a location to provide an opportunity to see the transit. We checked maps and satellite imagery web pages and decided our best chance would be to head west where it appeared there might be a break in the clouds.

Driving west on Highway 18, we didn't have a predetermined destination in mind. Our plan was simply to keep driving for sunny skies, and if found, set up telescope and camera as quickly as possible, take a few pictures and view whatever remained of the transit. After over an hour of driving the skies were beginning to look more promising. At this point it was 3:35 pm, well into the transit, but still time remaining for an opportunity to see it. There was plenty of sunlight, but only about 25 minutes left of the transit, so we decided to start searching for an adequate side-road that would provided an unobstructed view.
 Right, a blow up of one of Mike McDowell's 11/15/99 transit shots. 8" SCT via eyepiece projection.

It didn't take long for us to find a great location at the top of a hill just a short drive off the highway. We quickly set up the telescope (8" SCT), slapped on the solar filter, popped in a 25mm eyepiece - brought it into focus - and THERE IT WAS! We were pretty excited that our determination paid off. Mecury's disk seemed so obviously out of place compared to the groups of sunspots that also dotted the surface of the Sun. I quickly configured my camera for prime focus photography and managed to shoot twelve exposures. Although there were still some clouds moving through, I think they added a little aesthetics to the pictures.
 
 

UW's Blair Savage speaks on ultraviolet spectroscopy

Blair Savage, an astronomer and spectroscopist with the UW Madison, doesn't hang pictures of galaxies and distant nebulae on his refrigerator. His fridge is covered with spectra ­ really.

As was demonstrated to members of the MAS at the meeting on November 12th 1999, spectra are beautiful, and to the trained eye, communicate scads of information. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, than a spectrum is worth a thousand pictures," Savage quipped.

Savage specializes in the far ultraviolet region of the spectrum. Far from the narrow band that makes up visible light, the UV region of the spectrum is important to astronomy since the absorption lines produced by most atoms and many molecules are only found in the UV.

Dr. Savage traced the history of UV spectroscopy to his early days at the UW in the 60's when the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory was first launched. Prior to the OAO, the only way to get instruments above Earth's atmosphere was to attach them to the tops of sounding rockets and launch them on trajectories that got them a few minutes of viewing time a couple of hundred miles up.

Using UV spectroscopy, astronomers are able to infer the composition of the interstellar medium by focusing on the light emitted by a distant rapidly rotating star. As the light travels from the star to our instruments, it passes through the intervening clouds of gas and dust, and some of its energy is absorbed by this material, leaving the telltale absorption lines in its spectra. The same principle can be applied to the intergalactic medium by focusing on the light of a distant quasar or bright active galactic core.

UV spectroscopy just got a huge shot in the arm in June of 1999 with the launch of FUSE (Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer). FUSE opens up a broad, rich region of the UV spectrum that has previously gone largely unexplored. Even HST, with its much celebrated big mirror and expensive instrument package, can only explore a limited range of UV due to the lack of properly coated mirrors (to be highly reflective at far ultraviolet wavelengths, mirrors must be made from silicon carbide or glass coated with aluminum and overcoated with lithium fluoride). FUSE promises to revolutionize the study of the UV region. Even after only a month or so of returning science data, Savage suggested that the potential return is likely to bury scientists under a barrage of data that will take years or even decades to analyze. Savage almost salivates at the prospect.

Additonal information on the FUSE project can be found at the project home page at http://fuse.pha.jhu.edu/.

During informal Q&A time after his address, Savage was asked what contribution amateurs might be able to make with respect to spectroscopic studies. His reply was as enthusiastic as his talk. With equipment advertised in Sky and Telescope, Savage thinks today's amateur can be as well equiped to do spectrographic work at a level that professional astronomers were doing in the 1970's. Periodic observations of changing systems like interactive binary stars could produce information regarding the way in which these interactions occur.
 
 

Total Lunar Eclipse, January 20, 2000

Thursday evening, January 20th, most of the western hemisphere will be treated to its first total lunar eclipse since September of 1996. All of North and South America are placed perfectly to see the total event. Because totality comes well before midnight, this event will hold enormous interest for the public. MAS members will likely mount a major effort to coordinate public viewing events (possibly with Space Place or the Planetarium) to make the most of this rare treat.

Although the eclipse is not central (the Moon's northern limb just misses the central axis), the total phase still lasts about 75 minutes. The eclipse begins at 8:05 pm (all times local to Madison) with first penumbral contact. An hour later, the partial eclipse commences with first umbral contact at 9:03 pm. The total umbral eclipse begins at 10:06 pm and ends at 11:21 pm. The partial phase ends at 12:23 am and the Moon leaves the penumbral shadow at 1:21 am. The Moon's path through Earth's shadows is shown below.

The eclipse occurs just as the Moon is entering the constellation Cancer; the Beehive cluster is just a few degrees to the left and should be visible during peak eclipse. Other winter constellations are well placed and will make for a beautiful sky show that night.

Since this is not a central eclipse (at deepest penetration, the Moon will lie just below the central point of the umbra), the northern regions of the Moon will probably appear much darker than the southern regions since they lie deeper in the shadow. It is likely the moon's appearance will change dramatically as the eclipse progresses, though these things are difficult to predict. Surely it will be a show worth staying up for. Even the kids can enjoy the beginning stages before heading off to bed.
 
 

A feast of public events this fall

Monona Terrace, Space Place, Memorial High School, Eagle Optics all host public astronomy events this fall...

MAS members have been very busy this fall sharing the hobby. MAS actively participated in a number of exciting events: Space Place's Telescope and Binocular Fair, the Monona Terrace "Moon" party, the Madison School District's Observatory Grand Opening, Eagle Optics' public night, and more.

As mentioned in the October newsletter, the MAS hosted a public event on September 17 1999 on the roof of the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison. Organized by MAS member Tim Ellestad and Monona Terrace public relations director Sharon Neylon, this even drew a crowd estimated (by concession stand business and other subjective counts) at about 750 people. Billed as "Moon over Monona Terrace," all comers were treated to views of the first quarter moon as twilight fell. After dark, Jupiter and Saturn rose over lake Monona and many attendees were able to get their first glimpses of these crowd pleasers.

In attendence sharing their telescopes and expertise were MAS members Wynn Wacker, Rod Helt, Mark Baurenfeind, Bob Shannon, Tim & Mary Ellestad, Martin Nelson, Tom Brissette, Dick Greiner, Dick Goddard, Jim Lattis, Tom Hall, Jane Breun, John Rummel, Gil Lubcke, Neil Robinson, and Seth Ellestad.

Monona Terrace's Neylon was thrilled with the success of the event, and hopes to collaborate with MAS for future star parties. She also plans to use the event in promotional literature for the Convention Center.

On October 27 1999, Memorial High School was the site of another great public event. As covered previously in this newsletter, the Madison Metropolitan School District's remotely controlled observatory has been undergoing testing as it nears "ready for prime time" status. October 27 was billed as the grand opening for the facility, which is actually located in the MMSD school forest south of Verona, Wisconsin. The public night at Memorial High School featured two planetarium programs, a presentation by MMSD science administrators on the future of astronomy in public education in Madison schools, exhibits by MAS members, and telescopes out in the parking lot for viewing of Jupiter and Saturn.

Memorial High School Planetarium Director Geoff Holt was thrilled to see the number of people (estimated at over 400) who turned out for the event. "I do think that part of the good turn-out was actually a credit to what these same groups (MMSD, MAS, UW, Eagle Optics) are already doing to support astronomy education in the area. By continuing to coordinate our efforts and support each other, I'm sure we can continue to improve the already favorable situation," Holt said.
Monona Terrace public event: Above left, Mark Bauernfeind's large aperture Newtonian was a popular attraction. Above right, Gil Lubcke talks with the public about astronomy. Right, Rod Helt shares a look at the moon.

Beginner's Corner by John Rummel

It is impossible to discuss the planet Saturn without the discussion being dominated by the beautiful ring system of this gas giant. Though other planets have been found to have rings, none are as spectacular or as visually striking as those orbiting Saturn.

When Galileo first turned his telescope on Saturn in 1610, he was struck by the odd appearance of the planet. His telescope was extremely crude by today's standards - magnifying just 20 times and having fairly primative optics. Galileo thought he was seeing a three-lobed planet. "I have observed the highest planet to be triple-bodied. This is to say that to my very great amazement Saturn was seen to me to be not a single star, but three together, which almost touch each other," he wrote. The picture below is Galileo's first known sketch of the planet Saturn, which corresponds perfectly to his description.

It is easy to forgive Galileo for not understanding what he saw. In just a few hours with his new "spyglass," he had turned much of cosmology on its ear, and founded the modern science of astronomy. He was the first to observe features on the moon, the first to see that Jupiter was a giant planet with a system of moons all its own, and the first to see that the milky way was made up of a staggering number of previously unknown stars. Had he identified the strange features of Saturn as a ring, it would have scarcely made more sense than a three lobed star.
 Galileo's first sketch of Saturn.

His surprise must have been even greater in 1612, for upon further observation of Saturn that year, the two extra lobes had vanished, and Saturn appeared as a featureless disk! The planet Earth had simply entered the plane of the rings, causing them to be temporarily invisible, but Galileo didn't know this, and his wonder only increased, "I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked for and so novel."

Saturn's rings are inclined relative to the sun at about 27 degrees. Twice during each orbit around the sun, or about every 15 years (Saturn's year is about 29.5 Earth years), the rings will appear edge-on as viewed from Earth. Galileo was the first to see this phenomenon in 1612. Our next opportunity will come during 2009 (last time was 1995-96).

Currently, Saturn is approaching the position where its rings achieve their maximum tilt as viewed from Earth. The more the rings are opened out, the brighter the planet appears visually. Such wide open rings make for great telescopic viewing - the ringed planet's most stunning feature is presented at its best viewing angle.

At the recent Observatory Grand Opening (held on October 27th at Memorial High School), I and several other Madison Astronomical Society members had our telescopes set up on the school lawn. We were blessed with a clear evening and hundreds of planetarium visitors were lucky enough to get good looks at Jupiter and Saturn through some nice telescopes. It's always a treat to give someone, adult or child, their first glance at the ringed planet. Exclamations of "wow," "cool," and "is that real?" are the most often heard comments.

Almost any small telescope will reveal Saturn's rings. Larger scopes will give breathtakingly detailed views of the lovely ring system, and many accompanying moons.

Saturn just passed its "opposition" last month - its closest approach to Earth for the year. That means it's big, it's bright, and it's up all night. Saturn can easily be found any clear evening this fall just to the lower left of Jupiter in the eastern or southeastern sky. Jupiter is the brightest object in the evening sky except for the moon. Saturn is a bit dimmer, but really gives Jupiter a run for its money when viewed through a telescope.

Accompanying this article is a piece written by my daughter in Mrs. Stevens' 2nd grade classroom at Glenn Stephens Elementary. She did the research and writing herself, using the internet and some books from the school library.
 
 

The Planet Saturn by Andrea Rummel

My planet's name is Saturn. It is the sixth planet from the sun. The distance from the sun is 886 million miles. The length of a year is 29.5 years. The highest temperature is 1200 degrees kelvin. The lowest temperature is 300 degrees below zero. It has more than 20 moons. Saturn's rings are made out of solid rock, ice, and dust. Saturn is made out of poisonous gases that humans would not be able to breathe. Saturn is very cold because it is very far away from the sun. If an ocean were big enough, Saturn would be able to float. Galileo was the first to see Saturn. It appeared to have ears! But a month later the ears disappeared. That was caused by the angle turning in and the rings appeared thinner than usual.
 
 

From the Observatory Director by Tim Ellestad

DOMES IN TROUBLE

The domes of the Yanna Research Station are in trouble and the MAS cannot afford to lose them. Time is having its effect on both the dome of the Koster Memorial Observatory - the 16 inch Cassegrain, and the Art Koster Observatory - our 11 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. Both domes now have significantly failing paint with rust beginning to show. Further degradation will likely be rapid as these domes are made of thin sheet steel which can rust through quickly (the lower shutter of the KMO is already perforated and will require a new laminated surface to preserve it).

The MAS membership has already approved a rubberized paint application for the KMO dome. However, this decision was made prior to discovering the extent of the corrosion or that the AKO dome was also losing paint and rusting. A new assessment of the necessary repairs will need to be made with an amended cost approval made by the membership.

The most important aspect of this predicament, though, is that these repairs will have to be made by MAS member volunteers. The survival of our domes will depend on the willingness of members to donate their time and materials to complete the task. Both domes will need significant preparation work which will entail sanding and wire-brushing the rust away followed by primer painting. Several coats of rubberized paint will then have to be applied. This will probably take three or more work days per dome. Ignoring this situation for very long could heighten the repair requirements beyond our means.

In the next two months the MAS will have to prepare a work plan and instigate a weather-contingent sign-up roster to secure the necessary amount of member workers to complete this critical job in a timely fashion. We can afford no other alternative. MAS member Dick Goddard has generously offered the use of his scaffolding which will solve some significant logistical problems for us as well as eliminate some potentially whopping rental costs. Any other insights, help, or donations to help refinish our domes would be very appreciated, indeed. THE MAS NEEDS YOUR PARTICIPATION TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM.

MAINTENANCE PROGRESS AT YRS

MAS member Neil Robinson has the soffits and facia on the Carl Fosmark Jr. Memorial Observatory Clubhouse in good shape for the coming winter. In spite of a busy work schedule, weather complications and the relentless onslaught of the clubhouse hornets, Neil has completed a thorough preparation job, two heavy coats of primer and one color coat. He has one more brown coat planned for the first suitable weather in the Spring.

Tom Jacobs, a long-standing MAS construction leader, has completed a superb job of re-hinging the lower shutter on the dome of the KMO. Tom got the shutter mounted back in its proper position and installed the hinges using threaded inserts so that future removal for maintenance will be quite simple. Tom has been a member of the MAS for many years and has contributed his engineering expertise to Yanna Research Station projects right from the beginning.

CONTROLLING THE SHIVERING

We have arrived at that time of year when interest turns again to the use of the YRS Clubhouse heaters. The clubhouse has a dual heating system that provides both maintenance heat and occasional temporary heat increases to warm chilled astronomers.

This system uses two thermostats installed above and below each other on the central column in the middle of the clubhouse. The lower thermostat controls the maintenance heat - the temperature setting that keeps the clubhouse at a moderate temperature of 52 degrees or thereabouts so that computers can function and stored paint doesn't freeze. The upper thermostat is for occasional, temporary heat increases. It controls the maintenance heaters plus the booster heaters that can bring the temperature up to a more comfortable level quickly. PLEASE leave these settings alone.

When you want to increase the temperature of the clubhouse for the duration of an observing session simply set the amount of time that you will be requiring the increased warmth on the heat timer located on the floor under the air conditioner. This timer, in combination with the thermostat setting, will switch on both the maintenance heaters and the fan driven booster heaters which will quickly bring up the temperature. If you should leave before the timer has run out, please turn it back to the "off" position.

I hope everyone is able to use and enjoy the YRS facility. If you have difficulty with anything in current service at the observatory or if you find anything missing or in disrepair, please notify me, Tim Ellestad, 233-3305, ellestad@mailbag.com, ASAP.
MAS laborers extraordinaire Tom Jacobs (left) and Neil Robinson (below) work hard to keep YRS facilities in fully operational condition.
 

From the Treasurer by Joe Keyes

The Madison Astronomical Society could not survive without the generosity of its members and others friendly to astronomy. We would like to thank the following people for donations made to the MAS during 1999:

-Doris Koster donation - $500.00 
-Mike Adyniel donation of 2 books: Galaxies and The New Atlas of the Universe, 
 the books are to be raffled off at the MAS Christmas Party 
-Doc Greiner & Joe Keyes donations for young astronomer's dues - $25.00 each 
-Tom Jacobs, donated lumber & building materials - $110.24 
-Wynn's Special Privey Reserve: 
 Wynn Wacker 100.00 
 Martin Nelson 25.00 
 Tim & Mary Ellestad 100.00 
 Daniel Strome 5.00 
 Tom Jacobs 11.00 
 total 241.00 

-Brinkerhoff Challenge (Member Bruce Brinkerhoff has agreed to match any donation 
 to the society up to $10 per member)
 Bob Manske 10.00 
 Dave Weier 10.00 
 Wynn Wacker 10.00 
 Dan Strome 10.00 
 Joe Keyes 10.00 
 Martin Nelson 10.00 
 Bruce Brinkerhoff 10.00 
 Jim Lattis 10.00 
 John Rummel 8.00 
 total 88.00
MAS also wishes to recognize all those who have donated labor and time to the society. Without this type of member willingness, this society could not sustain the YRS facility.

We hope we have mentioned everybody who has donated time, effort, or money to the society. If not, please forgive the oversight and mention it to Joe so that your generosity may be recognized in a future issue of Capitol Skies.

Back to Capitol Skies Main Page

Back to Madison Astronomical Society's Main Page