February, 2000

From the Editor:

A belated winter has finally arrived, and if other observing members are like me, you've been getting out less thanks to the snow cover, clouds, and cold temperatures. Nevertheless, this issue is packed with some good stuff. Bob Manske's series begun last year on MAS history is continued this month. Reading over these notes from MAS meetings 60 years ago will give you some perspective on how the world has changed since then. Astrophotographer and regular contributor Mike McDowell captures two full moons in a row and shares his results in these pages.

Also included in this issue is an important announcement on the next page that details our intention to publish our membership list in the next issue of this newsletter. Please read it over and be sure to let us know if you'd rather not have your name published.

Over the past few months, considerable discussion has taken place at our monthly meetings regarding the issue of getting and keeping new members. To this end, several decisions have taken place which should vastly improve the way new member issues are managed.

1) Each monthly meeting of the MAS will now begin with a 7:00 to 7:30 round table just for new members, prospective members, visitors, or others who have questions or concerns that are best addressed in a small group setting. These meetings will take place in the main meeting hall of Space Place (while the back room is used for the board meeting).

2) A new member packet is being assembled, so that every person joining the MAS will be handed a collection of materials including a letter of welcome, information related to the Yanna Research Station, a recent club newsletter, introductory information from Astronomy magazine, and a helpful handout from Eagle Optics on choosing the right telescope. We are also working on a page or two of materials (including a map) to introduce new members to the Yanna Research Station.

3) To assist in managing these issues, a new committee was formed, the "Membership Management Committee" under the chairmanship of Ben Senson (himself a relatively new member).

As you can imagine, such efforts will go a long way toward answering the questions that many visitors and new members may have, but thus far may have gone unasked, or unanswered. MAS recognizes the importance of recruiting and keeping members, particularly from amongst the ranks of students and other young people. An energetic infusion of new members will complement the vast resources of experience and wisdom accumulated in the current MAS membership roster. As we look forward to celebrating the 70th anniversary of the MAS, it will do us good to reflect that today's new members represent the future of the club.

Over the past few weeks, I have received several comments from members expressing their appreciation for the recent articles dealing with members' own observing experiences. Bob Manske's account of the Aldebaran graze, Mike McDowell's pursuit of the Mercury transit, Tom Brissette's deep sky observing notes. These and other pieces are what I regard as the bread and butter of an astronomy club newsletter. Pieces like this are what most club members will enjoy reading about the most. I encourage all members to consider writing up their own observing experiences. You may think nobody would be interested in reading about your Leonid observations, or your lunar eclipse viewing experience, or your quest to nail the Herschel 400. You'd be wrong. Amateur astronomers enjoy reading about other amateur experiences. MAS members enjoy hearing about what their friends are doing. We'd love to have your prose or your pictures. Please consider submitting your own experiences to this newsletter.

-John Rummel

Calendar of Events

February 8 Space Place Guest speaker: UW Astronomy Dept. Prof. Matt Bershady, "How to Weigh a Galaxy." 7:00 pm, 1605 S. Park St.

February 11 MAS monthly meeting at Space Place. 7:00 board meeting and beginner's clinic. 7:30, Jane Breun "Leaping Leap Years: the Development of the Western World's Solar Calendar".

February 16 MMSD Planetarium programs, THE EXPLORERS: Join us as we focus on the human spirit of exploration through time and space. You'll learn about constellations, daily motions, and how those can be used to help you navigate by utilizing techniques used by the Polynesians for thousands of years. Memorial High School (corner of Mineral Point and Gammon), 6:30 and 7:45 pm.

February 22 Space Place, Eyes on the Skies presentation by Jim Lattis. 7:00 pm, 1605 S. Park St.

March 10 MAS monthly meeting. 7:00 board meeting and beginner's clinic. 7:30, main presentation: Donald Cox from the UW Physics dept. will give a talk, topic TBA. At Space Place, 1605 S. Park St.

March 14 Space Place Guest speaker: Keivan Stassun, UW Astronomy Dept., "Star Rotation and Star Formation." 7:00 pm, 1605 S. Park St.

March 28 Space Place Eyes on the Skies presentation by Jim Lattis. 7:00 pm, 1605 S. Park St.

April 14 MAS Banquet at CJs east (Cottage Grove Rd). Linda Sparke, astronomy dept. at UW, topic TBA.

Special Notice:

In the next issue of Capitol Skies (the April/May issue), we plan to publish the MAS membership list. This is being done primarily to put information into the hands of members that may be useful in facilitating communication, finding people with similar interests, etc. We realize however, that some members may have privacy concerns about the publication of a list of names, phone numbers, email addresses, etc. If you wish that your name, or any personal information be omitted from the list, please notify me (John Rummel) no later than March 1st (jrummel@globaldialog.com or 827-5116). If I don't hear from you, I'll assume that you have no problem with your name appearing in this newsletter.

While on the subject, a few words about newsletter distribution: just who sees this 8 page pulp that you're holding now? The newsletter is mailed every month to the 80 or so members of the MAS, plus a few additional former members and other important friends of the MAS. Newsletters are also given to all those visiting meetings, and to anyone contacting the MAS and requesting a copy. In addition, a stack of 20 to 30 newsletters is given to the Madison School District planetarium (for distribution at their monthly public programs), Space Place, and Eagle Optics. We print about 200 newsletters each issue and every one of these generally finds its way to the hands of someone interested in astronomy in the Madison area.

From the Treasurer

by Joe Keyes

MAS warmly welcomes new members Paul Lease, Paul Marrione, Thomas Miskelly, Luella & Wayne Pinto, Mark Schwalbe, and Mark Wysocki.

Over the last two months, the following gifts to the club were made by members:

$8.00 - Dennis Fryback

$8.00 - Doris Koster

$100.00 - Bruce Brinkerhoff (to pay off his end of his challenge)

Notes from Space Place

I want to offer my sincere thanks to the MAS volunteers who helped with our Firstar Eve efforts on New Year's Eve. We had 447 visitors that evening, and a great many of them took a few moments to see Jupiter, Saturn, et al. through the sidewalk telescopes. Several dedicated MAS members spent a long time tending the telescopes, but their efforts were very important (as indicated, if nothing else, by the many comments I heard from visitors), and we couldn't have done it without them. I expect we'll have even more visitors this year (when the 2nd millennium really ends!) and I hope that MAS will continue to support bringing astronomy to the public at Space Place as part of Firstar Eve.

The public viewing of the Leonid meteor shower, on the morning of Nov 18, was a big success that would only have been better had there been a meteor shower. We had about 150 people attend at our site in Wingra Park over the period from midnight to dawn. There were several impressive meteors that left nice trails, and a handful of lesser ones. But the number of shower members was not much more than the number of sporadics, so we were somewhat disappointed that the activity had declined so rapidly after the European peak some hours earlier. The sky was slightly hazy, but it was still worthwhile to observe a few objects through the 12-inch Newtonian belonging to David Leibl of UW-Extension, who was one of the organizers of the event. We also enjoyed hot coffee and hot chocolate contributed by Mark Ballering of Steep and Brew. So the real news here is that the general public will show up for a predawn astronomical event!

- Jim Lattis

Lunar Eclipse, January 20th, 2000

Photos by Mike McDowell, text by John Rummel

We couldn't have asked for better skies on Thursday evening. A snowstorm the previous day left in its wake a high pressure system, crystal clear skies (after an early evening "haze scare"), and brutally cold temperatures. Mike McDowell and I observed the event from a private home about a mile west of Middleton. We decided that Mike would try to capture a photographic record of the event with his C8, and I would set up mine for visual observing for the two of us and the 3 or 4 visitors who joined us.

Even as we were setting up the equipment, we realized that coping with the subzero temperatures was going to be the principal challenge of the evening. Just a few minutes out-of-doors, and I could already feel my fingers going numb inside my gloves. Not a good omen.

Throughout the penumbral phase (from about 8 pm to 9 pm) we debated whether or not the difference was noticeable at all. I thought the moon appeared essentially normal (e.g., no darkening effect was discernible) while Mike thought, especially as 9 pm drew near, that there was a slight darkening on the moon's southeastern limb. I had warned my friends that, especially due to the forecast cold temps, that the best time to start observing would be around 9 pm, since the penumbral effect would be essentially unnoticeable, and I was glad to be right on that. Mike, on the other hand, had told his friends to start watching shortly after 8, and he was now worried that they'd think he was screwy.

Shortly after 9 pm there was no doubt. As the umbra made contact with the moon, the "flattening" effect was unmistakable and dramatic. Thereafter, the eclipse proceeded quickly as more and more of the moon was blackened by the Earth's shadow. I was surprised by the sharp definition of the shadow's edge. From previous lunar eclipses (prior to my being an amateur astronomer), I remembered more of a fuzzy appearance to the shadow's edge.

Since early in the penumbral phase, Mike had been snapping pictures every 3 minutes or so with his 35mm camera at prime focus. He was a little worried about when to lengthen his exposure times, and finally settled on a formula based on his own experience and some advice from a few web pages. I had both my 7x50 binoculars and my C8 set to give ourselves and our guests good views. Of the two, I definitely preferred the binocular views due to the wider field.

What impressed me most about the event was the beautiful definition of the shadow's edge as the partial phase played out, and the stunning visibility of stars right next to the moon's limb during totality. Never had I seen the moon and faint stars in such close proximity. Beautiful!

By about 10:45, the cold had truly started to wear us out. An infusion of hot chocolate and warm cookies was not enough to overcome the bitter conditions, and with numb fingers and toes, we packed up the equipment, took a last binocular look, and called it a night.

Above: A photo mosaic of the lunar eclipse shot by Mike McDowell on 1/20/2000 from the town of Middleton. Exposures for the first five frames were 1/500th of a second, then lengthened to 5 seconds to capture the totality in the last three frames. C8 with Yashica FX-3 Super 2000 at prime focus.

Beginner's Corner: The Brightest Star

by John Rummel

Warm summer nights and astronomy are perfect partners. What can be better than lying on a blanket on a balmy night casually studying the milky way as it arches overhead?

Is it any wonder that most casual watchers of the sky are largely unfamiliar with the winter stars? Cold winter nights can be discouraging, but sky-watchers who venture out will not be disappointed. For instance, no summer night can match a winter sky for the sheer number of bright stars. In fact, of the 20 brightest stars in the sky, northern winter nights hold 7 of them, all in approximately the same part of the sky. The familiar figure of Orion has numbers 7 and 10 on the list of bright stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse. Neighboring Gemini has Pollux, number 17 on the list. Close by are Aldebaran in Taurus (number 14), Procyon in Canis Minor (number 8), and Capella in Auriga (number 6).

Top dog on the list though, coming in at number one is Sirius. The brightest star in the sky (other than our own sun, of course) graces our winter skies all night long. Sirius is master of an otherwise undistinguished constellation, Canis Major, the big dog. For thousands of years, possibly longer, Sirius has been known as the "dog star."

Finding Sirius is easy. Find the unmistakable belt-stars of Orion, and follow them down and to the left. They point roughly at Sirius. Confirm its identification by its brightness, and you know you've found the dog star.

Nearly 10 times as bright as Betelgeuse or Rigel in neighboring Orion, Sirius is one of our sun's closest neighbors in the galaxy. At just under 9 light years distant, Sirius is a bright, hot star - significantly larger and brighter than our own sun. Inhabitants of a planet circling Sirius would see our sun as a 1st magnitude star somewhere between Vega and Altair, permanently spoiling the appearance of the "summer triangle" for Sirians.

To present day observers, Sirius appears white with a possible hint of blue. But ancient writers, including the great Ptolemy, spoke of Sirius as being "ruddy" or reddish. It seems very unlikely that a star could have changed colors so quickly (2 thousand years is barely an eye-blink in the life of a star). This discrepancy is one of the enduring mysteries to historians of astronomy.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, Sirius is the closest star easily visible. Of the close naked-eye stars, only Alpha Centauri A and B are closer, but these are visible only from southern latitudes. In the northern sky, Sirius is practically a back-fence neighbor. A few other stars are closer, but all are too faint to be seen without telescopes and finder charts. Of the other brighter stars in Canis Major, Sirius is alone in being so close. The other stars brighter than 4th magnitude range from about 60 to over 3000 light years away.

Like about half the stars in the sky, Sirius is part of a binary system. It has a very faint companion, known as the pup, or more properly, Sirius B, which can only be glimpsed with professional equipment, or under extremely favorable circumstances. Sirius B's existence was inferred for years because astronomers monitoring Sirius had noticed a slight wobble in its position over several decades. In 1862, renowned telescope maker Alvan Clark was testing a newly ground 18 inch lens when he noticed the unmistakable presence of the faint companion, later identified spectroscopically as the first definitive white dwarf star.

Bundle up in your warmest clothes, take a thermos of hot soup and a finder chart, and go out for an evening of winter star gazing. Reacquaint yourself with the winter constellations, and find a few new ones.

60 years of MAS

(This continues the MAS history article from last year. I have very lightly edited them and interspersed a few notes for your interest. Again, thanks to Dave Weier for this material. -Bob Manske)

1938 December Meeting. Dec -14 at the Washburn Observatory. 25 present.

Mr. P.R. Baird spoke on Meteor Craters including the Arizona crater which he had visited during the summer of 1938. There was considerable discussion.

It was voted to write into the minutes an expression of the journalistic work of Miss Paula Birner. Miss Birner writes an article on astronomy each month for the Madison newspapers.

Miss Birner was appointed official press representative of the society.

Meeting adjourned about 9:45.

1939 January Meeting. Jan. 11 at the Washburn Observatory. 30 present.

Miss Paula Birner spoke on Coming Astronomical Events.

The secretary talked about photo-cells and the Washburn Observatory photometer. Clouds interfered with a demonstration of the new differential photometer.

1939 February Meeting. Feb. 8 at the Observatory. 25 present

Mr. H.B. Porterfield conducted a symposium on stellar origins. Prepared papers were read by Mrs. Grove, Mr. Lappley, and Mr. Baillie. Various members took part in the discussion which followed.

The Cosik-Peltier comet was viewed through the 15 inch telescope before the program.

(Ed Baillie is still a member (lifetime - honorary) of the Madison, Astronomical Society. He served as President and as leader of the Junior MAS society. He is currently living in a nursing home in Verona, WI. Peltier is the famous Leslie Peltier of variable star fame. This entry shows that Peltier did more than make measurements of stellar magnitudes..)

1939 March Meeting. Postponed to March 14.

Lecture on Eclipses of the Sun by Professor Joel Stebbins. The lecture was mostly personal experiences at the Peru eclipse of June, 1937.

About 30 present.

1939 April Meeting. April 12.

Two motion pictures, A Motion Picture Trip to the Moon and The Solar Eclipse of August 31, 1932 were shown. Comments were made by Mr. McNaughton and the secretary.

40 present.

Plans were made for observing the Lyrid meteors.

Mr. Grams, Mrs. Porterfield, and Mrs. Hackler were appointed to prepare refreshments.

(The movies were certainly black and white, in all probability they were soundless, which would have necessitated the commentaries noted in the minutes.)

April 20 [1939].

About a dozen members gathered at the city reservoir to observe meteors. A few meteors were seen.

(Where is, or rather, was the Madison reservoir? And why would Madison have needed a reservoir?)

1939 May Meeting. May 10.

The society met at 8:00 PM at the Mechanical Engineering building for a demonstration of the planetarium by Mr. F.O. Winkley.

Adjournment was made to the Observatory where the revised constitution was read and unanimously adopted.

A nominating committee composed of Mr. Baillie, Mrs. Binney, and Mr. Hackler was elected to prepare a slate of nominations for officers of the society to report at the June meeting.

Note: Notice I write about Mr. Winkley in my article titled Nearly 100 Astronomers Meet at Picnic on Hill. P. Carey.

(P. Carey is Paula Carey. The number of famous Paulas associated with MAS is truly remarkable)

1939 June Meeting. June 14

The secretary announced that the society is invited to picnic and lecture at the Milwaukee Observatory on June 24th.

Rev. Lookabill was present and spoke briefly.

The following officers were elected to take office September 1:

H.B. Porterfield, President

Mrs. P.B. Grove, Vice President

C.M. Huffer, Secretary

Frank O. Grams, Treasurer

W.R. Binney,

G.F. Lappley,

E.P. Baillie, Directors

Mr. J.P. Williams talked about methods of telescope making for amateurs.

25 present.

1939 July Meeting. July 12. 19 present

A professor quiz was held, the outgoing president, vice president, and treasurer competing against the incoming ones. John Huffer substituted for Mrs. Roth. The new officers won, 1880 - 1550. The secretary was Prof. Quiz, Mr. L.W. Ketchum was score-keeper.

1939 August Meeting. Friday, Aug. 11. 45 present.

The annual shower of Perseid meteors, predicted maximum Aug 11, was the reason of postponing the meeting to Friday.

Because of clouds the secretary gave a short lecture on the subject of Perseids. Afterwards all enjoyed a beautiful display of aurora borealis through clouds. The aurora showed strong rose and green colors with streamers converging south of the zenith. Because of clouds and a very bright sky only a few meteors were seen Clouds again covered the sky at 1:00 AM.

A bountiful lunch was served at midnight under the direction of Mrs. Binney.

The new president submitted the following committees to the board of directors.

Publicity Miss Paula Birner

Social Mrs. Birney, Chairman

Mrs. Ketchum

Mrs. Roth

Program Mr. Ketchum, Chairman

Mr. Hackler

Mr. Baird

These nominations were unanimously approved.

(The social committee was responsible for providing refreshments (most likely milk and cookies) after the meetings. Our modern counterparts are Eric and Angela who find bars for us). Note the perfect sexual division of responsibilities in the above list.)

1939 September Meeting. Sept. 15. 18 present

The new president, Mr. Porterfield presided, and made a few remarks. The treasurer and secretary made their annual reports.

Mr. F.W. Winkley was nominated for honorary membership, to be voted on a the next meeting. It was suggested that the society maintain a Question Box.

The secretary described the operation of the telescope and those present saw several objects through it.

(Far away from Madison, in September of 1939 the world was falling apart. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, and on Sunday the 3rd, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun, and it would not leave the MAS unaffected. But in the fall of 39, our observers only watched from what they hoped was a far distance.)

The Super Moon of December 22, 1999

by Mike McDowell

You experienced the hype, received over a dozen emails about the solstice moon blurb from the Farmer's Almanac, read various spins in media articles and perhaps you even bothered to step outside away from your big screen television to look at the Super Moon of the Century! Just how much larger was it over an average full moon? Pictured at right is a photograph I took of the full moon on August 26, 1999 with my C8 @ f/6.3. Compare that to the December 22nd solstice full moon photograph on the right taken with the identical setup. Unfortunately, I have not taken a photograph of the full moon at apogee to compare these with, but it would reveal even greater variance. With the above in mind, imagine how the November 23rd full moon would have compared at 33' 59".

Astonishing and Unusual?

It has been heralded "The Super Moon." "The Astonishing Lunar Illumination of December 22, 1999" and "A millennial last hurrah of unusual brightness." Indeed, the final full moon of the "millennium" is as big and bright as full moons go, but the real question is how do full moons normally go? Chances are, if you have not noticed any variation in lunar brightness and disc size of full moons over the past year, then you probably didn't notice anything special about the December 22nd full moon. If you rarely seize opportunities to observe the full moon, this one may appear special for the simple reason that you are looking at it for a change and there is an interesting story to magnify the experience.

As the table to the right shows, there were plenty of substantial month to month variations in lunar disc size throughout the entire year. The apparent size variation of the full moon from November to December will only be .05%. I wonder if anybody noticed how unusual and astonishing the November full moon was? Or perhaps it was cloudy. Comparatively speaking, the December full moon appeared roughly the same size and brightness as it did in November.

Full moon data for 1999

Date Arc Diameter Magnitude % disk difference
1/1/99 32'58" -12.9 --
1/31/99 31'50" -12.8 -3.44%
3/2/99 31'4" -12.7 -2.41%
3/31/99 30'11" -12.6 -2.84%
4/30/99 29'42" -12.6 -1.60%
5/30/99 29'39" -12.6 -0.17%
6/28/99 30'13" -12.6 1.91%
7/28/99 30'49" -12.7 1.99%
8/26/99 31'35" -12.7 2.49%
9/25/99 32'24" -12.8 2.59%
10/24/99 33'9" -12.9 2.31%
11/23/99 33'59" -12.9 2.51%
12/22/99 34'0" -12.9 0.05%
Data obtained from RedShift 3 as viewed from observer position. Final column shows percent change over the previous month.


(left, August 26, 1999 - 31'35"; right, December 22, 1999 - 34' 0",
photo by Mike McDowell)

Back to Capitol Skies Main Page

Back to Madison Astronomical Society's Main Page