CCSU Astronomy Students Shine in Free Public Observing Sessions

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[Former AST 278 student Vanessa Swenton running the 10 inch Newtonian during a public observing session]

Each Fall semester, the students in AST 278 Observational Astronomy get an opportunity to shine. The capstone project of the course is for the students to plan, publicize, and carry out a series of four consecutive nights of free public observing sessions.

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[Poster for the 2017 observing sessions. Designed by current AST 278 student Hayley Comstock]

This year’s class creatively adopted a Van Gogh theme, using the slogan “Gogh and experience a Starry Night at CCSU.” On December 3-6 from 7-8:30 PM, if the skies are clear, the 15 students will run four different telescopes and two sets of mounted binoculars, each instrument observing a different double star, star cluster, or galaxy. The students have spent a great deal of time preparing for this event, practicing how to operate the instrument they are assigned to and finding their object, as well as researching information about the instrument and object (including mythology and “fun facts”). But the success of this event really depends on you, the general public, to attend and allow these students to prove what they can do. I hope you will join us – I know you will be as proud of our CCSU astronomy students as I am.

For more information, including directions, visit the Copernican Observatory and Planetarium website.

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Giving Thanks on Giving Tuesday

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On this Giving Tuesday I wanted to give thanks for the honor and opportunity of serving as one of CCSU’s celestial tour guides since 1989. Last night my Observational Astronomy class practiced for their public observing sessions (this coming Sunday through Wednesday, December 3-6 – more on this tomorrow!) and I was impressed with how far they’ve come since the first night in the observatory in late August. Some of them had never looked through a telescope before seeing Saturn and Jupiter that first night. Now they are operating the instruments without my help, slewing across the night sky by hand and finding galaxies, star clusters, and double stars.

It definitely took hard work on the part of the students to get to this point, and the Copernican Planetarium here at CCSU played an important role. On cloudy nights we would use the planetarium to hone the students’ skill in pointing out the constellations and bright stars and navigating their way across the sky from horizon to horizon.

As you might imagine, planetariums and observatories need upkeep, and it isn’t cheap. While the university graciously supports our endeavors to keep the night sky free for all to enjoy by paying for our base budget, yearly service contract, and single fulltime staff member, we sometimes have to rely on the funds we raise ourselves to supplement this (for example, when we brought in a contractor to service the observatory dome). I am proud to say that I donate to the planetarium fund every year, but I don’t want to be selfish – I want to invite everyone to be a “star” and have the joy and satisfaction of knowing that they helped support our good work in bringing the universe down to earth for the citizens of Connecticut and beyond.

So on this Giving Tuesday, I am giving thanks by renewing my support for our projects, and invite you to do so as well. The sky belongs to all of us; let’s hold hands and support it together!

Gogh and Experience a Starry Night at CCSU

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You’ve seen the famous painting, now experience the real thing by viewing galaxies, star clusters, double stars and more through a variety of telescopes and mounted binoculars at Central Connecticut State University. On December 3-6 from 7:00 – 8:30 PM, if the skies are clear, join us for free public observing sessions hosted by CCSU astronomy students. Bring along your own binoculars to learn how to use them to paint a picture of the universe from your own backyard. We promise it will make an impression on you! For more information, visit www.ccsu.edu/astronomy or call 860-832-2938.

 

When you wish upon a… piece of Halley’s Comet?

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Have you ever heard the superstition that you should wish upon a falling star? If you do that this week, you might just be wishing upon a piece of Halley’s Comet burning up in our atmosphere! Falling or shooting stars have nothing to do with stars. Instead, what scientists call meteors are flashes of light caused when a tiny piece of a comet enters our atmosphere and burns up. Imagine your car driving into a swarm of insects and watching them go splat on your windshield. That’s not a bad analogy for the earth running into a swarm of meteoroids, debris liberated by a comet as it orbits the sun. When earth passes through the orbit of a particular comet (which, for any particular comet, will occur at the same time each year), many of these meteoroids burn up, creating a meteor shower. A meteor shower is named not after the comet whose particles create it, but rather where in the sky the meteors seem to radiate from, or the radiant. The brightest constellation in the region usually lends its name.

We are currently in the midst of the Orionid meteor shower, whose radiant lies between Orion’s bright shoulder star Betelgeuse and the bottom stars of Gemini (see above). Depending on how the meteoroid field is configured (for example, the size and number of particles, and the width of the meteoroid field), a meteor shower can last for a few days up to a few weeks, but there is usually a narrow window where we hit the densest part of the stream and hence see the largest number of meteors per hour. This year the Orionids are expected to peak in the predawn hours of Saturday, October 21.

The Orionids are certainly not the best meteor shower of the year (at peak you might only see 20 per hour, and each meteor is not particularly bright), but it has a unique romantic charm due to the identity of its parent comet, Comet P/Halley, or as most people know it, Halley’s Comet. While the comet itself won’t be in our neighborhood again until 2061, each year we actually get two meteor showers from the material it left behind on previous journeys around the sun – the Orionids in mid-October and the Eta Aquarids in early May.

If you find yourself up before dawn this week, why not take a peek out your window in the direction of Orion, and see if you can make a wish on an Orionid – mine will certainly be to be alive when Halley’s Comet returns in 2061 so I can become a member of the Halley’s Comet two-timer club!

 

Explore the Cosmos at CCSU Family Day

CCSU Family Day is Saturday, October 7, and the Copernican Observatory and Planetarium and Geology & Planetary Science Club have free activities that are out of this world! Planetarium shows run at 11:30 AM and 2 PM, and join us in the library-side foyer of Copernicus Hall for free geology and astronomy activities suitable for children of all ages. Between 11 AM – 2 PM can construct a starfinder or a model of Saturn to take home, examine rocks and minerals from Connecticut, try your hand at making craters, touch real meteorites and fossils,  and observe sunspots (weather permitting).

It’s the end of the world – again…

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… if Internet sources are to be believed (which they aren’t, but more on that later). Friday September 22 marks the first day of Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, and Frodo and Bilbo Baggins’ birthday (for you fellow Tolkien fans), but it is the day after that has some hunkering down in their bunkers waiting for the beginning of the end.

According to one David Meade, this Saturday marks the countdown (conveniently of an unknown duration) to the end of Planet Earth. His “evidence” is the fact that September 23 marks the 33rd day after the solar eclipse (itself superstitiously considered an omen of the end) and that a number of the planets appear relatively near each other in the sky on either side of the sun, centered on the constellation Virgo. According to this individual’s personal interpretation of Revelation, this is a “clear” sign that the end is nigh. How will the actual end come about? According to Meade and other doomsday soothsayers who are piggybacking on this pseudoscience train wreck, the infamous (and apparently invisible to all astronomers) rogue planet/alien spacecraft “Nibiru” is finally on its often-claimed-but-never-observed supposed collision course with Earth.

Sigh. And I thought I was done with this after December 21, 2012 passed with a whimper and not a bang.

Let’s BRIEFLY debunk this, point by point. Please consult the embedded links for more information.

  1. The total solar eclipse on August 21 was not a harbinger of anything. There have been many total solar eclipses before (some with paths very similar to the one we enjoyed in the US) and there will be many more to come – until, in the distant future, the moon has slowly drifted far enough away from the Earth to no longer cover up the sun and cause a total eclipse. That will be a sad day indeed!
  2. While several planets do appear in a nice arrangement on either side of the sun (called a conjunction), there is absolutely nothing unusual about this. The fact that this is happening in the constellation of Virgo is also common. Nothing to see here folks, move along….
  3. Nibiru (sometimes called Planet X) is a figment of the imagination of one Zechariah Sitchin that was co-opted by various Internet alien conspiracy theorists and is equal parts bad astronomy and bad archaeology. There is zero evidence for its existence. Nada. Nothing.

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Having said this, is it possible that the end of the world will be brought about through the influence of outer space? Actually I’d say the odds are 100%, but billions of years from now when the sun swells up into a red giant and turns the inner solar system into a rather unpleasant inferno. But in the meantime, we all have to go to work, pay our taxes, clean the litterboxes, and do the dishes. Life is too short to waste it worrying about pseudoscience. Instead, unplug from the Internet for an hour, go outside, and enjoy the real night sky without worrying that Planet Earth has a large red bull’s-eye painted on it. Like Twinkies, our expiration date is FAR in the future.