Open houses on hold at Jacobsen Observatory

The first of this year’s semimonthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus was scheduled for today. Like many events, the series has been halted by our “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory
The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

In normal years the events are held on the first and third Tuesdays of each month from April through September, but the observatory’s website notes that the open houses “are suspended until all classes are being held in their regular classrooms and our undergraduate volunteers are back on campus.” Undergrads give talks about astronomy at the events, and volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society staff the observatory’s vintage 1892 telescope, which features a 6-inch Brashear objective lens on a Warner & Swasey equatorial mount.

The website notes that organizers hope to welcome students back and to resume the open house series “soon.”

Watch this space for updates.

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A look at the Perseverance mission to Mars

Astronomy events are few and far between these days as clubs cope with stay-at-home restrictions and institutional closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most meetings and public star parties have been canceled for March and April while a few wait to see how events unfold.

Like some in arts and entertainment, astronomy clubs are looking for ways to take at least some of their activities online. Case in point, the Seattle Astronomical Society last week held its monthly meeting using the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Members enjoyed a presentation by SAS president John McLaren, who also is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, about the upcoming Perseverance mission to Mars.

A history of Mars exploration

McLaren gave a quick history of Mars exploration, from Mariner 4 which sent 21 photos back from Mars after a fly by in 1965 to the present work of Curiosity. He noted that Viking 1 in 1976 sent back the first photo from the surface of Mars. It was no accident that it shot its own foot.

Viking's foot on Mars
The first Viking 1 photo from Mars. Credit: NASA

“If we can only get one picture back, this is the most important picture, because they want to see how well the landing gear performed,” McLaren explained. “If they can see how the landing gear did, it gives them an idea of how they can improve the next lander.”

Unfortunately, experiments conducted by Viking were thought to rule out the possibility of life on Mars, though McLaren noted that there’s still some discussion about whether those experiments were conducted and interpreted properly. In any event, the zeal for Mars exploration cooled somewhat until the mid-1990s, when a Mars meteor discovered on Earth was found to contain what could be fossilized bacteria. This sparked new scientific interest in the Red Planet.

We returned to the surface of Mars in 1997 with Sojourner and Pathfinder, which proved we could land and drive around a rover on Mars.

“It truly was the Pathfinder that led us to design more sophisticated vehicles,” McLaren said. Spirit and Opportunity followed in 2004 and Curiosity landed in 2012.

Same car, new features

Perseverance, known as Mars 2020 until a recently concluded naming contest, will be something of a souped-up version of Curiosity. It’s based on the same design, but they’ve re-engineered the wheels, as those on Curiosity showed heavy wear unexpectedly early in its mission. Perseverance will also carry different instruments more specialized for astrobiology and geology. It will drill core samples and leave them cached on Mars awaiting a possible future return mission. And its cameras in general are more powerful and versatile than those of Curiosity. It’s mission is different, too. While Spirit and Opportunity were sent to follow the water and Curiosity is trying to figure out if Mars could have supported microbial life, Perseverance will actually be looking for evidence of that life.

Perseverance landing site on Mars
A photo by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the planned landing site for Perseverance. The target is the smooth, purple-ish area to the right of what looks like a river delta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

A big challenge for the engineers will be delivering Perseverance to its landing site, which is in a crater called Jezero on the edge of what appears to have once been a lowland sea. There’s what looks like a former river delta on the edge of Jezero crater.

“The hope is that water was here for a long time, water flowed down here building this silt, that this is the most likely location where they hope to find any signs of life,” McLaren said.

A small target

The challenge is that the landing ellipse, the target they need to hit, is ten times smaller by area than that of Curiosity and some 300 times smaller than Pathfinder’s. They’ll used a technologically enhanced version of the sky crane technique that worked for Curiosity to try to hit that target.

The window for a possible launch opens on July 17 this year and McLaren said NASA expects to land Perseverance on Mars on February 18, 2021.

You can watch a recording of McLaren’s presentation on the Seattle Astronomical Society website.

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Astro Biz: Mercury Fitness

Mercury Fitness

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Mercury Fitness, a Kenmore, Wash.-based firm that does repair and maintenance of exercise equipment. I love their slogan, “We keep you running,” even though it reminds me of Michael McDonald, who ruined the Doobie Brothers. I spotted the Mercury Fitness van at the West Seattle Health Club when I arrived for a recent workout. The Mercury guys were working on one of the club’s elliptical machines.

It still raises eyebrows among people who know me when I mention being “at the gym.” My wife and I both started working out last year as part of our routine to be more fit. I don’t use the ellipticals, but I’m glad Mercury is there to fix them!

More info:

Amateur astronomy in the age of coronavirus

Coronavirus and social distancing cannot deprive us of our enjoyment of astronomy. One can make the case that the best way to enjoy the hobby is with a telescope in your back yard in the middle of the night, as noted in my most recent tweet of Sky and Telescope’s weekly update of stuff to see.

On the other hand amateur astronomy is also a highly social endeavor. There are jillions of astronomy clubs all over the country with members devoted to putting on interesting meetings and to sharing their enjoyment of the heavens with their neighbors. The members of these clubs also rely on each other as answerers of how-to questions. Our last post was about Goldendale Sky Village, which is being designed as a spot in which it will be easy for members to observe the night sky together.

In the coronavirus era the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko has been replaced on astronomy’s hardest-to-spell list by the word “canceled.” As astronomy groups call off their events one sees this AP-Style preferred spelling about as often as “cancelled,” which most dictionaries list as OK, too. Grammar police from both sides tend to weigh in with little impact.

Calling the whole thing off

Regardless of the spelling, a great majority of official astronomy events are being canceled these days. Part of the challenge is that many astronomy organizations hold their gatherings at schools or colleges, libraries, museums, and other sorts of places that are now buttoned up. Just this morning Washington governor Jay Inslee announced a ban on any confab of more than 50 people, and said even smaller meetings had to meet strict guidelines for hygiene and social distancing. Officials urged people to avoid any “unnecessary interactions” at least for the next couple of weeks. As much as I love them, astronomy events probably fall into that category.

The Seattle Astronomical Society has canceled its March meeting which would have been on the 18th. The club is looking at streaming more meetings, as it did with a remote guest speaker last month. Similarly, the Rose City Astronomers in Portland have ditched their regular meeting set for tonight, though club members can check out an online meeting via Zoom. Clubs in Bainbridge Island, Everett, Whatcom County, Island County, Tacoma, Bellevue, Tri-Cities, and Eugene also have nixed many of their events at least for March and some in April.

Taking it online

A couple of major events are planning to go virtual. The Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF), perhaps the hobby’s biggest trade show, is switching to a one-day online event set for April 4. The next meeting of the American Astronomical Society, scheduled for Madison, Wisconsin May 31 to June 4, is looking at moving from an on-site/in-person conference to a fully remote/virtual one.

The author social distancing
Social distancing in astronomy! The author caught the 2012 transit of Venus by himself at a remote county park in northern California. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

These are hard times for astronomy bloggers, too. The Museum of Flight, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Pacific Science Center, and Town Hall Seattle are all closed, and these have provided many great astronomy events that we’ve covered over the years. In addition, we haven’t heard anything official from Astronomy on Tap Seattle about the status of its monthly gathering, but it typically draws way more than 50 people, is held in a beer garden, and all of those have been closed, so we can connect the dots on that.

Nevertheless we soldier on! We’ve got a little stretch of clear sky going, so social distance yourself and get out and enjoy it while it’s here. We’ll keep blogging it up and, once this virus is licked, we’ll see you at the next star party. In the meantime, wash your hands.

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Goldendale Sky Village gives amateur astronomers dedicated observing site

Amateur astronomers in the Seattle area have been dreaming of a clear, dark place from which to observe the heavens since the clouds rolled in and light pollution obliterated much of the night sky. Those dreams are coming true at the Goldendale Sky Village just east of that south central Washington town.

om GSV
It’s dark at Goldendale Sky Village. This image made at the site was created by Mark Vinup.

The Goldendale Sky Village (GSV) is owned by a limited liability company (LLC) of the same name, made up of members with interest in astronomy. The effort to establish the GSV is the end result of a search several decades in the making.

Most recently, the Seattle Astronomical Society (SAS) took a run at establishing a dark-sky observing site beginning in about 2005. Three years later, the project was tabled because the society couldn’t reconcile two desired criteria for the site: clear, dark skies and convenient proximity to Seattle. (I wrote about the end of the project for the April 2008 issue of the SAS newsletter, The Webfooted Astronomer.)

In 2016 Stephanie Anderson, a co-owner of Seattle’s Cloud Break Optics who was president of the SAS at the time, wanted to re-start the initiative and recruited SAS member Christopher Smythies, who is now the general manager of GSV, to head up the search.

Searching for the spot

“For two years I went out east of the mountains and familiarized myself with the land,” Smythies said. His focus was on two areas: Cle Elum and Goldendale. He found Cle Elum to be prohibitively expensive, and most parcels of land available for sale there were intended for housing and carried restrictions.

“Goldendale had a lot of attractive things about it,” Smythies said. “It was darker, the land was much cheaper, the rules were much looser, but it was further away.”

Smythies figures he must have looked at more than 100 properties over the course of a couple of years. By the time of the annual SAS Spring Star Party in May 2018 at Brooks Memorial State Park near Goldendale, he had a list of five of them for attendees to check out. The last of those that they visited is the one that is now Goldendale Sky Village.

“I immediately knew that was going to be it,” he said. “It was very remote, it was relatively flat, there were low horizons. It was pretty land; it wasn’t scrub land or pasture land, it was very attractive land with nice vegetation on it. And it was relatively cheap.”

“I thought it was perfect,” Smythies added. Unexpected bonuses include a line of sight to a communication tower that gives the site Internet access, and a great view of Mt. Hood to the west. There is federal land and open prairie nearby that will likely remain unoccupied, so future light intrusion isn’t a big concern.

LLC created for site

By this time the Seattle Astronomical Society had cooled to the idea of owning and operating a dark-sky site. Current president John McLaren said cost was a big concern. SAS would have had to do a major, multi-year fundraising effort or raise dues drastically to cover costs. Neither seemed likely to fly given the varying visions SAS members have for such a site. They considered trying to build a coalition with other regional astronomy clubs.

“That looked like it would be a legal headache,” McLaren noted. Running the site also would have created administrative tasks, including IRS reporting, that would have placed a burden on the club. The SAS board opted out.

“At that point, I decided to go another route to form a private group of people, an LLC, and then make it available to the SAS later on,” Smythies said. In June he put out a call for possible investors in the site.

“Within six weeks, two of which I was on vacation, we had 21 people saying ‘I’m in,’” he said. Smythies believes that a turning point for the project was when Anderson and Cloud Break Optics co-owner Matt Dahl signed on.

“She and Matt have such a good reputation for being kind of the hub of the astronomy community because of Cloud Break Optics, that once they said they wanted to be a part of it it was like a stamp of approval and everyone else piled on,” he said.

Clearing the telescope field at GSV
Astronomy can be hard work. Goldendale Sky Village members clear rocks from the future telescope field, the National Dark-Sky Portal. Photo: Christopher Smythies.

Original members paid $1,000 per share in the new LLC. That entitled them to use of their own 2,500 square-foot parcel within the village. They sold more than 100 shares and by the end of July had the cash to buy the land. The purchase became final in September 2018. Since then they’ve made improvements to the road into the property, created parking space, and moved “a billion” rocks and boulders to create a smooth place for the village’s central telescope field, known as “The National Dark-Sky Portal.” They’re planning for improvements that include a big tent, the Red Light Lounge, for sharing refreshments and shelter from the elements. Work this summer may include bringing electricity to the site as well.

It takes a village

Smythies says the village aspect of the GSV is vitally important.

“I wanted to put together something where people have lots, sure, but then there’s common areas right in the middle where they put their telescopes out and they observe together,” he said. This differs from some large astronomy communities where people might build a home on a two-acre plot. “Goldenndale sky village is all close together to promote the community atmosphere and the learning.”

While the GSV is a private company they intend to invite guests often. They hope to be ready by this year to host the SAS and its spring and fall star parties, and would like to build a similar relationship with the Rose City Astronomers in Portland, which is actually closer to the site. Smythies dreams of an astrophotography school and other educational efforts at the village.

The SAS hasn’t given up on creating observing sites. McLaren, who is a member of GSV, said SAS members also crave a dedicated site within 30 minutes of the city and one perhaps in the Cle Elum or Ellensburg areas, that might offer better observing conditions and still be relatively convenient. He hopes the Goldendale Sky Village model can be a good template for creating more observing sites.

“That would be awesome if it happened,” McLaren said, “and if some day astronomy clubs were able to negotiate access to all three locations that would be amazing.”

Smythies says there is room for perhaps 60 to 70 members at Goldendale Sky Village. The current price to join is $2,500 per share with a minimum of four shares. You can check out the site at an open house on March 21. Contact Smythies if you’re interested.

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Photos from Goldendale Sky Village

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Seattle Astronomy turns nine; our favorite stories of the year

We’ve been at this for nine years now! The first post on Seattle Astronomy happened January 11, 2011. It’s been a fun ride! On our birthday we’re looking back on our favorite stories of the last 12 months.

Moon landing anniversary

Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia

The big story of 2019 was the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first human landing on the Moon. We had quite a lot of activity around the anniversary. The best had to be the Destination Moon exhibit at the Museum of Flight, which included the command module Columbia that carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon and back. We wrote about the Seattle exhibit, and were fortunate enough to have seen it in St. Louis during the summer of 2018.

We did a series of talks about the Moon landing for Tacoma Public Libraries, reviewed Dr. David Warmflash‘s fine book Moon: An Illustrated History (Sterling, 2019), made a lunar reading list, and heard an interesting talk by UW astronomy professor Toby Smith about an almost accidental discovery from Apollo 11 that gave us new insight about the formation of the Moon.

AAS visits Seattle

Gregory Laughlin
Gregory Laughlin, astronomy professor at Yale, gave a talk about ‘Oumuamua Jan. 7, 2019 at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Association, held in Seattle. Photo: Drew Dettweiler.

Every four years the American Astronomical Society meets in Seattle, and 2019 was one of those years. Our favorite session of the meeting was a talk by Yale astronomy professor Gregory Laughlin about ‘Oumuamua, the strange interstellar visitor that whizzed through our solar system in late 2018. Our article also included information from  Ka’iu Kimura, executive director of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, Hawaii, about how objects discovered by instruments on the islands are being given Hawaiian names.

We’d love to cover more such events even when they’re not held in Seattle. Your support with a subscription through Patreon can help bring that about. Please consider contributing; even a dollar a month will bring us closer to being able to support travel to events of interest to the astronomy community.

Meeting David Levy

David Levy
Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer (left) visited with comet hunter and author David H. Levy at the Seattle Astronomical Society banquet Jan. 27, 2019.

The year started off well with a chance to chat with David Levy, author and comet discoverer who was the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society last January. Levy gave an engaging talk about his life and his love of astronomy and writing.

This year’s SAS banquet is coming up on January 25. The guest speaker will be meteorologist and astrophotographer Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn, who has had a number of her shots featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Observing highlights

Lunar eclipse
Lunar eclipse of January 2019. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Our final two favorite stories of the year involve a couple of observing opportunities, one of which was successful, the other maybe only kind of so!

Back on January 20, 2019 there was a total lunar eclipse. Contrary to our usual weather in January, we got a clear evening and the eclipse was visible from Seattle. It was a good show!

The next total lunar eclipse possibly visible from Seattle will be in May of 2021.

The semi-successful observation was a try at a rare transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun on November 11, 2019. In our story we describe waiting out a possible look at the transit through insistently cloudy skies that morning. Finally there was a Sun break, just minutes before the transit was to end. I thought I caught a fleeting glimpse of Mercury just before it cleared the Sun’s disk, but then, Mercury being speedy of foot, was gone. I and a group of interested folks to gathered at Seacrest Park had fun anyway. We successfully viewed a Mercury transit from there in 2016. The next visible from Seattle won’t happen until 2049.

That’s our recap of the year. We look forward to our tenth anniversary celebration 12 months hence!

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Astro Biz: Casa Luna restaurant

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Casa Luna Mexican restaurant, spotted in downtown Poulsbo by our friend Clarence Moriwaki. That Clarence has been there is about all we know about Casa Luna. The restaurant has minimal web presence, with only an unofficial Facebook page. Online reviews of the Mexican restaurant in the heart of “Little Norway” are generally pretty good.