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.

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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.

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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.
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An image of Jupiter captured during the event. Image was captured and processed by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.
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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.
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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

Astronomy Update

By Ernie Jacobs

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 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).

Astronomers setting up Saturday May 20th hoping for clear skies.  We did get a brief window to provide visitors to the site views of Jupiter through multiple telescopes.

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 for more information.

A map of the upcoming Total Eclipses of the Sun visible in North America.

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! 

Clear Skies!

Ernie Jacobs

The Tangled Web of Life

by Amanda K. Martin, M.S. in Biological Sciences

Figure 1: American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) using a large log as shelter. Photo by Amanda K. Martin.

Ecologists study how organisms interact with their environment; however this can be quite difficult as a result of how messy life really is. Organisms interact in multiple ways, not only within their own species (two male deer fighting), but with other species (a snake squeezing a mouse) and their environment (a turtle basking on a log) which includes abiotic factors such as sunlight, wind, and water. What specific ways do animals interact with one another? Well they can compete, avoid predation, forage for food, seek shelter, disperse to other areas and it can be even more complicated when animals interact with humans! Humans are a major force that influences where organisms are located and what resources are available to them.

Figure 2: A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) foraging on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate). Photo by Amanda K. Martin.

Looking at foraging, there are two main types of organisms: producers and consumers. Producers are able to make their own food, these are plants. Through a process called photosynthesis, plants are able to convert sunlight into energy (ATP). By creating their own food, plants do not need to disperse or travel to other areas to eat. However, consumers are unable to make their own food, they must forage or travel to locate their food and eat it in order to obtain energy. There are different types of consumers: herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores. Herbivores consume plant material in order to survive. Herbivores such as monarch butterflies, deer, and muskrats forage for plants and consume either pieces or all of the available plant. Omnivores are animals that consume both plants and animals (meat) such as turtles, humans, and raccoons. Finally, carnivores consume only meat, they do not eat plants. These animals are at the top of the food chain such as hawks, snakes, and lions.

Figure 3: Without regulation from a predator, deer populations can explode and have negative impacts. Photo by Amanda K. Martin.

The available food resources are based on a pyramid, where the most abundant food resources are plants, fewer herbivores, less omnivores, and finally a small amount of carnivores. If the abundances of any category increase above carrying capacity, then the ecosystem will fall apart. For an example, when wolves were removed (extirpated) from Yellowstone, elk populations skyrocketed. This in turn reduced available plants, the elks overgrazed and other herbivores were unable to forage for food because there were too many elks. With the reintroduction of wolves, the elk population decreased and the system was once again balanced. A positive side effect of the reintroduction of the wolves was the increased grizzly bear population because there were available elk carcasses to consume.

Figure 4: A Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) resting in a leaf pile. Photo by Amanda K. Martin.

The food web is composed of many food chains (a linear flow of energy from one organism to the next). For an example, sunlight provides energy for vegetation, the muskrat eats the vegetation, while the snapping turtle can eat small muskrats, and finally the great blue heron eats the snapping turtle. This is a food chain for which each organism is one link in a chain. Food webs are created when multiple food chains are put together for which more organisms interact with one another. Not only does the great blue heron eat snapping turtles, but it can eat muskrats or water snakes, whereas the water snake could eat the muskrat. Each organism is linked together and when humans impact their environment, it can alter the food web. Some organisms can replace other lost species; however we do not know the true impact of our actions typically until it’s too late. By preserving or protecting habitat, we can reduce negative effects on multiple species!

Earth Science Day 2016

While Penn Dixie may be covered in ice and snow, we can always think ahead to the coming spring and summer months when the site will be visited by fossil collectors of all ages and experience levels. This spring, we’ve got Earth Day on April 22 and Dig with the Experts scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, plus many school field trips. In the summer we’ll host a full array of science and nature programs, but fall will be a really special time when we host our 20th Annual WNY Earth Science Day on Saturday October 7. To get in the sprit, take a look back at Earth Science Day 2016 — Saturday October 8 — with some photos courtesy of superstar volunteer Jake Burkett and his family.

Despite the chilly and wet morning, exhibitors and visitors who chatted under the big tent stayed mostly warm and dry.
The drill rig demonstration got a bit muddier than usual.
UB Geology might have brought the messiest activity: goupy glaciers that flowed through 3D models.
By late morning the skies cleared and our fossil collecting was in full swing.
These folks came down from Ontario and were very eager to find the perfect trilobite.
At just the right time, LLoyd Taco Truck arrived and satisfied the hungry lunch crowd — even T-rex.

For the full gallery visit the Google Drive gallery — thanks Burketts! We are grateful for the following organizations that made Earth Science Day possible:

  • 3rd Rock LLC
  • Aquarium of Niagara
  • Animal Advocates of WNY
  • Buffalo Association of Professional Geologists
  • Buffalo Geological Society
  • Buffalo Museum of Science
  • Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper
  • Canisius College Seismographic Station
  • Cradle Beach
  • Earth Dimensions, Inc.
  • Ecology & Environment, Inc.
  • Erie County Department of Environment and Planning
  • Evangola State Park
  • Lloyd Taco Trucks
  • Past & Present Rock Shop
  • Penn Dixie Site
  • Reinstein Woods/NYS DEC
  • SJB/Empire Geo Services, Inc.
  • StratResources Geologic Consulting, LLC
  • SUNY Brockport Earth Science and Meteorology Club
  • SUNY Buffalo Undergraduate & Graduate Geology Clubs
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — Buffalo

Serpents of Penn Dixie

Text and photos by Amanda K. Martin, M.S. Biological Sciences

Imagine trying to fit a whole watermelon into your mouth without chewing it or cutting it into smaller pieces. Sounds impossible, right? Well snakes have to do something similar to this each time they eat their prey, however they have adapted their skull structure in order to accomplish such an impossible feat.

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Model skull of a snake (jaws closed).

Unlike a human jawbone (mandible), a snake’s jawbone is connected together with elastic ligaments that allow for stretching, however, the jawbones never detach! The two bones are moving independently.

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Model skull of a snake (jaws opened).

That means the bones can move apart as a snake eats a large prey item. As the jaws unhinge, the curved teeth hook the prey item and they wiggle it down their body.

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Model skull of a snake (jaws fully opened).

Even though snakes have amazing adaptations, such as their feeding method and ability to travel without legs, many people are afraid of them. These creatures like other wildlife are harmless to humans unless provoked. Even if they are provoked, they try to escape first and bites occur from people harassing the snake.

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Dekay’s brown snake in a defensive position.

Snakes are incredibly important organisms in the ecosystem, acting as both predators (rodents, invertebrates, birds) and prey (hawks, turtles, large mammals). Snakes are ectotherms; they behaviorally regulate their body temperature by moving in and out of areas with heat. This ties them closely to their environment and they can be used to monitor ecosystem health. If local snake populations begin to decline, then their habitat may be degrading, which affects humans as well.

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Forest habitat around Penn Dixie nature trail.

In the state of New York, there are 17 snake species, of which three are venomous. At Penn Dixie, we have four snake species: Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon), Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), Eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum), and Dekay’s brown snake (Storeria dekayi).

Northern Water Snake

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Water snake.

This is a large-bodied snake that primarily lives in the water. It ranges from 24 to 55 inches in size. They may be brown, tan or grayish in coloration with a white belly and have square blotches on their back. They spend most of their time in lakes, ponds, marshes, rivers, and streams, but will bask on river banks or on overhanging branches. They are carnivorous and eat amphibians, fish, crayfish, large insects, other reptiles, birds and small mammals. They do not constrict their prey, but consume them alive.

Water snakes have to avoid getting eaten themselves by other large snakes, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. They escape predation by swimming across a body of water or diving underneath the surface and anchoring their bodies to vegetation or logs. They typically remain submerged for five minutes, but can stay below for an hour and a half. They are quite beneficial to humans because they will eat diseased or dying fish and help control overpopulated areas. Many water snakes are often misidentified as venomous cottonmouths or water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorous), and are killed, but cottonmouths have bands instead of blotches and have a northern limit of southern Virginia.

Garter Snake

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Eastern garter snake.

This is a common medium-sized snake that can be found throughout the United States. It ranges from 18 to 26 inches in size. They have three yellow longitudinal stripes running down their dark body; two on the sides and one down the middle. However, some have checkered patterns in between the stripes.  They have a white or light yellow belly. They live in a variety of habitats such as meadows, marshes, woodlands, and hillsides. They can commonly be found in moist, grassy areas and enjoy basking on or under rocks or debris. If you are ever in an area with a lot of small rocks, please do not step on the rocks, which could crush a hidden snake. They eat a variety of invertebrates (earthworms, crayfish, leeches, snails, slugs, insects), fish, baby birds, small mammals, amphibians, and other snakes. They appear to be immune to toxins released by toads and the consumption of this toxin may make their saliva slightly toxic which helps subdue prey. They immobilize their prey by biting down with their sharp teeth and swallow it whole.

Garter snakes are preyed upon by hawks and herons, large fish, bullfrogs, other reptiles, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, and shrews. They primarily avoid predators with their camouflage or they will flee into the water to avoid terrestrial predators. If you have ever tried to pick one up, they have a defensive mechanism where they release a foul odor called musk which usually deters the predator or you from handling them further. Like the Northern water snake, garter snakes are important low-level predators which act as both predator and prey within the ecosystem. They also are one of the few animals that can eat amphibians with toxic defensive mechanisms like toads and newts. Garter snakes also have a look-alike, the ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus). Ribbon snakes tend to be more slender, have a longer tail, and do not have a scale between the eye and nose, which is white in appearance, however they have not been found at Penn Dixie.

Eastern Milk Snake

Eastern milk snake by Stan Martin.

Like many snakes, this species has a slender, smooth scaled body with reddish or brown blotches on top of their gray or tan scales. The belly tends to have a black checkerboard pattern and adults can grow 19 to 40 inches in length. A Y- or V- shaped mark can be found on their neck, just under their head. They can be found in the woods, fields, marshes, farmlands, and suburbs. Many can be found living under logs, rocks, or old boards. They will eat small mammals, small birds, and smaller snakes. They constrict their prey by squeezing tightly until the animal suffocates and then proceed to eat their prey whole. Milk snakes have to avoid larger mammals such as raccoons, coyotes, foxes, and skunks. They will try to flee first, but they will sometimes vibrate their tail against the ground which mimics the sound of a rattlesnake.

Milk snakes get their name from a myth that they drink milk from nearby cows. Farmers kept finding this snake near their barns and fields, which they mistakenly thought the snakes were there for the cows instead of the rodents living in the barns. Milk snakes are actually quite beneficial especially to farmers because they eat pest species such as rodents. Although this is a common species, problems such as habitat loss and fragmentation, persecution (often mistaken for venomous snakes), predation by invasive species, and road mortality may lead to the disappearance of this beautiful species.

Dekay’s brown snake

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Dekay’s brown snake.

This is a highly secretive, but a small dark brown or tan colored snake. There are two rows of dark spots running down its back, with a mid-back light colored band. The belly has a gray to pinkish coloration and sometimes has small black spots. In length, they usually range from nine to 15 inches. This is one of the few species that survives well in disturbed habitats such as urban areas. They prefer to stay under covered areas such as rocks or boards. Sometimes they will venture out during the day, but they will come out during the night when the weather is really warm. They will explore the area looking for prey such as insects, slugs, earthworms, and small tree frogs. They can also eat snails with their specialized teeth and jaws which helps them to pull the snails out of their shells.

When threatened, they will flatten their body to appear larger and may even release a foul smell called musk. Some predators are large frogs and toads, larger snakes, crows, hawks, blue jays, and weasels. These snakes are perfect friends for your garden since they prefer to eat a pest species such as snails. They control slug and earthworm populations, while serving as a valuable food source for their predators. During the winter, brown snakes will go into brumation (similar to hibernation in mammals) with other snakes in holes in the ground, old walls, and cracked foundations.