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.
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 …
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.
It is with sadness that I announce the sudden passing of Diane Bell. The Victoria Centre has lost one of its most active members. Diane was a positive spirit who radiated a sense of wonder. Her contagious enthusiasm about Astronomy elevated the joy and energy of our observing sessions and gatherings. She possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the night sky and was often seen at RASC events hoisting huge binoculars with a sketchbook nearby. She had served as editor of SkyNews, was the current Centre Librarian and a Member in Charge at the Victoria Centre Observatory. Diane generously shared her knowledge and passion through her participation in Public Outreach and Education programs. We were most fortunate to have her in the Victoria Centre and she will be sadly missed.
Reg Dunkley, President, RASC Victoria
Diane. Our very loved friend, sister, sister in law, aunt, cousin and all around the most genuine kind and faithful human being has passed away. We are all taking comfort that she is with Mimi, Sport, Rick and Aunt Mickey. – Lannea MacDonald
Very sad. My condolences to family and friends. I will miss her. – Li-Ann Skibo
I was so saddened to hear this shocking news. My sincere condolence to family and friends. – Michel Michaud
I am so very saddened about Diane, she was a beautiful person. Every time I look at the constellations and binoculars, I will think of her. Bless everyone that was close with her. She was very welcoming and friendly to be around. What a bright light she did shine. Sending blessings to her family and friends. – Jennifer Ikle
This is such sad news. Diane shone so brightly in our community! She exclaimed about how the sky is a gift for us all. She encouraged us to appreciate the science and the art of astronomy. Diane got me sketching from the telescope eyepiece – and then I saw so much more than I had before. Her clever cookies and quilts delighted us. Her knowledge of the constellations was an inspiration. We will miss her. – Randy Enkin
That’s devastating news. Her infectious enthusiasm and willingness to help out were hallmarks of Victoria Centre. I’ll sorely miss her. – Dave Robinson
I am so saddened by this news. Diane was always cheerful, and positive. If I was down I just had one of her hugs and it would all go away. There are many memories of being “roomies” at AGM’s and down at Garry’s in Arizona. I will miss her joy at working with kids at the CU with her Constellation blanket, sharing eclipse cookies at Astro Cafe, her love of Orion and Omega Centauri. She will be so sorely missed. Rest In Peace, Diane. Lauri Roche
This is terrible news. She has been such a good friend to all of us, and will be deeply missed…Nelson Walker
Very sad news! My deepest condolences to her family, friends, and the Victoria Centre. – Ed Majden
This is such shocking news. We are deeply saddened to hear it. In the three years we’ve been members, Diane has always been at the sessions we’ve attended. Whether sitting in the second row at AstroCafe, showing people the stars on the Hill at summer star parties, or sharing stories of her astronomy adventures and passion for travel up at the VCO, Diane has been a steady fixture of our local group.
She has always been enthusiastic, energetic and engaging. She was extremely generous with her knowledge, her time, her baking and her commitment. She was creative and talented herself, yet always provided genuinely positive feedback to other people on their work and accomplishments.
Since March, we have looked forward to seeing Diane at the weekly virtual AstroCafe. Her absence on Monday evening was noticed by many. Her passing will be felt by us all for a very long time to come. She will be missed greatly.
When the time is right, we would like to be part of a virtual get-together to honour Diane’s life. We could share stories, and, when I spoke to Lauri earlier today, she suggested we all bring cookies in Diane’s memory – a sweet farewell to a kind soul.
And from Nathan: See you in the stars, Diane. I will miss you very much.
Kathy, Nathan and family
This is very sad news . I will miss her so much for the way she welcomed new members and taught to the young ones on nights at the hill. – Maryl McCay
I have posted a short notice of Diane’s death on Victoria Centre’s Facebook group, and I have created a collection of photos to memorialize Diane on our Zenfolio photo hosting site. Diane was a close personal friend, astronomy buddy, and all-round good person. Her cheery face and keen observational skills will be missed deeply. – Joe Carr
I will miss her vibrant smile and her willingness to volunteer whatever was asked of her. She left us too soon. She will be missed. – Sid Sidhu
Oh No! We are very much saddened by this awful news. Both Glynis and I were greatly inspired by Diane’s infectious and powerful enthusiasm. At the AstroCafe nights, the VCO, and everywhere else we attended, Diane was always there to guide and answer. What a loss for the Victoria Centre! – Rod and Glynis Miller
So sad. Sympathies to you. – Emma MacPhee
Very sad to hear this. She will be missed. – Catherine Gregory
Terrible news – condolences to her family and friends. She was always had great energy and enthusiasm during the UVic and other events. #RIP – Brian James Kyle
A sad loss to everyone who knew her and to those who never had the chance. Such a gentle soul. She was always one of the first people I called for any public outreach event.- Bruce Lane
This is extremely sad to hear. She was a great volunteer and I will miss her dearly. Condolences to the family. – Nishith Eluri
I was deeply shocked to hear this today and took several minutes to come back from tears. She was a very kind, giving and outgoing friend . I send condolences to her family and all those who knew her. I am sure many members both within the Victoria RASC family and others she knew will deeply miss her. – Malcolm Scrimger
Such a sad loss. – Chris Spratt
A devastating loss, Diane Bell was a rare soul of relentless positivity and enthusiasm. – Matt Watson
That is very sad news indeed. – Jim Cliffe
So very sad to hear about Diane’s passing. She was such a lovely person with an infectious enthusiasm for astronomy that drew everyone to her. Clint and I send our condolences to her family & friends and wish them peace at this difficult time. – Melissa Tupper
Oh, this is very very sad indeed – Donna Andrew
I am terribly saddened by this news. I last saw Diane Bell in person in May when she gave me a mask that she had made out of astronomical fabric. That is still the mask I wear most of the time these days. She only asked that I contribute to a local charity, which I did. We often saw her great skills with fabric, notably the ‘star blanket’ she brought to the DAO to educate members of the public about various constellations. And who can forget her eclipse cookies? I always enjoyed talking to Diane about her youth in a military family, growing up on Canadian Forces bases around Canada and in Europe as part of NATO. One of them was CFB Cold Lake in Alberta, close to where I spent many summers growing up. I note that her final posting on Facebook was in anticipation of Remembrance Day, the day the news first came out of her unexpected passing. Although Diane experienced her share of ups and downs in life, I always remember her being enthusiastic and positive. She did a lot for the Victoria Centre, including her current service as Librarian. I know we’ll all miss her. – Chris Gainor
I read about Diane’s passing on my lunch break at work, but now that I’m home, I’m still having difficulty coming to terms with it. All the superlatives being used to describe Diane are of course true, yet she is much more than the sum of those. Diane was instantly likeable. Her apetite for learning was exceeded only by her passion for sharing that knowledge. Her talent for her crafts; sewing, baking, music, and more were enjoyed by all who were fortunate enough to sample them. Her enthusasm and generosity were amazing. Our bike rides together were immensely enjoyable. She will be sorely missed by all who knew her. – Sherry Buttnor
Please add our names to the (I am sure) long list of friends of Diane, who will be sadly missed. She was a real force of positivity for Victoria Centre and a friend to all. RIP, Diane. Thanks for making a huge difference with your outreach and friendships. Jack and I will continue to wear our “Diane astro masks”♥️ with pride! – Alice & Jack Newton
Heartbreaking. I can’t fathom not seeing her again. – Deb Crawford
I am so sad to hear this. Diane was part of what made the observatory such a magical place to be. She will be so missed. – Jennine Gates
My condolences to Diane’s family. I was in shock when I first read your post. Her enthusiasm and kindness stand out for me. I can’t imagine a star party without her. I was one of the happy recipients of a star mask. It turns out that it is perfect as with so many of her creations. I will miss her a lot. – Ida von Schuckmann
We were shocked and deeply saddened hearing of Diane’s death. Her infectious enthusiasm for all things about the night sky was inspiring. With her beloved 8” Dob and original constellation blanket, as sky-guide, she enlivened any observing event, whether organized or impromptu. We remember in particular our sharing with her sessions at the Kingswood Camp with the Brownies and Girl Guides, separate years, and the challenge of finding objects through the small hole in the forest canopy and explaining their locations in constellations beautifully displayed on her blanket but largely blocked from view overhead by our restricted view of the sky. Her absence will be felt at all our events – Dorothy and Miles
Our tents were pitched side-by-side at the first RASC star party I attended in Metchosin, and Diane’s genuine and enthusiastic welcome then continues to inspire me to do the same with newcomers to astronomy activities. Also inspiring was her unique talent of using oversize binoculars without a tripod to take binocular observing to another level. Her spirit that we are all missing so much right now shines through in the many images people have shared, including in this chrome reflector on the exterior of the Shawnigan Lake Observatory in 2015. – JL MacGillivray
Just arrived home from the mainland, what a shock to find out, Diane Bell, has passed away. Diane and I go back a long time, I will always remember the wonderful conversations Diane and I had and enjoying watching her sketching some of the many wonders of the night. Sadly missed. – Jennifer Bigelow
Her knowledge, enthusiasm, energy, friendship and much, much more will be sorely missed–a huge loss all the people she touched. – Jim Hesser
She will be missed and leaves a wonderful legacy of her passion for astronomy. – David Lee
Diane was one of the Victoria RASC;s most active members and I always appreciated her enthusiasm and support. My deepest condolences to her family and friends on this indeed sad day. – James Di Francesco
This is such a shock and difficult to take in. What a huge loss. In many ways Diane has been the life blood of Victoria Centre. I am so sad. – John McDonald
Diane was a major part of our Centre and I was always impressed that she could remember where she was when she saw her favourite targets for the first time. Like her brother, who I believe died of a heart attack in his 50s, her’s was a life too short. She will be missed and will join those I remember on Remembrance Day. – Chris Purse
I am so very sorry to hear of Diane’s sudden passing. She has been such a solidity of presence and knowledge during my three years in RASC Victoria. The photo of her at the top of a ladder at Garry’s Arizona telescope is a favourite for me. Diane always had informative astronomical comments and a warm, open way of being with people. She will be tremedously missed. – Marjie Welchframe
Very sad and unexpected news! Lynn and I offer our condolences to her family and those who knew her! We recently met her at the 2018 GA in Calgary where we became friends. She was so delightful and genuine. Diane will be in our prayers and thoughts! – Stephen Beddingfield
How sad. Jane and I used to camp next to Diane every star party. She was such fun and had so much enthusiasm for astronomy. – Mark Hird-Rutter
I still cannot believe this sad news. Diane will be missed by many, for a variety of reasons. RIP Diane. – Patricia Buttnor
Shocked to hear of Diane’s passing…met Diane on the military base in Cold Lake Alta…..we we in grade school at Athabasca school….we became great friends..we were military brats and would joke and address each other as such..however growing up in the military has its drawbacks…we were stationed from base to base and lost track of each other…than I found a group on facebook called Cold Lake Brats and low and behold I found Diane again…we were now able to keep touch with each other there and on facebook..she was so warm and genuine…can’t believe she is gone now forever…rest in peace my dear friend….will miss you always my dear friend….wont be the same on facebook without you… – Debra Smith Nadeau
I have been a pen friend of Diane’s for some 32 years and have stayed with her in Victoria during a holiday there and attended with her one of your evenings. Diane visited us in Australia several times and stayed with us. I felt quite saddened to hear this news and felt a deep sense of loss of someone I had come to know very well and yet saw so little of her. In spite of that she had a large impact upon our life and we all felt at home right from the start when she contacted us through friend to see if we could provide accommodation for her in Brisbane during Expo 88 which were able to do. Our friendship began almost immediately we met on her arrival here in Brisbane.
Please convey our condolences to any who knew her well if opportunity rises. I will miss her correspondence but am well satisfied that she has been a part of our life’s journey and we will remember her fondly and with love. I am sure she will be missed by all members of the RASC, the work of which she was justly proud. – Rev. Bruce Worthington
Skyrocketing cases of Covid and disturbing developments south of the border have stoked our levels of anxiety. As an antidote to these concerns it is high time for a good news story. Let’s revisit a happy moment in 2017 when a number of Victoria Centre RASCals attended the Great Solar Eclipse Afterparty. We gathered to share images, swap eclipse adventures and relive the magic of this event. Many of these stories were captured in the October 2017 issue of Sky News. A highlight of this joyous occasion was the unboxing of our new TPO 16 inch Ritchey Chretien reflector telescope. This was performed with great fanfare by Matt Watson and Dan Posey.
In September and October of 2017 Matt and Dan installed the new scope on the Victoria Centre Observatory Paramount ME mount and took great care neatly wiring the scope to connect the cameras, an off axis guider and an electronic focuser to the computer. Official first light occurred on October 28th 2017 (See November 2017 Sky News for early images). Dan Posey’s gallery on zenfolio contains a series of beautiful images taken with the TPO 16 Inch RC between late October 2017 through October 2018 including my favourite, the Fireworks Galaxy (See page 10 October 2018 Sky News). These photos are a testament that the scope was performing well during that interval.
Sadly, no decent images were captured with that scope after October 2018. The TPO 16 Inch seems to have drifted off collimation and the cause remains a mystery. The collimation of a Ritchey-Chretien scope is a tricky business and Dan and Matt spent countless hours researching and trying to re-collimate this instrument over the next year. They even enlisted the help of former DAO member Les Disher. In the spring of 2020 Les demonstrated that collimation could be achieved when the scope was pointed towards the zenith but it went out of collimation as soon as it was slewed to a lower altitude. This indicated that there may be flexure somewhere in the truss or mirror supports of the telescope. It was Victoria Centre’s good fortune that Matt Watson opted to purchase a lifetime warranty on the scope and Council approved to return it to the Los Angeles vendor, OPT, for repair.
By this time Observatory Hill was in lockdown due to Covid. NRC kindly granted permission for special access to the VCO and on June 4th, 2020 four masked men (Dave Robinson, Mike Nash, Dan Posey and your President) furtively removed the TPO 16 inch RC, boxed it up and sent it to OPT via Fedex. In October OPT informed us that they could not fix the scope and offered to send us a new TPO 16 Inch RC … but without a lifetime warranty. The Tech Committee was not comfortable with this arrangement and instead John McDonald negotiated an “in store credit” for the value paid for the scope.
While the TPO scope was off for repairs, Garry Sedun learned about a used research grade scope that was for sale at an attractive price in Arizona. John McDonald and I bought this scope with the idea that it might be a replacement for the VCO if the repair of the TPO scope did not succeed. Garry Sedun kindly delivered this 12.5 inch OGS Ritchey Chretien scope to Victoria when he returned from Arizona this summer. OGS stands for “Optical Guidance Systems” and they manufacture high quality instruments for NASA, universities and research facilities. Although the optical tube is not in pristine condition the primary mirror is figured to a precision of 1/31st of a wavelength and it has a very stout built quality.
On September 21st, when limited access to the VCO was restored under strict Covid protocols this scope was attached to the VCO mount. Results were encouraging when the first image was obtained on October 3rd using an improvised focuser. When a helical focuser was attached to the scope on October 30th results were even better. Star field images were crisp with round undistorted stars right out to the corners. Although Dan Posey detected that the primary mirror was just a tad out of collimation, he felt that it was performing better than the old Meade 14 inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope.
The Tech Committee will continue to evaluate this scope with further star field tests. If it is determined that it will meet the needs of the membership, John McDonald and I are prepared to permanently loan the scope to the Victoria Centre. If Victoria Centre members are dissatisfied with this scope we will deploy it elsewhere. The OPT store credit gives us the flexibility to consider an alternate scope.
Remember that there is also a high quality 20 inch Obsession Dobsonian telescope at the VCO. Argo Navis digital setting circles will be soon added to this scope and make it easier for visual observers to find objects in the sky. So when you consider that access to the VCO has been restored with a functioning scope for astrophotography and an excellent instrument for visual observers that qualifies as a good news story!
Have you noticed that the red planet has received the lion’s share of planetary press coverage lately? In July 2020 three Martian space missions were launched: The United Arab Emirates mission will place an advanced weather satellite, called Hope, in a Martian orbit. The Chinese mission Tianwen-1 will deliver an orbiter, lander and rover to the planet. NASA and JPL will land Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars. Perseverance is similar to the phenomenally successful Curiosity rover and will drill and deposit caches of samples for a possible retrieval mission. Ingenuity is a small helicopter that will take short three minute missions that will scout for interesting objects for Perseverance to examine. All three missions will reach Mars in February 2021, just in time for the Victoria Centre AGM! What a great time to become the Centre President!
Martian enthusiasts will also be excited to learn the Hilary Swank and her brave team of astronauts in the Netflix Martian exploration drama AWAY will likely be renewed for another season. Keen observers of this program may, like me, be puzzled by the intermittent nature of weightlessness in this drama. I wonder if special effects budgets are a factor.
The big event this month, however, is the opposition of Mars which takes place on October 13th. At this time, only 0.41 astronomical units away, the Martian angular diameter reaches 22.4 arc seconds. In anticipation of this event some keen RASCals like John McDonald have been perfecting their planetary photography techniques. You may remember that during the last opposition in the Summer of 2018 a major dust storm prevented us to savour the surface details. Although weather patterns have been favourable of late, smoke from the major wildfires in Northern California have introduced a new element of uncertainty. We should keep in mind that the crescendo of the Martian angular diameter is a gradual event and let’s hope for usable skies and wonderful images.
Right in the middle of this Martian jamboree, however, I was happy to hear that our much neglected sister planet, Venus, crashed the party. On September 14th, a paper announced that “Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus”. In 2017 the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope detected the spectral signature of the molecule phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere. This was followed up by higher resolution data from ALMA in 2019. This created great excitement because phosphine is considered a bio-signature in rocky planets and offers the intriguing possibility of life in the Venusian atmosphere. This may inspire future missions to Venus … which maybe a good thing since those wildfires are ringing alarm bells about global warming. Maybe we should spend more effort studying the planet next door which provides an outstanding illustration of a runaway greenhouse effect. We have much more to learn.
I don’t know about you but I am not ready to change the calendar to September just yet. The uncertainty introduced by the pandemic and the political drama unfolding south of the border distracted me from making the most of the Summer. The restrictions of Covid 19 produced a Star Party deficit and deprived the Victoria Centre of the social interaction enjoyed when sharing the night skies with others. But the constellations march on and they are indifferent to our plight. So enough snivelling and it is time to count our blessings.
On the Covid front, whether it was our favourable geography, good governance or good fortune, so far Vancouver Island has experienced relatively few cases when compared to other areas. On the weather front, relatively cool conditions have reduced wild fire smoke and presented favourable observing and imaging opportunities. On the technological front, Zoom and our tireless hosts, Chris Purse, Barbara and Kurt Lane and John McDonald have kept the doors to Astro Cafe open during the summer months. This allowed us to remain connected and share our techniques, images, sketches and enthusiasm. These sessions were all captured on video by the kindness of Joe Carr and posted on the Astronomy Cafe web page. One antidote to the pandemic was the visit by the beautiful comet C/2020 f3 Neowise. Editor Bruce Lane went the extra mile and prepared bonus issue #420 of the Victoria Centre newsletter, SkyNews, that showcased images and sketches of comet Neowise and conveyed the joy it generated. Bruce also provided a colourful history of comets of yesteryear and their relationship leaders of the day.
The National RASC response to Covid was remarkable. There were so many web offerings that they have developed a very useful weekly email entitled “What’s happening at The RASC?” which alerts you to regional and national presentations. If you are not already receiving this email then I encourage you to subscribe here. In particular they had developed a series of Zoom webinars related to the Explore the Universe program. These and other presentations have been captured and are available on the RASCanada YouTube channel for viewing at your convenience.
As we head into September, the number of Covid cases are on the rise and the rooms at UVic will remain closed. Instead of having a special monthly meeting on Zoom, we plan instead to have one Astro Cafe session each month with an invited speaker. The first presenter, Dr. Phil Groff, executive director of RASC, will attend our Astro Cafe Zoom meeting on Monday September 14th at 7:30 PM. It is a great opportunity meet Phil and share your thoughts with him.
As the nights continue to lengthen I do hope that you will find time to step out, look up and marvel.
The abrupt onset of the pandemic introduced a wave of uncertainty. There is a growing realization that the impacts will continue for some time. Most Victoria Centre activities including monthly meetings, VCO observing sessions and Saturday Night Star Parties at the DAO have been cancelled. Astro Cafe has established a virtual presence on victoria.rasc.ca and a weekly Zoom webinar. The Island Star Party, Merritt Star Party and the Mount Kobau Star Party have been officially cancelled. The Saanich Fair is morphing into some online entity. UVic has announced that lecture halls will be closed until at least January 2021.
This has left us staring into a void. But by suddenly escaping the treadmill of everyday life many were given an unexpected gift of time. This has allowed RASCals more opportunity to step out into the stillness of the night, look up and savour the arrival of starlight. While the days of the week became less relevant, our awareness of the rhythm of the Solar System became more pronounced. RASCals have been sharing wonderful images and sketches of the lunar cycle as well as evening and morning dances of the planets.
Zoom webinars have proven to be an effective tool that helps reduce the sense of isolation and allows us to share our enthusiasm, knowledge and imagery. As a result the Victoria Centre has acquired its own Zoom Pro license which will increase our capacity to meet on line. During this pandemic the astronomical community has rallied and is posting a rich source of offerings on the internet. RASC National frequently hosts interesting webinars which are usually archived on the RASCanada YouTube site. This site will also be used to live stream a virtual General Assembly event between 11AM and 2PM PDT on Sunday June 7th. Dr. Sara Seager and Bob McDonald will be delivering presentations. UVic has moved its Cafe Scientifique online and is also hosting an Astronomy Open House webinar every Wednesday in the summer at 7:30 PM.
During a recent Victoria Centre Council Meeting we explored options of what to do while we wait for a vaccine. We are currently in the process of sending the VCO 16 Inch RC scope for repair and may have an alternate scope available in the mean time. If activities resume at the VCO, however, attendance will initially be restricted to a very small number. This would enable the site to be safely used more for observing/imaging activities than social interaction. Active Observers would be required to bring their own eyepieces to avoid spread of CoVid19.
This eyepiece issue may be problematic when Saturday Nights at the DAO resume. One alternative to sharing an eyepiece is to try Electronic Assisted Astronomy (EAA). This technique is “casual astrophotography” that enables a camera to automatically stack images on the fly and display them on a tablet or monitor. It avoids complex post processing and would allow fainter deep skies objects to be viewed by the public without lineups. With an internet connection EAA has the potential to share live imagery to a meeting or webinar. The challenge of CoVid19 has served as a catalyst to explore this option. An interesting overview of EAA is found on this link.
While we are waiting for face to face outreach to resume we could set up static astronomy displays showcasing our astrophotography. David Lee recently delivered an astronomy orientation course using Zoom and similar programs might be considered. In the mean time, if you something that you would like to share on the Virtual Astro Cafe please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. In closing I would like to thank hosts Barbara and Kurt Lane, Chris Purse and John McDonald for agreeing to extend the Astro Cafe into the summer season.
Wishing you good health and useable skies this Summer
During the early dawn of February 16th I obtained a glimpse of the future. After months of almost perpetual overcast, skies finally cleared. While looking northward towards Cassiopeia I noticed a long precession of fairly bright evenly spaced satellites moving from left to right. It took about 10 minutes for this parade to pass. I realized that this must be the Starlink Constellation that had been mentioned in the news. When I searched the Internet to learn more I was in for a surprise.
Starlink is a bold ingenious project with an ambitious mission to deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access is unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. It plans to achieve this by deploying a vast constellation of communication satellites. The parent company SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 and has developed a remarkable capacity to launch Falcon 9 rockets and successfully land them for reuse. This greatly reduces the launch costs. The communication satellites are stacked aboard the Falcon 9 in two columns of 30 and they gradually drift apart once they reach orbit. Each satellite is powered by a single solar panel which gently unfolds. The satellites are maneuvered by ion jets using Krypton. This elaborate scheme sounds unwieldy but when Starlink V0.9 was launched in May 2019 it actually worked!
Satellites are usually expensive “one off” devices that take years to build but by employing the manufacturing expertise that Elon Musk honed at Tesla, Starlink can assemble 6 satellites a day at their Redmond Washington plant. This production rate allows Starlink to launch 60 satellites every two weeks! At that launch rate Starlink can place 1584 satellites in a shell 550 km about the Earth by the end of 2021. They will be placed in 72 orbital planes inclined at 53 degrees. 22 satellites will occupy each plane and when in position they will form an exotic mesh surrounding the globe. Animation of this configuration reveals that the concentration of satellites is greatest between latitudes of 50 to 53 degrees. While this network will provide coverage over most of the globe, two additional phases have been approved by the FCC to increase capacity and speed. Phase two will add an additional 2800 satellites in a 1125 km altitude shell and phase three will add 7500 more satellites in a lower 340 km altitude shell.
When completed an additional 12000 satellites will be in orbit! This exceeds the 9000 satellites that have been launched during the last 50 years and the 5000 that are still in orbit. The first batch of 60 operational satellites were launched on Starlink 1 on November 11th 2019 and the sixth Starlink mission occurred on April 22nd bringing the total to 420. While Starlink obtained the necessary frequency approvals from the FCC to prevent interference with radio astronomy there was no governance regarding visual and infrared ground based astronomy. The initial Starlink v0.9 group was much brighter than anticipated and generated alarm from visual astronomers. Elon Musk is embarrassed about this oversight and is working with the Astronomical Community to mitigate the impact of this massive network. On April 27th Musk announced VisorSat, an innovative sunshield that may significantly reduce the albedo of the satellites. Some of these shields will be tested during the next Starlink launch.
The satellites must be illuminated by the Sun to be visible. Due to the low altitude the Phase 1 cohort will only be visible near twilight. The higher altitude Phase 2 will remain visible longer. Satellites are brightest when just launched but will become dimmer as they ascend to operational altitude. Since twilight lingers into the late evening near the Summer Solstice the presence of this constellation will be most pronounced in the area of highest density over Canadian skies this summer. So keep on the lookout for this new swarm of satellites while stargazing this summer. Please share your observations on the Virtual Astro Cafe web page or during the Astro Cafe Webinar which will take place every Monday evening at 7:30 PM. In someways the unintended consequence of this mission resembles an outbreak of a “stellar virus”. And it could get worse as SpaceX has requested permission to place another 30000 satellites in orbit! Let’s hope that the Starlink team creates a stellar vaccine soon and that skies will remain useable.
The tipping point occurred near the 15th, the Ides of March. Just a few days earlier at the Victoria Centre Monthly Meeting 50 RASCals enjoyed the entertaining talk by Dr. Tyrone Woods which involved both supernovae and sword fights. While details of the approaching Astronomy Day were presented there was tension in the air and it was recommended that members monitor HealthLinkBC.ca. By the 17th, Saint Patricks Day, schools were cancelled, the gates to the DAO were locked and even the Pubs were closed! In almost an instant, astronomy “outreach” events Astronomy Day and Saturday Star Parties together with “in-reach” events such as, Astro Cafe, Monthly Meetings, VCO sessions and the 2020 Vancouver General Assembly were cancelled. What lead to this astonishing turnaround? Perhaps it was the eerie images of Italian landmarks, totally devoid of people. Maybe it was the grime graphs of soaring death totals. Or could it be the announcement that even Tom Hanks was not immune to CoVid-19?
Sporting activities involving crowds like hockey and basketball were among the first casualties. In contrast, the stillness, peace and wonderment of observing the night sky can be safely experienced in isolation. One of the joys of the astronomical community, however, is sharing these experiences with others. A “Virtual Astro Cafe” has been set up on https://victoria.rasc.ca and it allows you to share your stories, images and links. We have already enjoyed a strong response and we encourage you to forward your contributions to email@example.com. One of the things missing from this Virtual Astro Cafe, however, are the comments, questions and banter that add a special touch to the authentic Astro Cafe. The hosts of Astro Cafe are addressing this shortcoming by holding Astro Cafe Webinars using software called Zoom. It is scheduled for Mondays at 7:30PM and all you have to do is click on the link provided by the email from the Astro Cafe host and respond to one or two prompts. It is a surprisingly effective way to achieve a sociable connection at a safe distance. Give it a try!
The mention of Tom Hanks recalls his portrayal of Astronaut Jim Lovell in the epic movie Apollo 13. The 50th anniversary of the explosion aboard Apollo 13 takes place on April 13th. This is a validation of bad luck for the superstitious! The remarkable success of the earlier Apollo missions fostered a sense of complacency among much of the population. This episode, however, dramatically illustrated the dangers and complexity of these space missions and riveted the attention of the world until the capsule safely returned. You may not be aware of the Victoria connection of this adventure. Ernie Pfanneschmidt and Frank Younger of the DAO were atop Mount Kobau during this mission and successfully photographed the oxygen cloud that formed in the wake of the explosion. The 16 inch telescope that they used is now residing in the dome connected to the Centre of the Universe. To learn more see pp 6-7 Sep 2018 SkyNews. Pause and reflect on this historical role when you next peer through the eyepiece of this scope.
Although most Victoria Centre events have been cancelled until further notice, there may be an interesting spectacle to anticipate. Victoria RASCal Martin Gisborne recently imaged comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) discovered by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) survey on December 28, 2019. Visit Virtual Astro Cafe to view this image It is currently situated above the plane of the Solar System moving from Ursa Major to Camelopardalis. It will swoop southward and make its closest approach to Earth on May 23rd. Some have speculated that it will brighten significantly on approach. Prediction of any sort is a reckless business but it might provide a welcome distraction from the global pandemic.
As we work our way through this challenging time remember that we are all in this together. So keep at a safe distance, be kind and when skies are useable … look up.