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Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

32-Inch Tectron Dobsonian Telescope Gets Automated

Insight Observatory has been involved in a few modification and installation projects in recent years. Such endeavors included installing an 11" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at a private high school and a robotic observatory and telescope at a science and environmental camp. These projects are not and never intended to be our primary focus, however, these projects paved the financial way of achieving our goal of installing remote robotic imaging telescopes for education in New Mexico.

Our most recent and final project of this type was by far the most challenging, but yet very rewarding. Dr. Tim Barker,  Professor of astronomy at Wheaton College,  donated a 32" Tectron Dobsonian telescope to the Harwich Observatory located at the Harwich Elementary School in Harwich, Massachusetts a few years back. Observatory director and elementary school teacher, Larry Brookhart found it challenging at times to manually locate objects in the night sky due to the instruments mammoth size. Therefore, this leads to Dr. Barker and Mr. Brookhart automating the telescope with a GOTO system.

32-Inch Tectron Dobsonian Telescope Gets Automated
From left to right, Insight Observatory members Paul Bonfilio and Michael Petrasko with the 32" Tectron Telescope. 

Years earlier Dr. Barker acquired a ServoCAT GOTO with (Argo Navis digital setting circles) kit from StellarCAT, a company that specializes in manufacturing computerized automated telescope systems for Dobsonian telescopes. The kit was designed for 20" Dobsonian telescopes as he anticipated installing it on a 20" Dobsonian telescope he owned at the time. That was our first hurdle... To figure out how to install a kit for a 20" telescope on a 32" telescope. This scenario actually worked out to our advantage as the 32" telescope's rocker box and base were altered years back from a previous attempt at installing a different automated goto system by another vendor. Unfortunately, the attempt failed and the telescope's base and rocker box were altered to the extreme that the ServoCAT system Dr. Barker owned could not be installed in the proper manner.

This is where the ingenuity of Insight Observatory Associate, Paul Bonfilio, came into play. Paul had the vision of utilizing torque to automatically slew the telescope rather than depending on the power of the servo motors solely that came with the kit as they are designed to do. This seemed to be the only option due to the extreme alteration of the telescopes rocker box and base.

32-Inch Tectron Dobsonian Telescope Gets Automated
Paul Bonfilio Sr. and Paul Bonfilio Jr. working on the customized azimuth gear from repurposed hardware.

Paul and I brought the telescope's rocker box and base up from the observatory to Paul's father's barn (workshop) in Plymouth, MA to work on the project. Paul's father, Paul Bonfilio Sr., is a master of many trades and was equipped with the required tools necessary to complete the project. It was incredible witnessing the two of them brainstorm through the project together. Both of them have NEVER worked on telescopes and had the vision and "know how" to make this work!

32-Inch Tectron Dobsonian Telescope Gets Automated
Paul Bonfilio Jr. installing the D-gear assembly for the telescope's altitude operation.

The azimuth gear was fabricated from a repurposed part from the previous attempt to automate the telescope. The altitude gear is a D-Gear that a local high school woodshop teacher graciously cut for us on a CNC machine. The design for the gear was drawn up on a CAD software application provided by a local Computer Aided Drawing teacher at another local high school. The clutch and digital setting circle encoder installations for the GOTO system had to be altered as well to work with this new D-Gear setup.

After installation of the kit was complete, there was much testing to be done in the barn with the rocker box and base. After achieving success slewing, it was time to bring the components back to the Harwich Observatory and re-assemble the 32" mirror and truss to the rocker box. Our two fears were that the cable we used on the D-Gear to move the optical tube assembly up and down would not be able to handle the weight and/or the servo motors that were made for the 20" telescope model would not have enough power to slew the telescope. Well... Our fears were put to rest when the telescope slewed without issue due to Paul Jr's. concept of utilizing torque!

32" Tectron Dobsonian Upgraded with ServoCAT

32" Tectron Dobsonian telescope modified with a ServoCAT and Argo Navis GOTO system (manufactured by StellarCAT) installed by the staff of Insight Observatory.
I would like to thank both Paul Bonfilio Sr. and Jr. for their persistence to make this project a success as well as the patience by our clients, Dr. Barker and Mr. Brookhart, in spite all of the obstacles we encountered! We look forward to getting a look through this beautiful instrument some evening at one of Harwich Observatory public star parties. One of the most rewarding experiences from this project was working with those in the education community to benefit astronomy education.
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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Astronomy April at Whitin Observatory

On Monday, April 23, 2018, I had the chance to share my passion of astronomy with the subscribers of Facebook Education as part of their Astronomy April month. Facebook Education's Monica Ares conducted a Facebook Live session with Abigail Harrison (known as Astronaut Abby) and I at Whitin Observatory located on the campus of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Abby has the dream of becoming an astronaut and the first person to walk on Mars. She is also recognized as an International STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) and space ambassador and is the founder and leader of an international nonprofit with more than 1.1 million followers called The Mars Generation. After hearing her inspiring interview on Facebook Live, I truly believe with her passion and drive to be the first person to set foot on Mars... It will become a reality!

Facebook Education Live - Astronomy April Promo Card
Facebook Education Live - Astronomy April Promo Card.

I arrived an hour early to make sure I found my way to the observatory where the interview was scheduled to take place. After I arrived I browsed through classic astronomy texts in the observatory's library inserted between the domes. Monica and her sister, Cristina, (who amazingly operated the camera) arrived shortly thereafter. We were then greeted by Dr. Kim Katris McLeod, an astronomer and professor at the college, who gave us a brief tour of the telescopes housed under the three domes. As Monica and her sister were prepping for the live event, Dr. McLeod shared with me some of the research projects that were undertaken utilizing the 24" Sawyer telescope.

The Facebook Live interview started promptly at 1:00 pm EDT in the dome that houses the college's 12" Fitz Clark refractor telescope. Astronaut Abby was interviewed first describing how the 12" telescope operates and what its main function is at the observatory. Abby then gave a tour of the computer room that displayed meteorites and various antiquated research instruments such as a spectrometer and compasses. She then shared with the Facebook Education community the foundation she founded and leads.

Dr. Kim Katris McLeod explains how the 6" Alvin Clark refractor is used at Wellesley College (left) and Facebook Education's Monica Ares, Abigail Harrison (Astronaut Abby) and Insight Observatory  Managing Member / Project Developer Michael Petrasko (right)
Dr. Kim Katris McLeod explains how the 6" Alvin Clark refractor is used at Wellesley College (left) and Facebook Education's Monica Ares, Abigail Harrison (Astronaut Abby) and Insight Observatory
Managing Member / Project Developer Michael Petrasko (right)

The Mars Generation is an international nonprofit operated in the United States as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the support of an advisory board of astronauts, engineers, scientists and her hundreds of thousands of online supporters. The nonprofit has reached over 25 million people in its first two years of operation and works to educate and excite kids and adults about space exploration and STEM education. The Mars Generation has 3 core programs: Future of Space Outreach Program, Student Space Ambassador Leadership Program, and Space Camp Scholarship Program.

Whitin Observatory domes that house the 12" Fitz/Clark refractor (left) and the 6" Clark refractor (middle)  and the 24" Sawyer reflector telescope (far right).
Whitin Observatory domes that house the 12" Fitz/Clark refractor (left) and the 6" Clark refractor (middle)
and the 24" Sawyer reflector telescope (far right).

Then it was my turn... I waited in the dome that hosted the 6" refractor manufactured by Alvin Clark and Son's back in 1890. Monica proceeded to ask me to explain a little about the 6" telescope and how it differs from the imaging telescope we have at Insight Observatory. I explained to Monica how our 16" remote imaging telescope, designated the Astronomical Telescopes for Educational Outreach (ATEO), is accessible for the education community via the internet bringing the universe to the classroom. I also explained the different types of research projects that can be done with the ATEO such as extragalactic supernova search, asteroid hunting, studying variable stars or simply imaging detailed colored images of galaxies and nebulae.

24" Sawyer Reflector telescope used for  student research at Wellesley college
24" Sawyer Reflector telescope used for student research at Wellesley college.

We all then proceeded to the dome that houses the 24" Sawyer reflector telescope. Astronaut Abby explained how the telescope is constantly used for research using CCD imaging equipment very much like the ATEO. Monica then ended the live segment with asking Abby and I a few questions posted by students. This event was an honor to be part of and I would like to thank Monica Ares from Facebook Education, Whiting Observatory and Astronaut Abby for inviting Insight Observatory to be part of it!

See the full Facebook Live event for Astronomy April Here!
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Saturday, April 7, 2018

Look - Up in the Sky: It's a Bird! It's a Plane!

... Well, yes, it probably is.

As an astronomer, with an interest in astrobiology and, therefore, in the possibility that life exists elsewhere in our universe - invariably, almost daily - someone will ask me something like: "Do you believe in aliens and UFOs?" My answer is, generally, something like: "I *ABSOLUTELY* believe that "they", are out there. They're just not, here."  But they don't like that answer, and at that point, the conversation usually turns to question the current state of my sanity: "How can you possibly believe in life in the universe - but NOT in UFOs?" Well, there are some really good reasons for this; and, here is my answer:

"Tweet" "Tweet" "Tweet"!

THE SHORT STORY:

1) Universal Constants There is no 'getting around' such things as universal constants: they are constants because they are, by nature, unchangeable; nothing can alter them. They obey inherent, long-proven, immutable laws of physics that are the same - everywhere in the universe. (How we know this, is another, very long story - so forget it.)  But, what this means, is that, no, intelligent, alien life-forms (or, 'Extraterrestrial Biological Entities', if you prefer), could build a vessel for space travel that could 'out-maneuver', or, 'get around', say, the speed of light, for one. They would be subject to the same distances and travel times that we would be subject to. Even if they were from some planet in the nearest star/planetary system, which is the Proxima Centauri system - and even if they could travel at the speed of light - it would take their spacecraft 4.2 years to arrive here at Earth - the same length of time that it takes light to travel that very same distance. 

So, let us take a look at light for just a minute: 'Light', is a mass-less, neutrally-charged radiation from a particle called a photon. Photons are propagated through the vacuum of space in waves, at a constant speed, or, velocity. That velocity never varies, and we can use it to measure the distance to any celestial object by calculating the time it takes to travel from one place to another. The way we can measure these distances is by knowing the speed of light itself, which has been determined, and confirmed, countless times, to be exactly: 186,282.3976 mi/sec. Therefore: light from the moon takes 1.3 seconds to arrive at our eyes, here on Earth. Light from the sun takes 8.5 minutes. From the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, to our Solar System, the travel time for light is 4.2 years.  From those travel times, we can define the distance that light travels, in, say, one year's time - 5,874,601,670,000 miles. This is where we get the term light-year (LY) from. So, one light-year (LY) = 5,874,601,670,000 miles. The term is used as a measure of distance, rather than of time, for obvious reasons. And, as if that weren't bad enough - the next closest star hosting a known planetary system, is Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut ('foam*a*low'), is 25 LY's away. This means that our brave little aliens - in their very special (and, very impossible) light-speed-traveling spacecraft - would take 25 years to get here! After Fomalhaut, comes Pollux, at a distance of 34 LY's, and then, Algieba, at 126 LY's, way out there in interstellar space. There are many, many more stars beyond 126 light-years, this is true, but: nothing in the universe can travel at the speed of light, except light; that speed limit is reserved - for EMS radiations, only.**

The reasons for this are far too involved to get into in this limited space, so, as I had implied, earlier - I won't. You'll have to take my word for it. Violation of these restrictions (where the violation would exist, hypothetically, only), would bring on all kinds of impossible, even, laughable consequences; for example, infinite length-contraction and infinite mass, to name just two. Length-contraction and mass increase are two, verified relativistic effects from General Relativity. They are very real - and, they are problematic to mess with - so we're staying away from them. In short, anyone else out there is limited to the same physical restrictions, as ourselves.

The top speed that any of our manned-spacecraft has ever achieved is about 26,000 mph - that's, one hour, to travel 26,000 miles. That's pretty darned fast, right? Nevertheless, in one hour light will travel 670,000,000 (670 million) miles. So, let's cut our 'little alien friends' some slack, and say that they have built a spacecraft that can travel 100 times the speed of our own. That will give them, a top speed of - 2,600,000 mph! Now, I've calculated it all out, so, I'll skip all the math here, but it's going to take those guys - 11,151 years to get to Earth - from the very closest star!  And if they're from Fomalhaut, it'll take them - only, 44,604 years - to get here!  And if they intended on going back home - they'll need an additional 44,604 years for the return trip! (Are you seeing the collective problem here?) Not a good position to be in, for interstellar space-farers, to say the least.

Next item up for attack:

2) The unreliability of 'eyewitness' UFO reports Most people don't spend much time, on any given night, staring up at the sky. They might notice the moon and stars, an occasional meteor, or, falling star - but that's about it. But, astronomers, typically, spend many hours on any, given, clear night peering intently into the sky. Not only are they in, direct, visual contact - night after night, year after year - but, they also have highly sensitive instruments, trained in various sectors of the celestial sphere.

I have never known any astronomer to file a UFO report - or, even, having had a sighting. Why should this be, when, so many others have?! The answer is not that astronomers are involved in some kind of UFO/conspiracy cover-up (if they were - I would have spilled the beans a long time ago). No; there is no need to be. You can't conspire about something that, you understand, does not exist. Moreover, unlike so many others, when it comes to strange-looking objects in the night sky, the astronomer has seen it all. She/He understands the many kinds of objects that the night sky has to offer, which, the typical layperson, couldn't identify if their lives' depended on it.  I really don't mean to sound so harsh, but, that's a harsh truth - and I've heard all kinds of stories, misrepresentations, and misinterpretations. The problem that we astronomers have with this, is, that so many people think they can.

There are many, many celestial phenomena that the average layperson has never or, possibly, will never experience, such as, bolide or fireball meteors - especially the rare, larger asteroid fragments. Back in April of 1966, a large, iron asteroid fragment, had entered the atmosphere, at a shallow enough angle that its long flight through the thickened air slowed it considerably. Anyone not familiar with such sight could easily have mistaken it for a burning aircraft. The 15ft.-diameter chunk of space-iron, which, emitted, glowing green and yellow at its leading edge, or, 'head', took about 45 seconds to cross the sky, from horizon to horizon, moving parallel to the thickened column of air hugging the Earth's surface at such a low angle. The object left a trail of glowing, orange fragments, along with its path - coupled with a wide corridor of white smoke, which I could trace all the way back to its point of origin (exclusive to my position). Measurements taken from Harvard College Observatory of the flight-path of the object determined that it was 160 miles, due West, of my position on Cape Cod, and 60 miles in altitude, when it entered the atmosphere moving northwards, over New Jersey.  Then the rough, melting, mass of rock and iron, 'skipped' back out of the atmosphere, somewhere over Ontario, Canada. Sightings of asteroid passages of this magnitude are very rare; typically, a once-in-a-lifetime event. I was very fortunate to have seen two of them, as well as, the following, aging Earth satellite. 

In late July of 1979, I was spending the afternoon at Quissett Harbor, when I was treated to a replay of the 1966 asteroid flight. Low over the treeline, at the northwest horizon, there appeared a brilliant, blue-white object about the size of the full moon moving towards the southwest at an elevation of about 40 degrees. The object produced a long, white train of smoke behind it, which I was able to trace back to its point of origin. The object moved slowly across the sky at about the same velocity as that of the '66 fireball. I later learned that it was a large' chunk' of the Skylab, orbiting space station, which had suffered orbital decay that afternoon and plummeted through the atmosphere, at a moderately low angle, and ended up - in pieces - in the Australian Outback.  And there's more confusion in the sky: planetary groupings, conjunctions, opposition's, some of which, even include the moon; comets, asteroids, satellite panel, and, antennae flares, the International Space Station, and, even, 'stationary meteors' (I've witnessed exactly one case of the latter). 

My point, is, that these, admittedly, spectacular events are very, very rare and could confuse anybody that didn't have a background in astronomy, and meteorology - and that includes pilots.  Aircraft pilots have it particularly tough when it comes to identifying objects in the sky that they aren't familiar with. One of the reasons for this is lack of depth-of-field, or, an inability to determine an unfamiliar object's size, distance, and proximity, for want of a familiar reference point, or, a familiar object to compare with. This is because 'binocular vision', or, the 3-D, or, 'stereo' aspect of an object, beyond about 50 feet, is lost. This is the distance at which camera lenses become, 'fixed', at infinity. The 3-D effect is lost at that point and the brain's ability to judge an object's relative distance, relative velocity, or, even its dimensions, is lost unless the object is one that the viewer can recognize, and therefore, it's dimensions recalled to memory. Even then, relative distance and relative velocity are judged - not by vision, per se - but by the observer's familiarity with the object. 

Aside from those celestial and meteorological surprises, and at least as important, is the subject of visual phenomena. For example, small, star-like points of light when seen in the sky, against a dark background, can produce, physical, visual phenomena like the one that I experienced, one night, in younger days, while watching the stars at the beach with my brother... Standing, facing the southern horizon and opposite our positions on the beach, we noticed a 'star' that was moving very slowly along the horizon and toward our right. After several minutes, it became apparent that the 'star' had a second component to its motion; it was moving toward us as well. After about another minute, it grew much brighter, and larger, and then -- began to sway, slightly -- back and forth, like a pendulum! We both saw this. At the same time. And at that point, I said to my brother, "Are you seeing what I am?!"  He answered, "You mean, it's wobbling!?"  Yes, that's what we saw all right. Meanwhile, there was no sound, whatsoever. Knowing that this was an impossible feat, for any conventional aircraft, and, that it broke, probably several of Newton's Laws of Motion, I then, yelled to my brother - of all things - "let's ditch into the dune grass - fast!"  Immediately after those, "out-to-lunch" words of wisdom, left my big mouth - we both heard the tell-tale, unmistakable - "thwup, thwup, thwup, thwup, thwup, thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap" - of approaching, doppler-compressed helicopter rotor blades....and then, we went home. And we didn't mention it, to anyone - ever again.

This common, but typically unrecognized, visual 'mirage' is called the 'pendulum effect'. It's just one of many possible anomalies of the human, eye-brain interface. There are others (some, you wouldn't believe!), like a  type of image 'flicker' that can cause a seizure in certain, affected persons. And there are others, even some that you have, likely, unwittingly experienced, at one time or another. For more enlightenment, see: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/jphysiol.1977.sp011686/full

On any given day, there are around 200 reports of UFO's, around the globe. And there are also those who have a tendency toward 'conspiracy theory' out there, as well. Current television, 'documentary'-style programming which focuses on ancient alien visitation, and the like, are presented in serial form. They are able to continue on, and on, and on - only because they have nothing of import to present. Speculation is, seemingly, blissfully infinite. An important point once made by the late, Carl Sagan, very simply, states: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"; and that - is the missing component in the data from those who make such claims as, possessing 'proof', of flying, extraterrestrially-piloted, vehicles/crafts, etc., over the skies of Earth. The 'proof' - in any form - of visitation by beings from other worlds, simply, doesn't exist. And, not to burst anyone's bubble - but, here's a little quote of my own: "In Science, you go with what you've got - not, with what you'd like to have".

So, I feel that I'm safe in saying, that, our skies are not full of the alien spacecraft, and their pilots, that most witnesses of 'UFO's' believe there to be. If and when that situation ever changes - and it is, hypothetically, entirely possible - it'll be a different story. But for the moment, the reigning consensus on whether or not we're being visited by beings from other worlds, by those who know best (the Astronomers), is, a big, fat "No".  **(This applies to all forms of radiation in the Electromagnetic Spectrum, including radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, x-ray, and gamma-ray radiations; all, are forms of light.)
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