Tag Archives: Seattle Astronomical Society

Hanging out with comet hunter David Levy

One of the great perks of membership in the Seattle Astronomical Society is that the speakers at its annual banquet are typically dynamite. This year’s event featured one of the giants of astronomy, David H. Levy, who has discovered 22 comets, including the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9 that slammed into Jupiter in 1994.

Levy’s talk was highly autobiographical, which is fitting because his own autobiography, A Nightwatchman’s Journey: The Road Not Taken, is scheduled to come out this summer. Levy’s story is not necessarily complete, however; he’s still at it.

“Astronomers never really retire; you certainly don’t retire from being an amateur astronomer because it’s in your blood, it’s what you do, it’s what you live for,” Levy noted.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to discover another comet,” he said. “I’m still searching, because the search is so much fun!”

Several events from his youth seemed to steer Levy to a life in astronomy. Leslie Peltier discovered the Comet Kesak-Peltier in June of 1954 when Levy was about six years old. Later, when he was in high school, Levy was assigned to do a report on a book of his choosing. He picked Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer, an autobiography of Peltier that had just been released. Levy couldn’t put it down, and it remains his all-time favorite book.

His parents sent him to Twin Lake Camp for three summers, and he didn’t like it much, but one year while returning to his cabin after a fireworks display he saw a shooting star and took it as an omen.

Then, in 1960 Levy had to do a public speech on any topic. He chose comets. Just before graduation, Levy crashed while riding his bicycle and broke his arm. A cousin gave him a book about the solar system as a get-well present. He devoured it.

“Any doubt that I was going to be interested in the night sky after that was erased,” Levy said. “All there was to do was astronomy.”

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.

Like many astronomers amateur and professional, Levy has kept a log book with notes about all of his observing sessions. His dates back to 1959 when he saw a partial solar eclipse, and as of the end of January included an amazing 20,922 sessions.

“Each one of them I cherish,” Levy smiled, noting about note-taking that, “If you don’t write it down, you haven’t done it.”

His first session looking for comets is dated December 17, 1965. It was nearly 19 years until he found his first in 1984. He’d logged a half dozen by 1990. Most of his comet hunting was visual in the early days, but it was around 1990 that he started doing photographic searches in partnership with Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker. One of the comets they discovered together is Shoemaker-Levy 9.

The gag among comet hunters is that to get famous your discovery has to become really bright. Shoemaker-Levy 9 didn’t do that, but the spectacular collision of its fragments with Jupiter in 1994 was a historic event.

“What it’s famous for is what it taught us,” Levy said “In colliding with Jupiter, it gave Earth a lesson in the origin of life.”

“It doesn’t prove that a comet collision means that life is going to start on a world,” he added. “What it does show is that when comets collide with a world, life eventually can start. It doesn’t mean that it does, but it’s one of the ways it does.”

“We’re all the progeny of comets,” Levy said.

His presentation was enjoyable and his autobiography promises to be an engaging read. It will be his 35th book. Watch for news about it in this space later this year.

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Comet hunter David H. Levy to keynote Seattle Astronomical Society banquet

David Levy

David H. Levy. Photo: Wendee Levy

Comet hunter extraordinaire David H. Levy will be the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society January 27, 2019. The event will begin at 5 p.m. with a social hour and silent auction before dinner at 6 p.m.

Levy has had a hand, or should we say an eyeball, in 23 comet discoveries. Perhaps the most famous one is comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that spectacularly smashed into Jupiter in July 1994. He has written 34 books, mostly about astronomy. Titles include The Quest for Comets, a biography of Pluto-discoverer Clyde Tombaugh in 2006, and his tribute to Gene Shoemaker, Shoemaker by Levy: The Man Who Made an Impact. He has also written for Sky and Telescope, Parade, Sky News and, Astronomy magazine.

Reservations for the banquet are on sale now online for Seattle Astronomical Society members, and will be available to the general public beginning January 6.

Please note: while Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer is a member of the Seattle Astronomical Society, there’s no official connection between the club and this blog

Books by David H. Levy:

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Mars is here!

It’s been a big year for Mars. The InSight lander is on the way to the Red Planet, scheduled to land November 26 on a mission to take the vital signs of Mars. There’s a big dust storm on Mars just as it reaches opposition this week, its closest approach to Earth since 2003. Oh, and organics have been found on Mars.

We may have buried the lede on that one.

Mars

July 18 image of Mars by the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image credit NASA, ESA, and STScI)

Dave Cuomo and Keith Krumm from the Pacific Science Center were guest speakers at the July meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society, and discussed all things Mars.

The discovery of organics on Mars is also evidence that science is not necessarily fast. The work came out of a hole the Curiosity rover drilled in a Mars rock way back in 2015. The papers outlining the discovery just came out earlier this year.

“What it found in a rock that is about three-and-a-half billion years old was organic molecules,” Cuomo said. The substance found was kerogen, which Cuomo called, “a gooey precursor to petroleum.”

Cuomo repeatedly stressed that this does not, not, not mean that there is or ever was life on Mars.

“What we have found is evidence that the building blocks for life on Mars certainly did exist three-and-a-half billion years ago,” he said. “This was the first time that we found clear evidence that this was there.”

Cuomo noted that we know a good bit about the history of the surface of Mars.

“Mars certainly was a warmer and a wetter environment that could have supported life, that life could have evolved on,” he said. “What we don’t know—and this is what InSight is going to help us find out—is how long Mars was more Earth-like.” The longer that warm, wet environment lasted, the greater the potential that life could have arisen.

InSight

Krumm noted that InSight is something of an interplanetary RN.

“It’s going to be taking Mars’ vital signs,” he said. It will use a seismometer to take Mars’s pulse, a heat flow probe to measure its temperature, and the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, RISE, will check its reflexes, precisely tracking the location of the lander to determine just how much Mars’ north pole wobbles as it orbits the Sun. Cuomo said a big part of the mission’s purpose is to find out if Mars has a molten core today.

“It has volcanoes, so we know at some point in the past it had a molten interior,” he said. “It had a magnetosphere—the remnants of it are frozen in the rocks—but it does not have an active magnetosphere.”

InSight will help us figure out of the core solidified, or if there’s some other reason for the loss of the magnetosphere. Krumm and Cuomo showed this video about the InSight mission.

The Pacific Science Center plans an event for watching the InSight landing on November 26. Watch this space for details!

Dust storm

The rover Opportunity is powered by solar panels, and the dust storm on Mars has blocked the Sun to an extent that Opportunity has shut down. NASA hasn’t heard from Opportunity since June 10. It’s programmed to switch back on every so often, and shut right back down if it doesn’t find power. Cuomo said that can only go on for so long.

“It’s possible it won’t wake up,” he said. If that happened, it would be a sad end to a tremendous run. Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, landed on Mars in 2004 on missions expected to last 90 days. The last contact with Spirit, stuck in the sand, was in March 2010, while Opportunity, up until last month, at least, has been running for more than 14 years.

Opposition

Mars reached opposition to Earth on the evening of July 26 in Pacific Daylight Time, and will be at its closest approach to Earth for the year on Tuesday, July 31. Those dates are different because of the geometry of the elliptical orbits of the two planets. In any case, we’re closer to Mars than at any time since the great apparition of 2003, which is good news for amateur astronomers. The bad news is that the dust storm could foil our attempts to image and observe surface features of Mars. There was word this week, however, that the storm is fading. Bright red Mars will be a good observing target for the rest of the summer and into early fall.

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Calendar: Public star parties and club meetings galore this week

There are four area astronomy club meetings and five free public star parties on the docket for the coming week.

SAS welcomes BPAA

Steve Ruhl, president of the Battle Point Astronomical Association, will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 21 in the Physics/Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Ruhl will talk about the association’s Edwin Ritchie Observatory, John Rudolph Planetarium, and the club’s array of events open to the public. That’s their 27.5-inch telescope in the observatory at left.

Other club events this week include:

Star parties

The Seattle Astronomical Society will host four free public star parties this week. The first is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday, March 23 at Covington Community Park. The following three are slated for 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24 at Green Lake, Paramount School Park, and the Green River Natural Resources Area in Kent. All are subject to cancellation in cases of poor weather; keep an on on the SAS website for the latest.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 24 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The all-weather program will be about black holes. They’ll break out the telescopes for observing if weather permits.

Planetaria

There’s a new program this week at the WSU Planetarium in Pullman. The show, titled Strange Universe, takes a look at some of the quirky, oddball objects in the cosmos. The program runs at 7 p.m. Friday, March 23 and again at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 25. Admission is $5 at the door, cash or check; they don’t accept credit cards.

Check our calendar page to find links to other local planetaria and their schedules, and to scout out other astro-events in the coming weeks and months.

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Astronomy’s neglected stepchild

Robert Reeves has been an astronomer for nearly 60 years. The Moon was his first love; he shot his first photograph of it in 1959, and laments that it isn’t such a popular target for amateur astronomers any more.

Robert Reeves

Astrophotographer and author Robert Reeves was the guest speaker at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society on Jan. 28, 2018. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

“The Moon is not just that big ball of light pollution in the sky,” said Reeves during his keynote talk at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet last month. “The Moon used to be a target for American technology. The Moon was a place to be explored; it was a destination.”

Reeves was interested in the Moon even before there was a space program. We were all agog during the race to land on the Moon, but when the race was won many moved on to other things.

“Back then American heroes rode a pillar of fire and dared to set foot on another world,” Reeves said. “The scientific mindset, the desire to explore the solar system was there. That was a time when America was only limited by its imagination; we could do anything we wanted to do”

Alas, Reeves notes, politics is different now.

“America has lots its will, it’s lost the guts to go into deep space,” he said. “We’ve been rooted in low-Earth orbit for four decades.”

“Space exploration is not the same, but the Moon that we wanted to go to still beckons us,” he added.

Bringing the Moon back

Reeves’s talk was titled Earth’s Moon: Astronomy’s Neglected Stepchild. He aims to turn that around.

“I’m here to bring the Moon back,” he said. “The Moon is still a viable target; we can see it from our own back yard.”

Reeves is a prolific writer about astronomy. His first published article appeared in Astronomy magazine in 1984. Since then he’s written some 250 magazine articles and 175 newspaper columns about the topic. In fact, just days after his talk here the March 2018 issue of Astronomy arrived, including an article and photos by Reeves about hunting for exoplanets. His mug also appears, along with one of his lunar photographs, on a back-cover advertisement for Celestron.

Reeves has written five books in all, including three how-to manuals about astrophotography: Wide-Field Astrophotography: Exposing the Universe Starting With a Common Camera (1999), Introduction to Webcam Astrophotography: Imaging the Universe With the Amazing, Affordable Webcam (2006), and Introduction To Digital Astrophotography: Imaging The Universe With A Digital Camera (2012). All are from Willmann-Bell.

Reeves feels the webcam book helped launch a whole industry and trained a generation of astrophotographers. He points out that back in the 1960s you could count the number of good astrophotographers with the fingers of one hand. Now there are thousands of people turning out great images, and they all get to use superior gear.

“Amateur instruments off the shelf today just blow away what the pros used to do on the Moon, and it’s relatively easy to do this,” Reeves said. I asked Reeves if he laments the passing of film photography. He said he did, a little, noting with a laugh that he has four decades worth of photography that is obsolete! But he said the fact that he can turn out more better-quality images in less time with digital makes up for that.

Check out Reeves’s website for a image-processing tutorial, to buy prints and posters, and find lots of other lunar photography information.

Asteroid 26591 is named Robertreeves and asteroid 26592 is named Maryrenfro after his wife; Renfro is her maiden name. It is believed they are the only husband and wife with sequentially numbered asteroids named after them! Robert noted that his takes about four years to orbit the Sun, while Mary’s goes around in about 4.4 years.

“Every ten years I catch up to her,” he said, “so for eternity I’m going to be chasing Mary around the solar system.”

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Books by Robert Reeves:

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Tomorrow morning: Super blue blood Moon

A total lunar eclipse is a pretty cool event in its own right. Add in a blue moon and a super moon and you’ve got three celestial treats in one. Tomorrow morning we on the west coast may enjoy the first super blue blood moon visible in North America since 1866—if the weather cooperates.

Greg at KING TV

Seattle Astronomy writer Greg Scheiderer talked about the super blue blood moon on the KING 5 television program New Day Northwest January 30. His planets tie was a hit with the studio audience. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

A lunar eclipse isn’t all that rare. They can happen two or three times a year, but tomorrow’s will be the first visible (theoretically) from the Seattle area for a couple of years. The blue moon, under the generally accepted modern definition of the second full moon in a calendar month, isn’t quite so rare as the phrase “once in a blue moon” would suggest. On average, a blue moon happens once every 2.7 years. This year is a bit of an oddity, as not only will we have a blue moon tomorrow, but there will be another in March as well, and February has no full moon at all! Yes, there’s a name for that, too—black moon. And that’s also the name for a second new moon in a month.

Finally, the super moon—when full moon occurs near the perigee of the Moon’s orbit around Earth—happens about every 14 months, though we’re on a streak now; our December and early-January full moons were super as well. Blood moon is just a nickname for a lunar eclipse because the Moon often looks orange to deep red when totally eclipsed. None of these things, then, is unusual in and of itself, but getting them all to line up on the same day is quite a trick. The last super blue blood moon was 35 years ago (and I bet it wasn’t called that then), and the next won’t happen until 2037.

Tomorrow’s timeline

Super blue blood moon timeline

Image: NASA

For the super blue blood moon on January 31, 2018, the penumbral eclipse begins just before 3 a.m., but this is subtle and difficult to spot even with telescopes or binoculars. The real show starts just before 4 a.m., when the darker part of Earth’s shadow, the umbra, begins to work its way across the face of the Moon. The Moon will be totally eclipsed at about 4:51 a.m., and will stay that way until 6:07 a.m. The umbral eclipse will end at 7:11, and the Moon will set about 7:45.

To see it—presuming it’s not cloudy—simply go outside and look west. The Moon will be fairly high in the sky at the start of this, but closer to the horizon towards the end.

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer talked about the eclipse on KING 5 television today with Margaret Larson on the station’s program New Day Northwest; video of the segment is attached below.

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans a viewing event at Solstice Park in West Seattle for those interested in a group experience. In the event of clouds, don’t despair; NASA will be live-streaming the eclipse, though that’s never as cool as the real thing.

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Calendar: SAS banquet and Astronomy on Tap Seattle this week

The annual Seattle Astronomical Society banquet and Astronomy on Tap Seattle are the highlight events for the coming week. The Museum of Flight kicks off Astronaut Remembrance Week, and regional planetarium shows cap the calendar.

SAS Banquet

Robert Reeves

Robert Reeves

The Seattle Astronomical Society banquet always draws an excellent guest speaker, and this year is no exception: renowned photographer Robert Reeves will keynote the annual banquet, and talk in particular about observing and imaging the Moon. The banquet gets under way at 4 p.m. Sunday, January 28 at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue North in Seattle. Reservations are $65 for the general public, $55 for SAS members. Don’t wait; there were only 18 spots left as of this writing. Reservations are available online.

Reeves will do a special master class on lunar photography for the SAS Astrophotography Special Interest Group. The class is open to the public and will be held at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, January 27 in the Red Barn Classroom at the Museum of Flight.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle

AOT Seattle January 2018The topic will be exploring alien moons when Astronomy on Tap Seattle holds its first event of the new year at 7 p.m. Wednesday, January 24 in the beer garden at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Second-year UW graduate student in astronomy and astrobiology Tyler Gordon will speak about his research on the search for exoplanetary satellites using current and future telescopes. UW Ph.D. student in oceanography Max Showalter will discuss looking for life when the trail goes cold, an update on his work using movement as a sign of life in icy places.

Showalter did a talk at Town Hall Seattle almost two years ago. Check our recap of that talk and learn how SHAMU is helping hunt for ET.

Planetarium shows

The Washington State University Planetarium in Pullman has a new show this week titled, “Millions of Miles to Mars.” The show explores the whats, hows, and whens of Mars visits. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Friday, Jan 26, and 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan 28. Tickets at the door are $5 cash or check; they don’t accept credit cards. Kids under six get in free.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center has a variety of shows for all ages every day. Check their website for the complete calendar.

Astronaut remembrance

America’s three great spacefaring tragedies all occurred at this time of year. To honor the sacrifices of the fallen astronauts, the Museum of Flight holds an annual astronaut remembrance week. The event runs from Friday, January 26 through Sunday, February 4 and features displays and exhibits about the fallen astronauts and their accomplishments. Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a presentation about the tragic missions, and about the risks and successes of space travel, at 2 p.m. Saturday, January 27. It’s free with museum admission.

Future file

A total eclipse of the Moon will be visible in the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 31. The event begins just after 3 a.m. PDT, the partial eclipse starts around 3:45, and it will be total from just before 5 a.m. until a little after 6:00. All you really need to do is go outside and look up, but if you want to watch with others, the Seattle Astronomical Society plans a group viewing event at Solstice Park in West Seattle.

You can always scout out future events on our calendar.

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