Science. Education. Community. Fun.

What We’ve Been Up To Lately

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!

We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Your contributions are tax-deductible.

You can easily donate with the PayPal Donate button below.