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

Posted by as Meetings

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.

President’s Message April 2019

Posted by as News, President's Message

The Victoria atmosphere has finally acquired some Spring like qualities. This means that it is almost time to launch the 2019 Public Outreach Season. The official kick off takes place on Saturday April 27th with Astronomy Day. From 10AM to 4PM the Victoria Centre will be hosting the session at the Royal BC Museum. Numerous tables devoted to all things Astronomical will be located in the Clifford Carl Hall. Three lectures will be delivered in the adjacent Newcombe Conference Hall. David Lee, the captain of the Astronomy Day Team has recruited leaders to organize the various tables and things are coming together nicely. From 7:30PM to 11PM, our cousins, the Friends of the DAO, will be hosting the first Saturday Star Party of the season at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. RASC members will be in force with their telescopes to act as tour guides of the Universe. RASC will also have an information table in the Centre of the Universe. Star Parties at the DAO will be held every Saturday until September 7th.

Victoria Centre usually hosts another type of Star Party each year. The main focus of this event is an observing session directed toward the community of amateur astronomers rather than the general public. Selecting the date of a Star Party can be a challenge. It should meet the following criteria: fall near a New Moon, have a sufficient amount of darkness, avoid conflict with other nearby Star Parties and … oh yes … enjoy favourable weather conditions. This year the Mount Kobau Star Party, near Osoyoos will take place between July 31st and August 4th and the Island Star Party, held at Bright Angel Park in the Cowichan Valley, will occur on the Labour Day weekend. Many Victoria RASCals are loyal attendees of the Island Star Party so it is best to avoid that weekend. The New Moon and amount of darkness are easy to predict. It is, however, a bit trickier when it comes to the weather.

The saying goes that climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. While climate statistics can let you down it does reveal that the atmospheric dice are loaded. One rudimentary statistic which has proven useful in this area is the chance of 5 consecutive days without rain. The premise is that if there is no rain during a 5 day interval it suggests the presence of a ridge of high pressure that is diverting weather systems away from the area and suppressing afternoon shower activity. Using 50 years of quality controlled precipitation data from Victoria International Airport I calculated that the chance of 5 consecutive days without rain varied from 65% on Aug 1st to 47% on Sept 1st to 29% on Sept 28th. These values suggest that favourable weather conditions may be more than twice as likely on August 1st than during the New Moon interval near Sept. 28th. During the last three summers, however, smoke from wildfires has frequently obscured the night skies during July and August. Also astronomical twilight ends at 8:43 PM on Sept. 28th compared to 11:13PM on Aug. 1st. As a consequence the Council is leaning towards holding the Victoria Centre Star Party from Friday Sept. 27th to Sunday Sept. 29th. The location will once again be the yard of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Central Saanich … which was rained out on Sept. 7th last year. Be wary of those climate statistics!

Cloudless Nights

Reg Dunkley

President’s Message March 2019

Posted by as News

Normally at the beginning of March Victoria Centre RASCals are trudging through cherry blossoms. Snow is not an option. So just imagine your puzzled president when he arrived at the VCO on February 27th. The observing pad was covered with 6 inches of white stuff topped with an icy crust. This unseasonably cold weather tormented tender West Coast RASCals throughout February and almost derailed the Mini AGM of February 13th. 

Mini AGM you say? This administrative AGM resulted from trying to make others happy. To streamline financial procedures the Canadian Revenue Agency wanted the Victoria Centre to move our fiscal year end from September 30th to December 31st. When we did that the BC Societies Act insisted that we hold an AGM in 2019. So this “administrative AGM” which covers the three month interval extending from October to December 2018 was scheduled to coincide with the February monthly meeting. This would make the CRA happy and the BC Societies people happy … but there was a problem.

It all has to do with our bylaws. When the bylaws were recently updated the quorum was boosted from 3 to 25. The architects of these new bylaws never envisioned that the “Garden City” would be paralyzed by snow. Since North Saanich was buried under 2 feet and many members were trapped in unplowed cul de sacs it was looking like the Mini AGM was toast.  Fortunately these very same bylaw architects included a provision for proxy votes. At the last minute your desperate president e-mailed the membership with a plea for proxies. The first proxy arrived from Tasmania! Nearby RASCals also rallied to the cause. A quorum was established and the first Mini AGM in the 104 year history of the Victoria Centre went ahead. Let us hope that it will also be the last Mini AGM in history as this bureaucratic process is more complicated than astrophysics.

Speaking of “astro” things let’s talk about AstroFest 2019. This event, the first of its kind, was held in Nanaimo on February 28th. It was extremely well organized and hosted by the Nanaimo Astronomy Society. The idea was to bring Island astronomers together to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. This mid island rendezvous was well advertised and over 120 attended the event. Nelson Walker, Bill Weir and I manned the Victoria Centre table while Lauri Roche and Ben Dorman represented the FDAO. Victoria Centre RASCal Francois Pilote led a contingent of 5 from the Comox Valley and Victoria member Mike Krempotic came from Port Alberni. Dennis Crabtree set up the very popular virtual reality system and captivated many.

There were a number of presentations. I provided info on the  Victoria Centre while Nanaimo President Chris Boar described the activities of the Nanaimo Society. In addition to talks at their monthly meeting they hold many outreach events and like Victoria are swamped by the curious public during eclipses. They also take time to have fun and schedule an annual Beer and Burger night. The Cowichan Valley Starfinders promoted their star party and Nigel Mayes from  Shawnigan Lake School described their facility and active astronomy program. John and Carol Nemy delivered a spectacular visual presentation of the night sky which featured their Island Stars Observatory located on Hornby Island. The members of the Nanaimo Astronomy Society were very friendly and hospitable. Several members had roll off roof observatories. Many of the attendees were newbies looking for ways to get involved in Astronomy. Bruce Lane from Quarky Science donated a nice pair of binoculars as a door prize. There was great enthusiasm for this event and it is hoped that it will be repeated. Special thanks must go to Chris Boar, Tony Puerez and Janeane MacGillivary for magically making it all happen. 

Snowless Days

Cloudless Nights

Reg Dunkley

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

Posted by as Meetings

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

Posted by as Meetings

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.


President’s Message February 2019

Posted by as News, President's Message

For much of the astronomical community 2019 came barreling in at 50000 km/h. It was like they were riding in the back seat of New Horizons urging it to capture great shots of Ultima Thule as it whizzed by on New Years Day. The data slowly trickled in as the feeble signal completed its 6 hour journey home. To the amazement of all a strange snowman like feature emerged. During January this image became crisper as more data was accumulated. This technological triumph was a great way to begin the year.

One of the team members that selected this Kuiper belt object, officially named 2014 MU69, was Victoria astronomer Dr. JJ Kavelaars. He is the scheduled speaker at our March monthly meeting and JJ will have the latest information to share. At our February monthly meeting Dr. Samantha Lawler will deliver a presentation on even more remote Kuiper belt objects and she will examine the evidence for a mysterious Planet Nine or maybe that should it be Planet Nein?

January is not renowned for great observing conditions. During the late afternoon of Sunday January 20th, however, skies magically cleared in the Victoria area and set the stage for a beautiful lunar eclipse. A fireball and a fleeting impact on the lunar surface were also witnessed by a lucky few. Due to its brightness I generally avoid observing the full moon but at this phase the ejecta rays of craters like Tycho and Copernicus were prominent. I adjusted my camera to highlight these striking features during the event. My optimum settings with a 127 mm refractor varied from 1/1250 second at ISO 100 at the beginning to 4 seconds at ISO 800 during totality. This remarkable reduction in intensity enabled one to enjoy a rich star field during totality. I observed the eclipse at Cattle Point Urban Dark Sky Park. The parking lot was full. The atmosphere was joyous with occasional outbreaks of wolf howls to honour the Super Wolf Blood Moon. It was wonderful to share this event in community.

This eclipse has inspired a number of RASCals to attempt the RASC lunar observing programs. These in include an introductory program entitled Explore the Moon and a more comprehensive program called the Isabel Williamson Lunar Observing Program. So far only 18 RASCals nation wide have completed the Isabel Williamson challenge. Perhaps you will want to join Victoria’s own Nelson Walker in this elite group. Check it out!

Some changes have been made at the Victoria Centre Observatory. The Victoria Centre recently received a generous donation of a 20 Inch Obsession Dobsonian telescope. In order the accommodate this scope at the VCO the existing 20 inch Dobsonian has been relocated to the Center of the Universe. This scope was beautifully crafted by Guy Walton in 2003 using a mirror from Jack Newton. In addition to serving as a museum piece this scope will be rolled out on the patio and used for public outreach events.

RASCals are reminded that during our February 13th Monthly Meeting there will be a very short administrative “Mini AGM”. This meeting is required as a result of the recent change of our fiscal year end from September 30th to December 31st. This could take less than 5 minutes so bring your stop watches!

Cloudless Nights! Reg Dunkley

Speaker: Dark Nebulae in New Light

Posted by as Meetings

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.

President’s Message – January 2019

Posted by as President's Message

In 2018 it seems like members of the Victoria Centre spent nearly as much time looking backward as they did looking up. Their focus was directed to the past as they celebrated the Plaskett Telescope as it completed 100 years of service. The Centre was involved in every aspect of the Plaskett Centennial including the unveiling of a national historic site plaque, the “first light” re-enactment on May 5th and the participation with the FDAO in the Victoria Day Parade. They were also invited to attend CASCA 2018, the astronomical conference which had several sessions devoted to the history of the DAO.

The attention was not just confined to the telescope. John Stanley Plaskett the driving force behind the scope was also celebrated in fine style. His achievements were captured in the new biography “Northern Star J.S. Plaskett” by Peter Broughton. What I found impressive was that Plaskett did not rest on his laurels with the design and acquisition of the scope. Five years after the 72 inch went into service Edwin Hubble proved that Andromeda was a galaxy rather than a nearby nebula. After learning of this discovery, Plaskett embarked on an ambitious observation program. During a 10 year period radial velocities of strategic stars were acquired with the 72 inch telescope. These measurements were employed to accurately determine our distance from the centre of the Milky Way as well as to calculate the rotation period about our galaxy. With his vision and long term commitment Plaskett and the DAO made a major astronomical contribution.

In 2018 we also celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. As we enter 2019 do not expect this historical focus to wane. The International Astronomical Union are all set to kick off their centennial. That party, however, may be drowned out by the 50th anniversary of Apollo which will resonate much more strongly with the boomers who lived through that era.

Speaking of boomers I recall a vivid memory from Christmas Eve, 50 years ago. I was just exiting the Odeon Theatre, my mind abuzz after watching Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001 A Space Odyssey”. When I looked up I glimpsed the Moon over Yates Street. I was stunned! Just think … at that very moment Apollo 8 was in orbit around the Moon. It was mind blowing and made “Space Odyssey” much more credible. When the astronauts recited from “In The Beginning” that Christmas Eve it reverberated around the globe.

Excellent documentaries on Apollo 8 recently appeared on NOVA and the BBC5Live while “The First Man” a new movie about Neil Armstrong has been playing on the big screen at the IMAX. Expect the Apollo drumbeat to continue to get louder as we approach July 20th, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing.

In stark contrast to the massive “Big Science” “Moon Shot” team efforts of NASA, the almost solitary contributions of Plaskett and Hubble seem quaint these days. Is there still a role for the individual in this brave new world? I definitely think so. As proof let me remind you of my favourite story of the past year. It involved the Argentine amateur Victor Buso who managed to capture the shock breakout phase of a star the instant that it went supernovae (See the March 2018 edition of SkyNews). It does not get better than that!

Tired of looking back? Maybe it is time to peek outside and if weather permits try to look up.

Wishing you all the best and many cloudless nights in 2019.

Reg Dunkley

President’s Message – December 2018

Posted by as President's Message

When I returned to Victoria 6 years ago I had no idea that I would become so deeply involved in the local astronomical community. My bulging shelves of Astronomy books reflect my long term interest in the topic. I was briefly a member of the Vancouver Centre of RASC but due to the time, energy and expense to attend their widespread gatherings I remained on the periphery of that group.

In contrast the ideal scale of Victoria makes it much easier to get out and participate. When I attended my first Victoria Centre meeting at UVic I was struck by the high level of energy and enthusiasm in the room. I was also amazed by the many Astronomical activities that the Centre was supporting. Shortly after when I attended my first Astro Cafe I was made to feel so welcome that I kept coming back and that deepened my engagement. I have learned and enjoyed so much in the process. And now that I find myself President of this great Centre I am humbled, excited and a bit overwhelmed. I will give it my best shot but may not reach the high bar established by my predecessors like Chris Purse. The Centre made great strides while Chris was at the helm..

Recently, I delivered a presentation on Astronomy to a local organization. I attempted to explain the activities and appeal of Astronomy for the amateur community. I grouped our activities is three main categories:

1) Observing:
At the core we are, as David Lee so aptly describes, tourists of the night sky. The act of stepping outdoors on a crisp, clear evening instantly rewards us as we escape the clatter of civilization. Most amateurs usually chose to extend their vision with binoculars and telescopes. Some have turned observing into a sport, star hopping and honing their vision to locate a host of faint celestial objects. On page 8 of the November SkyNews Bill Weir has described several observing lists that encourage us to expand our hunt for more targets and greatly increase our knowledge of the night sky. The process of sketching celestial objects can further engage the visual observer.

For some, glimpsing faint fuzzies serves as an appetizer and they embrace the technical challenge of mastering astrophotography. The collection of Victoria Centre astro-photos on zenfolio is amazing and inspiring. But why bother photographing a celestial object when a beautiful Hubble image is only a click away? To me the difference between looking at an image and capturing and processing an image is similar to music. One can enjoy music just by listening but a much deeper involvement occurs when one masters an instrument and plays the music. Some observers are also devoted to taking measurements and analyzing the data. For example Michel Michaud (p6) has spent years discovering double stars in the Pleiades and his observations are published in the professional double star scientific database.

2) Learning:
We are on a quest to improve our understanding of the Universe. Amateurs find ourselves in a golden age as Astronomy makes headline news weekly. Knowledge is accumulating faster that we can digest it. The miracle of the internet makes it much more feasible for amateurs to keep abreast of developments as we attempt to answer the following:
-What do we know?
-How do can we say that? (Scientific Method and History of Discovery)
-Why does it behave that way? (Laws of Physics and Allied Sciences)
-What don’t we know? (The Ongoing Mystery)

3) Sharing:
Amateurs are very active in sharing our knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm:
-Within our amateur community: In-Reach
-With the Public and the Next Generation: Out-Reach

I am both proud and a little concerned about the energy we devote to sharing. I think it is important to aim for a better balance between In-Reach and Out-Reach activities. If we fail to nourish ourselves with in-reach activities we will deplete our capacity to deliver out-reach. It could resemble a stellar “core collapse.” So as we go forward let’s give ourselves permission to ease off a bit. We don’t want the Victoria Centre to go Supernova!

Cloudless Nights!

Reg Dunkley

Speaker: History of the Hubble Space Telescope

Posted by as Uncategorized

Dr. Chris Gainor, President of RASC

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

At 7:30 PM in Room 116,
Engineering and Computer Science Building, UVic
Note Room Change

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched 28 years ago in 1990. After overcoming problems caused by a defective main mirror, Hubble has made discoveries that have revolutionized our view of the universe we live in. This talk will cover the history of HST based on a history book the speaker is writing for NASA.

Dr. Chris Gainor is an historian specializing in the history of space flight and aeronautics. He has five published books. He is also President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and editor of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly.