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.

Battling clickbait science

I was sorely tempted to headline this post “Alien megastructures discovered in Ballard,” but that would have meant sinking low into the sort of clickbait science that concerns Dr. James Davenport. Davenport, a research scientist at the University of Washington, gave a talk about the topic at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Davenport described himself as a big fan of science, and noted that to be such one needs to be OK with failure.

Dr. James Davenport. UW photo.

“Being wrong is just nature telling you, no, try again. Come up with a better idea, a better explanation for how the universe is working,” Davenport said. “If you love science, you have to love the struggle and you have to love truth.”

Davenport believes that it’s important to communicate about science, but often that leads to misconceptions or outright lies. Sometimes the misinformation is silly stuff, like trying to pump up the hype about a lunar eclipse by calling it the super blood wolf coyote Moon. Sometimes it’s just wrong. An example is what now seems like the annual return of social media posts announcing that Mars is going to appear as large as a full Moon in the night sky. This particular hoax may date back to 2003, when Mars actually was closer to Earth than it had been in some 60 thousand years. The falsehood was based on a nugget of truth, and Mars was an especially good target for astronomers that summer, but if you looked up it was still just a bright red dot in the sky. When someone doesn’t see that giant Mars they might conclude that science is stupid.

“Little by little we chip away at your interest, your excitement, your enthusiasm, your belief, and your trust in science as an institution,” Davenport lamented.

Outrageous headlines

You’ve probably read many stories for which you found that the headline had little to do with the actual content. The purpose of the headline is to make you look. Davenport noted this phenomenon related to media coverage of Boyajian’s star, which brightens and dims in odd and unexpected ways. Scientists kicked around a lot of possible explanations for this observation. Maybe it’s a weird dust cloud or passing comets or debris from an asteroid collision. Someone even suggested a Dyson sphere or some other sort of “alien megastructure.” This grabbed the attention of the headline writers, and articles in Scientific American, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Discover magazine, and others featured headlines about the possible discovery of alien megastructures, though the articles essentially said, “probably not.”

“There’s real science here but oh, golly, we need to be careful about reporting it,” Davenport said. “We have an obligation as scientists to be really careful and I worry that we’re not.” The truth about Boyajian’s star has yet to be figured out.

Where’s the rigor?

Another challenge for science communication is that there are some sites out there that are not exactly rigorous. For example, Davenport shared the following tweet from a site called Physics and Astronomy Zone.

You probably know that Pluto has not been reinstated. The tweet links to an old article—from April Fool’s Day. Also attached to that article are a slew of links to “stories” about the gifts men really want, amazing rebates for seniors, alien DNA in marijuana, and lots of other nonsense. It’s pure clickbait.

“This is a machine to get you to click on things, to get your eyeballs on things, to get you to engage with things so they make a few pennies,” Davenport said. “They do that a million times a day.”

There’s a lot of churn there. @zonephysics has more than 900 thousand Twitter followers.

“This is a huge impact for nonsense,” Davenport said. “Where is the celebration of truth?”

Few legitimate scientists have nearly so many Twitter followers. Neil deGrasse Tyson has more than 13 million, and Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has more than 615 thousand. As of this writing Davenport has 2,917. Seattle Astronomy has 2,135.

What to do

Davenport figures there are three things we can do to battle against the spread of pseudo-science and downright rubbish:

  1. Communicate about science; don’t leave it to pseudoscientists spread misinformation
  2. Share and intervene. Point out bunk when you see it.
  3. Get the help of technology and tech companies to figure out how to weed out bad sources and find a way to remove the incentive for clickbait.

“We need other solutions besides just eyeball time equals dollars equals the only thing that matters on the Internet,” Davenport said. “We need tools that help us optimize for things beside just eyeball time. We need tools that help us figure out what’s the most efficient way to get knowledge across. What’s the most efficient way to help us identify bad actors who are spreading misinformation and intervening when people are trying to share that content.”

There’s some heavy lifting ahead.

“We need to do science outreach. We need help from everyone to spread truth and identify falsehoods. And we need the help of technology,” Davenport concluded. See below to watch his entire talk!

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. They’re taking a break in December and their next event will be held January 22, 2020.

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Book review: Moon: An Illustrated History

There have been a slew of books published about the Moon in the last year or so as we observed the 50th anniversary of the first human steps on the lunar surface. Among the more interestingly conceived and handsomely presented of those is Moon: An Illustrated History (Sterling, 2019) by astrobiologist and science communicator Dr. David Warmflash.

Moon: An Illustrated History is more than just the story of lunar exploration. It is essentially a collection of one hundred one-page essays about key moments in the history of the Moon, each accompanied by a marvelous illustration. The book lives up to its subtitle of From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow. It goes back 4.5 billion years to the Moon’s formation, and along the way takes many a look at how the Moon inspired science and scholarship and culture over the years.

Knowledge is power

Knowing a lot about the Moon can be important. It would have helped a group of Chinese court astronomers back in the 22nd century BCE, who were executed by emperor Chung K’ang because they didn’t predict the occurrence of a solar eclipse. Emperors needed to know these things; the mythology of the times gave great predictive power to unusual celestial events.

Warmflash explores a number of advancements in the development of lunar calendars, the first of which appeared some ten thousand years ago during the Mesolithic era. Later the Sumerians developed some incredibly complex calendars while trying to sync up the Moon and the Sun into a year.

It’s fascinating to read about the role the Moon has played in the building of knowledge over the centuries. Warmflash takes us back in history to the time the Greeks figured out why the Moon has phases and why there are eclipses. Other chapters explain how the Moon was key to calculating the size of the solar system and how it helped astronomers make an early confirmation of general relativity.

Fantastic illustrations

Some of Moon: An Illustrated History’s more interesting illustrations look at some of the great thinkers of the past. These include folks we in the west might not have heard about, such as the Arab mathematician Ibn al-Haytham and Indian astronomer Aryabhata. Others depict more familiar names, such as one imagining a chit-chat between Halley and Newton and another depicting a confab between Kepler and Emperor Rudolf II.

Aldrin on the Moon. Photo: NASA

The last forty of the book’s chapters cover the space age, beginning with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Many of these later chapters come along with some of the most iconic imagery of the space age, including the “Earthrise” photo shot by astronaut Bill Anders from Apollo 8 and Neil Armstrong’s portrait of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon that shows the photographer and the lunar module reflected in the subject’s mask. The articles are loaded with little tidbits about lunar exploration that you probably didn’t know.

The final few chapters turn an eye to the future of exploration and possible settlement of the Moon.

Strongly recommended

Each of the chapters of Moon: An Illustrated History is cross-referenced to others that take on similar topics, so the reader can easily follow a particular thread. It’s a well-done volume that would make a fine gift for any Moon-o-philes on your list. Warmflash says that the book is available in Seattle at Elliott Bay Book Company, the Queen Anne Book Company, Island Books on Mercer Island, Barnes and Noble, and possibly others. If you buy through Amazon by clicking the book cover above or the link in the first paragraph of this article, Seattle Astronomy receives a small fee that helps support our site. We appreciate that!

Finally, Warmflash notes that he, along with Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt and others, is featured in a documentary called Oregon’s Moon Country that will air December 16 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. You can stream online as well; details in the link above.

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Sun streak ends! Whither Mercury?

All good streaks must come to an end, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Cal Ripken, Jr.’s consecutive games-played record of 2,632. This morning Seattle Astronomy‘s personal mark of successful astronomical observations of Sun-related events was snapped at a modest four when we failed to spot Mercury during its transit across the face of the Sun.

Waiting for Mercury
Conditions looked semi-hopeful shortly after sunrise that we’d see the Mercury Transit. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Hope of spotting Mercury remained alive until the bitter end. I arrived at Seattle’s Seacrest Park just before sunrise when the transit had already been under way and below our horizon for a couple of hours. We got a few glimpses of the Sun during the morning, most not enough to register even a glimmer of light through properly filtered optics. Then came proof that Mother Nature can be cruel and sadistic, especially to those who would practice astronomy in Seattle. With the transit slated to end at about 10:04 a.m. PST, the clouds parted a bit at about 10:02, setting off a mad scramble to point, focus, and look. I thought I caught the barest edge of Mercury leaving the disk of the Sun, but I couldn’t be sure. There were lots of clouds in the view. The Sun was there but Mercury, true to his fleet-of-foot reputation, was gone. I count it as a nice try.

Not everyone who came to our viewing event was skunked. Seattle-based Associated Press photographer Elaine Thompson caught this shot during a brief clearing:

It pays to be prepared! The day was not a total loss. Many folks enjoyed a look at the Mercury-free Sun after the transit, a nice woman named Liz brought some Top Pot donuts to share, and hanging around at the beach waiting to spot Mercury with some new friends was not a bad way to spend a Monday morning.

I’d successfully seen four recent Sun events: the August 2017 total eclipse of the Sun, the Mercury Transit in May 2016, a partial solar eclipse in 2014, and the transit of Venus in June 2012. Off to start a new streak.

There will not, however, be another Mercury transit until 2032, and not one visible from North America until 2049. See you down at Seacrest Park in thirty years!

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