President’s Message May 2020

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President’s Message May 2020

During the early dawn of February 16th I obtained a glimpse of the future. After months of almost perpetual overcast, skies finally cleared. While looking northward towards Cassiopeia I noticed a long precession of fairly bright evenly spaced satellites moving from left to right. It took about 10 minutes for this parade to pass. I realized that this must be the Starlink Constellation that had been mentioned in the news. When I searched the Internet to learn more I was in for a surprise.

Starlink is a bold ingenious project with an ambitious mission to deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access is unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. It plans to achieve this by deploying a vast constellation of communication satellites. The parent company SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 and has developed a remarkable capacity to launch Falcon 9 rockets and successfully land them for reuse. This greatly reduces the launch costs. The communication satellites are stacked aboard the Falcon 9 in two columns of 30 and they gradually drift apart once they reach orbit. Each satellite is powered by a single solar panel which gently unfolds. The satellites are maneuvered by ion jets using Krypton. This elaborate scheme sounds unwieldy but when Starlink V0.9 was launched in May 2019 it actually worked! 

Satellites are usually expensive “one off” devices that take years to build but by employing the manufacturing expertise that Elon Musk honed at Tesla, Starlink can assemble 6 satellites a day at their Redmond Washington plant. This production rate allows Starlink to launch 60 satellites every two weeks! At that launch rate Starlink can place 1584 satellites in a shell 550 km about the Earth by the end of 2021. They will be placed in 72 orbital planes inclined at 53 degrees. 22 satellites will occupy each plane and when in position they will form an exotic mesh surrounding the globe. Animation of this configuration reveals that the concentration of satellites is greatest between latitudes of 50 to 53 degrees. While this network will provide coverage over most of the globe, two additional phases have been approved by the FCC to increase capacity and speed. Phase two will add an additional 2800 satellites in a 1125 km altitude shell and phase three will add 7500 more satellites in a lower 340 km altitude shell. 

When completed an additional 12000 satellites will be in orbit! This exceeds the 9000 satellites that have been launched during the last 50 years and the 5000 that are still in orbit. The first batch of 60 operational satellites were launched on Starlink 1 on November 11th 2019 and the sixth Starlink mission occurred on April 22nd bringing the total to 420. While Starlink obtained the necessary frequency approvals from the FCC to prevent interference with radio astronomy there was no governance regarding visual and infrared ground based astronomy. The initial Starlink v0.9 group was much brighter than anticipated and generated alarm from visual astronomers. Elon Musk is embarrassed about this oversight and is working with the Astronomical Community to mitigate the impact of this massive network. On April 27th Musk announced VisorSat, an innovative sunshield that may significantly reduce the albedo of the satellites. Some of these shields will be tested during the next Starlink launch. 

The satellites must be illuminated by the Sun to be visible. Due to the low altitude the Phase 1 cohort will only be visible near twilight. The higher altitude Phase 2 will remain visible longer. Satellites are brightest when just launched but will become dimmer as they ascend to operational altitude. Since twilight lingers into the late evening near the Summer Solstice the presence of this constellation will be most pronounced in the area of highest density over Canadian skies this summer. So keep on the lookout for this new swarm of satellites while stargazing this summer. Please share your observations on the Virtual Astro Cafe web page or during the Astro Cafe Webinar which will take place every Monday evening at 7:30 PM. In someways the unintended consequence of this mission resembles an outbreak of a “stellar virus”. And it could get worse as SpaceX has requested permission to place another 30000 satellites in orbit! Let’s hope that the Starlink team creates a stellar vaccine soon and that skies will remain useable.

Wishing everyone good health and useable skies

Reg Dunkley 

President’s Message April 2020

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The tipping point occurred near the 15th, the Ides of March. Just a few days earlier at the Victoria Centre Monthly Meeting 50 RASCals enjoyed the entertaining talk by Dr. Tyrone Woods which involved both supernovae and sword fights. While details of the approaching Astronomy Day were presented there was tension in the air and it was recommended that members monitor HealthLinkBC.ca. By the 17th, Saint Patricks Day, schools were cancelled, the gates to the DAO were locked and even the Pubs were closed! In almost an instant, astronomy “outreach” events Astronomy Day and Saturday Star Parties together with “in-reach” events such as, Astro Cafe, Monthly Meetings, VCO sessions and the 2020 Vancouver General Assembly were cancelled. What lead to this astonishing turnaround? Perhaps it was the eerie images of Italian landmarks, totally devoid of people. Maybe it was the grime graphs of soaring death totals. Or could it be the announcement that even Tom Hanks was not immune to CoVid-19?

Sporting activities involving crowds like hockey and basketball were among the first casualties. In contrast, the stillness, peace and wonderment of observing the night sky can be safely experienced in isolation. One of the joys of the astronomical community, however, is sharing these experiences with others. A “Virtual Astro Cafe” has been set up on https://victoria.rasc.ca and it allows you to share your stories, images and links. We have already enjoyed a strong response and we encourage you to forward your contributions to president@victoria.rasc.ca. One of the things missing from this Virtual Astro Cafe, however, are the comments, questions and banter that add a special touch to the authentic Astro Cafe. The hosts of Astro Cafe are addressing this shortcoming by holding Astro Cafe Webinars using software called Zoom. It is scheduled for Mondays at 7:30PM and all you have to do is click on the link provided by the email from the Astro Cafe host and respond to one or two prompts. It is a surprisingly effective way to achieve a sociable connection at a safe distance. Give it a try!

The mention of Tom Hanks recalls his portrayal of Astronaut Jim Lovell in the epic movie Apollo 13. The 50th anniversary of the explosion aboard Apollo 13 takes place on April 13th. This is a validation of bad luck for the superstitious! The remarkable success of the earlier Apollo missions fostered a sense of complacency among much of the population. This episode, however, dramatically illustrated the dangers and complexity of these space missions and riveted the attention of the world until the capsule safely returned. You may not be aware of the Victoria connection of this adventure. Ernie Pfanneschmidt and Frank Younger of the DAO were atop Mount Kobau during this mission and successfully photographed the oxygen cloud that formed in the wake of the explosion. The 16 inch telescope that they used is now residing in the dome connected to the Centre of the Universe. To learn more see pp 6-7 Sep 2018 SkyNews. Pause and reflect on this historical role when you next peer through the eyepiece of this scope.

Although most Victoria Centre events have been cancelled until further notice, there may be an interesting spectacle to anticipate. Victoria RASCal Martin Gisborne recently imaged comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) discovered by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) survey on December 28, 2019. Visit Virtual Astro Cafe to view this image It is currently situated above the plane of the Solar System moving from Ursa Major to Camelopardalis. It will swoop southward and make its closest approach to Earth on May 23rd. Some have speculated that it will brighten significantly on approach. Prediction of any sort is a reckless business but it might provide a welcome distraction from the global pandemic.

As we work our way through this challenging time remember that we are all in this together. So keep at a safe distance, be kind and when skies are useable … look up.


Reg Dunkley

March 2020 Speaker: When Stars Explode: Understanding Supernovae from Tycho to Today

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Dr. Tyrone Woods

7:30PM Wednesday March 11th 2020, Room A104 Bob Wright Centre, UVic

In 1572, a new “star” appeared in the sky that forever changed the way we think about the Universe. Identified by famed Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, this incredible event is now understood to have been the explosion of a dead star — a supernova. Since then, supernova observations have illuminated the Cosmos, revealing everything from the origin of the iron in our blood to the final fate of the Universe. In this talk, I’ll outline a brief history of supernova astronomy, culminating in the cutting-edge work being carried out in Victoria and across Canada today to understand why and how some stars explode, and the lasting impact of their explosions and remnants in our Galaxy and beyond.

Dr. Tyrone E. Woods is a research associate and Plaskett Fellow at NRC-Herzberg in Victoria. There, he studies the physics of some of the most energetic events in the Universe, by combining theoretical models with observations across the electromagnetic spectrum. Before returning to Canada, he completed his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Munich, Germany, and held research positions in Australia and the UK.

President’s Message March 2020

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This is the inaugural Presidents message for my second and final term as President of the Victoria Centre of RASC. I would like to thank members of the Council and other active members for their support in the past year. A special salute to our Treasurer Deb Crawford who was busy sorting out our year end finances when we learned that our AGM planned location, the Cedar Hill Golf Course, was no longer available. She rallied to the cause and soon found an alternate venue that ticked all the boxes. Her initiative was key to the success of the AGM and I am very grateful for her contribution. I would also like to thank our Secretary Barbara Lane for presenting our Annual Report in an entertaining manner and Bruno Quenneville for organizing the awards. Our speaker, Mary Beth Laychak, delivered a most interesting and entertaining presentation on the history of the CFHT and we are fortunate that NRC Herzberg helped make that happen.

Thanks must also go to Marjie Welchframe, Mandy Lee and Bill Weir for stepping up and joining the Victoria Centre Council. Their added support and David Lee’s generous offer to organize Astronomy Day convinced me to stay on for a second term. I was, however, a little disappointed that there were no takers for the position of first Vice President. This places our organization in an awkward position. Our constitution prohibits the President from serving more than two consecutive terms. As a consequence if the current situation stands by next February the President’s position will be vacated with no groomed successor to assume the mantle.

The Victoria Centre is a vibrant and active organization and a leadership role may seem intimidating to some. A number of measures are being taken to make this position less daunting. An operators manual is in the works that will provide step by step instructions for major events such as Astronomy Day, the Victoria Centre Star Party, The Saanich Fair Outreach event and the AGM. Saturday Night Star Parties at the DAO offer an incredibly rich and focused opportunity for Astronomical Outreach. The number of these events have nearly tripled since 2015. In order to accommodate this increase we have attempted to trim our sails and have withdrawn from some of the less focused outreach opportunities. Meanwhile “In-reach” activities like Astro Cafe have grown in popularity and help to engage new members and recharge veteran RASCals with more knowledge, energy and enthusiasm.

The primary duty of the first Vice President is to schedule and introduce speakers for the monthly meetings. NRC Herzberg has been very supportive in this regard and the following speakers are already scheduled for the remainder of the season:
Wednesday March 11th Dr. Tyrone Woods – Understanding Supernovae from Tycho to Today
Wednesday April 8th: Dr. Matt Taylor – Role of Dwarf Galaxies & Globulars in Galaxy formation.
Wednesday May 13th: Dr. JJ Kavalaars – An Update on Arrokoth (aka Ultimae Thule)
Wednesday June 10th: Dr. Abedin Abedin – Modelling Meteoroid Swarms

That only leaves 6 more talks to schedule until the next AGM! So please give the First Vice President role serious consideration. It is a great opportunity to deepen your involvement in this remarkable organization. For 106 years the Victoria Centre has been dedicated to its primary mandate: to stimulate interest and to promote and increase knowledge in astronomy and related sciences. By stepping up you would help keep this wheel turning and make an important and satisfying contribution.
Usable Skies

Reg Dunkley

President’s Message February 2020

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The 50th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing received the lions share of astronomical attention in 2019. There was another RASCal worthy milestone, however, that was overshadowed by this event. In October 2019 the Canada France Hawaii Telescope celebrated its 40th Birthday! In order to celebrate this momentous occasion the Victoria Centre has invited Mary Beth Laychak to deliver a presentation on the CHFT at our AGM banquet. Mary Beth is the author of the CHFT Chronicles, a very interesting column which appears in the RASC Journal. As the Director of Strategic Communications for the CFHT she is the ideal person to share stories of the science, staff, instrumentation, and adventure from this remarkable observatory that is brimming with Canadian content.

It should be noted that all Victoria Centre RASCals are welcome to attend this presentation. It will begin at 7:30PM on Saturday February 22nd at the Ambrosia Centre, located at 638 Fisgard Street. Participation in the banquet is not required but I encourage you to consider this savoury opportunity. The AGM was originally booked at the Cedar Hill Golf Course but in January a plumbing failure closed that venue for 6 months. In response to this crisis our intrepid Treasurer, Deb Crawford, went into overdrive and secured the Ambrosia Centre, which enjoys an outstanding culinary reputation. Since easy parking is available across the street we hope that you will join us for delicious cuisine, sparkling conversation, an interesting presentation and recognition of remarkable RASCals. There will also be a streamlined business meeting that will be so short that it will be painless. If you plan to attend please email Deb Crawford treasurer@victoria.rasc.ca by February 15th with your choice of entree.

Snow and fierce winds forced us to reschedule our Victoria Centre Council Meeting to January 22nd. Council focused on upcoming events.
– Astronomy Day will occur on Saturday April 25th at the Royal BC Museum. David Lee has once again kindly volunteered to organize this event. It serves as the kickoff of our ambitious 2020 outreach season. The first of 21 scheduled Saturday Night Star Parties at the DAO commence that evening and will continue until September 12th.
– From April 15th to May 2nd Langham Court Theatre will be performing Silent Sky, a wonderful play featuring the life of Henrietta Leavitt, who discovered the luminosity-period relationship of Cepheid variables. Potential outreach possibilities are being explored.
– The 2020 RASC General Assembly in Metro Vancouver June 5th to 7th. Early bird registration discount ends February 15th.
– Fort Rodd Hill Stargazing event on Friday August 7th.
– The 25th Annual Island Star Party at Bright Angel Park on August 22nd and 23rd.
– Saanich Fair Epic Outreach Event September 5th to 7th.

You might notice that no Victoria Centre RASCal Star Party is planned for 2020. During a lengthy discussion it was noted that in order to select a star party date that did not conflict with the Island Star Party, Saturday Night at the DAO and the Saanich Fair, the Victoria Centre event would have to be held in late September. Both star parties held in September at St Stephens Church were rained out and demonstrated the unreliable nature of September weather. A significant majority of council felt that it was not worth the time, energy and expense to organize a star party when the likelihood of success was marginal. The idea of a “downsized” event that would provide both social benefits and encourage communal stargazing had a certain appeal. The option of a casual “Picnic at Pearson” might fit the bill and a late summer pot luck event at Pearson College is actively being explored. We may also hold a couple of casual observing sessions at Cattle Point during a favourable weather window. We will see how this works this year and revisit the Star Party option next year. When you remember that we also have the weekly events at the Victoria Centre Observatory we have plenty of activities for a busy season ahead.

Useable Skies
Reg Dunkley

February 2020 Speaker: 40 Years of Astronomy at the Top of the World

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Mary Beth Laychak, Canada France Hawaii Telescope

7:30 PM Saturday February 22nd 2020 The Ambrosia Centre, 638 Fisgard Street

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope celebrated it’s 40th anniversary in 2019. Mary Beth Laychak, CFHT’s Director of Strategic Communications will share stories of the science, staff, instrumentation, and adventure from CFHT.

Mary Beth Laychak is the Director of Strategic Communications at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii. She also runs the Maunakea Scholars program, an innovative astronomy outreach program for Hawaii public high school students. Mary Beth has an undergraduate degree in astronomy and astrophysics from Penn State University and a masters degree in educational technology from San Diego State. Her passions include astronomy, sharing astronomy with the public, astronomy based crafts, and running. She lives in Waimea, Hawaii with her husband and cat.

President’s Message January 2020

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Happy New Year RASCals! As we slide into a brand new decade it is a good time to reflect on astronomical accomplishments and events that have taken place over the last 10 years. It has been an amazing period for the field of Astronomy and I will list some of the significant stories that enjoyed widespread attention:

Within the Solar System: In 2011 the Messenger spacecraft went into orbit around Mercury while in July 2016 Juno went into orbit around Jupiter. In September 2017 Cassini crashed into Saturn ending an amazing 13 year exploration around the ringed planet. A number of other spacecraft went into orbit around Mars, comets and and asteroids during the decade. The New Horizons spacecraft captured fascinating imagery as it whizzed by Pluto in 2015 and managed a followup flyby of Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69 (Arrokoth) on Jan. 1 2019. In August 2012 the Curiosity Rover made a spectacular landing on Mars and detected evidence of ancient stream beds and the potential conditions for life. It continues a fascinating survey on the slopes of Mount Sharp.

On February 15th 2013 a large meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk Russia and caused significant damage.

Beyond the Solar System: The Kepler mission discovered over 2600 exoplanets and the TESS satellite is currently conducting a wider search for more nearby exoplanets. ALMA, the Atacama Large Microwave Array became operational and detected protoplanetary debris disks around nearby stars. ALMA also combined forces with other instruments as the Event Horizon Telescope and in 2019 captured the shadow of the supermassive black hole in M87.

In 2016 the LIGO interferometer measured gravitational waves for the first time and in August 2017 it detected the collision of neutron stars that was also confirmed by optical instruments.

In 2014 the GAIA Space telescope began a remarkable survey which has already mapped the position and brightness of 1.7 billion stars with precedented accuracy and measured the parallax and proper motion of 1.3 billion stars. The survey may continue until 2022 and has already had a major impact in many astronomical fields.

Within the Victoria Centre: The membership grew from 166 in 2010 to over 280 in 2018 and is currently around 265. Why the significant increase? Well the membership began to skyrocket in 2014. Two major things occurred that year. In June 2014 the Victoria Centre hosted the RASC General Assembly which celebrated the centenary of the Victoria Centre. President Nelson Walker rallied the RASCals and Mark Bohlman and Paul Schumacher organized a wonderful event which re-energized the membership. The Victoria Centre also hosted 7 Summer Star Parties at the DAO that year. This was in response to the closure of the Centre of the Universe in August 2013. The strong public interest in these star parties fostered the formation of the Friends of the DAO in 2015 and the number of star parties increased to 12 in 2015, 13 in 2016 and 20 events in 2017, 2018 and 2019. These Saturday night gatherings provided a rich outreach experience and also presented a great opportunity to recruit new members. During the past 3 years, star parties were also held at Fort Rodd Hill to coincide with the August Perseid meteor shower. The public were welcome to pitch tents in the field and this contributed to a joyous atmosphere for astronomical outreach.

Attendance at our informal weekly Astro Cafe increased from about 10 to 25 or 30 over the decade. The acquisition of a large monitor facilitated the display of astrophotos and presentations and may have helped boost attendance.
A review of past issues of SkyNews suggests that the Transit of Venus on June 5th 2012 and the Solar Eclipse of August 21st 2017 were the premiere observing events of the decade. At the Victoria Centre Observatory the 14 inch SCT and 127 mm refractor were sold in 2018 and replaced by a 16 inch RC reflector. The family of Jan James generously donated his wonderful 20 inch Obsession dobsonian telescope. The performance of the 16 inch scope continues to be refined and digital setting circles will be added to the 20 inch scope. So as we move into the next decade the VCO will be well equipped to support both visual and photographic astronomy.

During the last decade the Victoria Centre grew and become more engaged in promoting astronomy. In order to maintain this momentum as we enter the next decade please consider stepping up as the Vice President or Second Vice President at the February 22nd AGM. It will help share the load and provide a source of both enjoyment and satisfaction.

Useable Skies

Reg Dunkley

January 2020 Speaker: From Baby Planets to Black Holes: ALMA Explores the Cold Universe

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Dr. Gerald Schieven, NRC Herzberg

7:30 PM Wednesday, January 8th, 2020 Room A104, Bob Wright Centre, UVic

The ALMA Observatory is a billion dollar multi-national astronomy facility located at high elevation in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. Its 66 antennas work together as if one giant telescope 16 km in diameter, to give us unprecedented images of the cold, dark universe, including the birth of planets around other stars, organic molecules in the early universe, and the first image of the event horizon of the super-massive black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy. Gerald will talk about the observatory, what it’s like to work there, and some of the astonishing discoveries being made by this facility.

Dr. Gerald Schieven has been a staff astronomer at NRC – Herzberg for 24 years (11 of them in Victoria), and is responsible for managing Canada’s support of the ALMA Observatory. After obtaining his PhD in Astronomy at the University of Massachusetts, Gerald worked at Queen’s University in Kingston, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton, and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii before moving to Victoria.

The picture of the ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor plain was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science. Nineteen antennas are in operation, 5000 m above sea level.

December Speaker: The lives and deaths of galaxies — more than just a metaphor

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Dr. Marcin Sawicki

7:30 PM Wednesday, December 11th, 2019 Room A104, Bob Wright Centre, UVic

Astronomers often say that galaxies were “born” soon after the Big Bang, that they “live” while they are forming new stars, and that they “die” when they turn into quiescent “red and dead” ellipticals. Surely, these biological terms are just an interesting metaphor, aren’t they? No! It turns out that there is a deep connection between the pathways galaxies take through time and those that we humans take through our life cycles. In this talk I will show you how the fates of these two very different populations – galaxies and people – are connected at an underlying, fundamental level that lets us better understand the one by understanding the other.

Dr. Marcin Sawicki is an observational astronomer who studies how galaxies form and evolve over cosmic time. He is especially fond of very large samples of galaxies that span multiple epochs, and uses data from ground-based telescopes such as CFHT, Gemini, and Subaru, and space-based observatories such as HST, Spitzer and (soon) JWST. He is Canada Research Chair in Astronomy and Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and is currently on sabbatical leave visiting NRC-Herzberg in Victoria.

President’s Message December 2019

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Neither history nor society is generous to those who come in second place. Buzz Aldrin knows this all too well and I do not believe there is a movie in the works called “The Second Man”. A similar fate has fallen on the Apollo 12 mission. I bet most of you would have to refer to Bruce Lane’s November SkyNews issue to come up with the names of the Apollo 12 crew. I will spare you the effort; Pete Conrad and Alan Bean climbed into the Lunar Module “Intrepid” and landed on an area of the Ocean of Storms on November 19th 1969. Richard Gordon remained aboard Command Module “Yankee Clipper”. The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing was celebrated with great hoopla around the globe. There were a series of special events at the DAO culminating with Dr. Chris Gainor’s Moon Walk presentation. In contrast the 50th for Apollo 12 barely received a mention.

Apollo 12, however, is memorable for a number of reasons. First of all it was struck by lightning within a minute of launch and the command module immediately lost it’s fuel cells and instrumentation. It was the quick thinking of a brilliant Nasa engineer and Alan Bean’s remarkable memory of an obscure switch which prevented the abortion of the mission.

Apollo 11 was also very nearly aborted during the final descent to the Moon. The relaxed drawl of capsule communicators concealed the alarm that was felt during the last 13 minutes to the Moon. This has been richly captured by an outstanding and immersive BBC podcast https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2/episodes/downloads. Apollo 11 came in too fast and overshot the planned landing area. Neil Armstrong was confronted with rough terrain and had to use up all but 20 seconds of fuel to find a suitable landing spot. In contrast the Apollo 12 mission executed a pinpoint landing and Pete Conrad just had to make a minor intervention at the end to avoid some rubble. They landed within 1000 feet of the Surveyor 3 landing probe. The improvement of the landing accuracy has been attributed to adjusting for local variations in gravity introduced by mountains.

There was concealed drama at the end of the Apollo 12 mission. Remember those lightning strikes? There was concern that they may have damaged the explosive bolts that release the parachutes during the November 24th return to Earth. NASA decided it was better not to share these concerns with the astronauts. They had enough to think about! Even though this was the “second” landing it was a fascinating voyage, rich with history and certainly worthy of celebrating and revisiting. The next 50th anniversary will be in April with Apollo 13 … and there was no shortage of drama on that mission!

For the Victoria Centre Monthly Meeting at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, December 11th we will be changing focus from the solar system to the evolution of galaxies. Visiting Astronomer Dr. Marcin Sawicki will deliver an interesting presentation entitled “The lives and deaths of galaxies — more than just a metaphor”. We hope you can make it to Room A104 in the Bob Wright Centre.

In the past the Victoria Centre held its Annual General Meeting in November. Due to a change in our fiscal year end this year the AGM will be held on February 22nd 2020 at the Cedar Hill Golf Course. We will be circulating the banquet menu for you consideration in the near future.

Please note that doors to Astro Cafe will be closed on December 23rd and December 30th. I would like to end by wishing all Victoria RASCals a very Happy Festive Season and Useable Skies in 2020.

Reg Dunkley