President’s Message: November 2019

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The Canadian astronomical community received a wonderful surprise on October 8th when it was announced that Manitoba native Dr. Jim Peebles would receive the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physics. Jim was born in St. Boniface and obtained a Bachelor Degree in Physics from University of Manitoba in 1958. He then obtained a Phd from Princeton in 1962 and has remained there every since. He was rewarded for laying a foundation for modern cosmology, including his realization that faint microwave radiation that filled the cosmos 400,000 years after the Big Bang contains crucial clues to what the universe looked like at this primitive stage and how it has evolved since. Dennis Overbye wrote a wonderful account, explaining his discoveries and capturing his character in Chapter Six the classic book The Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos. Randy Enkin and Jim Hesser delivered a short tribute to Peebles during a recent Astro Cafe. Jim Hesser met Peebles when he was a grad student at Princeton and mentioned that Peebles had spent time at the DAO while on Sabbatical in the early 80’s. At that time he boldly predicted that Jim would receive the Nobel Prize some day. It took almost 4 decades but Hesser was delighted when his prediction was finally verified. There is a joyous YouTube video of the Princeton celebration of this announcement. Check it out.

While Jim Peebles contemplated the biggest picture, most of the Victoria Centre presentations during 2019 have focused on our local Solar System. In February Dr. Samatha Lawler explored the controversy about a Planet Nine lurking in the outer reaches of the Solar System. In March Dr. JJ Kavelaars shared the latest findings for the New Horizon’s Flyby of 2014MU69 (Ultima Thule). Dr. Kelsi Springer delivered a public lecture on this rendezvous during a CASCA conference in May. I gave a talk on the Juno mission to Jupiter in May while in June Matt Williams explored the feasibility of leaving the Solar System to explore nearby stars. The Summer was dominated by reflections on the Apollo moon landing while in October Dr. Linda Spilker, Principal Cassini Mission Scientist delivered a fascinating talk on the results of this very successful 13 year exploration of Saturn. Meanwhile Linda’s husband Dr. Tom Spilker, a space mission architect, unveiled plans for a 400 person Space Station … on the scale of the Empress Hotel. I will try to negotiate a Victoria Centre discount. Some age restrictions may apply.

This Solar System theme continues at the November 13th monthly meeting when Dr. Philip Stooke discusses Lunar discoveries that have been made since Apollo. He has applied his specialty in cartography to the Solar System and has developed a Martian Atlas and has also mapped the irregular shapes of Martian moons and many asteroids. It will be an interesting talk and we hope to see you there.

One noteworthy Solar System event is the Transit of Mercury which begins at Sunrise at 7:15 AM on November 11th and ends at 10AM. Because this event occurs very close to Remembrance Day Ceremonies and due to the unfavourable climate for this date the Victoria Centre decided to not heavily promote the Transit. Some Victoria RASCals, however, plan to set up telescopes at Cattle Point and Mount Tolmie if weather permits.

Speaking of weather, a blocking ridge of high pressure became established in late October …which is rare for this time of year. This allowed many clear nights and Victoria RASCals made the most of this opportunity. Over 20 participated in the Plaskett Party on October 26th. This interlude also allowed the technical committee to refine the performance of the 16 inch telescope at the Victoria Centre Observatory and it is back in business “bagging photons”. Many thanks to all who made that happen. Due to our land use agreement with NRC, you have to be a member of the active observers list to attend these VCO sessions. Please see Chris Purse (membership@victoria.rasc.ca) for details.

Useable Skies
Reg Dunkley

November Speaker: The Moon After Apollo

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Dr. Philip Stooke

7:30 PM Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
Room A104 Bob Wright Building, UVic

The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration - Phillip J. Stooke
The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration

Phil Stooke looks at missions to the Moon since the Apollo era (NASA’s Apollo landings and the Soviet Union’s final missions of the early 1970s).  After those missions the Moon was left alone for two decades while space agencies looked further out into the Solar System, but more recently the Moon has returned as a target for exploration.  We will look at a series of early lunar orbiters filling in gaps in our knowledge left after Apollo, then more advanced orbiters with modern instruments, and finally a series of landers, some successful and others not.  What have we done and where are we going?

Phil Stooke
Phil Stooke

Dr. Phil Stooke is a planetary scientist with a PhD from the University of Victoria who has returned to the west coast after 30 years working at Western University in Ontario.  He has worked on mapping asteroids, locating spacecraft landing and impact sites on the Moon and Mars, and depicting the history of exploration of the Moon and Mars.

October Speakers: Linda and Tom Spilker

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Cassini’s Intriguing New Discoveries and the Design of Space Missions

The Cassini Project Scientist and a Space Mission Architect Share Their Insights

7:30 PM Wednesday October 9th 2019, Flury Hall, Bob Wright Centre, UVic

Cassini’s Intriguing New Discoveries

Abstract: Dr. Linda Spilker, the Cassini Project Scientist, will present updates of the highlights of Cassini’s 13-year mission of discovery at Saturn. Since the end of Cassini’s mission scientists have been teasing out new information about Saturn, the rings and moons from the huge stock of data collected during the mission. Some of the most surprising results were discovered during the final orbits of the mission, diving through the gap between the rings and Saturn for the very first time.

Bio: Dr. Linda Spilker is a NASA research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. She is currently the Cassini Project Scientist and a Co-Investigator on the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer team and has worked on Cassini since 1988. Since joining JPL over 40 years ago she has worked on the Voyager Project, the Cassini Project and conducted independent research on the origin and evolution of planetary ring systems. She enjoys yoga and hiking in National Parks, including her favorite park, Yosemite. She is married, with three daughters and eight grandchildren. She received her B.A. from Cal State Fullerton, her M.S. from Cal State Los Angeles, and her Ph.D. from UCLA.

Designing Space Missions

Abstract: Dr Tom Spilker, “International Space Mission Architect” will share some of his experiences with multiple NASA centers, such as JPL, Goddard Research Center, Glenn Research Center, and Langley Research Center, multiple universities, and private corporations and companies, on a variety of space flight mission concepts and instrument concepts. Tom recently architected a large, rotating space station for the Gateway Foundation and its operating arm, Orbital Assembly Corp. Among other important functions, that space station should make it much easier to implement planetary science missions, trips to the moon, and large telescopes in space.

Bio: Dr. Tom Spilker spent 20 years at JPL as a”Mission Architect” after a PhD at Stanford doing research associated with spacecraft-based planetary radio occultation experiments, with a couple of courses in orbital dynamics. He has worked on Voyager, Cassini, Genesis, and Rosetta missions. He has, and continues to work with both science and engineering aspects of mission planning. He retired from JPL in 2012 and is now an independent consultant working with space agencies all over the world.

September Speaker: Canada’s role in the next generation wide field spectroscopy

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Dr. Alan McConnachie

7:30 PM Wednesday September 11th

Room A104 Bob Wright Building, UVic

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT, 1979-) is a 3.6-metre class facility that has been a consistently productive and competitive instrument during its decades long life. Science evolves, and the instruments for science must evolve too. The Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer (MSE) is an ambitious 11.25-metre dedicated multi-object spectroscopic facility that is intended as a major refurbishment of the CFHT. It is designed to fill an outstanding critical niche in the future astronomy facility landscape and first light is planned for 2029. Canada is one of the leaders in the project, which represents an exciting opportunity for the country and its international partners to tackle key science ranging from the nature of the dark matter particle to the origins of the elements of the Periodic Table.


Alan McConnachie received his PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Cambridge in 2005. He then moved to Canada, and held postdoctoral positions at the University of Victoria and the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO). He then became a Research Officer at DAO, a position he has held since 2011. Dr. McConnachie specialises in observational studies of nearby galaxies, their resolved stellar populations, and the tools we need to understand them. He is the author of more than 120 peer reviewed publications. He is one of the originators of the MSE concept, and served as Project Scientist from 2014 – 2018. He is currently the MSE Project Spokesperson.

June Speaker: Going Interstellar: When and How Will We Travel to the Nearest Stars?

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Matthew Williams

7:30PM Wednesday, June 12th 2019

Room A104 Bob Wright Centre, UVic

The dream of traveling to the nearest stars is one that has haunted the public imagination for centuries. But it has only been in the past few decades that we have been able to contemplate what such a journey would look like. And in recent years, the desire to send missions to neighboring planets – and also neighboring stars – has reemerged with a vengeance. There are many reasons for this: the Voyager 1 and 2 probes recently joined each other in interstellar space, the discovery of exoplanets (including one next door) has inspired scientists to look for life on them directly, and emerging technology has been making space travel cheaper and more accessible. But how (and when) will we “go interstellar”? As with most things having to do with space exploration, the simplest answers are: “How fast do we need to get there?” and “How much are we willing to spend?”

Matthew S Williams is a professional writer for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. His articles have been featured in Phys.org, HeroX, Popular Mechanics, Business Insider, Gizmodo and IO9, Science Alert, Knowridge Science Report, and Real Clear Science, with topics ranging from astronomy and Earth sciences to technological advances, environmental issues, and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). He is a former teacher, a science-fiction author, and a 5th degree Black Belt Tae Kwon-Do instructor. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

May Meeting Speakers: A Medley of Short Presentations by Victoria Centre RASCals

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7:30 PM Wednesday May 8th 2019 in Room A104, Bob Wright Centre at the UVic

Instead of featuring a single speaker the May meeting will be a “Members Night” where a number of Victoria Centre RASCals will deliver short presentations on their projects, imagery or fascinating topics. It should be a fun night. We hope to see you there.

  • Royal BC Museum Classroom Kit – DAO Outreach demonstration – Lauri Roche
  • Jupiter and the Juno Mission – Reg Dunkley

Speaker: Deep (Machine) Learning with Neural Networks – the second industrial revolution

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Dr. Karun Thanjuvar

7:30 PM, Wednesday, April 10th; 2019 in Room A104, Bob Wright Centre, UVic

Artificial intelligence (AI), especially Deep (Machine) Learning applications, are already ubiquitous and in everyday use, and have been called the second industrial revolution. Deep Learning algorithms, called Neural Networks, thrive on Big Data. The happy ‘problem’ we now face of enormous amounts of data available in this digital era. In astronomy too,telescopes will soon routinely produce terabytes of data every night. Piggybacked on the impressive recent advances in high performance computing, neural networks are trained on these available large datasets to then perform a variety of human-like tasks, such as real-time decision making, identifying subtle patterns in the data, forecasting and making recommendations based on experience, and so on. In this presentation I aim to provide an overview of this rapidly burgeoning field, explain in simple terms the construction and working of a neural net, and illustrate these principles with a working model.

Dr. Karun Thanjuvar: As an observational cosmologist, discovering new gravitational lenses and developing innovative techniques to harness them as observational tools are amongst my diverse research interests. As part of my doctoral thesis at UVic in 2009, I developed an automated technique to search for lenses in wide field, pan-chromatic imaging. These explorations of the distant universe come after a full career as a mechanical engineer, specializing in control systems and robotics. Born andraised in a small town in South India, I completed my education up to a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering there, before moving to Canada to pursue graduate studies; first in Robotics, and later in Astrophysics. After my PhD from UVic, I worked as a Resident Astronomer at CFHT in Hawaii for three years, before returning to UVic to accept a position as a senior lab instructor in astronomy. Even though undergraduate teaching is the focus of my current position, I continue to pursue various research projects. I also enjoy sharing the excitement of science and my research efforts with the public through several outreach initiatives through the UVic observatory.

Speaker: Exploring a new world on the Edge of the Solar System, New Horizons and 2014 MU69

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Dr. J.J. Kavelaars

7:30 PM Wednesday March 13th

Room A104, Bob Wright Centre at UVic

On January 1st, 2019 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft executed a flawless encounter of the small world provisionally known as 2014 MU69.  Our understanding of the nature of the outer solar system and processes of planet formation have been transformed by the very first resolved images of 2014 MU69.  Now, 2 months after encounter, the imaging and spectroscopy from 2014 MU69 continue to trickle in.  I will describe the processes that enable this historic encounter to occur and the initial results from the spacecraft imaging.
Dr. JJ Kavelaars received his Ph.D. from the Department of Physics at Queen’s University in Kingston ON in 1998.  He is an Astronomer at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria and is a member of the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre. His areas of interest include the outer solar system including the Kuiper belt. This specialty enabled him to assist in selecting a followup target for the New Horizons spacecraft after it flew by Pluto. While studying irregular planetary satellites JJ and his team discovered 23 moons surrounding Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In 2016 he discovered the sixth dwarf planet in the solar system.

Speaker: Planet Nine or Planet Nein? Discoveries in the Outer Solar System

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Dr. Samatha Lawler

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

At 7:30 PM In Room A104, Bob Wright Centre, UVic

Abstract:Over the last couple of years, there have been many headlines about the possibility of an undiscovered giant planet in the outer reaches of our Solar System.  But is it real?  Dr. Sam Lawler will lead you through the wilds of the distant Kuiper Belt with a surprisingly digestible (we promise!) discussion of orbital dynamics, observation biases, and dwarf planet discoveries.  She will show you the latest discoveries from a large international collaboration, including astronomers right here in Canada, and you can decide for yourself whether or not you believe in Planet 9.


Sam Lawler received her B.S. in astrophysics from Caltech, followed by 2 years of research work at Caltech’s IPAC facility on early Spitzer data of debris disks.  She then received her M.A. from Wesleyan University before coming to Canada for her PhD work at UBC.  She has been in Victoria ever since her PhD, initially as a UVic postdoc/lecturer, and since 2015 as a Plaskett Fellow at NRC-Herzberg.  Her work utilizes dynamical simulations of the effects of planets on debris disks and on the structure of the Kuiper Belt.  Several of her recent projects involve dynamically testing the existence of reported planets.  She has shown tau Ceti’s reported planet system is allowed by its wide debris disk, Fomalhaut b is likely a catastrophically disrupted icy body, and the structure of the Kuiper Belt does not require an additional distant planet in the Solar System.  While her dynamical simulations are running on the computer cluster, she likes to play with her kids and grow food.


Speaker: Dark Nebulae in New Light

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Paul Gray, RASC Halifax Centre

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

At 7:30 PM in Room A104, Bob Wright Centre, UVic

Dark Nebulae are elusive and one of the most difficult deep sky objects to observe. With the aid of larger telescopes in the 1990s more amateurs started to seek out these objects. Inspired by a mentor of the RASC Halifax Centre Paul pursued a project to observe as many of E. E. Barnard’s Dark Nebulae objects as possible and composed a list for the Observer’s Handbook. In the process much was learned about how best to observe these dark nebulae and Paul made a discovery along the way. Recently with the construction of a backyard observatory Paul’s obsession with dark nebulae has been rejuvenated with a new project. The second part of this talk will discuss that observatory itself and a current project to reimage Barnard’s catalogue.

Paul Gray: It was the visit of Halley’s Comet in 1985 that hooked Paul on astronomy. He has been active member of RASC since 1988 and has served as president in both the Moncton and Halifax Centres. He chaired the 2010 General Assembly. Paul has served on numerous positions at the national level including the Chair of the National Observing Committee and the Editor of the RASC Observer’s Calendar. In 2016 Paul was awarded the RASC Service Award for his contributions at both the local and national level. He is also a 3 time recipient of the Ken Chilton award. In 1998 Paul found himself moving to Maryland, USA for 5 years. While there he became a member of the Delmarva Stargazers and still remains as their Honorary Northern member.

Observing first with a 60mm Tasco and then a 100mm F4, made from a Taylor Hobson TV Lens, he completed the Messier list. Later, in his final year of high school he built a 330mm F4.5 reflector. After his move to the USA he observed with a 12.5” F5 reflector to complete his Finest NGC List as well as his Dark Nebulae project. He has a passion for meteor observing and deep sky observing. He has ventured into photography many times over the years in film, DSLR and CCD. He “went off the deep end” so to speak while in college when he teamed up with David Lane to conduct a supernova search and at age 22 found his first. He would later discover 5 supernovae and share one with his daughter Kathryn Aurora Gray. To keep things in the family his son Nathan Gray also would find a supernova as part of the program he and David Lane developed. Recently he made a dream come true by finally building his backyard observatory at his home in Nova Scotia.