Science. Education. Community. Fun.

What We’ve Been Up To Lately

MARCH 2019

The Astronomy 101 students at Parkland have a project to observe the Moon as often as possible for six weeks so they can better understand the cycle of Moon phases and the times of the day it would be visible. If they aren’t cutting corners by looking up the information on Stellarium or elsewhere, it’s a great way to make them act like astronomers and effectively learn what ancient cultures figured out thousands of years ago.
The students always start this project at the first new moon of the semester, so they can initially look for the Moon at a time they expect, right after sunset. It’s always fun to challenge those misapprehensions about the Moon not being up during the day, but we let them wait until the second week of observations to experience that. Regrettably, the weather has been quite cloudy most of this month. I’ve struggled to get my students to track the Moon because there haven’t been many opportunities to see it. I would look forward to a change of pace in March, but the forecast for the first week includes a snowstorm and temperatures over 10°C below normal. At least we haven’t dealt with all the snow that hit Iowa, but I’m anxious for spring.
Speaking of the beginning of March, I’ve been mainly focused on planning for the regional Sci-ence Olympiad tournament. Thanks to all of the CUAS members who are helping run events this year and those who have helped in the past. We had to hold this year’s tournament on the same day as the Engineering Open House and the CUAS’s own Family Skywatch, so it’s been difficult to find people to run events. If you are interested in helping us on March 9 at any time during the morning and early afternoon, we do provide breakfast and lunch to volunteers. You can sign up with this link. If y’all don’t mind, I’ll be logrolling for the state Sci-ence Olympiad tournament next month, because I am training to run that one too.
Thanks to everyone for being so supportive and for your great questions during my talk on plan-etary nebulae. They are a beautiful group of objects, and I want to give you the chance to down-load the photos I showed. You can find the presentation at the following URL.
I’m looking forward to Renae Kerrigan’s talk this month. You can count me among those who want to see the telescopes of the Atacama Desert and see the night sky of the Southern Hemi-sphere. For those who are planning such a vacation in the near future, it seems like a great time to go would be close to the solar eclipses on July 2 this year and December 14 next year. Both of those eclipse paths go through Chile and Argentina, but I imagine the skies will be clearer in the southern summer.
I hope a few members can join me in Moline for the North Central Region Astronomical League meeting on May 3–5. I enjoyed the meeting Dave Leake, Jim Kloeppel, and I attended in Normal in 2016, and I’ve been meaning to attend another one soon. I support the opinion that our club should work towards hosting an NCRAL meeting in the near future. I’m impressed by the variety of speakers that have been booked by the Popular Astronomy Club for this year’s meeting, in-cluding two of my professors from undergrad alma mater, the University of Iowa! At the very least, you can attend and ask them if I was a decent student. Anyway, the discounted registra-tion is due by March 15. Here’s the website.
Thanks to you all for your patience while I recruit a speaker for the April and May meetings. I have reached out to a few people, but haven’t finalized the plans yet. I also welcome any sug-gestions for future speakers or topics!
Clear skies!


It’s not been easy to share the night sky with the public this month. We’ve had snowstorms and extremely cold temperatures that have been closing Parkland’s campus and making us reluctant to step outside to catch some great events. The lunar eclipse looked cool from my house and I enjoyed looking at everyone’s photos as well. Nowadays, we have several live feeds of the eclipse and I looked at a few of them afterwards to see the impact that occurred during totality! It’s not a terribly bright explosion, and it’s easy to miss if you aren’t watching the right place. It’s heartening to know that we’ll have another lunar eclipse on 2022 May 15. At least this relatively common event can be seen by so many people. If only we can get all the flat-Earthers to check it out and properly consider the forces at play.
There were some neat astronomy news items in the last month. After some painstaking analysis of past Cassini data, scientists have more evidence that Saturn’s rings haven’t been present since the planet’s formation. Thanks to persistent meteorite impacts and solar radiation, they will con-tinue to diminish over millions of years. We are lucky to see them as we do now.
You probably also heard about the evidence of the oldest rock on Earth being recovered by the Apollo 14 mission. It’s important to realize that out of the 42 kg that were collected by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, it’s only a 2-gram sample whose composition cannot be matched by any lunar material of that age. Since the Moon was three times closer when that material may have been ejected 3.9 billion years ago, a terrestrial origin is a more likely scenario.
Scientists also reported that high school students helped them refine their understanding of crater rays! The students were making craters in flour, but the scientists realized that since the students didn’t smooth over the surface, the craters exhibited more realistic ray features. Their analysis also showed that the number of rays are related to the size of the impactor. Keep that in mind the next time you observe Tycho or Copernicus and their ejecta blankets.
I appreciate everyone’s input at the January club meeting about setting up more programs for kids. Having a station at our Family Skywatches to engage the Girl Scouts and other children could really help our club’s profile and lead us to resume a Junior Stargazers program.
At our last officers meeting, it was suggested that we resume an Astro 101-style program for future club meetings. The club as a whole has a wide breadth of knowledge about astronomy, but nobody knows everything. This will allow each of us to be exposed to introductory concepts we may have missed, and also offers many of us the chance to practice talking about astronomy to the general public. Thanks to Dave Leake’s recommendation, I’m currently looking through some of David Levy’s books to get some topics to share.
Thanks again to Dave for showing a tour of the night sky for this year at the January club meeting. I should set some of those dates in my calendar so I don’t forget to wake up early for certain conjunctions. As for February, I will talk about planetary nebulae. I’ll discuss the forces involved, find the prettiest pictures I can, and speculate if the Sun will go through that stage in a few billion years. Since it will be February 14, I’ll have to include as many Valentine’s Day puns as possible.
Enjoy the shortest month of the year, everyone! It’ll be March before you know it. I hope to see you on the 14th!
Clear skies!

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