Our final astronomy program of the season brings us the two planets and the arrival of the autumn constellations. Without a moon, we’ll have a clear view of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn, as well as deep space objects including NGC457 ET Cluster and M31 The Andromeda Galaxy. Admission is FREE to all! No registration needed.
Sun & Moon:
Sunset will be at 6:46 pm
There will be no moon visible during the program
Mars rises at 4:27 pm
Jupiter sets at 8:29 pm
Saturn sets at 10:57 pm
The Summer Triangle – Meridian (Vega, Deneb, & Altair)
The Big Dipper –NW
Cassiopeia – NE
Cygnus/Northern Cross – Meridian
Sagittarius – SW
Hercules – W
Pegasus – E
Andromeda – E
M57 Ring Nebula
M13 The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules
NGC457 ET Cluster
M31 Andromeda Galaxy
Alcor & Mizar
Solar Viewing Draws Record Crowd
By Dr. Phil Stokes, Executive Director
It’s official: Penn Dixie’s eclipse viewing event on Monday August 21, 2017 was our most attended program of all time! Our dedicated crew of 26 volunteers and 15 employees welcomed 2,207 guests for an afternoon of educational fun. Our next biggest event — the Transit of Venus in 2012 — drew 631 visitors. The event went on without a major hitch, though we do apologize for the neighborhood traffic delays — another Penn Dixie first!! Here’s how it all unfolded.
We decided to split the work of creating print and web materials for the public, seeking sponsors for eclipse glasses, and collecting educational materials for our respective organizations. Subsequently, Anne Conable from the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library joined our group to coordinate an additional event on August 19. We exchanged countless emails and met several times at the different viewing locations to solidify our plans and train our staff and volunteers. I thank our team for their effort — what a payoff!
Each organization tried to gauge the respective demand for solar viewing glasses based on our relative sizes. We were all wayyy off. Kevin Williams was able to secure a consortium sponsor — Buffalo State College — for the entire group. We initially asked for 500 sets. Thanks to a grant from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Buffalo, Penn Dixie purchased an additional 1,000 sets of glasses through the NASA Museum Alliance. The glasses sat in our office, nearly forgotten, for a very long time.
I’ll admit that I had my reservations. Even though we had a great bulk deal through a NASA supplier, I was concerned that we would have too many glasses and the glasses would sit, boxed and unused, in our office for years. About two weeks before the eclipse — and assuming that we had plenty to spare — we split our supply in two. We kept some for the viewing and began handing out the rest out to our visitors. Initially, only a handful were given away, and I decided to issue a press release about the free glasses.
That did it.
It seemed like every local media outlet picked up the story. Penn Dixie experienced a nonstop stream of visitors asking for glasses. It might have been several hundred each day. The frenzied pace of requests meant that we had to limit the requests to four per family. Most people were happy to receive something for free, but occasionally someone would ask for many more than what we could offer. The glasses are definitely shareable and most of our visitors seemed more than ready to help us spread the love.
At the office, we were inundated with phone calls for the glasses. The phone was either ringing, playing our outgoing message, or recording a message. I estimate that we received close to 10,000 calls about the glasses during the week prior to the eclipse. We couldn’t possibly respond to everyone who left a message. Once we ran out of free glasses, we changed our outgoing message and updated our website and social media to indicate this fact. But, it didn’t matter. The calls kept coming and visitors kept arriving. The national distributor was out of stock, which meant that our consortium partners would also be unable to meet the demand. With no hope for reordering, it was dire.
However, the eclipse gods were smiling. Despite the national shortage, we were able to obtain additional glasses in time for the eclipse. Kevin Williams from Buffalo State College graciously provided an additional 300 sets from his supply. That helped, but our luck continued to improve with an unexpected phone call from a man who operates in the dark — of a planetarium.
That unexpected phone call let me to a Park-N-Ride parking lot just off the Thruway on a rain soaked afternoon. Wearing a hooded rain jacket that shadowed my features, I awaited a special delivery. At last, the driver arrived and parked next to me. The deal went down. Mark Percy from Williamsville North was headed to watch the eclipse in person and gifted us the remainder of his glasses! I thanked Mark and wished him the best in his journey. The extra supply allowed us to give out a total of 2,600 glasses.
Building Up To It
The week leading up to the eclipse was a whirlwind. We — along with all of the viewing locations — were fortunate to receive lots of media attention including spots on all of the local TV stations and on the radio. The local newspapers also featured us several times. Penn Dixie was in the news every day! It was an exhausting time for us, but this was an opportunity that we couldn’t miss.
Our website, bless it’s bandwidth, did not crash during the frenzy. We had our busiest web traffic of all time on Monday along with our busiest day overall. For a (hopefully) complete listing of our appearances, please visit our media page.
The Gates Open
We started the day with a 7:30 am phone call from Ball Toilet & Septic — our portable toilet provider. “You’ve got a line of cars here outside the gate,” the delivery person said. “What do you want me to do?” Since we didn’t officially open until 9 am and no employees were on site, I told him to lock the gate and do his best to escape unharmed.
A short time later, our staff arrived to greet the guests who were in line. The guests were eager to receive solar viewing glasses, they asserted, and wanted to ensure that they could receive a set. This was surprising for us. Occasionally, we’ll have a visitor or two at the gate when staff arrive prior to opening, but never a line of cars. When we opened the gates, visitors began to quickly fill the usual parking area. Fortunately, our grounds keeping crew (i.e., me) had spent several evenings mowing a huge swath of our 54-acre park and we had roughly 7 acres available for parking — more than ample, I thought.
From about 9:30 to 10:30 we were reasonably busy. Our full staff arrived — including the parking lot team — and we checked our guests in while making final preparations for the viewing. I credit our staff for keeping our queue short and our visitors happy. By 11:00, a steady stream of arrivals heralded the events to unfold. By 12:00, over 1,000 guests had arrived and we began to form the queue for solar viewing glasses. Once we determined that some 1,500 guests had arrived, we made the decision at 12:30 to begin handing out glasses to the queue. The line moved quickly and the glasses were gone by 12:50.
Some guests opted to leave with their glasses, and this unfortunately created two-way traffic on our narrow entrance road. In addition, many visitors who had only come for the glasses immediately departed, creating a simultaneous exodus along with the steady flow of arrivals. I ended up directing traffic outside until we found the perfect board member for the job. Inside, our parking lot team expanded from three to five employees to accommodate the late rush of guests. Outside, both sides of the neighborhood streets were filled with parked cars. We thank our guests who respected the private lawns and driveways of our neighbors.
Inside, the scene reminded me of a festival. There was a sense of community and everyone seemed to be enjoying the spirit of the celestial event. We had large groups of fossil collectors, telescope gazers, and folks just relaxing and taking it all in. We had scheduled one or two small crafts activities, but the unusually large crowd made it difficult for us to find enough table space for our needs. Eventually, we decided that we couldn’t do the activities as we didn’t want to inconvenience those who were using our picnic tables. There were just so many guests! As one longtime volunteer exclaimed, “We’ve had more people today than we’ve had in some years.”
Now that I’m recovered from the eclipse, I wanted to make sure to thank those who made this possible. Without your help, we could not have succeeded in running the most successful Penn Dixie program of all time. Special thanks to:
You — yes, you!
Our incredible volunteers and board members
My amazing superstars on staff
Dr. Holly Schreiber (our Director of Education who moved from California(!) to be here) and her family
The Buffalo Eclipse consortium and the Buffalo Astronomical Association
Our local supporters including Erie County, Legislator Lynne Dixon and the Erie County Legislature, County Executive Mark Poloncarz, the Town of Hamburg and Supervisor Steven Walters, and Congressman Chris Collins
The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, Ronald McDonald House Charities of WNY, and the many other foundations that have helped us to reach our goals since 1993
The inspired community members, scientists, teachers, political leaders, and fossil collectors who stood up for Penn Dixie way back in the beginning, when we were just trying to protect a bunch of fossils from being paved over
Our local media who share our mission with the community
One of the goto targets for summertime stargazing is M57, the Ring Nebula. Located in the constellation Vega, it’s relatively easy to find and is visible in most equipment used by amateur astronomers. The Ring Nebula has been featured prominently in promotional material for our upcoming (July 29th) Astronomy Night at Penn Dixie. So what is it? What’s with the “M57” thing? Where is it? What can be expected when looking through the eyepiece?
Deep Space Objects
The Ring Nebula is what astronomers refer to as a Deep Space Object or DSO. Basically a DSO is any object beyond our solar system (something other than the Sun, Moon or the Planets). Galaxies, Nebula, and Star Clusters are all examples of various types of DSOs. The Ring Nebula belongs to a type of DSOs known as Planetary Nebulae. There are a few types of Nebulae: Reflection, Emission, and Planetary. Planetary Nebulae are the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. Stars up to about eight times the mass of our Sun are too small to explode in a Supernova at the end of their lives. Once the stars can no longer fuse Hydrogen or Helium, the star sheds it’s outer layers of gas.
A hot dense ember known as a White Dwarf is all that remains of the star and the expelled outer layers are ionized by the this White Dwarf remnant, creating the object that we view. So why are they called Planetary Nebulae? Do they have anything to do with planets? When they were originally discovered, astronomers had no idea of their true nature. In the telescopes of the time (eighteenth, nineteenth centuries) they appeared very similar to planets. One Planetary Nebulae looks so much like Saturn (NGC 7009) it’s called the Saturn Nebula.
The Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009). Image Credit: NASA (The Hubble Space Telescope)
So now we know what the Ring Nebula is and what the “Nebula” part means in the name. What’s the deal with the “M57” thing? Well the Ring Nebula is contained in a Catalog (a list) of objects created by Charles Messier. The “M” refers to Messier and it’s number 57 on the list. Charles Messier was a French Astronomer that lived from 1730 to 1817. He was primarily interested in finding comets, indeed he found several, but ironically he is not known for finding comets. Messier started a list of objects which appeared fixed with respect to the stars, moving each night with stars as opposed to moving through them as comets do. He created the list so fellow comet hunters wouldn’t waste anytime observing these objects. The objects are relatively bright and are therefore easily observed by amateurs and are popular targets at Public Astronomy Nights or Star Parties.
In March/April it is possible to view all 110 objects in one night in what is called a Messier Marathon.
In addition to being well suited for the equipment frequently used by amateur astronomers, M57 is relatively easy to find. It’s located near one of the brightest stars in the summer night sky (Vega), within a prominent summer asterism (the Summer Triangle), and right between the two bright stars Sheliak and Sulafat in the constellation Lyra. These factors make finding the Ring Nebula relatively easy.
Time and Distance
So that’s how to find it in the Night Sky, but where is it in relation to Earth? The Ring Nebula is 2,283 light-years from Earth. A light-year is the distance light travels in one year (about 300,000 meters/second or 186,000 miles/second). That is about 5.8 Trillion miles in a year. Space is unimaginably large and requires truly astronomical units of measure. Nothing can exceed this cosmic speed limit. The result of the finite speed of light, is that looking through a telescope is like looking through a time machine. We see these objects not as they are now but how they were. We see the Moon as it was a few seconds ago, the Sun as it was about nine minutes ago, Jupiter as it was about forty five minutes ago, and the Ring Nebula as it was 2,283 years ago. The Ring Nebula, cosmically speaking, is very young at about 7,005 years old.
Our Eyes vs. Telescopes
Finally, it’s time to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room. What will M57 look like when viewed through one of our telescopes? Major spoiler: it will not look like the colorful images like the one used to promote our upcoming event or that can be found in many other forms of media. So what’s going on? Well, to be completely honest, this is one of the greatest challenges the we face with astronomy outreach. With the advent of digital imaging techniques, the Hubble Telescope, & the internet, astronomy has benefited tremendously from the excitement that these amazing images generate. Unfortunately, for some it can be disappointing that what they view through the telescope is not as colorful and detailed as in these images. So what’s going on? Are NASA and astrophotographers tricking us? Is our equipment used for visual observing substandard? The answer to both questions is no. What is needed is an understanding of how both technologies work so that expectations can be properly set.
When observing distant objects through a telescope it is important to understand that it is very difficult to see color in the objects viewed, unless they are very bright. Typically, it is possible to discern colors in the planets (Jupiter, Saturn & Mars for example) and sometimes in the Orion Nebula (M42). In some cases color can be perceived in other objects under favorable viewing conditions (clear and dark sky) with telescopes that have a large aperture. The reason we don’t perceive color when looking through a telescope has to do with the part of the eye we use when observing (cones vs. rods) and our sensitivity/ability to collect light with our eyes. Our eyes are truly amazing, and in no way is this intended diminish their amazing capabilities in any way. The cones are good at detecting color but are not that sensitive. The rods are more sensitive and are therefore able to detect the light. Unfortunately the rods cannot detect colors and have poor resolution.
Additionally, our eyes work much differently than a camera. In some cases this is an advantage. When looking through one of our telescopes at the planet Jupiter, it is common to be able to see Jupiter’s Belts/Bands and the four Galilean moons at the same time. Ours eyes have incredible dynamic range. When imaging Jupiter it is a challenge to capture the details of Jupiter’s clouds and the moons at the same time. In order to see the details on the planet’s disk, the exposure setting must be low. The consequence is that the moons, which are much dimmer than the planet, may no longer be visible with a lower exposure setting. Increasing the exposure to reveal the moons blows out (over-exposes) the planets surface.
However, cameras do provide a distinct advantage over eyes when it comes to capturing images of distant, faint, and diffuse objects. The camera’s shutter can be left open for extended periods, increasing the amount of photons collected on the camera’s chip.
Let’s perform a little thought experiment to help understand what’s going on. Imagine you have a paper plate resting on a flat surface. Now sprinkle something granular on the plate, grains of sand for example. Do this for a second or two. How well will the grains of sand cover the plate? When poring the sand out quickly, there won’t be enough grains of sand to thoroughly cover the plate. There will be many places where there is no grain of sand covering the plate and the grains will be non-uniformly distributed over the plate. The plate represents our eye or the camera sensor. The grains of sand represent the photons of light from a distant object.
Now lets repeat this experiment. This time increase the amount of time that the sand is poured onto the plate, let’s say a minute or two. Now the plate has collected more photons and there are significantly less gaps if any. This is why photographs of astronomical objects can show so much more detail and color. Additionally, there are other techniques of capturing the images and processing that impact the color of the image as well. We won’t get too technical, but the colors in the image may not be what can be seen with our eyes, but the do represent real aspects of the object.
When looking through our telescopes visually (we often have one of our telescopes setup to image during an event) the Ring Nebula will look like a small, faint smoke ring or doughnut, not the spectacular psychedelic image from the Hubble Telescope. However, it’s just as amazing. The light hitting your eyeballs left the Ring Nebula almost 2,300 years ago. What was Penn Dixie like 2,300 years ago — that’s a question for a geologist not an astronomer. What civilizations existed 2,300 years ago? As previously stated, looking through a telescope is like looking back into time. It provides an opportunity to try to comprehend the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and our humble place in it.
Hope you come out Saturday July 29 and we hope the weather cooperates. We’ll have a nice nearly quarter moon to look at, the planets Jupiter and Saturn, and many DSOs like the Ring Nebula to show you. Additionally, I will be joining our Buffalo Astronomical Association (BAA) colleagues at Wlikeson Pointe on Friday July 28th for some observing at the Outer Harbor.
On Saturday June 10th Penn dixie had the pleasure of hosting an outstanding group of young ladies (and their moms) from Troop 31339 from Orchard Park. The troop contacted Penn Dixie to work on their Sky Badge. The special event, marked the first successful astronomy program of the year, the weather was perfect. We took them on a tour of the night sky, identifying various stars, constellations, and we were able to view many awesome celestial objects. We had three telescopes set up, two for visual observing and one for imaging. We also had an opportunity to discuss the upcoming eclipse on August 21st.
Here are few pictures from the evening. Note: All images of celestial objects were captured during the event at Penn Dixie by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.
Hopefully this marks an improvement with regard to our luck with the weather. Our next event is this coming Saturday June 17th at 8:30 pm. We hope to see you there!
Mother Nature has not been very cooperative with regard to our Penn Dixie Astronomy programs this year. Our March and April events were cancelled due to weather. We were mostly foiled again this past Saturday evening (5/20) for our Jupiter at the Meridian event. After a mostly cloud free sky all day long, the clouds rolled in before sunset. I say mostly foiled because we weren’t completely foiled.
We did have a brief window of opportunity to view Jupiter through multiple telescopes as we were fortunate to be joined by several members of the Buffalo Astronomical Association (BAA). Both Jim Maroney and I belong to the BAA in addition to volunteering with Penn Dixie.
We really appreciate our colleagues taking the time to share their time and experience with us and visitors to the site. Specifically I would like to thank Steve Smith, Dennis Brylinski, and Mike Anzalone. Check out the BAA at Buffaloastronomy.com. They hold monthly public nights at their Beaver Meadow Observatory (1st Saturday of the month thru October) and BAA member Steve Smith holds monthly star parties in Wilson, NY (Wilson Star Search – 2nd Saturday of the month thru October).
Of course the big Astronomy event for 2017 will be the Great American Eclipse on August 21st. To experience totality (highly recommended) you will need to travel to the roughly 100 mile wide band that will cut across America from Oregon to South Carolina. Western New York will experience a partial eclipse. Approximately 75% of the face of the Sun will be blocked by the Moon. Penn Dixie is also coordinating with other local organizations to provide safe viewing opportunities for Western New Yorkers. Check out BuffaloEclipse.org for more information.
Hopefully our fortunes with the weather improve for the rest of the season (especially on August 21st for the eclipse)! The next Penn Dixie Astronomy Night is scheduled for Saturday June 17th. We hope to see you there!
Viewing our star and its first planet from the third planet! Several telescopes setup at Penn Dixie to view and capture the images of the May 9th Transit of Mercury.
On May 9th 2016 about 120 people took advantage of the opportunity and the fantastic weather to view the Transit of Mercury. During this event, the solar system’s smallest planet crossed the face of the Sun from our point of view here on Earth. Mercury made a crisp, perfectly round, and completely black image against the bright surface of the Sun, in markd contrast to the irregular and fuzzy sunspots also visible on the surface of the Sun at the same time. The site was open for the event from 7 AM thru 3 PM. We had 3 astronomers available with 6 scopes set up viewing of the event. About 32 guests and 60 3rd graders along with 30 Teachers/Chaperones from Buffalo Public School # 81 were on hand to witness the event.
So exactly what is a Transit? An astronomical transit is when one celestial body like a planet or a moon appears to move across the face of another celestial body, like a star for example, as seen from observer on a particular vantage point (in our case, on Earth). So from our perspective here on Earth, only the planets Mercury & Venus and the Moon can transit the Sun. When the moon passes across the face of Sun we call that a Solar Eclipse. In this case Mercury, the solar system’s smallest planet and the closest planet to the Sun, passed in front of the Sun from 7:12 AM EST to 2:42 PM EST and was visible to observers in the eastern United States and Western Europe. Mercury appeared as tiny black dot 10 arcseconds wide moving across the face of the Sun (about 1/200th the width of the Sun). If Mercury was the same size as the Earth, the tiny dot would only appear 2.6 times larger as it traveled across the face of the Sun.
How rare are Transits of Mercury? Transits of Mercury occur about 13 or 14 times per century, so they are rare, but nearly as rare as Transits of Venus. The last transit of Mercury was in 2006 and the next one will occur on November 11, 2019. By contrast the next Transit of Venus, which last occurred in 2012, won’t happen until 2117. The 2019 Transit of Mercury will again be visible in the Americas and Europe.
Were any pictures taken? In addition to viewing the event visually thru telescopes with special solar filters. (Never look at the Sun without following the proper precautions!!!) Images of the event were captured. Photos and videos were captured via smartphones thru the eyepiece of on of the telescopes and Jim Maroney (Penn Dixie’s resident astrophotographer) had multiple telescopes setup to capture the event. We even managed to broadcast the transit live on our Facebook page for a few minutes until the battery in my iPhone was completely drained.
Did I mention the weather was fantastic? We couldn’t have asked for a better day, hardly a cloud in the sky. Clearly as an astronomer, I am better suited for observing at night. Yes, I spent the whole day outside observing the Sun without putting on any sunscreen, Ouch!
All in all it was a spectacular day. Thanks to my fellow astronomers Rich Switzer and Jim Maroney for sharing their time and expertise and thanks to the volunteers and staff that helped organize and run the event. Clear Skies!