President’s Message – September 2021

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Carolyn Shoemaker
Carolyn Shoemaker (Nature)

Carolyn Shoemaker died last month. After her children had grown up and she was 51 years old, she started her astronomy career. She helped establish the Palomar Asteroid and Comet Survey, and for decades she studied the photographic plates coming off of the 18 inch Schmidt wide-field telescope, located in a dome next to the Palomar 200 inch telescope. At an average of 1 discovery for every 100 hours spent at the stereoscopic microscope, she became the world’s top comet finder.

This was more than a job. Everybody who knew her emphasizes her enthusiasm and humour. Among these friends is an acquaintance of several of our centre members, David Levy. On March 23, 1993, David passed some photographs he had just taken of the region near Jupiter, and Carolyn exclaimed that she saw in these images a strange “squashed” comet. This comet became known as Shoemaker-Levy-9. It was actually the 11th comet they had discovered together, but two were aperiodic and so had a different naming convention. I remember the excitement, when 4 months later, 21 fragments of SL9 crashed into Jupiter with images from professionals and amateurs alike started pouring in. We got to watch a cosmic collision in real time!

What kept Carolyn Shoemaker at this slow, painstaking task was similar to what many amateur astronomers feel. She said “The thrill of discovery is deeply satisfying”. Few of us will get the opportunity to do cutting edge science with the best instruments available, but all of us get our own personal thrills. Whether the discovery is at the eyepiece, or on the computer monitor, or from a revelation that comes during a talk at our Astro Cafe, the experience continues to be deeply satisfying. In memory of Carolyn Shoemaker, I wish you all many more of these deeply satisfying moments!

Look Up,
Randy Enkin, President email

President’s Message – August 2021

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I’ve had a couple of requests this summer to help friends who have never seen Saturn through a telescope with their own eyes before. One of them was lent the wonderful 1970s Tasco 60mm refractor that I bought off Reg Dunkley, at our Astro Cafe exchange, way back when we could meet in person. Reg says this telescope kindled his interest in astronomy years ago, so it is fun to give this equipment to another enthusiastic newbie. The other request is from Toronto and I’m getting a RASC Toronto Centre loaner scope ready, for when I’m there next week. We do indeed belong to a great society that gives us these opportunities.

Saturn – by Brock Johnston

But what is it about seeing the beautiful objects in the sky ourselves? There are much better images available on the internet. Nothing we can see from Earth compares to the pictures of our sixth planet sent by the Voyager and Cassini spacecraft. Saturn especially has been something that has turned on people from all walks of life to the delights of the night sky. Indeed, the design specifications for the “Galileo-scope” included the possibility to see the rings of Saturn, because they knew that that view is the gateway to spending more time with a telescope (I have one, and it works!).

Saturn is certainly other- worldly. It is beautiful in its form and symmetry. The physics which produce the rings are non-intuitive. It is a challenge to see it, but not an unreasonable challenge for most. But there must be more.

Each time I take my telescope out, I fall in love again with the universe we live in. Even when I am alone, I sometimes swoon out loud. I don’t know why, but I sure am glad I get to share the feeling with my astro-friends. As our friend Diane Bell told us: “the sky is a gift!”

Enjoy the sky. Share it.
Look Up,
Randy Enkin, President email

President’s Message – July 2021

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Do we ever get tired of the view?

I recently picked up my niece from the airport. When we got our first sight of the Olympic Mountains towering over the Juan de Fuca Strait, she asked if people in Victoria ever get tired of the view. I don’t think so.

Similarly, I observe that amateur astronomers just don’t get tired of looking up. The beauty takes our breath away. There is a joy in learning the constellations and getting competent at star hopping. There is the awe in learning more about the processes that produce the spots and fuzz-balls in the night sky. I never tire of improving my knowledge of the craters and mountains on the Moon, but often I just wander about the Moon in my eyepiece, appreciating the view. We keep improving our equipment, trying to see that little bit of extra detail. Why? For the joy and sense of accomplishment.

At the Astro Cafe this week, we hosted two distinguished selenologists. Gary Varney, from Florida, is a renowned lunar astrophotographer who waxed eloquent about the details he loves to watch at the terminator – the line that separates day from night on the Moon. Brian Day, from California, leads a program at NASA that presents map and data portals, available for free on the Internet, of the planets and moons. Brian told us that he enjoys ending his day by flying around over the Moon with Moon Trek, enjoying the view and trying to figure out how features were formed.

We had dinner guests this week, and I got to show them the young (27 hour old) moon through the 8 inch Dob I’m borrowing from the club (Nelson Walker’s old telescope). One guest had never seen the craters on the moon and got wonderfully excited. Do I ever get tired of the view? Not at all. It feels as fresh and exciting as when I first saw the craters when I was 8 years old.

Look Up,
Randy Enkin, President@Victoria.RASC.ca

President’s Message – June 2021

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In praise of our Astro Cafe

Members attending Astronomy Cafe using Zoom

Every Monday evening at 19:30, the Victoria Centre runs the Astro Cafe on Zoom. I look forward to it every week! Much of our time as amateur astronomers is spent alone and I suspect that is considered a feature of this hobby by many. But we also like to share our accomplishments and problems. While we are isolated by the pandemic, Astro Cafe brings our community together.

I had been a regular contributor since I joined the Victoria Centre three years ago. Now that you have made me president, I feel that part of the job is to think of something to contribute each week. I try to riff off of some recent astronomical event, for example the summer solstice for our June 21 Astro Cafe. I am particularly excited about linking current astronomical work to the centuries and millennia of astronomers from the past, who figured out so much of how our universe works without the advantage of all the recent technologies and research.

The Astro Cafe also helps us advertise events and opportunities. It provides our members a forum to present their recent, or not so recent, work. I particularly enjoy the discussions, as we learn from each other. We have such a wide variety of specialties and levels of expertise to learn from. Our community is refreshingly supportive and non-judgemental. Everybody should consider making a presentation. If you read something that you found interesting, share it! If you feel proud of an observation, sketch, or photo, share it! If you have an astronomy question, ask it!

Special thanks go out to Chris Purse who masterfully organizes and leads the discussion each week, and to Joe Carr who curates the Astro Cafe videos onto Youtube.

Look Up,
Randy Enkin email

President’s Message – May 2021

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Part of the fun of amateur astronomy is getting caught up in “rabbit holes”. You see something on Facebook, that gets you looking up articles in the popular press, and then into academic publications, and they lead you in a different direction and everything is so fascinating and time just rushes by…

The Moon aligned with Ogden Point breakwater - Randy Enkin photo
The Moon aligned with Ogden Point breakwater – Randy Enkin photo

My current example is looking into the timing of craters on the moon – when they enter and exit the umbra or full shade of the Earth. It was an important way to figure out the time, and therefore one’s longitude, before reliable clocks were made. In the 18th century, astronomers recognized that there is a problem (La Hire, Tabulae Astronomicae, Paris 1707); the earth’s shadow is over 100 km bigger than expected. The anomaly is bigger than can be explained easily with the atmosphere. One would think this is a simple geometric problem that is fully understood, but it is still under study!

Amateur astronomers are helping collect the necessary data. Sky and Telescope publishes predicted times for when the shadow is expected to cross 24 prominent craters, and they request people to email in their observed times. Upcoming May 26, 2021, eclipse online info. Up to 2011, their database includes 22,539 observations by 764 different people. If the sky is clear between 02:52 and 05:48 on Wednesday May 26, I hope to add my name to the list!

The point is, we are a community of interesting and interested people. We set challenges for ourselves. Some are simple; some are very difficult. Get your telescope to track better. Process an image to show more detail. Understand black holes a bit more. Learn another myth of a constellation. And then we get together (virtually, these days) and support each other in these pursuits.

President’s Message – April 2021

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I love the variety of categories in the Amateur Astronomy community. Most of us will be interested in several and passionate in a few. I’m just listing the following from the top of my head and I would appreciate your input.

Randy Enkin using a sextant

We can categorize by equipment: naked eye, binocular, wide-field camera, telescopes, and a few who adventure outside visible light to study radio waves. Telescopes range in aperture, focal length, geometry, optical quality; plus mount style, motors, and automation.

How about by target: the constellations, the sun, the moon, the planets, binary stars, and the deep space objects – nebulas, clusters, and galaxies. There are also the ephemera: meteors, auroras, and the occasional comets. There are also the more predictable events such as eclipses, conjunctions, and occultations.

Some people simply observe, while others record notes, sketch, or photograph. Astrophotography has quite a range, from single shot, to stacking, to long exposures with specific filters.

There are some specific studies, such as variable star photometry, spectrography, or plotting annual parallax. My 31-year- long time series of lunar phases and my recent addition of measuring changes in the lunar diameter would fit here.

And then there are the arm-chair categories – too many to be exhaustive: studies in stellar evolution, planetary evolution, exoplanets and exobiology, galactic evolution, astronomy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum and now gravity waves, black holes, and cosmology. Space travel and technology is a huge category on its own. I have a particular interest in the history of astronomy – how we got to understand things so distant and complex with simpler equipment and theory.

I know members of our community interested in every single one of these categories! And it makes me rejoice that we are together at all our different levels and complementary interests and skills.

Look Up,

Randy Enkin Email

President’s Message – March 2021

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The RASC Victoria Centre welcomed me 3 years ago. I was asked to give a talk about my moon observations at the Astrocafe, and then I became a regular. Now you have given me the opportunity and challenge to be this community’s president.

Ten-year-old Randy projecting the solar eclipse in Hamilton, Ontario, 1970-07-10. (Photo credit, Eleanor Enkin)
Ten-year-old Randy projecting the solar eclipse in Hamilton, Ontario, 1970-07-10. (Photo credit, Eleanor Enkin)

Astronomy has been a big part of my life since I was 8 years old, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. While my friends wanted to become astronauts, my attention was on the people on the ground who were so enthusiastic about the science, and I decided I would become an astronomer. The path one walks in life is seldom a straight line, and mine brought me to earth science. I am a research scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada, studying the physical properties of rocks and sediments. But I have always dabbled in astronomy.

Fifty-six-year-old Randy projecting the solar eclipse in Victoria B.C., 2017-08-21. (Photo credit, Randy Enkin)
Fifty-six-year-old Randy projecting the solar eclipse in Victoria B.C., 2017-08-21. (Photo credit, Randy Enkin)

I have learned during the last three years that the amateur astronomy community comprises people with a wide range of interests, skills, and levels, but with a common passion to enjoy and share the sky. I have been involved with many volunteer organizations, and my impression is that the RASC Victoria Centre has an extremely high level of volunteerism and mutual support. During my tenure as president, I hope to help nurture this spirit, and support our ongoing inreach and outreach efforts within the broader Victoria Astronomy community. I look forward to getting to know more of you and learn what aspects of astronomy bring you joy and fulfilment.

It is fun to see the various ways astronomy-buffs sign off their letters. “Clear Skies” is wonderful. My predecessor liked “Usable Skies”. My sign-off comes from a note my sister has posted over her computer to remind her to get away from it as often as possible. I like the many meanings these two words hold for us:

Look Up

Randy Enkin

President’s Message – February 2021

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Much has happened since my previous monthly message. South of the border there was an attempted insurrection, an impeachment and an inauguration of a more temperate leader. North of the border, “NOT YET IMAGINED” the much anticipated study of Hubble Space Telescope Operations authored by Victoria Centre RASCal Chris Gainor was released. Click here for a free download. The Victoria Centre also acquired a beautiful 130 mm Takahashi refractor to pair with the OGS 12.5 inch reflector at the Victoria Centre Observatory. Meanwhile the Covid Vaccine inoculation program is gaining momentum. So one can sense a tentative positive vibe and some are speaking of a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Let us hope that the light is a very faint star “light months” away and not some bright star “light years” distant.

The compelling political drama and Dr. Bonnie’s updates have hijacked our attention and robbed us of that non renewable resource called “time”. The impact of this time theft is apparent in my household as copies of Sky and Telescope and the Journal of RASC lie half read. And then there are the many quality astronomical presentations on You Tube that I never got around to watching. While the face to face outreach activities have ground to a halt astronomical discoveries continue and the recording of Zoom presentations have significantly increased the amount of information available to digest.

So we are presented with a challenge. How should we ration our dwindling amount of time and how much of that should be devoted to astronomy? This, of course, is a highly individual choice. I hope the word ‘joy” is at the heart of the decision and includes the joy experienced observing the night sky, the joy of learning new things, the joy of improving our understanding, the joy of unravelling mysteries and the joy of sharing our knowledge and enthusiasm with others. Another key word is “satisfaction” which for instance can be applied to the satisfaction derived from knowing our way around the night sky, the satisfaction of acquiring skills to photograph and sketch astronomical treasures, the satisfaction of mastering a technology and the satisfaction of understanding the theory which explains what we see or detect. And don’t forget the “energy” required to make it happen and the “curiosity” to learn more. If you think of astronomy as a giant smorgasbord, the challenge is to load our plate with nourishing ingredients while trying to minimize overindulgence.

During my term as Victoria Centre President I witnessed the diversity in the appetites displayed by RASCals as they have loaded up their plates at this smorgasbord. I have been inspired by the discipline of many who systematically work on observing lists, the dedication of some to improve their astrophotography skills and the time and energy that others devote to education and outreach. I am also very appreciative of the community of professional astronomers for sharing their knowledge and research with the Victoria Centre. It has been a joy to get to know our amazing group of RASCals better and I am thankful to so many for their cooperation and support while I have been at the helm. It has been an honour to serve and I encourage you to attend our Zoom AGM on Monday, February 22nd to select our next President and Victoria Centre Council. Let us hope that we will be able to gather in person by this time next year.

Stay Well … and oh yes

Usable Skies

Reg Dunkley

President’s Message – January 2021

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President’s Message – January 2021

The catastrophic collapse of the Arecibo Radio Telescope seemed to me to be an apt metaphor for 2020. There is probably little appetite for most to review the events of the past year. Before we say good bye to 2020, however, it would be ungrateful not to mention a few astronomical highlights. The surprise visit of Comet Neowise provided a much needed boost during the first phase of Covid. Wildfire smoke dissipated enough for RASCals to savour the opposition of Mars in the Fall. The miracle of Zoom enabled RASCals to remain connected both locally and nationally and the proficiency gained will be a legacy that will change the way we conduct business going forward. But as vaccines arrive on the scene we look forward to a day when we can reduce our distance and party on.

So let’s look toward the future. There are plenty of space missions on the 2021 calendar but two in particular are guaranteed to generate high drama. The NASA Martian Rover Perserverance is scheduled to land on Mars on February 18th 2021. I am not keen on that rover name as it sounds to me like a brand name for a deodorant. Mind you the JPL team may require a good antiperspirant during the “7 minutes of terror” when the spacecraft executes a stunning array of complicated maneuvers. Even if it successfully sticks the landing like its superstar sibling, Curiosity, it is scheduled to perform another high wire act. Stowed on board is a helicopter, named Ingenuity that will attempt to automatically explore the near by surroundings in an atmosphere that is only one percent of that on Earth … equivalent to the density of air at 85000 feet. I will be on the edge of my seat with fingers crossed when they try to pull this off. Around the same time the United Arab Emirates will place an advanced weather satellite, called Hope, in a Martian orbit and the Chinese mission Tianwen-1 will deliver an orbiter, lander and rover to the red planet. It will be an exciting time!

There will also be plenty of suspense surrounding the launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope. After more than a decade of delays, it is scheduled to launch on Halloween 2021. The elaborate multifaceted mirror has 6.5 times the collection area of its predecessor, the Hubble. It is designed to operate in the near infrared which will enable it to study distant red-shifted galaxies and the formation of exoplanets in debris disks. It is imperative that it operates in a very cold, stable thermal environment and a delicate multilayered sunshield is required. It was complications with the deployment of this sunshield that caused the latest delays. So even if the launch is successful, the unfolding of the mirror and sunshield will generate high drama. The Canadian Space Agency has made a significant contribution and so we also have a stake in this important mission.

There will be a great opportunity to review the progress of the Perserverance mission at our AGM that will take place via Zoom on Monday February 22nd. In addition to our annual report and elections we will also have a virtual award ceremony … and even more high drama. So there will be plenty of interesting things in the year ahead.

Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year … and oh yes …

Usable Skies 

Reg Dunkley

President’s Message – December 2020

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President’s Message December 2020

Post election uncertainty and record high Covid case numbers overshadowed recent astronomical developments. A few warrant an honourable mention. On November 16th the Space X Crew Dragon -1 Resilience was launched from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 rocket. It delivered 3 American astronauts and one Japanese astronaut to the International Space Station the next day. This mission was a milestone as it was the first American space vehicle to deliver an operational crew to the ISS since the Space Shuttle Atlantis in July 2011. In the meantime astronauts had to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The commercial entity Space X provided both the launch vehicle and capsule for this 6 month mission. 

On November 25th, Space X also placed another 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, bringing the total so far to 955. Delivery of global broadband internet to underserved areas from this fledgling network has already commenced. A constellation of 12000 Starlink satellites have already been approved and a request for an additional 30000 has been submitted. The growing alarm from the astronomical community regarding the impact of this vast swarm of satellites was discussed in the May 2020 President’s message.

But as the adage goes, what goes up must come down. I am not talking about satellites here but rather the receiver of the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. Weighing in at 900 tons the receiver spent November dangling 500 feet above the iconic 1000 foot diameter spherical dish. When one cable broke in August it caused some alarm but when a second more substantial cable snapped in early November it was decided that the instrument could not be safely repaired. That decision received dramatic justification on the morning of December 1st with the failure of another major cable. This allowed the receiver to plunge into the side of the dish in a catastrophic manner which was captured on an astonishing video. What a tragic end to such a productive and beautiful symbol of science.

A softer landing occurred on December 1st when China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft successfully touched down on an elevated volcanic mound Mons Rumker in Oceanus Procellarum. A video of the landing and the collection of moon samples. The Chang’e 5 ascent vehicle lifted off the Moon on December 3rd and is planned to return samples to Earth within a week. 

Another sample return mission is underway. On October 20th NASA’s ORISIS-REx spacecraft successfully acquired about 60 grams of the asteroid Bennu during a touch and go operation. Images suggest that it caught more than anticipated and the sample storage procedure was expedited and completed two days later. The spacecraft will begin its return journey in March 2021 and is scheduled to reach Earth in 2023. This mission will provide a pristine sample of the primordial material that formed the Solar System.

One asteroid of particular interest is 3200 Phaethon which is the parent body of the Geminid meteor shower. Most meteor showers are associated with comets but because 3200 Phaethon comes very close to the Sun it heats up to 700C and sheds particles and dust and has been dubbed a “rock comet”. This year the Geminids will peak around the 13th of December which is a new moon. So we will be particularly well situated to enjoy this spectacle … weather permitting. To learn more about “rock comets” be sure to attend the December 7th Astro Cafe where meteor expert Dr. Abedin Abedin will be the guest speaker.

Remember that the FDAO will be holding a Zoom Winter Solstice Star Party on December 19th. Event info

Also remember that the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will occur on December 21st. Saturn will only be 12 Jupiter diameters away! It is the closest that they have appeared since 1623. So if skies cooperate, point you scope to the western horizon near sunset and savour the sight.

So despite the pandemic plenty is going on aloft. So when skies are usable be sure to look up and enjoy. 

Wishing you good health and the very best of the festive season.

Reg Dunkley