Monthly Stargazing

Join us for an out-of-this-world experience! Our astronomers will map the night sky — including stars, planets, constellations, and deep space objects — for you using a variety of telescopes and specialized equipment. Guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, warm clothing, blankets, and food/beverages. We’ll have plenty of telescopes, but you can bring yours along, too, if you’d like some expert advice.

2019 Schedule

Saturday April 27, 7:45 pm
Saturday May 25, 8:15 pm
Saturday June 8, 8:15 pm (reschedule from May)
Saturday June 29, 8:30 pm
Saturday July 27, 8:15 pm
Saturday August 31, 7:30 pm
Saturday September 28, 6:30 pm
Saturday October 19, 6 pm

Admission (cash or credit) is $4. There is no charge for Penn Dixie members. Registration not required. Due to the uncertainty of weather, we will not offer advance ticketing for these programs. Stay tuned to our social media for updates.

Programs run for 2-3 hours depending on viewing conditions.

A solar eclipse viewed through Penn Dixie telescopes.

Thinking about purchasing a telescope? This telescope guide offers some great suggestions from Penn Dixie astronomer Ernie Jacobs. You can also download our Astronomy Night guide — also prepared by Ernie Jacobs — to learn more about our programs.

October 6: Stargazing

Saturday October 6, 6:30 to 9:30 pm

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.

October 6 2018

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
Lyra –Meridian
Cygnus/Northern Cross – Meridian
Aquilla -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

Attendance Eclipsed!

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.

Eclipse Jim Maroney
The August 21, 2017 Great American Eclipse by Jim Maroney.

The Consortium
Mid 2016, Mark Percy from the Williamsville North Planetarium and Kevin Williams from the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium contacted us about the possibility of collaborating on a viewing event for the 2017 eclipse. I thought that they were especially excited as astronomers tend to get about these things but went along with the idea. They contacted Brian Enright, formerly of the Buffalo Museum of Science and he — along with Dan Marcus from the Buffalo Astronomical Association — met with us to plan.

Consortium logo.

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!

Seeking Spectacles
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.

The glasses.

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.

Matthew (age 12) and Mary Anne Rach of Williamsville, Pat DePrima and Steve Grady of Lakawana
Matthew (age 12) and Mary Anne Rach of Williamsville, Pat DePrima and Steve Grady of Lackawanna. Photo by Elizabeth Schiavoni.

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.

Dr. Stokes makes a shady deal for more glasses in a parking lot just off the NYS Thruway.

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.

web traffic
Our website saw it’s busiest traffic, ever, on August 21.

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.

Dr. Stokes about to appear live in-studio on Channel 4.

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.

Our driveway was a busy scene.

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.

Space Walk by Educator Jay Wollin Jupiter
Our Space Walk greeted guests along the main trail. Artwork by Educator Jay Wollin.

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.

Eclipse traffic backup
Traffic during the eclipse (blue line) was backed up from our entrance to just beyond Amanti Mansion — a little under a mile of cars waiting to enter.

The Eclipse
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.”

Visitors lounging in the sun.  Photo by Elizabeth Schiavoni.
On a warm day, the mud is too enticing for some to resist.
Charlotte, Venessa, and Luke O'Donnel of Hamburg
Charlotte, Venessa, and Luke O’Donnell of Hamburg enjoy a view of the cosmos.  Photo by Elizabeth Schiavoni.
Eclipse 2 Jim Maroney
Several sunspots were visible during the eclipse.

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
  • National Bank Equipment for providing complimentary fossil collecting pouches
  • Chilly Billy’s Ice Cream Truck for serving tasty snacks
  • Ball Toilet & Septic for delivering extra toilets on short notice
  • Our neighbors for their patience
  • My family for their support and volunteering

As special thanks to our community of supporters, we’re making our 20th Annual WNY Earth Science Day FREE to the public. We’ll see you on Saturday October 7!

P.S. The next solar eclipse arrives on April 8, 2024 and the path of totality will travel over Buffalo.

The Ring Nebula (M57)

By Ernie Jacobs, Astronomer

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)

Messier’s Catalog
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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 8.55.33 PM
The Ring Nebula (M57) is located in the Summer Triangle, an asterism formed by the stars Vega, Deneb and Altair.  The Summer Triangle can be found in the east after dark.  It will rise higher and higher each night as summer progresses. Image Credit: Stellarium

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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 9.40.04 PM
The Ring Nebula can be found between the stars Sheliak and Sulafat in the parallelogram shaped constellation Lyra. Image Credit: Stellarium

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.

Understanding Resolution
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.

The Ring Nebula. This image was captured by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.  The Ring Nebula will look similar to this image when viewed through a telescope, except it will be gray (no color) and fainter (depending on conditions).

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.

Clear Skies!

Ernie Jacobs

Astronomy Update – An Evening with a Girl Scout Troop

By Ernie Jacobs

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.

Members of the troop trying out eclipse glasses as the Sun was setting. Picture taken by Ernie Jacobs.
final jupiter penn dixie 6_10_17
An image of Jupiter captured during the event. Image was captured and processed by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.
M13 Penn dixie 6_10_17
Messier 13 – The Globular Cluster in the Constellation Hercules. M13 is about 145 light-years across, 25,100 light-years away, and contains several hundred thousand stars. Image captured and processed by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.
mizzar penn dixie 6_10_17
The Visual Double Star Mizar and Alcor located in the handle of the Big Dipper. Mizar itself is actually a quadruple star system and Alcor is a binary star system. Together they comprise a sextuple star system! Image captured and processed 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!

Clear Skies!

Ernie Jacobs