Science. Education. Community. Fun.

What We’ve Been Up To Lately

June 2020

On May 27, NASA scrubbed the launch of the Dragon mission. Hopefully, May 30 will see a successful return to crewed missions launching from Florida. I’m surprised that it’s already been nine years since the Space Shuttle retired. It’ll be a lot cheaper than sending astronauts to Kazakhstan to hitchhike on a Soyuz craft up to the International Space Station. Ideally, this will serve as a harbinger of the Artemis program and beyond, but I won’t hold my breath.
Speaking of the ISS, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll visit it, but an alternative is available. However, Google Earth now offers virtual tours of the interior on their website. Take the time and wander through it. I don’t think the huge URL will be helpful here, so I’ll tell you to find it by googling “Google Earth International Space Station”. While you’re at it, check out the ISS live feed to see the Earth below.
I’m sad to say we won’t have club meetings at the planetarium for the next few months. Parkland College will not have classes on campus this summer, and the Staerkel Plane-tarium won’t be open through mid-August. Our part-time staff was let go and our oper-ations manager has been temporarily reassigned to another part of the college. As you’re likely aware, this is happening to job fields throughout the country, so our situa-tion is not unique. Despite having no shows, I am working with our show producer to prepare the dome for reopening. A final decision has not been made for classes on campus in the fall, and the planetarium’s status is contingent on it. On the bright side, the network interruption I wrote about last month has been sufficiently resolved. That allowed the spring semester classes to be completed.
Our club thanks Matthew Will once again for sharing information about the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers at the May club meeting. If you would like to learn more about ALPO, please go to I haven’t secured a speaker for the June meeting, but I’m leaning towards giving you all a tour of using Stellarium, a soft-ware I’ve used to simulate the night sky for several years. It’s also the software I used in the first planetarium I worked in at Iowa State University. If you’d like to see some of the “hidden” features, join us on June 11!
Clear skies!

May 2020

Parkland College’s instruction was disrupted a second time in the last week of April. All faculty, staff, and students lost access to course materials and files that use the college’s login system. Email was also interrupted for a time, so I was concerned about being able to access much of my information about the CUAS. Fortunately, a couple of services were restored within 36 hours, but communications are still a struggle. Students and faculty have trudged through online in-struction for a month, and the end of the spring semester has even more questions now than it did at the beginning of April. It’s rather disappointing and surreal, and I’d like to get back to fo-cusing on astronomy instead of all of these challenges.
Fortunately, the planetarium has done been able to do some promotions during its closure. I admit that one of my earliest memories of the Hubble Space Telescope was of a Far Side comic where Hubble took a blurry photo of aliens in a flying saucer because of the flaw in its optics. Fortunately, the Space Shuttle mission corrected the flaw and we have been treated to decades of beautiful photos. The 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope was on April 24. NASA celebrated by sharing the “Cosmic Reef”, consisting of two nebulae in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The staff of the Staerkel Planetarium have postponed the anniversary event where we will put the banner on display for the first time. In the meantime, we produced some videos showcasing our favorite Hubble images and posted them to the planetarium’s Facebook page.
In April, the potential for seeing a great comet this spring fizzled out. The comet discovered by the ATLAS survey broke up as it approached the Sun, but the fragments of its nucleus were cap-tured in some nice photographs from Hubble. Another comet discovered by the SWAN survey is approaching the Sun in the southern sky, and it will be close to Capella in June.
There were two pieces of black hole news this month. The nearest star to the black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, showed signs of gravitational redshift and orbital precession after it reached the closest point in its orbit. Those confirm two predictions of the theory of gen-eral relativity. Effects of general relativity were also seen when the gravitational wave observa-tories, LIGO and Virgo, detected the first merger of black holes with distinctly unequal masses. This sort of event produces overtones similar to what is seen in musical instruments!
About a dozen people joined the first virtual meeting of the CUAS on April 9. This very informal gathering happened using Zoom using a link Jeff Kouzmanoff set up for us. Jim Wehmer shared some information about installing a solar panel at the observatory. I hope it will be useful for future skywatches. As for the rest of the meeting, club members chatted about various things, including stuff that was in their room. It was nice to see members again, including some people who had never been able to attend a meeting before. The May club meeting will also be on Zoom and it will include our previously scheduled presentation from Matthew Will, a member of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, ALPO. We hope you join us on May 14! Here is the meeting information: Join Zoom Meeting – OR visit and enter the following information: Meeting ID: 791 8309 5116; Password: 300400
Clear skies!

April 2020

I’m rather disappointed that our plans to reach out to the community in April have been canceled due to COVID-19. After initiating the efforts to make Middle Fork River Forest Preserve an International Dark-sky Park, Dave Leake led the club’s planning with the Forest Preserve District, the local chapter of the Audubon Society, and the Depart-ment of Astronomy at the University of Illinois to organize the first annual Champaign County Dark Sky Week. Events such as these will have to wait until later in the year or next year.
At Parkland, the planetarium has been closed until further notice and all of the faculty are redesigning their classes for online instruction for the rest of the semester. We won’t be able to hold our club meetings on campus in April or May, so we will have to reconsider how we are meeting. Many organizations are setting up meetings using Zoom or other software, and that could be an option for us. Zoom meetings can easily hold dozens of people at once, and the host would have the ability to mute all attendees at once to manage the potential cacophony. If you are attending the meeting, you have a fair amount of control over if you want to share audio or video of yourself, or if you want to share your screen. Perhaps some of the club’s more distant members would also like to attend a meeting for the first time!
I proposed canceling the March 28 Family Skywatch at the club meeting. I will likely pro-pose canceling the May 2 Skywatch as well. You may visit the observatory on your own, but please exercise caution by wiping down club equipment before and after use, in-cluding the lawn mowers.
The club would like to thank Peggy Hernandez for visiting east central Illinois and shar-ing the history of the Elgin National Watch Company with us. It was fascinating to learn that the data they acquired from transit telescopes grew so sophisticated that they could determine how far off observers would be from each other in their measure-ments. I noted that these timing measurements go back centuries, since you can see an engraving of a mural quadrant from Tycho Brahe’s observatory, Uraniborg, reprinted in many texts.
This month is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. We’ve enjoyed decades of amazing photos from Hubble, and they are planning to re-lease an image to celebrate this occasion. The Staerkel Planetarium applied for and was chosen as one of the locations to dis-play this image as a banner. There will be a public reception as soon as we are able to schedule one. In the meantime, enjoy the commemorative website.
Let’s hope we have some clear skies to ob-serve while we shelter in place!

March 2020

March is going to begin a little later this year thanks to Leap Day. This also means that the vernal equinox, the day when the Sun crosses north of the celestial equator, is hap-pening a little earlier on the calendar this year, on March 19. Astronomy has long been one of the ways we track time. Before our sophisticated clocks and time zones, we measured each day by the Sun moving across the sky. The Sun is as high as possible at noon in your local sky and the Sun appears to move through the sky due to Earth’s spin. By watching the stars at night, we see that there are different stars visible at different times of the year. This is due to Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Weaving all of this infor-mation together led us to establish a 365-day year which made it easier to plan for agri-culture, hunting, etc.
The Julian calendar, named for Caesar, was set up in recognition of a small discrepancy. Earth completes an orbit roughly every 365-and-a-quarter days, so the calendar would be inaccurate by an additional day every four years. Having February 29 fixed that for centuries, but a more subtle inaccuracy was corrected over 1500 years later. The tropi-cal year, the time between March equinoxes, is more precisely 365.242 days long. (The sidereal year, the time for the Sun to return to the same position with respect to the stars, is 365.256 days long. The tropical year is 20 minutes shorter due to precession.) Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian calendar to fix this, where we take away Leap Day three times every 400 years. We didn’t have Leap Day in 1700, 1800, or 1900, but we did in 2000. There will not be February 29 in the year 2100. This calendar isn’t perfect, but it’s going to work well enough for thousands of years. We didn’t discuss leap years at the CUAS meeting in February. It happened on a night with rather poor weather conditions, but I was glad to share the Earth & Space toolkits we’ve received from the National Informal STEM Education Network, NISENet. If you’d like to borrow the kits for any event, feel free to stop by the planetarium! NISENet has lots of information available about each of the kits on their website:
The next meeting on March 12 will include an invited speaker. Peggy Hernandez is the director of the Elgin School District U-46 Planetarium, and she will be discussing the observatory’s role with the Elgin National Watch Company. As I discussed astronomy’s role in telling time for leap years earlier, observatories were used by watchmakers to set clocks with high precision. Since spring is coming shortly, we will have our first Family Skywatch of the year on March 28! Volunteers are encouraged to sign up either at the club meeting or using the sign-up form on our website. We will need people to manage traffic, open the dome and new building, and operate the telescopes within. You can also show off the NISENet kits. Your assistance is appreciated!
Champaign County Dark Sky Week is coming up from April 18 to April 25. The club is working with the forest preserve, the Audubon Society, and the UI astronomy depart-ment to plan events all over. I hope this will be a way for us to connect with a lot of new people.
Clear skies!


February 2020

I’m ready for February, because January has ended with so many clouds! I would’ve considered using a telescope to see Venus with Neptune on January 27, and I hope the conjunction of Mars with the Moon on the morning of February 18 has clear skies. Thanks again to Dave for giving us a preview of the skies in 2020. I’m excited to see what events we can possibly around the time of the opposition of Mars or the solstice conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
Although we weren’t able to observe. we received some news about space telescopes during the last week of January. First, the Spitzer Space Telescope shut down on January 30 after ob-serving infrared radiation for over 16 years. The images it provided us in that time truly earned it the honor of one of NASA’s Great Observatories. I didn’t realize it orbits the Sun unlike many other space telescopes, but like the WMAP and Planck, the telescope needed to be free of inter-ference from Earth.
One of Spitzer’s predecessors, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, or IRAS, has quietly orbited Earth since it was shut down in 1983. Unfortunately, the telescope got as close as 12 meters from another piece of space debris on January 29! It had a 5% of colliding 900 km above Pitts-burgh. It had people talking about the Kessler syndrome this week. If you don’t know what that is, it was the primary danger in the film Gravity.
The last bit of astronomy news I’ve followed involves a star that gives off a lot of infrared light, Betelgeuse. It’s dimming more than people have seen in a century, knocking it far off the list of the ten brightest stars! The star’s variability has been long studied and recorded, and you can find such data on the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) website. It’s not likely a preview for a supernova, so it’ll be interesting if this helps us understand this star better.
At our next club meeting on February 13, we are going to play with the NISEnet Earth & Space toolkits. Dave Leake acquired several for the planetarium to use in outreach, and we have an-other set on the way this year. These toolkits are useful at farmers markets and when we are running alternative programming at the Middle Fork River Starwatch. I need to familiarize myself with all of these kits so I can be comfortable using them in the future. Some of these kits look like fun to play with!
We do a great job sharing our love of astronomy with people of all ages, but it’s a common con-cern about the average age of club members. Do you have an idea about what we can do to in-crease our membership among the younger crowd? If so, please share it! We are considering applying for grants to help fund such ideas.
See you next month!


January 2020

What were your favorite astronomy events in 2019? Was it the first photograph of the accretion disk and the event horizon around the supermassive black hole at the center of M87? Was it having New Horizons send back images of the Kuiper belt object once nicknamed Ultima Thule and now officially named Arrokoth? Was it the discovery of another interstellar object in the Solar System, 2I/Borisov? Was it the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11? Perhaps it was more local news, such as the designation of Middle Fork River Forest Preserve as an International Dark-Sky Park. Hopefully, these advances make you optimistic for what the new year and the 2020s have to bring.
Members of our club have proposed a number of plans that I look forward to trying this year. We may be adding “pop-up” observing events at Prairie Winds Observatory on any night of the week that has optimal observing conditions with about two days’ no-tice. Text messages, email, and social media could allow us to disseminate these an-nouncements efficiently. We may also be planning for a star party at Middle Fork later in the year, depending on the level of interest from the Champaign County Forest Pre-serve District.
At the planetarium, we are trying to offer some new events to the public in the coming months. To better accommodate people with special needs such as those with autism, the planetarium is running sensory-friendly shows as matinées on February 29. To make a show sensory-friendly, more lights will be on during the show and the sound will be at a lower volume. Tania Swigart will be presenting these shows as she has extensive ex-perience working with these audiences. On March 28, the planetarium is offering shows in Spanish as matinées. Not only will the fulldome videos use the Spanish language tracks, the live segments will be narrated in Spanish by Ricardo Covarrubias Carreno, who also teaches at Parkland. I hope you can help spread the word to friends and fami-ly!
Our first club meeting of the year is on January 9, and Dave Leake is taking the reins of the planetarium once again to give us a preview of sky events for this year. I don’t want to spoil what will be covered by him in other parts of the newsletter or at the meeting itself, but I will say that I recently learned the word, “appulse.” Appulse is when the ap-parent separation between two bodies is at a minimum. I’ve always used the term con-junction for this, but conjunction more precisely means that the two bodies have the same right ascension, e.g. when the Moon is exactly at the new phase.
As for future club meetings, allow me to make an open invitation for any of you to ei-ther contribute a talk at a future meeting or to suggest we invite a speaker. Thanks to everyone’s suggestions, we had people such as Renae Kerrigan, Matias Carrasco Kind, Bob Cataneo, and Paul Ricker come to the Staerkel Planetarium to share with the club. If you’d like to participate in a discussion of possible club events, I invite you to join us at the CUAS officers meeting. It is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, January 2 at Papa Del’s in Champaign. The pizza will be ordered at 6 PM and the meeting commences at 7 PM.
Happy new year!

December 2019

Weather has been a common topic among club members this year, since it feels like we’ve seen more clouds than stars. We’ve had cancelations or fought clouds at every public session we’ve attempted this year. The Mercury transit was not observable for much of the US. Fortunately, the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter was visible right after sunset around November 23 and they looked quite nice! It makes me look forward to watching our “evening star” in the coming months, and increases my anticipation for the really close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on 2020 December 21. I would consider traveling for that one to make sure there are clear skies.
Jim Wehmer has proposed setting up impromptu observing events to take advantage of the oc-casional clear skies and to utilize our increased connectivity with texting. Members of the com-munity and the club would be invited to join a contact list, and everyone on the list would be notified when there are clear skies a couple days in advance. We are optimistic that we can make reliable cloud predictions with that much lead time. The challenges are setting up a secure system that would only require phone numbers or email addresses, the messages wouldn’t be caught by spam filters, and getting the park district to support a system that wouldn’t be sched-uled with a long lead time.
Since we pore over weather forecasts all the time, the club was grateful to Bob Cataneo, who came to the October meeting to give a talk about what weather maps can tell you about upcom-ing weather patterns. He shared lots of publicly accessible resources that will help us see what’s coming our way. This should work better than the Farmer’s Almanac.
Our November club meeting was chock full of beautiful photographs! UI Astronomy Professor and club member Paul Ricker shared his experiences with astrophotography and the evolution of his equipment and processing choices to make amazing photographs around Champaign County. Thank you for presenting!
Dave Leake discussed the possibilities of setting up a star party at Middle Fork River Forest Pre-serve next year. We hope the Champaign County Forest Preserve District is willing to share in the planning of the event and that we can find a set of dates that will work as well as possible. We will also want to find a time of the year that is clear more often.
Thanks to everyone who voted in the club election last month. Congrats to Jim, Jeff, Guy, and Scott, who are joining me as officers in 2020. Among the attendees to the November meeting, only four people had not voted using SurveyMonkey. I’m interested to learn how people appre-ciated the process of voting electronically and if people mostly voted within a day of receiving the ballot. Your input is appreciated!
Our club meeting in December is our social event. Feel free to bring a dish to share and enjoy the conversations in the planetarium lobby! Our treasurer, Jeff Kouzmanoff, will bring the 2020 calendars to sell to members as one of our fund-raisers.
Enjoy your holidays, everyone!

November 2019

About this month’s speaker . . . . .
Dr. Paul Ricker is a professor of Astrono-my at the University of Illinois and a facul-ty affiliate at the National Center for Su-percomputing Applications. As a compu-tational astrophysicist, he applies large-scale numerical simulations on parallel computers to the solution of challenging problems in astrophysics and cosmology. His research interests currently include the evolution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies, binary stars, and supernovae. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1996. His web site is at: You can also find Paul at our observatory with his telescope and camera shooting images of the sky. He’ll talk to us about astrophotography at our November 14 meeting. Join us!

October 2019

As the year winds down and the weather gets colder, the CUAS is running fewer events in Octo-ber. Our only public event is the Family Skywatch on October 5, which coincides with Interna-tional Observe the Moon Night. This would be a good time to discuss some indoor social func-tions instead. Who’s up for a CUAS “Before Dark” event? Also, this is the month where you con-sider who you want to be a club officer in 2020. Nominations are open until October 25!
September seemed to be partly cloudy during all of our planned events. I find this odd since the astronomy students at Parkland had few cancelations for all of the observing sessions we sched-uled this month. Our Family Skywatch and the September 27 Middle Fork Starwatch both barely avoided cancelation. On the bright side (pardon the pun), we had sunny skies for “Science at the Market” on the morning of the Family Skywatch and we met 150 people!
We had club members in the meadow at Allerton Park for the Prairie Sky concert on September 20, and I set up a telescope with the vendors to publicize the darker observations. Thanks to using a Go-To with the bright stars overhead, I was able to show Albireo, the Ring Nebula, and the Dumbbell Nebula near the zenith atound the tall trees. However, I didn’t expect to draw people to Jupiter or Saturn until Deana Carter finished her set. Stuart Levy and Jeff Kouzmanoff were able to meet a few people eventually, but it was quieter than we hoped.
Our thanks go to Matias Carrasco, an NCSA scientist who gave a talk at our club meeting. He shared his work with developing AI for the Dark Energy Survey and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. Since the number of galaxies being analyzed is impossible to observe by a few peo-ple, he is developing a technique to sort through the data by having AI create simulated galaxies using existing images. He compared his work to what you can see at
At the end of the club meeting, I gave another Astro 101 segment about some weird moons of the Solar System. Despite the five-minute limit we intend for these segments, I cut myself off after ten minutes of only talking about Saturn’s weirder moons. I didn’t even talk about Titan or Enceladus, whose potential for life are pretty strange! I was happy to connect this discussion to my talk about tides from last month, since many of these moons receive tidal heating from Sat-urn and from orbital resonances with other moons. If you’d like to see the pictures I shared, here are my slides. Since I have infor-mation about many more wacky worlds, I’ll do another segment at the end of the October meeting.
Bob Cataneo has been invited to be the speaker at the October meeting. He has taught meteor-ology at Parkland for many years, and members are interested in any advice he can provide when we are studying weather forecasts to see if observing would be worthwhile on a given night. When I am deciding if an observing session should be canceled, I check at least three sites. I’ve been using Clear Sky Chart, but I like the graphic that the National Weather Service presents, and Jim Wehmer showed me how good Astrospheric is. I hope these help you!
Forgive me for logrolling, but I hope you can make it to the planetarium’s showing of the docu-mentary, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future. I believe this is first time the film will be screened in Illinois! The film begins at 7 PM on October 9, with a theremin performance starting at 6:15 in the lobby. Admission is $10 for adults, and $8 for seniors, students, youth, and FOSP members.
Clear skies!

September 2019

There is a lot on tap for the CUAS in September, but none of the events we’re running are at a pub. To help Middle Fork River Forest Preserve maintain its status as an International Dark Sky Park, we are holding two events within a month at the site. In addition, we will now schedule our observing sessions on Fridays with our backup events on Saturdays when Friday is clouded out. We are also going to set up telescopes at Allerton Park during their Prairie Sky concert. That’s actually the same weekend as the astronomy club summit hosted by the Twin Cities Ama-teur Astronomers. That summit got moved up so it wouldn’t conflict with the Illinois Dark Skies Star Party hosted by the Sangamon Astronomical Society, which is the same weekend as our second Middle Fork River event! Whew!
As for this last month, I feel that we had a great Family Skywatch. More than 100 people came to Prairie Winds Observatory and the clouds stayed away most of the time. My favorite Sky-watches are when the Moon is a rather thin crescent so we can see the earthshine on the dark side and there is less light pollution washing out deep sky objects and the Milky Way. I’m glad we got to share that experience with so many people. The next Family Skywatch is September 7, which I will miss since I’m running planetarium shows that evening.
I showed a very recent episode of NOVA for our last club meeting. If you want to read a counter-point about the challenges of inhabiting inhospitable worlds, check out this article on Gizmodo called, “Humans Will Never Colonize Mars”. NOVA continued their recent focus on space by running a five-part series from the BBC called “The Planets”. It sounds like a fun series to binge!
My Astro 101 segment was about the tidal forces seen on Earth, on the Moon, and throughout the Solar System. Dave asked a good question about the influence of “supermoons”, that is, when the moon is at perigee, on the tides. First, we would see this additional effect once a month, and it would coincide with the spring tide every six months when it occurs during full moon or new moon phases. From what I read, this additional effect of the Moon being 5% closer than average means that the tides would be about 12 cm higher than a normal spring tide.
As for this month’s club meeting, Ricardo Covarrubias, who teaches at Parkland, works at UIUC, and will be a speaker at a future meeting, has invited Matias Carrasco to present a talk. He works in the astronomy department at UIUC and for the NCSA, so I’m sure he will have a lot of fun things to share with the Dark Energy Survey.
I will run another Astro 101 segment after Dr. Carrasco’s talk about some weird moons in the Solar System. It’s material that I love to discuss in my classes, but I know I can’t spend much time on it in those lectures. Hopefully, I don’t go too long with all the pictures I will have.
I believe many club members are familiar with Yerkes Observatory, which is located near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and holds the world’s largest refracting telescope. Some of you may also know that that observatory was closed last year since the University of Chicago is no longer us-ing it for research. I traveled there each year with students, and I hope to return after the prop-erty changes ownership. There is a slight delay in that transition because Charles Yerkes included a clause in the bequest letter that the observatory would return to him or his heirs if the proper-ty were no longer used by the university for astronomical research. You can read more in articles in the Racine Journal Times and the Chicago Maroon.
Thanks to a suggestion from a member of the community, the planetarium is going to screen an award-winning documentary film about a sci-fi artist on October 9. It’s called Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future. I hope many people in the area will want to see it!
Clear skies!

August 2019

As many of you know, this club cannot survive on the efforts of only one or two people. Fortu-nately, we have several members who are willing and able to give their time for our many activi-ties. I want to praise everyone who helped set up our parade float this year. The Apollo lander and the recreation of the Aldrin photo look amazing. If you only saw the photos, those are both on display at the Rantoul Public Library and I believe they will move to Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch later this year. {the Rantoul Library thank you note is below]
The Family Skywatch was relatively successful this month! The evening was not promising initial-ly considering the pouring rain, but the skies cleared up a bit and about thirty people showed up to observe. The forecast is much more favorable for August 3, so come out to Prairie Winds if you’re available on Saturday! On the same weekend as the Family Skywatch, Doug Rokke and the Glicks have graciously offered to help with the Astronomy merit badge at the Space Jam in Rantoul.
To commemorate the anniversary of the first moon landing, Dave Leake gave us a cool talk about the history of the Apollo program at our July 11 club meeting. The recordings he included were a great touch to help us experience it as people watched and listened to the events of fifty years ago. Dave also quoted Neil Armstrong’s comments about the extraordinary circumstances that led to the success of the program. It helps explain why we have not sent people there in the last four decades. If anybody asks what benefit there was to the program, you can add the fol-lowing technological advancements to your response.
Before Dave’s presentation, Jim Wehmer shared with us another one of his neat hobbies for the Astro 101 segment. He showed us how schlieren cameras work and how they can be confused with infrared views. If my memory is correct, I believe Mike Lockwood showed us schlieren vide-os in his talk in June to illustrate the air flow across Newtonian mirrors.
Our club meeting on August 8 is going to give some sense of where the space program may be going. We will watch a NOVA episode that first aired in July, “Back to the Moon”. It is about the public and private efforts to return to having crewed missions beyond low-Earth orbit. Astro 101 will be run by me and will cover something we are all familiar with in central Illinois, tides.
The last month has been quite a whirlwind for me. After coming back from a trip to France, my first weekday back was also my first day as the director of Staerkel Planetarium. Although I’m still working for the same institution, I’m sure you can appreciate the amount of transition in-volved. One aspect of change I’ve encountered is that I am a test subject for a new system of issuing laptops to employees instead of desktops. My new work laptop has a docking staton which connects it to monitors, a keyboard, and a mouse. I like the convenience of it because I can use it at both of my offices (they didn’t replace my old position yet). I can also bring it to give astronomy talks or work away from my desk(s). However, the IT department had to discover from my experience which connections weren’t working so well.
I’m looking around to bring new programs and exhibits to the planetari-um. Please give me your suggestions or share with me something fun you’ve seen elsewhere!

Clear skies!


July 2019

There is a lot of excitement in our club. Members are working hard to assemble another winning float for the Independence Day parade. The grand marshal of this year’s parade is Dave Leake, who has just completed his tenure at Staerkel Planetarium and is beginning a great new phase in his life. My new role as planetarium director commences on July 1 and I have great hopes for the opportunity and expectations to fulfill.
In the past month, I watched planetarium staff give shows to toddlers, elementary school stu-dents, and the public, and I learned about how my approach should vary for each audience. I’ve seen Dave give shows about space suits in both Illinois and Indiana. I’ve also learned the ins and outs of the planetarium facility, including how to open the original Carl Zeiss projector for clean-ing. It’s been eye-opening, folks.
Considering all the public astronomy engagement I’ve been present for, I haven’t missed the lack of opportunities to observe the night sky due to the extremely rainy spring. I feel like I am copying and pasting this section of this message, because the Family Skywatch was clouded out yet again. The skies were particularly tantalizing this month, as we had decent skies on the Fri-day before and the Sunday after the scheduled Skywatch. Even the Middle Fork River stargazing was canceled for storms.
Despite that misfortune, I was happy to see good developments at both sites. The dedication of the forest preserve as a Dark Sky Park showed how many people both in Champaign County and throughout the Midwest care about having such an asset close to home. Club members also got together for a nice weenie roast right before the official events. Thanks to Jim and Jody Wehmer for hosting us! At Prairie Winds Observatory, the riding lawn mower donated by Duane Crider has found a home in the new shed, and it’s going to make the mow list a bit less infamous.
We have two more events coming up before our club meeting this month! The first is the afore-mentioned parade, which can always use more assistance. Contact any of the club officers if you are interested. The second event is our Family Skywatch on July 6, and summer should hopefully be clearer.
Thanks again to Mike Lockwood for his thorough presentation at our club meeting on June 13! It was amazing to see that he has been able to compile enough data on Newtonian telescopes to know which aspects are most responsible for focusing issues. He also showed us a few options for fan placement to regulate the temperature of mirrors.
Our thanks also go to Scott Glick for his Astro 101 talk. He previewed Mike’s talk with a great primer on terms used in astrophotography. He showed us how to use the rule of 500 to make photos of the night sky possible even without the use of a telescope!
The July club meeting will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. With that in mind, Dave Leake has offered to give a talk about the first crewed moon landing. Beforehand, Jim Wehmer will present has experiences with Schlieren cameras for our Astro 101 segment. I think both of these will be quite entertaining!
Clear skies!


June 2019

The planetarium has had a fair amount of hubbub regarding Dave’s retirement and his successor was finally announced… me! As you may have read in the News-Gazette, I was selected for the position of director, and I accepted the offer in April. Unfortunate-ly, it was not soon enough to have the hiring approved by the Parkland College Board of Trustees that month, so we had to refrain from publicizing the news for a few weeks. Thank you all for your patience about being informed!
Since it became official, Dave has been sharing with me his myriad job duties, and I’ve shadowed his performances during elementary school visits since the spring semester ended. Waylena, Cindy, and the rest of the planetarium staff have also been helping me get oriented before my official start in July, and I look forward to learning from them as I get acclimated to this new position. I plan to maintain the status quo between the CUAS and the planetarium.
Despite having yet another canceled Family Skywatch this month, this club has been quite busy with outreach! Many thanks to those of you who help the club connect with the community at the observatory, at the farmers market, at the science fair organized for The Big Bang Theory finale, and for events coinciding with International Astronomy Day. I enjoyed seeing the NISE kits in action at a couple of these events, and I look for-ward to using these at future club and planetarium events. Dave Leake suggests spend-ing time at a future club meeting where members can practice using these kits.
We have two events coming up before our club meeting this month! The first is the Dark Sky Park dedication celebration at Middle Fork River Forest Preserve on June 1. The second is our Family Skywatch on June 8. I look forward to us having a successful public session sometime this year. The poor weather has been happening every day of the week, rather than just Saturdays. The astronomy classes at Parkland barely ran enough observing sessions this semester. Plus, astronomers aren’t the only ones who are sick of all this rain. I feel sympathy for the farmers who are struggling just to get their crops planted in time.
I really appreciate that Tim Stone, the president and astrophotographer extraordinaire of the TCAA, came to present his work on spectroscopy at our May club meeting. It’s awe-inspiring to see the absorption lines as Annie Jump Cannon did around 1900 and to know that those provide so many essential clues about the intrinsic properties of stars.
Jim Wehmer followed up Tim’s presentation with a related summary on stellar evolu-tion. I only say summary because I spend most of my Astronomy 102 class on every-thing Jim touched upon. Jim found many useful graphics to illustrate the differences between the aforementioned intrinsic properties of stars and how that can affect their lifespans. I appreciate him continuing our Astronomy 101 102 series!
For our club meeting on June 13, Mike Lockwood will share another one of his fasci-nating tales from his workshop. If you’d like to about his recent experience at the Win-ter Star Party, please check out his website.
For our Astro 101 segment, Scott Glick will present his work on astrophotography. He and Leanne produced an amazing video showing all the work they did to get their in-struments streamlined, so I’m certain he will provide some good advice. From all the feedback I’ve heard, I think astrophotography could be a monthly segment at club meetings or observing events.

May 2019

We had more clouds at the April Family Skywatch. On the bright side, Jim Wehmer, the CUAS vice president, tells us that 13 people came to the observatory before sunset to be trained on the new system he has set up with the dome telescope he dubbed “Ruby.” I’m looking forward to familiarizing myself with the SkyCommander setting circles as well, and I hope we can use it at the Family Skywatch on May 11. Even if the skies are uncooperative that evening, we will be at the farmers market in Urbana in the morning.
The club would like to thank Zach Putnam from the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the U of I for coming to give a talk about SASSI2. It’s great to hear that students are helping build satellites to perform research. It appears the launch of the rocket on April 17 was successful. Since SASSI2 is only expected to be in orbit for 12 days, it should be reentering the atmosphere around the day I write this. Here’s the video of the launch.
Lauren Pearce followed up that talk with an Astro 101 discussion of solar observing. I have only used the Coronado brand of solar telescope, so it was fascinating to get a comparison between their tilttuning hydrogen-alpha filters and the etalons used in Lunt telescopes. As an aside, we may want to put Astro 101 slides on the members’ portion of the club website with the present-ers’ approval.
I have invited Tim Stone from the Twin Cities Amateur Astronomers to speak at our club meeting in May. Those of you who have attended our club “summits” or our eclipse trip to Camp Ondes-sonk may have met him and seen his amazing photographs taken at their club’s observatory at Sugar Grove Nature Center. He plans to give a talk about amateur spectroscopy, and you can see some of his photos here.
After Tim’s presentation, Jim Wehmer has offered to show us details about stellar evolution for Astro 101. There are enough possible paths for stars that you need a flowchart to consider all the options, such as this example from the website for the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The same star can’t become a red dwarf, a neutron star, and a white dwarf. Each of those types of stars would be a worthy subject of discussion for Astro 101, and the Chandra website has some great educational materials to work from. Please consider sharing a little of what you’ve learned about astronomy with the club in the coming months.
Another naming campaign caught my attention this month. The astronomers who helped discov-er one of the largest worlds in the Solar System, a Kuiper belt object named 2007 OR10, are putting the name up to a public vote. This object is likely round and may be classified as a dwarf planet in the future, but it needs a name first. You can cast your vote for Vili, Holle, or Gonggong on this website.
The other piece of news that excited me is from Gaia’s survey of a billion stars in the sky. Since the space telescope is measuring the precise distances to these objects, we have a better sense of how stars are clustered in our galaxy. This includes a number of streams of stars that appear to have been ripped away from globular clusters, implying that globular clusters may be the cores of galaxies that were assimilated into the Milky Way. When we see globular clusters, we could be seeing the leftover peach pits from a galactic snack.
I have no official news to share about the director position for Staerkel Planetarium. The board of trustees for Parkland College needs to approve the selection at their next meeting. The announcement should be included in a press release on May 15.

April 2019

The first Family Skywatch of the year got rained out on March 9, but the skies were actually partly cloudy after sunset! Unfortunately, the downpour during the day left standing water at the observatory. I hope that April 13 has a better forecast.
Thanks again to Renae Kerrigan from the Peoria Riverfront Museum for coming to give a talk at our last club meeting! Seeing pictures of ALMA reminded me of my visit to the Very Large Array in New Mexico, but being 7000 ft (2000 m) above sea level is nothing compared to being at an elevation of 16,000 ft (5000 m). The highest I’ve ever been that wasn’t in an airplane was when I hiked up Mt. Fuji in Japan. That’s less than 4000 m up, so the plateaus in Chile must be quite an experience. Renae promoted the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program, and eve-ryone in the club is eligible for consideration! The website is here.
At the same club meeting, Wayne James inaugurated our Astro 101 segments, showing us a great way to organize the sky through the abbreviation, POLSQB. The first four letters stand for the principal constellation in the sky for each season. Plus, they remind you of the POLeStar, which is the “QuarterBack” of the sky, and is flanked by the Queen, Cassiopeia, and the Bear, Ursa Major. You won’t see all of POLSQB in a single night, but it is a very useful way to orient yourself to the night sky.
Next month’s meeting will also have a visiting speaker. Zach Putnam, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois, does research on many aspects of satellite systems. For example, his group recently worked on designing a possible mission to invesigate the moons of Mars. If you would like to see some specifics about Prof. Putnam’s research group, check out their website.
Our second installment of Astro 101 will be presented by Lauren Pearce. She is sharing with us her experience in using solar telescopes. Please consider giving an Astro 101 talk of your own! It can be something you learned and want to share, or if there is a subject you want to dive into and discuss with the club for five minutes. We can all learn from each other!
In other news, some of you may have read that another ten moons have been discovered around Jupiter. However, the naming process has been opened to the public! All you have to do is send a tweet or video to the punny Twitter account, @JupiterLunacy with the hashtag, #NameJupitersMoons. Please note that there are some rules, including that all of Jupiter’s moons must be named after Roman or Greek mythological characters who were either descend-ants or lovers of the god known as Jupiter or Zeus. The deadline is April 15, and the complete rules can be found at this website.
Recent newsletters have included mentions of the search for a new director of Staerkel Planetar-ium. I am optimistic that the search committee will find a candidate they want to make an offer to. As Dave Leake said, outreach is an essential component of the position, so the new director should be inclined to continue the planetarium’s partnership with the CUAS. If the new director is less interested in being involved with us, I intend to maintain our relationship with Parkland College through my position. We should know more by the next newsletter.
I have one more item of logrolling to share. The state Science Olympiad competition is happen-ing at the University of Illinois on April 13. (It’s the same day as the Family Skywatch again.) This event will have about 100 schools attending and about 50 events. If you are willing to volunteer, I would greatly appreciate it. Here is the link to sign up.
Clear skies!
Erik Johnson

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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