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

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.

President’s Message October 2019

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As a baby boomer I feel very fortunate to have lived before the development of adaptive optics, the era of the Hubble Space Telescope and Voyager’s mission to the outer planets. Blurry vision concealed the secrets of the solar system and we were engulfed in an aura of mystery. Then in 1964 Gary Flandro, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineer realized that the planets were in a rare alignment that would enable a momentum robbing technique to conduct a Grand Tour of the Solar System. The Voyager mission arose from Gary’s vision and rendezvoused with Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. This mission enjoyed a spectacular success and each encounter dramatically transformed and improved our understanding of these planets. What a treat for the astronomical community … both professional and amateur. It was like watching a fascinating sporting event unfold in slow motion. This was before the era of High Definition TV and the instant communication of the internet. I remember eagerly awaiting for the arrival of the next issue of Sky and Telescope and then pouring over the stunning imagery and reading about the discoveries detected by the array of instruments.

So, perhaps you will understand my excitement when JPL scientists Linda and Tom Spilker, address our meeting on Wednesday October 9th. Not only did Linda and Tom have front row seats on the Voyager Mission, they got to turn some of the dials as well! As is often the case, the Voyager mission generated more questions than answers. Linda was deeply involved in the remarkably successful followup mission to Saturn called Cassini. As the Cassini Project Scientist she will update us with some of the latest findings of that mission.

Tom Spilker is a Space Mission Architect. It would be difficult to invent a more exciting job title! He currently works with space agencies around the globe and has participated in the Voyager, Cassini, Genesis, and Rosetta missions. In addition to sharing findings of these missions I hope that Linda and Tom will be able to convey what it is like to be involved in such exciting and important mission’s of discovery. If you think that some of your friends might find this evening of interest please invite them along. There is no admission charge. In anticipation of a larger audience we have moved the event to Flury Hall in the Bob Wright Centre at UVic. We hope to see you there at 7:30PM.

A more modest event held locally had it’s own element of excitement. For the second year in a row we held our Victoria Centre Star Party in the serene yard of St. Stephens Anglican Church. Last year, within 5 minutes of erecting my brand new second hand Kendrick astronomy tent the first rain in 7 weeks began falling. It seemed more promising this year and on Friday afternoon I arrived in the church yard in a sun beam. Within 10 minutes, however, hail was bouncing off my car and a deluge of biblical portions followed. We received one quarter of the normal September rainfall in one hour! Perhaps the “committee aloft” that controls things was sending me a message.

Never the less we persevered and a beautiful Saturday afternoon graced our “StarBBQ”. This was perhaps the highlight of the weekend and thanks to Deb Crawford and her team of flippers for making it happen. The sunshine seduced many RASCals to set up scopes. We were, however, stabbed in the back by Friday’s storm and in a return circulation it delivered cloud from Idaho over the church yard Saturday evening. Being swaddled in cloud kept conditions mild and the dew at bay. Around midnight there were still several pockets of RASCals participating in discussions on a wide range of topics. If we had experienced clear skies I imagine that many of those same RASCals would have retreated to their own scopes and resumed observing in isolation. It takes a lot of time and energy to put on a Star Party and I would like to thank all the volunteers who lent a hand. Thanks also to Dr. Chris Gainor and Dr. Robert Beardsall for delivering the interesting evening presentations. In particular I would like to thank Bruce Lane for planning this event and effectively recruiting and directing RASCals.

Cloud Free Nights

Reg Dunkley

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.

President’s Message September 2019

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As the Victoria Centre slides into September the Summer season is still winding down just as we kickstart our Winter program. This makes it the busiest month of the year and there are many ways to deepen your engagement in Astronomy in general and within the RASC in particular.

During the first week, for instance, just as the Island Star Party at Bright Angel Park closes the Victoria Centre stages a major outreach event at the Saanich Fair. This significant undertaking is organized and championed by our human dynamo, Lauri Roche. Then at 7:30PM on Wednesday September 4th there is the Victoria Centre Council Meeting in the Fourth Floor Lounge of the Elliot Building at UVic. All RASCals are welcome to attend. On September 7th the final DAO Saturday Star Party of the season occurs … bringing our total to a record 22 Star Parties this year! Special thanks must go to David Lee for recruiting and introducing the speakers, Lauri Roche for being a key ring leader with our cousins the Friends of the DAO, Michel Michaud and Dan Posey for operating the Plaskett Telescope and the many RASCals who generously share their telescopes, knowledge and enthusiasm with a most appreciative Public. This is Public Outreach on steroids!

But now let’s talk about some “in reach” activities. This is where RASCals recharge their enthusiasm by sharing their knowledge, interests and adventures with other members of the Astronomical Community. At 7:30PM on Monday September 9th the first Astro Cafe of the season opens its doors in the Portable behind the Fairfield Community Centre. These are informal sessions where questions are welcome and it is a great place for people who are newbies to learn more. You do not have to be a member to attend. Thanks to Barb and Kurt Lane, John McDonald and Chris Purse for hosting these weekly events that will continue through May 2020.

And then there are our Monthly meetings held on the second Wednesday of the month from September until June. They begin at 7:30PM, usually in Room A104 of the Bob Wright Centre at UVic. We have an exciting Fall lineup of speakers scheduled:
– On September 11th Dr. Alan McConnachie will describe the Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer. This is an ambitious project to upgrade the Canada French Hawaiian Telescope on Mauna Kea. Upgrade you say? Yes the CFHT is 40 years old and it is time for a makeover. Yikes time flies!
– On October 9th Linda and Tom Spilker, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will share their adventures obtained while exploring the Solar System from front row seats of major Nasa missions. Linda is the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Project and has recently been featured on a number of documentaries on PBS and Netflix. Tom is a “Space Flight Mission Architect” and consults with space agencies around the globe. Doesn’t that sound amazing!
– On November 13th Dr. Philip Stooke will talk about “Lunar Exploration after the Apollo Landings”. You might not be aware that there have been numerous soft landings since Apollo and the Lunar surface is beginning to resemble a parking lot! It is a great opportunity to update you knowledge.

Joe Carr has kindly organized a weekend workshop on the incredibly powerful astrophotography software package PixInsight. It will begin on Saturday September 21st at the Centre of the Universe. One of the instructors, Warren Kellar, is an expert on PixInsight and has authored this must have “how to” user manual on this software. Click here for details. Also on Saturday the 21st we have the Fall Fairfield outreach event at Sir James Douglas School as well as an evening observing session at the VCO. The Friends of the DAO will also hold their AGM that evening! It will have a marathon quality for those “friendly RASCals” with dual membership in both organizations.

The major event of the month however is the RASCals Star Party hosted by the Victoria Centre from Friday September 27th until Sunday September 29th in the churchyard of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Central Saanich. While the public is welcome this is a great opportunity for RASCals to connect with each other. Many thanks to Bruce Lane for organizing this signature event. Click here for more details. Keep your fingers crossed for useable skies!

We hope to see you there!

Reg Dunkley

President’s Message Mid Summer Report

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RASC Display at Library

The Summer is whizzing by and we are already a week deep into August! Since so much has already happened it is a good time pause and reflect on July’s accomplishments and look forward to August’s schedule.

During July most RASCals were infected with Apollo Fever. We were treated to a remarkable series of outstanding movies, documentaries, podcasts and articles about the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. The Victoria Centre participated in many related activities including:

On July 4th an Astronomy Display was set up at the Bruce Hutchinson Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library. This lunar themed display was designed to resonate with the Apollo anniversary. We received very positive comments from the library and they noted that there was a significant increase in the circulation of astronomy books during July. Thanks must go to David Lee who initiated this project and to the following RASCals who helped make it happen: Marjie Welchframe, Lauri Roche, Sid Sidhu, Dave Essery and Reg Dunkley.

On the Moon Again. RASCals joined this global lunar observing event on July 12th and set up scopes at Cattle Point Urban Dark Sky Park. Clouds frequently blocked the Moon but a continuous stream of cruise ship passengers marvelled at views of Mount Rainier. This intersection of Cruise Ship Buses and Cattle Point RASCals may have the makings of an astronomical outreach sausage factory. That would really boost those Galileo Moments!

Lunar Saturday Night Star Parties. David Lee scheduled a series of interesting and relevant lunar themed talks for the Saturday Night Star Parties. Our tireless cousins at the FDAO went all out during the week of the landing with Apollo talks on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Centre of the Universe. The climax occurred on Saturday the 20th with a barbecue and a 2 hour Moon Walk presentation where Dr. Chris Gainor amazed us with all sorts of fascinating Apollo anecdotes. It was a wonderful opportunity for space travel enthusiasts. If you are suffering from Apollo withdrawal there is an absolutely riveting BBC podcast called 13 Minutes to the Moon Hardcore Apollo fanatics will love it. This celebration of the Apollo provided a welcome relief from todays rather disturbing news cycle. Congratulations must go to all the RASCals and Friends of the DAO for this epic outreach event. The scale of their endeavour acquired its own “Moon Shot” magnitude.

Meanwhile progress has been made on the optical front:

A mirror washing clinic was kindly conducted by Bill Weir on Friday June 14th using the 20 inch Dobsonian mirror at the Centre of the Universe. Several RASCals have already applied this technique to their own scopes. Thanks Bill.

The 16 Inch is Back! Congratulations must also go to Dan Posey, Les Disher and Matt Watson for successfully re-collimating the 16 inch Richey Chretien reflector at the Victoria Centre Observatory. This accomplishment required troubleshooting skills , mastery of new techniques and tenacity.

Events of August:

The Fort Rodd Hill Star Party will take place on the evening of Friday August 9th. Contact Chris Aesoph at chris@aesoph.com if you plan to bring a scope and have not already notified him or if you would like to lend a helping hand.

Cowichan Valley Starfinders Star Party begins on Friday August 30th at Bright Angel Park.

Saanich Fall Fair: Saturday August 31st to Monday September 2nd. Victoria RASCals share their enthusiasm of astronomy with thousands of attendees at this annual event. We will need volunteers. Please contact Lauri Roche at roche.lauri@gmail.com

And finally I would like to extend a thank you to all the RASCals who, as Ambassadors of the Universe, generously share their scopes, time, enthusiasm and knowledge to a grateful public at the Saturday Night Star Parties. Thanks also must go to Marjie Welchframe and her team of Victoria Centre volunteers who “person” the Welcome Table.

Cloud Free Nights

Reg Dunkley