February/March 2002 Issue
From the Observatory Director
by Tim Ellestad
MAS extends a warm welcome to several new observing members. Society rules require the completion of an observatory orientation session before observing members may have individual access to the clubhouse and the YRS telescopes. In addition to those who have just joined, there are also several observing members that have held membership for some time that haven't had observatory orientation yet. So I am reminding all observing members who haven't completed the orientation requirement to contact me by phone at 233-3305 to schedule an observatory orientation session. Let's compare schedules and get everyone up to date.
While we're on the subject, all observing members will need to be brought up to date on some notable changes at YRS. The new dome, generously gifted to the MAS by Life Member Dr. Richard A. Greiner, has a fairly complex set of operational possibilities that will need some explanation to first-time users. The KMO 16 inch telescope has a new drive with new controls (again a gift from 'Doc' Greiner) that also come with some new operational requirements. Since all observing members will need to be brought up to date on these changes we will be announcing a date for a group orientation session to address this in the near future. Keep watch for this event.
So far winter has been pretty hospitable at YRS with no access impediment from snow or weather. I suppose that this can change, though. (I hope that didn't jinx anything!) Should we get some more normal snowfalls please use extreme caution if you attempt to drive up into the observatory area in deep, un-plowed snow with no wheel tracks to stay within. It is real easy to get stuck.
Whenever spring arrives, please check the firmness of the turf before driving onto the mowed area. If we have had a normal snow-melt or recent rains the ground will be VERY soft. Please refrain from driving on the grass in these conditions. It leaves miserable wheel ruts that make mowing difficult and that people stumble over in the dark.
I'm looking forward to a great year of observing at YRS.
The Stars of Winter
--Bright Stars and Planets in the Coldest and Darkest of Seasons
By John Rummel
Winter months and bone chilling temperatures bring sky gazers some of the most brilliant constellations of the year. Take a look at the sky this month, for example. By about 7:30 pm mid February (refer to chart, above), Orion has reached his highest point above the southern horizon. His distinctive three-star belt is familiar to almost everyone, regardless of interest or background in astronomy. Orion's left shoulder, Betelgeuse, and his right knee, Rigel, are both on the top 10 list of brightest stars (10th and 7th place, respectively). Two other stars just missed being in the top 25, Belletrix, his right shoulder, and Alnilam, the middle star of the belt.
Below and to the left of Orion is the brightest star in the nighttime sky, Sirius. Often called the dog-star, it anchors the beautiful constellation Canis Major, Orion's principle hunting dog. Some stars are bright simply because they're close. Others are bright because they're gigantic, super hot/bright stars in their own right. Sirius falls into the first category. At just 8.6 light years, it ranks as one of the closest stars to our solar system. Rigel, by comparison, is some 770 light years away, but is over 1600 times brighter than Sirius. If Rigel was as close to us as Sirius, it would shine far brighter then even Venus at its brightest. In fact, Rigel is one of the most luminous stars known.
Speaking of extremes, consider Betelgeuse again, the beautiful orange left shoulder of Orion. At over 400 light years, Betelgeuse is bright because it is a red supergiant star. Betelgeuse actually pulsates in size. Over a period of five to six years, its size ranges from 600 to 900 times the diameter of our own sun. At its largest, it balloons up to nearly the diameter of Mars' orbit! It pulsates in brightness with this same period as well, but its behavior is very irregular. Betelgeuse comes by this odd behavior honestly though. It's an aging star, nearing the end of its life. Having exhausted most of its hydrogen fuel by fusing it into heavier elements, it has become very unstable, and is a leading candidate among stars in our area of the galaxy to go supernova someday soon. Don't worry though, in the life-span of stars, "soon" could be thousands of years away.
Clustered around Orion are several other notable constellations and their own brilliant stars. Clockwise from the left is Sirius (see above), and then Procyon in Canis Minor, the little dog. Next up in the sky is Gemini with the twin stars Castor and Pollux. Though not as bright as Sirius and Rigel, the twins shine bright enough to make the top 25 list, shining at 23rd and 17th brightest respectively.
Joining the twins this year is the bright planet Jupiter. Shining much brighter than Sirius, Jupiter will remain the brightest object (other than the moon) in the night sky until Venus rejoins the evening skyshow in the spring.
Continuing up above Orion is the bright white star Capella in the constellation Auriga. At number 6 on the list of bright stars, Capella narrowly edges out Rigel, but like Sirius, that's because it's close (just 42 light years away).
Below and to the right of Orion and Auriga is Taurus the Bull. Taurus' centerpiece star is the fiery orange Aldebaran, number 14 on the all-time brightest list. Aldebaran is also a red giant, though it's not even in the same ballpark as the supergiant Betelgeuse. Aldebaran is also bright because it is close, just over 65 light years away.
Taurus' appearance is also skewed this year because of a visitor - the giant planet Saturn. In fact, if you imagine the V-shape of the Hyades cluster as being the face of the bull, Saturn completes the picture by giving the Taurus his second eye (Aldebaran is the first).
Rounding out our survey of the stars of winter is the small beautiful cluster M45, known popularly as the Pleiades. Find it above Aldebaran and Saturn, nearly at the top of the sky this month. Most people can only make out six or seven stars in the cluster, though some sharp-eyed individuals claim to be able to spot 10 or 12. The cluster actually contains hundreds of stars and makes a great target for binocular observing. The stars in this cluster are mostly between 350 and 450 light years away, and are all hot young blue stars. Most average about 1000 times the brightness of our sun. Each of the stars visible to the unaided eye in this cluster are larger and brighter than Sirius, but again, their distance causes them to fade to the limits of visibility.
Banquet to be held April 12
The annual MAS spring banquet will occur on April 12, 2002 at J.T. Whitney's Pub and Brewery, 674 South Whitney Way. Social hour from 6-7 p.m. and dinner served starting at 7 p.m. The speaker will be Professor Robert Mathieu, UW Astronomy Dept. Dinner choices are Prime Rib au jus ($16) or Fish Fry ($12.50). Anyone interested in a vegetarian choice should call Jane Breun at 832-1583. To register for the banquet, please send a check payable to MAS for the appropriate amount to Jane Breun, 1990 Oak Wood View Dr., Verona, WI 53593 before Friday, April 5. This deadline is important - this place wants an order sooner than any other place we've worked with in the past!
Observer's Handbooks are Available
The "Observer's Handbook 2002" from the Royal Canadian Astronomical Society has arrived! Most of you who ordered have received (and I hope are enjoying) your copies, but I am still holding one. If you have not yet received yours, please contact me (Neil Robinson) by phone or email so that we can make arrangements.
Additionally, there has been interest expressed in making another order of this wonderful resource book. To get the discounted price of $14, (a reduction from the normal $23 price), I must have at least 5 paid orders. If you would like to place an order, or would like more information on the Handbook, please contact me. 238-4429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Above is a reproduction of the photograph mentioned above, taken on the afternoon of Nov. 12, 1967 in Mr. Baillie's driveway at 2700 Regent St. It shows Ed Baillie trying to pack Cynthia Karp into the well-filled trunk of her parents' car while a terrified yet delighted witness, as yet unidentified, looks on.
The Great Saturn Graze Expedition
by Wynn Wacker (from Star Trails, December, 1967)
NOTE: STAR TRAILS was the official newsletter of the Junior Astronomical Society of Madison, Wisconsin also known as the JASMW. It was the junior division of the MAS that existed from probably the 1950's into the late 1960's. After that its function was taken over by a Boy Scout astronomy explorer post, whose fate is unknown to us.
Wynn Wacker and I (E. Thiede) are the only present members of the MAS who were members of this group, which Ed Baillie did much to guide and promote. We are hoping to work on a more extensive history of the JASMW before the memory of it goes with us. More later.
This article is probably the final issue of STAR TRAILS. I transcribed it from a mimeograph stencil and it was most likely never completed or published. Any additions or inserted comments are in brackets [ ]. Eric W. Thiede
It was the night of October 16th . Eric Thiede, Cynthia Karp, and myself were standing, sitting, and crouching in the "Stebbins room" at Washburn Observatory. For those of you who have not had the privilege of seeing this historic chamber, let me describe it briefly. Upon reaching the top of the flight of stairs leading to the second floor at Washburn and turning to the right (the only way you can turn since there isn't much of a second floor), you see before you the door leading to the dome. To your right is the door to the Stebbins room. Looking in, you see a 'room' about the size of an oversized closet. All around are boxes of old apparatus, including some of the old photoelectric tubes used by Joel Stebbins, pioneer in the field of photoelectric photometry. On the floor is a large cement [actually stone] plaque which says "The Watson Solar Observatory," a building which has long been demolished. In the back is some photographic equipment which Eric has set up. The architecture of the building is such that the ceiling slopes down towards the back, so you have to be pretty short to get very far into the room without bending over. The only comfortable place to stand is in the front, but if you don't want to block the door standing is again rendered uncomfortable by the strategically placed light bulb. Have you ever had the thrill of smelling your hair charring?
The reason we were gathered in the Stebbins room was that a rare event had just occurred. The moon had occulted Saturn. A more common event had been occurring at the same time. The sky was being covered with a thick haze, through which the moon could be seen, sometimes. The day had been perfectly clear, but as the Sun sank in the west, the Moon rose in the east, and the clouds with it. Needless to say, the prevailing mood was not one of overwhelming joy. There was, however, a determination that the next and perhaps the last chance for a number of years to view an occultation of Saturn would not go unused. This chance would occur on the evening of November 12th  when an even more rare grazing occultation would occur. The problem was that the graze line passed a good deal north of Madison, so plenty of advance planning would be called for. Credit for the planning and organization go to Cynthia Karp. She wrote to some friends who own the Skyline ski area in Friendship, Wis. They graciously allowed us the use of their property and chalet. She also wrote to a friend at the U. S. Naval Observatory, and was rewarded with a long distance phone call which impressed her roommates. She then proceeded to try to muster up what little enthusiasm she could in the M. A. S. The senior turnout was somewhat disappointing, but a number of juniors made the journey.
I rode up in Cynthia's car. We somehow got everything packed in and stopped by the Baillie's to make last minute arrangements. We were to go on ahead to make sure everything was ready for the others who would arrive several hours later. Cynthia nearly rode up in the trunk, thanks to Mr. Baillie's overly enthusiastic packing (ask Eric to show you his snapshot). We finally got out of Madison about 4:00. The skies had been cloudy in the mourning [sic], but it cleared up beautifully and we were in high spirits. This changed as we reached Baraboo and met a solid wall of cloud coming in from the north. This was pretty discourageing [sic], but we ran across a sign saying "Cheer for Cheese," so with a few rahs for Roquefort and sis boom bahs for Brick, we managed to keep our spirits up.
We arrived at Friendship and filled the tank at the local Kickapoo Gas station. We then searched for and managed to find the ski area. There was a sign pointing the way if you knew where to look for it in the first place. We made sure everything was ready and then climbed to the top of the slope. You could see for miles and miles. The sunset would have been beautiful if it hadn't been for the overcast skies and the cold. We returned to the car and drove back into [town] to the restaurant. Dinner was spent discussing whether the mean density of onion rings should be included in the 1968 PHYSICS HANDBOOK and other important topics. When we arrived back at the chalet the sky was still cloudy, but there were occasional open patches. The others soon arrived and about a hour before the occultation was due to occur, the clouds finally started to break up. Everyone began setting up their equipment and you had to be pretty careful not to trip over all the wires lying around. Telescopes ranged from 2.4-inch refractors and Ed Schief's Questar to the 6-inch reflectors brought by Eric Thiede and myself. There were about ten telescopes in all. Some of the local residents came over to view Saturn and the Moon and talk about astronomy.
A short while before the big event, an ionospheric disturbance cut off all the time signals. Fortunately, they returned in time. Eric, Cynthia, Bill Feiereisen, and myself were all in the same general area so our comments were picked up on my tape recorder. One disadvantage of this proximity was that everyone influences everyone else, as this exerpt shows:
BILL: "First contact with the ball."
ERIC: "Yep. It's flattened now."
CYNTHIA: "What a bunch of drunks. Yep."
The timings are supposed to be accurate to one second. Would you believe five seconds? The right day?
During the occultation several tape recorders quit because of the cold. The sky, which had been hazy through the event, promptly cleared up completely afterwards. We packed up all our equipment and left, arriving in Madison around midnight. The hardest part was going to school the next day.
Murphy was an astronomer
--A selection of astronomy humor from the internet
Compiled by John Rummel
As any seasoned web surfer knows, there's an awful lot of assembled wisdom–and nonsense–on the internet. A few years ago, the readers of sci.astro.amateur compiled a list of "you might be a deep-sky person if..." symptoms. The result was amusing and in some cases accurate. Below is a selection of some other nuggets I found and have kept around.
Murphy's Laws of Amateur Astronomy
- 1st Law: The skies are never clear within 3 days of new moon, since there is not enough solar energy reflected off the moon to dissipate the clouds.
- 2nd Law: Rare astronomical events usually occur within 3 days of full moon and/or within 30 apparent degrees from the sun (gravitational interpretation of Murphy's law).
- 3rd Law: When observing, the object you want to see will always be below the horizon or less than 10 degrees from the horizon with the most light pollution (since frustration is related to entropy, it must always increase).
- 4th Law: Supernovae, comets, and asteroids are always discovered by someone else (because no matter where you are, the sun will always set earlier somewhere else, and therefore someone else will find it first).
- 5th Law: 90 percent of meteors occur behind you when everyone else is facing you (so they can all say, "ooh!... You missed a good one!")
From: Stephen Tonkin (email@example.com)
Patrick Moore tells this one:
It is of a fairly eminent astronomer (whom Patrick refused to name) who, one clear dark night, found himself away from his state-of-the-art instruments. Gazing up at the southern sky, he saw a star far brighter than its companions. He rushed inside for a star atlas in order that he could identify it and found that the bright object was not marked. Eager to be the first to report this supernova, he dashed off the appropriate telegram, only to find that he had made a completely independent discovery of the planet Saturn.
From: "p" firstname.lastname@example.org
The New York Times, among other papers, recently published a new Hubble photograph of distant galaxies colliding. Of course, astronomers have had pictures of colliding galaxies for quite some time now, but with the vastly improved resolution provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, you can actually see lawyers rushing to the scene...
From: Michael Dworetsky email@example.com
Two astrophysicists are discussing their research in a bar one evening when a drunk who has been sitting and listening in at the next seat turns and says, in a very worried voice, "What was that you just said!!??"
"We were discussion stellar evolution, and I said to my colleague here that the Sun would run out of nuclear fuel and turn into a red giant star in about 5 billion years, possibly melting the Earth."
"Whew!!," says the drunk, "You really had me worried. I thought you said 5 million."
Finally, with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, you might NOT be an amateur astronomer if you think:
LIGHT POLLUTION is a few beer cans in the yard NORTHERN LIGHTS is a brand of a mentholated, low nicotine cigarette SCHMIDT-CASSEGRAIN is a German meal made with rice A LIGHT YEAR
is a period of time when you don't have enough cash
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