New England Fall Astronomy Festival 2016

8 09 2016

NEFAFNEFAF is back! The New England Fall Astronomy Festival is this weekend, September 9 & 10 (Friday and Saturday) at the Durham campus of University of New Hampshire. This year’s special guest and keynote speaker is Dr. Seth Shostak (SETI). He’ll be talking to students and faculty on Friday, September 9th at 1:00 PM in the Strafford Room on the UNH-Durham campus and also giving the Keynote Address from 7:00-8:15 p.m. at the Main Tent at UNH Observatory.

There are tons of activities on the schedule for kids (building rockets!) this weekend, in addition to lectures from notable amateur and professional astronomers aimed at the adults in the crowd. Don’t miss the Saturday afternoon discussion panel with John Gianforte (The Sky Guy), Dr. David Kipping, Dr. Seth Shostak, Dr. Suzanne Young, and Dr. Harlan Spence. And stick around: S&T‘s Kelly Beatty will be talking about the 2017 total solar eclipse. 

On Friday night, Joel Harris will give a tour of the night sky for novice observers. Marc Stowbridge will be giving the Saturday night sky tour. I’ve been looking at the sky my entire life, and I still haven’t gotten tired of listening to/watching sky tours. The UNH Observatory will be open, so this is your chance to look through a 14-inch telescope.

I’m reprinting the full NEFAF schedule here, but you should check out the NEFAF facebook page for more details.

NEFAF Program Listing for Friday, September 9

1:00-2:15 PM: Dr. Seth Shostak Lecture (Strafford Room MUB-UNH)
4:00-6:00 PM: Special Reception for Dr. Shostak (tickets required) (Three Chimneys Inn)
7:00-8:15 PM: Keynote Address NEFAF Kick-Off (Main Tent UNH Observatory)
8:15 PM- ?: General Night Sky Observing (UNH Observatory & Surrounding Fields)
8:15-8:45 PM: Joel Harris (NHAS) Beginners’ Laser Pointer Sky Tour (UNH Observatory & Surrounding Fields)
9:00-9:30 PM: Joel Harris (NHAS) Beginners’ Laser Pointer Sky Tour (UNH Observatory & Surrounding Fields)

NEFAF Program Listing for Saturday, Sept 10, 2016

10:00 AM: NEFAF Gates Open
*Ramon’s Food & Coffee Cart Open Morning, Noon and Night
10:00-4:30 PM: Kids’ Hands On Science Activity Center (Main Tent)
10:00-6:30 PM: Search the NEFAF Universe for Clues! NEFAF AstroScavenger Hunt! Start your hunt in the Main Tent.
10:00-4:30 PM: Kids’ AstroGames Outside Game Venue (East of Observatory)
11:00-12:00 PM: NHAS Telescope Clinic – Care for neglected or uncooperative telescopes (NHAS Booth in the Main Tent)
10:00 AM: Raffle Ticket Sales Open – Front Gate, Main Tent near microphone and roving sales throughout the day!
10:00-6:30 PM: A Walk Through the Solar System (North Field)
11:00 AM: Safe Solar Observing (Observatory & just outside the NHAS Booth – Main Tent)
11:00-12:15 PM: Want to be a Rocketeer? Join a class to build and launch your own rocket! (Main Tent) (each of three classes is limited to 15; sign-up is required on site)
12:30-1:45 PM: Want to be a Rocketeer? Join a class to build and launch your own rocket! (Main Tent) (each of three classes is limited to 15; sign-up is required on site)
2:00-3:15 PM: Want to be a Rocketeer? Join a class to build and launch your own rocket! (Main Tent) (each of three classes is limited to 15; sign-up is required on site)
3:00 PM: Solar Oven Cook-Off! Whose solar oven design is best at cooking a snack? (Outside of Main Tent)


11:00 AM: Bob Villeux NHAS Rocks From Space!
12:00 PM: Jeff Baumgardner Boston University Everything you Wanted to Know About Telescopes
1:00 PM: Rich DeMidio NHAS About the New Hampshire Astronomical Society
1:30 PM: ASTRO PANEL Dr. David Kipping, Dr. Seth Shostak, Dr. Suzanne Young, Dr. Harlan Spence and John Gianforte
2:45 PM: J. Kelly Beatty Sky & Telescope Magazine Where and How to View the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse
3:45 PM: Dr. David Mattingly UNH, Physics Gravity Waves – What They Tell us About the Universe
4:35 PM: John Blackwell Phillips Exeter Academy A Look at LARGE Telescopes in Chile!
5:15 PM: RAFFLE DRAWINGS! (Outside Main Tent)
6:00 PM -?: Night Sky Observing (UNH Observatory and Surrounding Observing Areas)
7:30-8:00 PM: Marc Stowbridge (NHAS) Laser Pointer Sky Tour (Beginners’ Observatory Area)
9:00-9:30 PM: Marc Stowbridge (NHAS) Laser Pointer Sky Tour (Advanced Observatory Area)


  • New Hampshire Astronomical Society (NHAS)
  • University of New Hampshire Physics Department
  • Mount Washington Observatory (MWO)
  • McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center (M-SDC)
  • UNH Society of Black Engineers
  • University of New Hampshire Techcamp
  • Gloucester Area Astronomy Club (GAAC)

New England Fall Astronomy Festival

1 10 2014
NH Observatory Manager Ian Cohen safely shows a young observer the Sun through the Observatory’s main telescope, a 14-inch reflector. Credit: Loni Anderson/NEFAF

NH Observatory Manager Ian Cohen safely shows a young observer the Sun through the Observatory’s main telescope, a 14-inch reflector. Credit: Loni Anderson/NEFAF

Here’s hoping clear skies will come our way this month. First, there’s the total lunar eclipse to watch in the early a.m. hours of October 8 (evening hours of October 8 if you’re reading this from Australia). That’s super exciting, so it’s probably destined to coincide with cloudy weather.

But I’m also looking forward to the New England Fall Astronomy Festival later this month. Events will take place on the west end of the University of New Hampshire Campus (Durham) at the UNH Observatory. The weekend kicks off on Friday, October 17, with a 6 p.m. lecture by Carolyn Porco, Imaging Science Team Leader for the Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn. After the lecture and a Q&A session, clear skies will bring a chance to look through some great telescopes and listen to some star talks. The festival continues on Saturday (10 a.m. to midnight), with more observing sessions, activities for the kids (model rockets rumored!), talks, and clinics. I admit I’m pretty excited by the idea of a weather balloon launch.

Here’s a write up about a previous year’s NEFAF, in case you’re wondering what an “astronomy festival” looks like. Full disclosure: John Gianforte and I work together at S&T. Therefore, I know that it’s going to be a top-notch event.

Hope to see you there!

Wallpaper Wednesday: SDO and Sunspots

16 07 2014
"Sweeping Arches and Loops", solar magnetic activity viewed in the ultraviolet, June 30, 2014.

“Sweeping Arches and Loops”, solar magnetic activity viewed in the ultraviolet, June 30, 2014.

Looking at some of the photos returned by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), you’d think contemporary solar observing had little in common with what was being done at Kodaikanal c. 1900-1910. But in addition to the dramatic images of solar loops like the one shown above, SDO also sends back sunspot records that closely resemble the photos and charts produced by C. Michie Smith, John Evershed, and company.

"Spots Galore," July 8, 2014. Image credit: Solar Dynamics Observatory/NASA

“Spots Galore,” July 8, 2014. Image credit: Solar Dynamics Observatory/NASA

According to SDO/NASA:

“The Sun sported a whole slew of substantial sunspots over the past 11 days (July 1-10, 2014). This movie and still show the Sun in filtered white light speckled with more and larger sunspots than we have seen in quite some time. Sunspots are darker, cooler regions on the Sun created by intense magnetic fields poking through the surface. The Sun may have passed its peak level of activity, but it will still be producing many more sunspots and solar storms during the rest of this solar cycle. The still image was taken on July 8 at 22:24 UT.”

Looks familiar!

Visit the NASA/SDO gallery to see more images of solar activity. Like the two above images, most are stills excerpted from videos. Click through each image to reach the links to .mov and .mp4 files.

Sunspots, 1903

14 07 2014
paper disc with handwritten notations of sunspots

Sunspot observation record, April 30-May 1, 1903. Image courtesy of Indian Institute of Astrophysics/JR

I was fortunate enough to spend some time studying the historic instruments and library collection at Kodaikanal Observatory in Tamil Nadu this past week. Run by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the observatory was founded in 1899 to facilitate solar observing. In 1907, John Evershed arrived on the scene to (quite famously) bring his “auto-collimating spectroheliograph” online. You can imagine my excitement when Mr. Selvendran, Senior In-Charge at KO, opened the door to the spectroheliograph room and slid open the shed roof to expose the instrument’s mirror. So cool.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I spent my first day poking around KO’s fascinating library. Journals, books, catalogues, and ephemera stacked literally from floor to ceiling. So much stuff that I scarcely knew where to begin. But when I saw a stack of paper circles tucked into a corner shelf, I knew how I would spend the afternoon. I had only just read about these circles in one of C. Michie Smith’s (KO’s first director) annual reports.

Excerpt from Kodaikanal and Madras Observatories report for the year 1904.

Excerpt from Kodaikanal and Madras Observatories report for the year 1904.

Each of these 8-inch paper discs contains a record of 3-7 days of sunspot observations. Each spot was marked in pencil and assigned a letter (A, B, etc.). Every day, the observer recorded the new position and appearance of the lettered spots as they traversed the solar “surface”, i.e., the photosphere. For instance, in the following plates, sunspots A and B are shown moving from NNE to W between March 18 and 29, 1903.

Sunspot Observations, March 18-29, 1903. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

Sunspot Observations, March 18-29, 1903. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics/JR.

Sunspot Observations, March 18-29, 1903, detail. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

Sunspot Observations, March 18-29, 1903, detail. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics/JR.

The next image shows that those same spots continued westward between March 30 and April 2, 1903, breaking up as they went. You can also see a second line of spots traveling roughly parallel to the solar equator. They started out as indistinct patches at the eastern edge of the disc on the March 27-28. The March 30-April 2 disc shows how long it took for them to move half way across the Sun.


Sunspot Observations, March 30-April 2, 1903. Image courtesy Indian Institute of Astrophysics/JR.

According to C. Michie Smith, observers hand-recorded sunspots on 343 out of 365 days in 1904. What dedication, and this at a time when they didn’t really know what sunspots were. Observers just put in the hours and trusted that their efforts would one day lead to enlightenment.

India Calling

30 05 2014
John Evershed and Assistant, Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. Image courtesy IIA Archives.

John Evershed and Assistant, Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. Image courtesy IIA Archives.

I took my first dose of live typhoid vaccine this morning, so I guess it’s official: I’m on my way back to India for the summer. One of the benefits of the ACLS NFF is the research budget—large enough to cover the cost of two conferences and a trip to India in the same academic year. So, in two weeks, I’ll be rolling into the library at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore to complete “step two” of a new research project. Last summer was “step one,” exploratory research in the Lick Observatory archives at UC-Santa Cruz. No idea what “step three” will look like!

This project is still in its infancy, but I’m looking at the ways in which “new astronomy” (i.e., spectroscopy) affected observatory design at the end of the nineteenth century. More specifically, I’m trying to track the intellectual shift of Indian astronomers away from the UK and toward the US in the era of solar astronomy. It seems that even though Kodaikanal Observatory was constructed in the (British) colonial era, the astronomers were working more closely with Mt Wilson and Lick Observatories than with their British counterparts. Maybe. Possibly. That’s the great thing about research questions: even if I come back with “wrong answer,” I’ll have learned something new.

Visiting McCormick Observatory

27 02 2014
Leander McCormick Observatory, Mount Jefferson, University of Virginia, November 2013. Image credit: JR

Leander McCormick Observatory, Mount Jefferson, University of Virginia, November 2013. Image credit: JR

I took the students in my “Spaces of Science” seminar to the Leander McCormick Observatory at University of Virginia for a viewing session last night. Sometimes I forget how fun it is to watch students learn—it often happens outside class, when they’re reading and writing and making connections across courses. So, to be under the same dome with them during the process was really lovely experience.

Much of last night’s success was due to McCormick’s outreach program. I could have listened to Dr. Ed Murphy talk for another three hours. He imparted a lot of information, ranging from a discussion of the serrated blades of the McCormick reaper (really) to the reason Betelgeuse appears red to the naked eye, but managed to wrap it all into an entertaining narrative that held our attention. I swear, even I believed Orion could stand in the ocean before he took an arrow to the head.

I freely admit that some of the pleasure of last night came from the fact that I also got to look through the 26-inch telescope. That’s the largest refractor I’ve ever used, and I enjoyed it so much I almost asked if I could stay late to watch Ganymede emerge from Jupiter’s shadow. As it was, we had a great view of Jupiter and Io during the class session. Dr. Murphy also showed them the Trapezium Cluster in the Orion nebula and blew one of my student’s mind when he told her that “new born” means 3,000,000 years old when it comes to stars.

Approximately half my students under-dressed for the weather, which was bad in that the temperatures fell below freezing, but good in that the class experienced observational astronomy as it would have been in the nineteenth century. One of the things that students can’t learn about the (historical) practice of astronomy unless they visit a big instrument is how much observing depends on bodily motion. We’ve been reading about Lick Observatory, where the floor moved up and down on a system of hydraulics to help astronomers chase objects across the sky. At McCormick, the approach was more traditional—astronomers climbed up and down a laddered observer’s chair that moves around the observatory on wheels. Then there was the manual positioning of the telescope as well as dome rotation (dome rotation still done by hand at McCormick). And then there was observing in the freezing cold, because heating the dome would disturb the optics with warm air currents.

I hope my students had as much fun as I had. Check back in a couple months for an update—I’m applying for a ticket to visit University of Virginia’s Fan Mountain Observatory in April. I hope that my students caught the bug and will join me for the evening.

Observatory Cats

28 06 2013
Deimos, HiRISE ceiling cat.

Deimos, HiRISE ceiling cat.

Astronomy with cats:

Looks like a duck, sounds like a duck…

18 06 2013

I was adding records to my bibliographic database this afternoon when I stumbled across this interesting tidbit in the Proceedings of the Delhi Archaeological Society:

7th March, 1850

A letter from Captain Dewar, of 1st Cavalry, was read, reporting the discovery of a large stone in the Jhansi district, which, when struck, emitted a sound equal to that of the finest gong.

The Secretary was requested to write to Captain Dewar, to ascertain from that gentleman, what he thought the probable expense of the removal of this stone to Delhi might be.

The finest gong? Sounds like a meteorite to me, but which one?

As far as I can tell, there were only 7 meteorite falls (observed falls) on the South Asian subcontinent before 1850. Four of those were L chondrite, two were H type, one was a diogenite. Those two H types could have had enough iron mixed with stone to make a bell-like sound if struck, but the mass of those falls have been located and removed to London (Akbarpur, fall 18 April 1838, found in Uttar Pradesh; Charwallas, 12 June 1834, found in Haryana). So, if Dewar was hitting a meteorite with his hammer, it must have been from an unobserved (or at least unrecorded) fall.

In a list of 106 meteorites known to have fallen in India (both observed/unobserved falls) before 1926, only four of those were proper irons (GarhiYasin, Kodaikanal, Nedagolla, Samelia). Based on date of observed fall/discovery location, none of those could be the Jhansi meteorite. None of the remaining 102 meteorites on the list make good candidates, either.

Unfortunately, I could find no record of the stone being shipped to Delhi. The Proceedings seem to come to an end with the issue I have in my office (January 1953); I’ve lost the meteorite’s trail. It’s indeed a puzzle, the solution to which is probably buried deep in the Museum of Natural History with every other meteorite collected by the British during the colonial era.

The Success and/or Failure of Bob Cameron, Astronomer

25 05 2013
Taruntius Crater (with Cameron Crater). Courtesy LPOD.

Taruntius Crater (with Cameron Crater). Image courtesy LPOD, December 3, 2008.

I wish I knew if this was a cautionary tale or a story of triumph.

Robert Curry Cameron, known to his friends and professors as Bob, matriculated at Indiana University in 1947. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he came from Ohio. His formal name seems to tie him to the Curry family from Wayne County, Ohio (the lumber firm Curry, Cameron & Son, comprised of James Willard Curry and Robert Cameron, formed in 1877); when he left Indiana University, he found work in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The astronomy profession of the mid-twentieth-century had at least this in common with the profession of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries:  success was partly about intelligence and dedication, and partly about who you knew. Letters of recommendation were more informal then than they are now, but a statement of support from a powerhouse astronomer could (can) do much to smooth over a bad patch in a student’s career. A less-than-enthusiastic letter could dog a graduate student for life, arriving in the hands of future employers before he (seldom, she) had a chance to speak for himself.

Astronomer Frank Edmondson depended heavily on the American academic network when filling positions in the Indiana University Astronomy Department and the associated Link Goethe Observatory in Brooklyn, Indiana. He took seriously the recommendations of his fellow astronomers. He consulted the various Directors off Lick Observatory whenever he had a vacancy to fill, whether it be for a postdoc, instructor, junior faculty, or full professor. He was also diligent in his recommendations to his colleagues, possibly to the detriment of poor Bob Cameron.

At the end of 1948, Cameron applied to study at Lick Observatory. Then director, C. Douglas Shane, asked Edmondson about Cameron’s work at IU. Edmondson replied as follows:

Robert C. Cameron was a beginning graduate student here during the academic year 1947-48. He did respectable work during the first semester. However, about the middle of the second semester something happened and he simply stopped working. As a result, he failed in some of his courses and made such low marks in the rest that it was equivalent to failure. He is an assistant at the Cincinnati Observatory this year, and Dr. Herget could tell you how he is getting along now.

Personality and character are OK, and I think you would find him an acceptable member of a small community such as you have on Mount Hamilton. As for his ability and promise as a student, I hesitate to make any predictions. If he has overcome whatever was troubling him last spring, and if a repetition is unlikely, I would rank him a bit above average in ability and promise as a student.[1]

Not surprisingly, Shane didn’t extend a student position to Cameron. Just in case his caution had gone astray in the winter storms, however, Edmondson sent a second letter of dissuasion, noting that

…for the sake of the record I should say that I have talked to Herget recently and there is no reason to believe that Cameron has overcome his personal troubles, whatever they were. Hence, I could not recommend him to you as a student or an assistant.[2]

Try as I might, I have not been able to uncover the nature of Cameron’s “personal troubles.” In February 1949, Cameron was listed as a Student Member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.[3] He also attended the Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Bloomington, Indiana in June 1950.[4] He is listed as first or second author on a series of papers related to minor planet observations made at Goethe Link Observatory in 1949 and 1950 and is credited with the discovery of  1575 Winifred (1950 HH), a Main Belt Asteroid, on April 20, 1950 at Brooklyn, Indiana. Did Edmondson let him come back to IU after he proved he was over his “personal troubles”?

I’ve failed to track Cameron through the 1950s, but in the 1960s, he reappears as an expert on magnetic fields and stars. He shows up as first author of a paper on Babcocks’ star (HD 215441). From there, he advanced to editorial work on books about stellar evolution and magnetic fields. His last publication seems to have been a 1967 edited volume The Magnetic and Related Stars (Proceedings of a symposium, Greenbelt, Md., Nov. 1965), which received several favorable reviews the next year. He died in 1972, a successful enough astronomer that the IAU eventually renamed a small lunar crater (Taruntius C) in his honor.

I’d like to know: was Cameron satisfied in his career? Did he resolve his “personal troubles” to his own satisfaction? Was the discovery of an asteroid enough to make up for being asked to leave Indiana University? Do students ever recover from bad times if those happen to coincide with their years in graduate school? I’m sure many Ph.D. candidates would like to know the answer to that one.


[1] Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, UA 36 Lick Series 1, Box 83, Letter from Frank K. Edmondson to C. Douglas Shane, 29 January 1949.

[2] Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, UA 36 Lick Series 1, Box 83, Letter from Frank K. Edmondson to C. Douglas Shane, 13 March 1949.

[3] “Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, February 2, 1949,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 61, No. 359, p.114.

[4] Huffer, C. M., “The eighty-third meeting of the American Astronomical Society,” Popular Astronomy, Vol. 58, p.314 (Cameron is #67 in the photo)

“…in scanning the wonders of the Sidereal Universe…”

18 05 2013
Lunar crater Piazzi Smyth

Lunar crater Piazzi Smyth

Charles Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1846 to 1888, reminds us of the lost art (and drama) of correspondence in a letter penned to Edward S. Holden, then Director of Lick Observatory:

Clova, Ripon, England.

October 18 1888

My dear Mr. President-Astronomer, Edward S. Holden,

From your noble eagle’s perch and grand employ for intellectual man in scanning the wonders of the Sidereal Universe, how kind of you to make a little leisure wherein to recognise, that after my having, in utter despair, torn up all the stakes and ropes of a life-long employment, — I should highly appreciate a few friendly words from those who understand the subjects I have aimed at, oh! how earnestly, though nearly ineffectually, and partly from want of any sufficient apparatus or necessary means. While from the manner in which you are pleased to allude to my early experiment on the Peak of Teneriffe, — I am now quite ready to let that go by the board even in my own private thoughts, — for if it has had any share in directing a converging attention in America towards thinking and working out ultimately, & I might say inventing, so superb an Institution as the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, with the  friendly mists of the Pacific through the summer nights to cut off the radiations of the heated lower country; and with the grandest astronomical instruments yet constructed anywhere, but all of American manufacture—it has helped a little those who have carried out  an ideal for above anything I had ever contemplated even proposing.

Already too there is a stirring of the public journals in this country towards a new Astronomy emanating from your Lick Observatory, which is quite unmistakable. The rapidity with which, after you were once in working order, a new comet was picked up one night, and nebula & otherwise invisible stars noted on another, & reasoned on as well to the extent of the possibilities of the best modern physical, as well as astronomical theory, — is causing these to begin to express an interest in Astronomy, who never felt it before. Long may you and your well chosen band of friends keep it up, — while I remain in a lower wilderness,

Yours very truly, though lost,

C. Piazzi Smyth

Courtesy, Special Collections, University Library, University of California Santa Cruz. Lick Records, Mary Lea Shane Archives.