Outreach on Breezy Hill, Vermont

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Sara Poppa and Angelia Colella working the registration gate

On the weekend of August 10-12 CCSU faculty and students brought astronomy down to earth for families attending the annual Stellafane Amateur Telescope Makers Convention on Breezy Hill in Springfield, VT. Geological Sciences majors and astronomy minors Sara Poppa and Angelia Colella took families on a tour of the solar system both days, using a mile long scale model of the solar system to demonstrate the layout of the planets.

Top left: identifying meteorites; Top right: filters; Bottom: simple telescopes

In two children’s workshops on Friday, Dr. Kristine Larsen gave hands-on explanations on how to tell a meteorite from a “meteor-wrong”, and children explored how simple telescopes work and the use of filters in astronomy.

Far left: using glitter to make the nucleus of a comet; middle left: completed comet model; middle right: Saturn model; Far right: Harry Potter starfinders

On Saturday, children made models of comets and Saturn, as well as Harry Potter starfinders.

Outreach is Central to all that we do at CCSU. It was an honor to spark an interest in science in these young people and their families.

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Got Binoculars? Channel Your Inner Galileo

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Have you ever wanted to be Galileo for a day? If you own a pair of binoculars (or a small backyard telescope), now is the time to channel your inner Galileo! Galileo’s 17th century telescopes were very small by today’s standards, with a similar magnification to a pair of common binoculars today. So why not dust off those birdwatching binocs and turn them skyward over the next few weeks?

Our first stop is the planet Venus, now hard to miss in the western sky after sunset. Galileo noticed that Venus shows phases like the moon. The phases won’t be as obvious as shown in the above diagram, so you need to be patient, and hold your binoculars very steady. Use a camera tripod, or try steadying your arms by resting your elbows on a hard surface like a picnic table. Another trick is to hold the binoculars near the far end, where the light enters, rather than putting your hands close to your eyes. This will hold them steadier, because most of the binoculars’ weight is on the far end where the main lenses are.

 

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Our second stop is more towards the south, a “star” that is a little dimmer than Venus, but still rather obvious to the unaided eye. This is Jupiter. Galileo discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter (as shown in a page of his observations reproduced above), which we now collectively call the Galilean moons in his honor. Again, holding the binoculars steady is key here. Watch the moons appear to move relative Jupiter from night to night!

Finally, if the moon is out, don’t forget to train your binoculars in its direction. Galileo studied the craters on the moon, and so can you!

Put on Bohemian Rhapsody, grab your binoculars, and before long you’ll be singing “Galileo, Galileo” as you reproduce the groundbreaking observations of more than 400 years ago. It’s an experience not to be missed!

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[Students at East Hartford High School try to sort out meteorites and tektites from “meteor-wrongs’]

Most years at least one member of the public will come to my office with what they believe to be a meteorite they’ve found. In all but one case, they were wrong. Last night, it was my pleasure to help students at East Hartford High School try their hand at identifying meteorites and tektites. About 30 students attended the workshop, sponsored by the Connecticut Science Center Teen Science Café program. After a short introduction to the three main types of meteorites and how tektites form, the students got hands-on experience with actual meteorites and tektites, as well as common rocks that can be confused with meteorites by the general public. The students were then given ten unknowns and they had to pick out the three meteorites and two tektites from the “meteor-wrongs.” Two young ladies successfully picked out 2 of the 3 meteorites and both tektites. I hope they continue to hone their science skills in the future!

— K. Larsen

Life of Science Writer Delia Godding Highlighted in Upcoming Lecture

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[Hand drawn illustration of a mastodon from Delia Godding’s 1847 book First Lessons in Geology]

Reconstructing the important historical contributions of women to science has been a passion of CCSU astronomy professor Dr. Kristine Larsen for several decades. In her 2017 book The Women Who Popularized Geology in the 1800s she focused on women who wrote popularized works on geology for an audience of women and children. On Sunday, April 29 at 9:30 AM she will give a free public talk on one of these woman, Delia Godding, at St. John’s Church in West Hartford. Delia taught at the school associated with this church for several years, so it is good to see her memory returning home. For more information, see https://cthistoryevents.com/event/delia-woodruff-godding-1812-1861/#.WtdOAcsUnX6.

Blue Moons, Blood Moons, and Super Moons: Separating Fact from Fiction

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[Total lunar eclipse. Courtesy NASA]

Prepare to be inundated with lunacy this week, thanks to three interesting configurations of our nearest celestial neighbor. Wednesday the 31st is the second full moon of January, making it the so-called “blue moon” (as in “once in  a blue moon”). But just how rare is a blue moon? Not very, if you consider that the time between two consecutive full moons is about 29.5 days, and all months except February have more than 29.5 days in them. For example, March 2018 also has two full moons.

The “blood moon” descriptor refers to a total lunar eclipse. When the sun, earth, and moon line up in that order in a straight line, the earth casts a shadow on the otherwise full moon. Because the red portion of sunlight refracts or bends through our atmosphere, the full moon doesn’t turn black but a coppery or bloody red. While it can be a startling sight to those who aren’t expecting it (I remember being scared to death as a child when I saw a lunar eclipse during a late night potty break), there is nothing bloody or gruesome about the event. On average one or two total lunar eclipses occur each calendar year. The January 31 total lunar eclipse will not be visible from here in Connecticut, as the moon will be setting as the eclipse begins. Our next chance to see a “blood moon” will be January 21, 2019.

Well, what about the so-called “super moon?” This refers to the full moon looking larger than average. Because the moon’s orbit around the earth is not a perfect circle, when the moon is at its closest point to earth (called the perigee) it looks 14% larger than when it is at its farthest point (called apogee). When this happens at the time of full moon, you might notice that the moon looks a little bit brighter than average. There is no scientific definition of a super moon (because it’s not really something that scientists care about, to be honest), but one running definition on the internet is that it is when the full moon occurs within a few days of perigee. So how rare is this? Considering that the first full moon of January 2018 (which occurred on New Year’s Day) was also a “super moon,” you have your answer.

Putting all three of predictable, cyclical configurations together into one event, however, is just a tad more rare. The last “blue-blood-super moon” was probably in 1866 (again, depending on your definition of “super moon”). So if you want to take this opportunity to go outside and gawk at dear old Luna, please be my guest. Just don’t howl, because you might be mistaken for a super blue werewolf!

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.