We're going to bit the bullet, and try a star party this coming Wednesday, June 28, 2017. The weather looks iffy, but there's a chance of clearing later, and it's the only time in a while that looks promising without running into a relatively full moon.
So, we'll start at 8. If nothing else, we can look around at the telescope operations for people who are interested. If it is clear, we should have some moon observation to play with, and later in the evening, if it does clear, Saturn will be the main player for the planets, along with all of the other wonderful summer deep sky objects. We'll go as late as people have energy for!
Hope to see you then!
A very busy, informative and exciting week of presentations and conferences culminated with an informal planning session exploring questions for future consideration, next steps, and potential next conferences.
The primary focus of the final two days was "The Research Seminar", which in the many variations that were presented involves students (from middle school up to college, including adults) in learning the basics of astronomy and remote telescope operation, using the remote telescope system robotically to gather astrometric data on binary star systems, and then using the data and analysis to produce a publishable paper to submit to a recognized journal, typically the Journal of Double Star Observations. Binary star observations are chosen as the target for the program because the data reduction and analysis are relatively simple, but in principle this program could be extended (and plans are being made to do so) to variable star photometry, spectroscopy, asteroid light curve analysis, and more.
The original concept for this originated with Russ Genet, from California Polytechnic University, and has achieved its most complete realization in the San Diego area under the auspices of Boyce-Astro, a non-profit foundation dedicated to enhancing astronomy education (this should sound familiar to those of us at NKAF!). Under the leadership of Genet and Boyce-Astro, the Research Seminar, making use of the iTelescope robotic network, has resulted in the publication of over 70 student-written science papers. Very exciting, and a potential direction for us, couple with work at the elementary level to introduce younger students to the amazing world of astronomy!
Of course, one of the major challenges we experience here at NKAF and NSO in Peacham is the large number of cloudy days compared to San Diego. We have a wonderful research telescope and great viewing when clouds don't interfere, but it seems pretty advisable for us to become affiliated with a network of telescopes so that our students will have the ability not only to use NSO, but also other telescopes on the network that have more consistently clear skies. By joining our telescope into one of these networks, we gain the ability to make use of the entire network - NSO provides an entry into this world that otherwise would require a subscription! We will be examining various options for this as we continue to explore ways to accomplish our educational mission!
I'm in San Diego attending a conference of about 150 people from all over the world who are interested in using robotic telescopes (such as NSO!) for student research and education. There are some big names here - Bob Denny, the head of DC-3 Dreams and the author of the ACP control software that runs our telescope; Frederick Hessman, who wrote the astronomical plug-ins that we use with ImageJ to do the bulk of our image processing work; John Briggs, the head of the long-running Summer Science Program; Joseph Haberman, one of the founders of PlaneWave instruments, the maker of our telescope; Stella Kafka, the head of AAVSO; and many, many others. Many people here have worked with and know each other for many years (though, often only via email!)
The big robotic networks - Sierra Remote Observatory, iTelescope, Las Cumbres Observatory, Dark Sky Observatory, SkyNet - are all represented, and give pause for thought, which leads to this question: with all of these incredibly high quality, robotically-controlled telescope networks, located in places that have 250 clear nights per year (or more), often using 1 or 2 meter telescopes, what is NSO's place in the world of robotic telescopes?
We are still developing a full answer to this question, but part of the answer certainly will include our wonderful facility and excellent viewing (when the clouds don't interfere!), our local ties to the Northeast Kingdom, and the personal connection and contact we can provide to those interested in astronomy and astronomical imaging.
On the van ride to the hotel I was fortunate to meet David McKinnon, the leader of the Charles Sturt University (in Australia) Remote Telescope Project. He and his colleague Lena Danaia are passionately interested in exploring the question of how astronomy education in particular, and science education in general can be improved so as to engage and benefit all students. This may hold the key to how NSO and NKAF can really contribute to this wonderful endeavor!
More reflections tomorrow!
We know it's been a while since we've had a star party! The reason is not hard to find - look up in the sky! This has been a historically difficult spring in terms of clear skies. Since January 1st, we've been able to use NSO to its full capabilities less than ten times! Then, if we factor in evenings in which the moon has not been full or near full, the number drops even more! I taught an astronomy class, and, to my great regret, was not able to schedule a SINGLE observing night that happened when the temperatures weren't frigid and the skies were clear! (I also plotted an analemma - the path that the sun traces in the sky from day to day when looked at the same time - in my classroom and was only able to get five data points!)
That having been said, we're going to really try to schedule one the week of June 26, probably near the end of the week. Watch for an announcement here! And, if you're on our email list, you'll get a message announcing the star party! Let's all hope for....