Capitol Skies - Jan/Feb 1999

Newsletter of the Madison Astronomical Society

In this issue

Annual Spring Banquet:

Where: C. J.'s East  - 802 Atlas Avenue - Madison
When:: April 9 - 6:30 PM
Send check payable to MAS with meal selections to Jane Breun by Friday April 2, 1999
Meal Choices: Prime Rib $17, Stuffed Chicken $13
Don't miss this event. Socialize with MAS friends, hear a fine speaker, applaud our award winners for the 1998 year and enjoy a summary of the year of progress that the MAS had in 1998.

Winter Activities of the MAS

A small issue for a small month. The Winter months have been a bit grim and the skies have not been very good for a long while. Thus there is a bit less than the normal activity in the MAS and at the Yanna Research Station.

Boy Scout Star Party January 19 at YRS
There was a welcome break in the weather and a singularly clear sky that evening. About two dozen members from area Boy Scout Troops viewed various celestial objects and learned about the wonders of the universe from MAS members. Bob Manske, Dave Weier, Wynn Wacker, Tom Brissett, Tim Ellestad, Bruce Brinkerhoff and others took part in this event. This was a great example of the MAS carrying out its educational function. Our thanks to all those who participated in this event.

Meeting Speakers January 8
On January 8, at the regular meeting of the MAS at Space Place, two speakers told us about Wisconsin's very own meteor crater. Carl Bethke an astronomy teacher at MATC and a former student of his (now a graduate student at the UW in geology) are studying a very ancient upheaval that could have come from a meteor impact. While the evidence is still being gathered, it appears that a large meteor made a six mile diameter crater near Glover's Bluff. Because of the heavy glaciation and considerable weathering over the years, evidence has been all but erased. Still the detective work results which were presented were significant and quite convincing. Work to determine the exact location and size of the crater continues but Bethke stressed a time problem as evidence is quickly disappearing.  Glover's Bluff is being quarried by a concrete supplier and items like impact cones and upturned layering in the sedimentary rock may turn up pulverized in the next sidewalk, foundation or patio slab.

News letter will need editor
It is not too early to consider participating in the editing and publishing of the newsletter. The current editor has been on the job for two years and it is time to pass the duties on. I will be happy to help the new editor get started and help make the transition smooth and easy. The April issue will be my last. If you are interested please contact the MAS president.

Progress on projects at YRS
Work was just a tiny bit short of completion when Winter set in with a vengeance. The telescope tube and mount need a bit more work. Ray Zit is working on the OTA and Dick Greiner will be installing the drives and tuning the drive up soon. The dome and the shutter are both working well. The motorized rotation mechanism for the dome is designed and the parts made. It is still to be assembled on the building. These projects will be completed just as soon as weather permits.

In other respects, our buildings, equipment and other facilities at the Yanna Research Station remain in good condition.


In organizing a committee to focus on youth outreach, the Madison Astronomical Society has recognized a growing concern over the fliture of amateur astronomy given the greying of the current amateur community. There are various factors contributing to this phenomenon, some of which will be reviewed in the report the committee will present to the Society next January. That report will also describe efforts which the Society and its members have undertaken to help counter this trend as well as suggesting additional possibilities for consideration.

However, as we pursue our own endeavors in this regard, it is important not to forget that others in our community are striving towards the same ends. It is reasonable that in addition to our own direct efforts, we could flirther progress towards the goal of greater community consciousness of things astronomical by providing some formal recognition of those individuals who, thiough their special efforts, have contributed to public awareness of astronomy. Accordingly, I would like to propose that the Madison Astronomical Society institute an Astronomy Education and Outreach Award.

This award would go to individuals who have contributed to improving general public awareness of astronomy in the city of Madison and the state of Wisconsin. Special consideration would be given to those whose efforts focus on the younger members of the community. Candidates would be nominated by members of the Society and, in the event of more than one nominee, the nominations would be reviewed by the Board of Directors of the Society, who would make a recommendation to the general meeting of the Society at which all members present would select the winner(s) by majority vote. The award could be made no more than once in a calendar year, though there could be more than one recipient if deemed appropriate by the membership.

The award itself need not be very elaborate. A simple certificate in an inexpensive frame would be adequate. The honor is not in the object itself but in community recognition backed by whatever prestige the Society may command. The certificate would contain, in addition to the title and purpose of the award, the year, and the name of the awardee, a brief statement summarizing the contributions the recipient has made in astronomy education and outreach. The annual banquet would seem to be the appropriate time for making the presentation and the Society or individual contributors would cover the expense of the meal for the awardee and an escort should he or she choose to attend in person.

The value of such recognition should not be underestimated. Simply knowing that our undertakings are appreciated serves to spur most of us to strive harder. Recipients whose efforts occur within the context of formal educational or scientific institutions could cite this instance of public recognition when the difficult and political decisions regarding finding are made, and could add it to their curriculum vitae. The Society itself would benefit from closer association with those who share our goals, and whose contact with the public may foster increased awareness of our existence and aims.

I would like, therefore, to move that the Madison Astronomical Society implement this award, subject to whatever modifications the membership deem appropriate, and that a volunteer be found to design the award certificate. I also move that announcement of the award be made nominees solicited in the next issue of Capitol Skies, so that the first award may be presented at the 1999 annual banquet.

Respectfiilly submitted - Wynn Wacker

[The motion was made, seconded and carried. So get your nominations in now - ed]

A February Rendezvous - Jupiter and Venus at Sunset
By John Rummel

February of 1999 is a month to be long-remembered by all casual watchers of the sky. All month long, the planet Jupiter is slowly making its way westward, where it will eventually sink below the horizon until Earth's next swing around the sun. As Jupiter slowly disappears into the sun's glare, Venus is rapidly climbing above the west horizon to take it's place as the brilliant evening star for the next several months. In late February, the two planets will temporarily rendezvous in a startling display of celestial wonder.

Let the Show Begin, Observer's Challenge for February 1999

Just after sunset on the February 17th 1999 Jupiter and Venus will occupy a patch of sky just 5 degrees on a side (5 degrees is about the width of 3 fingers at arm's length). Just below the planetary pair, find a razor-thin sliver of moon just one and a-half days past new.

The next evening, the 18th, the moon will have moved to the upper left of the planets, and their tight grouping will make for an unforgettable sight. But the show's not over. In the days that follow, the moon will move off to the east, but Jupiter and Venus will inch closer and closer for a final rendezvous on the 23rd. On that day, just after sunset, both planets will appear so close in our skies that you can easily cover them both with the tip of your pinky, and have plenty of room left over. Their actual separation at this time will be about 1/5 of a degree (the full moon's diameter is 1/2 degree). Both planets would fit nicely into a medium power telescope field-of-view for a breathtaking spectacle.

For a bonus, watch another 8 days until March 3rd. Just after sunset (6:15 or so), look for a nice planetary lineup. From the bottom up, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. Saturn, by this time the dimmest of the group, will be above the other three by about a fist and a-half.

Some doomsday watchers in need of a dramatic event for the upcoming millennium point to a "grand conjunction" on May 5 2000 as a possible day of disaster for the Earth. It's true that May of 2000 will bring a very interesting grand conjunction, but unfortunately all the planets involved (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) will be so close to the sun that they will be virtually invisible to all but professionals with specialized equipment.

Conjunctions such as this month's with Venus and Jupiter are not exactly rare - they happen on average once every few years - but they are beautiful and inspiring sights. Forget the gloom and doom naysayers. Sit back and enjoy the magnificent spectacle of our wondrous universe.

Observer's Notebook
by John Rummel

Binocular Delights of Winter

The popular image of astronomy seems to imply a telescope, but for some purposes, a telescope is exactly the wrong instrument to use. This month's challenge is a perfect example.

Galactic clusters, or open clusters as they're more commonly known, are loose clumps of young stars numbering from dozens to hundreds. They are closely associated in both proximity and motion - meaning they're traveling through space as a true group, and not just a convenient group created by our line of sight. Two of the best known open clusters can be viewed with the naked eye easily, the Hyades and Pleiades.

Early evening skies in January find the familiar figure of Orion the Hunter posted high in the south. Follow the three bright belt stars of Orion up to the right and you'll come to the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus. Aldebaran is embedded in a V-shaped asterism. The stars of the V are the Hyades cluster, which make up the head of the bull, with Aldebaran as the eye. Though this cluster is larger and less conspicuous than the Pleiades (a little beyond Hyades in the same direction), it is a very attractive region to explore with the right tool, and luckily, you probably have the right tool stuck away in a closet somewhere in your house; binoculars. The Hyades and Pleiades need a wide-field view and low magnification, for which binoculars are perfect.

For viewing these gems you'll want the darkest skies possible, so make sure not foiled by the moon (new moon is January 16th. Any night with a week either way should be fine).

After a few minutes of naked-eye appreciation (and a chance to let you eyes dark adapt), try the Hyades with the binoculars. The number of stars visible should at least double, and depending on the kind of binoculars you have, you'll probably do better than that. Even my little 7x35's provide a breathtaking view.

Aldebaran's "membership" in this cluster is accidental. It is twice as close as the other stars and moving through space in a different direction. In a few hundred thousand years, it will have moved off to join some new star pattern, but the Hyades will remain.

The Pleiades is undoubtedly one of the most famous objects in the sky, and one which has been known since antiquity. It garners two mentions in the Bible (Amos 5:8 and Job 38:31) and has led to countless myths, including those in ancient Greece, Japan, aboriginal Australia, Africa, and Borneo.

To novices, the Pleiades has actually been mistaken for the Little Dipper since its six brightest stars look like a little dipper (and it _is_ tiny). The real Little Dipper is stuck forever at due north, while the Pleiades roams the heavens and is actually visible to over 80% of the world's population, which accounts for its popularity in legend.

After you've tested the limits of your vision to see how many of the "seven sisters" you can see (most people can make out six easily, sharper eyes and darker skies may get up to a dozen!), reach for the binoculars again.

First time observers have been heard to gasp when viewing the Pleiades through good binoculars for the first time. At least 20 stars within the cluster are just below naked eye limits and spring into view suddenly when viewed with low magnification. If you ever doubted the value of binoculars as an astronomical instrument, a glance at the Pleiades will remedy your opinion!

Modern long exposure photos reveal no less than 2000 stars within the confines of the Pleiades, of which about 250 are actually "true members." A good binocular view of the Pleiades will cement the concept of a cluster in your mind; a dazzling collection of stars surrounded by blackness.

As a bonus, scan back down to Orion and zero in on the "sword" hanging just below his belt. The belt is made up of three tiny groups of stars. The middle one is fuzzy and indistinct. This is the site of the famous "Orion Nebula," which is in fact a stellar nursery even now busily engaged in hatching new stars. It's a rich binocular sight all by itself, and in a few hundred thousand or a million years, might be a new Pleiades, gracing the skies of some as yet unborn civilization.

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