From the Director





by Rex Parker, Director

Seeing the “Invisible” Deep Sky. Lest you despair that the famed Messier objects are forever lost in the glare of skyglow in central New Jersey, consider this. It was Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote, “I must lose myself in action, lest I wither in despair”. AAAP has been taking steps to acquire and make ready the latest technology for members to pursue electronically-assisted astronomy (EAA) at Washington Crossing Observatory. This emerging technique is revolutionizing the field. EAA has generated great excitement among amateur astronomers around the world and especially in regions like ours because it is capable of restoring visibility of deep sky objects that are otherwise lost in light polluted skies.

Standing in the middle of the continuum between eyepieces and long-exposure astrophotography, EAA renders images in near real-time with markedly greater sensitivity than the eyepiece. High resolution images are acquired in mere seconds of sensor exposure typically and immediately rendered as color (RGB) images on the monitor. Specialized software can also stack and average multiple frames swiftly to display an image with increased signal/noise, usually in less than a minute. True color is markedly enhanced for deep sky images compared to eyepieces, especially for planetary and emission nebulae and even galaxies. The camera sensors have far greater color sensitivity than the essentially monochrome (scotopic) vision of the human eye in low light, and the software improves contrast by subtracting out the background skyglow. Yet not to leave visual astronomy aside entirely, comparisons with eyepieces can be readily made using a second telescope or a flip-mirror assembly on the same telescope.

The current telescope and mount equipment owned by AAAP and installed at the Observatory are listed below. The picture which follows gives some relevant technical details on the two cameras discussed above. The appropriate software is all ready to go on the PCs and several Keyholders are trained to use them. Please don’t hesitate to contact the Observatory Chair ( or me if you’d like to visit the observatory this spring and learn how to use the equipment. It’s a privilege of your membership in AAAP.

Telescope equipment for member use at the AAAP Observatory as of March 2019.

Paramount-ME #1, robotic equatorial mount

  • Mount run with TheSkyX planetarium and control software under Win10 computer.
  • Celestron-14 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, D=355mm (14-inch), f/11, FL=3900mm.
  • New Stellarview 80 mm right-angle finder scope on the C-14.
  • Explore Scientific ED127 refractor telescope, D=127mm (5-inch), f/7.5, FL=950 mm, triplet air-spaced apochromatic refractor.
  • Numerous 2-inch and 1-1/4-inch eyepieces for these telescopes.
  • Starlight Xpress Ultrastar Colour CCD camera.
  • Starlight Live and SharpCap software cameras.
  • Verizon FiOS is available inside the Observatory.

Paramount-ME #2, robotic equatorial mount

  • Mount run with TheSkyX planetarium and control software under Win10 computer.
  • Hastings-Byrne 61/4-inch refractor, f/14.6, FL=2310mm. This fine historic instrument is a great planetary telescope, dating to 1879 with the original air-spaced doublet lens and steel tube intact.
  • Takahashi Mewlon-250, D=250mm (10-inch) Dall-Kirkham reflector telescope, with -inch TMB Optical dielectric-diagonal and Feathertouch 2-inch Crayford focuser.
  • Numerous 2-inch and 1-1/4-inch eyepieces including Panoptic 27 mm and 41 mm for the M250.
  • ZWO ASI 294 Pro color CMOS camera
  • Starlight Live and SharpCap software set up for EAA cameras

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From the Program Chair

By Ira Polans

The March meeting of the AAAP will be held on the 12th at 7:30PM in the auditorium (Room 145) of Peyton Hall on the Princeton University campus

The featured talk is by Scott Tremaine of the Institute for Advanced Study. The topics are Pluto, Sedna, Planet X, the Oort cloud, and Oumuamua: a report on the outer fringes of the solar system

The solar system beyond Neptune is cold and dark, but far from empty, and the composition and orbits of bodies in the outer solar system provide a fossil record of its formation. In this talk he will review what we know and don’t know about the outer solar system. The topics covered will include the origin of Pluto’s peculiar orbit, the puzzle of the formation of Sedna, our current understanding of the Oort comet cloud, and a comparison of the candidates for a hypothetical Planet X. Finally, he will describe some of the puzzles arising from the recent discovery of an interstellar asteroid/comet, ʻOumuamua.

Prior to the meeting here will be a meet-the-speaker dinner at 6PM at Winberie’s in Palmer Square. If you are planning to attend please contact by noon on March 12.

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Amazing Astronomy

by Gene Allen

It took ten years and $1.3 billion to build the largest observatory on the planet, and it has an expected useful lifetime of only fifty years. The entire installation is rather bleeding edge technology.

ALMA is the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array, a collection of 66 radio telescopes in northern Chile. The Chajnantor Plateau was chosen not just because it is among the highest and driest deserts in the world, but because it is the only such desert big enough for the array. It sits at 5,000 meters, which for us means 16,500 feet. Six of the scopes are in a rotating maintenance program at all times, and up to 50 of the 12 meter ones can be combined by interferometry after being moved about on the plain to a maximum separation of 16 kilometers, or about 10 miles. A subset of 4 12 meter and 12 7 meter dishes make up the Atacama Compact Array (ACA), used for wide field imaging. Two giant transporters were built to reposition the 100 ton scopes precisely among 192 concrete pads, all connected by power and fiber optic signal cables to the Array Operations Site (AOS) building, then down to the Operations Support Facility (OSF) at 9500 feet. The OSF is where the offices, telescope control, and most of the labs are located. There are residence halls, and a soccer field is being constructed. It is located nine miles off the highway, eleven miles south of San Pedro de Atacama, where we were spending a few days on a side trip, on our way to Antarctica..

Like most institutional observatories in Chile, ALMA offers very little opportunity for tourist visitation. They take only one bus load up to the OSF for about three hours, only on Saturday and Sunday. By the time we had determined an itinerary for our stay in San Pedro, both the primary and waiting lists online had been filled. Once I confirmed that the bus pickup location was a mere 12 minute walk from our hotel, it was obvious that I would try my luck.

I was in place a half hour early, and I was not the first. It was downright depressing how many people were gathering as the time approached. A woman appeared and gave a long speech in Spanish, then in English. By the time I understood that the clipboard being passed around was her “hope list,” establishing the boarding priority order for any of us extras, it had been handed to a young lady who had greeted me as she walked up. She held it up to me, acknowledging that I had been there first, and I just shrugged. How significant can it be? Maybe we all get to go, maybe none of us. I signed after her, as #7.



The reserved folks boarded, then the wait-listed. The coordinator climbed on to check, reporting 5 seats still available. As they were boarding, many of the rest began drifting away. I figured I had invested this much effort, I would wait until the bus actually drove off. Excitedly, she came back off and said she had made a mistake, there was one more seat. I said to her “The Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton won’t hear about my visit after all.” She was apologizing, because she really did want to accommodate everyone. The girl who was #6 said, “You should take it, you were here first.” I replied, “It’s legitimately yours, and you are going to be so gracious as to give it up?” She said, “Well, it should have been yours. You go.” I regret that there was not time to get her name and thank her, at least here, for her kind and generous spirit.

ALMA captures electromagnetic waves just longer than infrared, which I rather inaccurately like to think of as even redder than infrared (real red is the other way, back toward visible). The ALMA Newsletter from April 2010 describes how it creates images in great detail, but for here I’ll just say it can see “cold and dusty molecular clouds, where star formation is occurring.” It’s not visible light, so they can image just as well in daytime, which is kinda neat.

Several things stood out for me during the tour. The transporters are so unique that they are named for the German designer’s children, Otto and Lore. It uses so much electricity to run the scopes’ cryostats and the data processing computers that it has its own multi-fuel turbine power station. It uses more water than the local aquifers can supply, so water has to be trucked 80 miles from Calama. In trying to better appreciate and convey the size of the installation, I tried to get a half dozen questions answered at once, but no one responded. I guess I’m stuck with submitting them one at a time to “ask an astronomer,” even though they don’t need an astronomer’s attention.

Under Otto

Under Otto

During the tour, I confirmed that there is one spot where the antenna array up on the Chajnantor Plateau can be observed from Route 27, through a saddle between two peaks. Afterwards, I learned that it can also be seen from Cero Toco, an even higher mountain nearby. Princeton University is a major collaborator in the Atacama Cosmology Telescope that sits up there at 16,900 feet. The fellow who was our private tour driver turned out to have been employed at that site, but was unable to work out any way to get me up there in the time we had. A trip up to see the array itself would have really put a bow on it. Anyone who is planning to go by there should contact me for details to make your visit even more complete.

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What a Success!

by Gene Allen, Outreach Chair

Our evening at Stuart Country Day School was a rousing success. It was not a success in terms of showing the fourth grade girls the night sky, because as soon as it got dark enough, clouds encroached, but in terms of the AAAP showing. We had more volunteers show up to share our enjoyment of astronomy than at any Outreach Events in recent memory. We had a wide variety of devices, from Victor Davis’s elegant and uniquely mounted Questar, to the 10” Dobsonians brought by veteran David Letcher and recent member Doug Braun. Hongkun Zhao joined after attending an Outreach presentation by Rex Parker just weeks ago, and he brought one of his refractors with a mounted DSLR, showing previous photos he had taken of the Orion Nebula. Peter Wraight was there with a homemade 6” Dobsonian, one of his binocular creations, and his amazing star charts. John Harding completed the field with an equatorial refractor, and Dave Skitt floated, trying to help find targets though rare breaks in the clouds. Jeff Pinyan performed heroically, his constellation tour keeping the girls engaged with descriptions and mythology without being able to point to any stars. A battery powered projector and screen to present a planetarium display would have helped a lot. Including teachers, parents, and siblings, there were about fifty in attendance. While ClearDarkSky had forecast clear until 2100, that’s when it actually did clear some, of course, after most of the girls had left.

The next Outreach Event on the calendar is a star gazing evening in Plainsboro on March 8, and I’m hopeful that we can muster as good a showing for that, because 100 people are expected. So far we have 5 scopes volunteered.

On March 22 we will be attending the Hopewell Elementary Science Fair and Expo, and we have 2 scopes offered to date.

On the opening weekend of our Simpson Observatory, April 5-6, a group of 25 or so scouts will be camping out in WCSP and visiting us. We are seeking extra volunteers to bring scopes and augment the Team #3 Keyholders who are on duty Friday, as well as Keyholders and others for a possible backup event on Saturday night.

Next would be Communiversity Day, April 28 on the Princeton Campus, a long afternoon of glad-handing and solar gazing. It will take place cloudy or clear, and we need all the enthusiastic amateur astronomers we can get, even without any hardware, to represent us. Solar scopes needed too, of course!

The Civil Air Patrol is at the National Guard Hangar on Scotch Road is asking for an astronomical presentation at any of their meetings, held every Wednesday evening. With two Outreach Events already scheduled, I am a bit reluctant to ask for volunteers to support his request for March.

In addition to all of this, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, “A Universe of Stories” has been declared as the theme for summer family reading programs in libraries throughout the state. We have requests for formal presentations from three local libraries (Ewing, Hollowbrook, and Hickory Corners) and one from Phillipsburg, because folks up there know us from Star Quest at Hope. I have asked to be a provider of last resort for that one, and a request from Avalon has been redirected. I have seen a need to develop a more formal but generic astronomy presentation, and this will likely be the challenge that will make that happen. Anyone willing to contribute to this effort is strongly urged to contact me, as I feel unequal to the task on my own.

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“Skies were clear last night and the seeing was pretty good. Here’s a photo I took of M42 using my 10 inch Ritchey-Chretien…” – Robert Vanderbei on 4 Feb, 2019

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the squish factor

by Theodore R. Frimet

oh baby, it’s cold outside!

I reached out to the universe, by email, on February 8th 2019, at 11:55 AM, with the following plea, and embedded an image from obtained a few minutes before said cosmic transmission:

Could someone please push up some dry air, from our South ?

I would just love a clear sky, tonight ! I have given up all hope on barometric, snif snif, in dispersing cloud cover for my neck of the woods!

A response from the wild read that it’s been crystal clear the past few nights!

Ah yes. Past weather performance is an odd indicator of views to come. It’s all I’ve got, right now. Time to get out the telescope for a weekend look at my old friend, Orion!

Ok. Sure. This could become a checklist to help you out, into the cold, dark night. Or I could squeeze out of this lump of clay; an accounting of the foolishness, and haphazard method of preparing for a Saturday night view. I vote for the squish factor. And in no particular order, I bring you, the semi-play, hemi-prose, and somewhat astro-charged, “Oh Baby, It’s Cold Outside!”

Janet, before it gets dark, could you give me a hand with the Dob? Yes, remember it is a two part, 60 pound construction? And the cats just love to race out the door, when it is open for too long? Yes, we can do this just after 5 PM.

Five o’clock approaches, and I’m on the couch, watching the tube. Nothing special. Just flicking from one old movie, to another. Landing nowhere. Accomplishing nothing except laziness. And a small spark appears, from within. “Janet, I’ll need you in a few”, I said. Time to put on the new polypropylene liners.

At our last AAAP members only night, which was a hoot, by the way, member Tom Swords sold me on the idea of a polypropylene liner. Speaking with co-Observatory Chair member, Jennifer Skitt, the motion carried. Both are avid Amateurs, and Jennifer hikes her way thru mountainous regions of space-time. I would not fiddle around with either of their recommendations.

My first foray into the purchase of a polypropylene liner was by way of eBay. Top and bottom pieces, were both former military gear. New-old stock, and $40 including shipping. Large. It came in the mail quickly enough. Yet after putting it on, something did not quite gel. It wasn’t the sellers carcinogenic warning. I deduced it did not pertain to the 100% polypropylene. Probably it was directed at the previous use of flame retardants. Don’t take my word for it. Go to Walmart and buy a brand new polypropylene liner in the form of a shirt. See if you can get matching pants. The whole business behind the liner, is to wick away any sweat from your skin, and pass it thru the fabric. Dry skin equals warm body. I have been told that this material does an excellent job. It does. Amateur tested, Orion approved.

Ah yes. Something was off. It was the size. The ordered size was precisely a Large. And if I were a Large, all would be well in Astro-Land. I however, am not a Large. As Janet giggled as she saw the top over-stretching my belly, she said, “I always buy you Extra-Large!” I sighed, and took off the garb. Placed it onto my son’s bed for his use in his new job. Congratulations, Josh! Keep safe, and keep warm with the new poly.

Back to eBay. I scrambled to find a matching top and bottom. I almost fell into the trap of purchasing a couple of low cost pairs. However, that vendor was kind enough to capture a photograph of the material tag. And obscured the main ingredient. I surmised that it was cotton and not poly. And moved onto the next few matches.

I do purchase clothing from Goodwill, and will wear second hand, gently used material. However, poly-liners are not something that you want to buy used. At least, not for me. I draw the line, there. It is akin to wearing some other persons’s astro-underwear. Of course, you can wash it – be careful and don’t pill it up to become nearly useless in the dryer. Do a search on Google and see what others are doing to keep it tidy and clean. Oh, never mind. Here: hand wash with gentle soap, rinse and hang dry. There!

I had to settle on two different vendors. The first vendor did not have an XL. I used the watch list feature, and went back and forth to find the best price. It didn’t take too long before I had two separate orders in, net an additional $1 for my troubles to find the perfect fit.

Delivery. Cutting open one box, easy. Cutting open the soft packing for the other, not so. “Be careful”, I told myself. Or you risk cutting into the fabric of space-time and out will leak quantum foam! Ugh. Foam. It gets into all the cracks in the void. So I was careful. And finished opening up both packages. My eyes gleamed with happiness, as I laid out the two undergarments.

I put on the pants first. And then the top, overlaying the pants at the waist. There is a zipper at the neck, and I engage it gingerly. It had to last many, many more forays out into the cold. And I wasn’t taking any chances that my investment would fail prematurely. I coddled the clothing, and it was a success! Of course it helped somewhat that I went back into the gym, the previous week, slacked off on night time snacking, and put off a few pounds. Yes, I took no chances at any giggle factor, from Janet. It fit, just fine, thank you!

Last years purchase for cold weather included two pairs of long johns. One white, and one black. The black pair was XXL, so it would overlay the snug pair. I put the better fitting pair, aside for a snowy day. It no longer had any purpose in my cold weather viewing ensemble. It could not be up against my skin, as it would not wick away moisture. And it could not be a second layer, on top of the poly – as it would compress the underlayment.

Never compress your clothing layers. It is a bad idea. What you want are all those nice fluffy compartments of air to be open and not compressed. And loosely fitting clothing fits the bill. I put the larger black long johns on. Wait. Stop. Socks. Put the John aside, for now. We can play dress-up the Astronomer, later.

I had already purchased hunting socks, and underlayment socks. The first layer of socks are guaranteed to wick away moisture. Keep your feet dry, and they will not freeze in the cold of the night. The second layer hunting socks, were a size larger, and fit nicely over the first pair. And hugged right up, and over the calf, a tad. Calling Mr. John! Put on the second pair of XXL long johns, now. I notice it is starting to feel a little warm, in the bedroom.

Priss, I recall is on the stairs, on the second floor. Maybe my feral cat (she’s sweet) would like to accompany me outside, this evening? Probably not, as the temperatures will be at, or below 20 degree Fahrenheit. In my minds eye, I see her as she confidently nods off to slumberland. No, Mr. Amateur, you can go outside and play all by yourself. I will take a nap, at the high heat point of the house. I own your stairs. Meow.

I put on the top large long johns, and whine a little to myself that I need to purchase an XXL. Not perfect, yet it was stretched out sufficiently to not compress the poly. Just made it. Phew! Time for snow pants.

I put on the bib-snow pants. They are an over-all pair and fit nicely. The left hand pocket has a hole in it. I must remember to sew it up, before I lose some small iconic accessory to the night. Like all items lost to the back yard, either the good earth will swallow her whole, or a rambunctious critter will come by and add it to her nests’ collection.

I make some adjustments to the pant legs, and remember that they are zippered. I tug gently at the zipper, and close the bottom leg. And think ahead, in real-time, how I am going to put this leg into my cold weather boots? I make a mental note, “Should be OK”.

We already had a dry run, during our members only viewing. I struggled to put on the boots. And was too proud to ask for help. I finally got past the learning curve, and was able to get my right foot buried into the canopy of warmth, and buckled up. Repeated not-so-professionally for the left foot. Yes, your other right!

I was asked, that evening, why I hadn’t worn the boots to the observatory. I quipped that I wasn’t too certain about the stability, and didn’t want to walk from the car, let alone try to operate the vehicle. Don’t wear extreme cold weather boots in the car, and drive. “Not a good idea”, I told myself. And I wasn’t going to test those limits. Probably not ever. Wear sneakers, or other temporary cold weather gear for the feet, and change when you get to your destination. That, my dear amateur, seems to be a good compromise. And it worked out, just fine, thank you!

I am in the bedroom, again. And deciding if I should put on those boots, or continue with another layer of top clothing. I spy my red sweater. Red is a great color for me. It always tends to bring out the truth in a situation. That is, if I wear red, I must be prepared to learn new universal truths about myself, and my current situation. I become more aware with red, than with any other color. Some think it a superstition. Maybe. I don’t. Well, that red sweater was there, right at the end of the bed. So why fuss with what is in the closet? Put it on, and pay the piper later!

I adjust the snow bib straps, and lay them even, so that the suspenders aren’t cock-eyed and crushed at odd angles. I look in the mirror. Looks good. Grab the boots, and go into the living room. Janet is there, watching TV and playing Candy Crush. She turns up a small, wry smile, from both ends of her lips. And giggles. Just a tad.

I sit down on the couch. Opposite her gaze, I proceed to put on the left boot. And fail. I look at the boot, in hand. Almost quizzically, I am slightly perplexed as to why the boot does not go on, all by itself. The auto-on feature must be on the glitch! Janet asks me why am I putting the right boot onto my left foot? I look down. The boot construction is so defining that it almost appears, at a casual glance, that there is not a left, nor a right. However, there is. And upon further investigation, I determine that I do, in fact, hold the left boot in my hand. And proceed to slowly, dip my left foot, into the cavernous well. Success!

Baffin. Their trademark is Polar Proven. The style I chose, after two years cold, was a Mens Impact. Rated at -100 C / -148 F. This double buckling, waterproof and throughly insulated (upper included) will keep my feet warm.

I was on the fence into bowing to a lesser god. Perhaps this extreme warmth would make my feet sweat. And then I’d have cold cucumbers, and race away to put my astronomy equipment on the back burner, for the evening?

Not so. Despite Baffin no longer being produced by a Canadian company, and the box itself, most certainly made in China, the ultra-warm construction kept my feet warm, and dry. Let me repeat that: warm and dry. Very pleased.

There is a struggle in your acquisition of a good pair of warm foot wear. Many amateur astronomers take accounting of a few sizes and samples. You don’t have to buy polar proven footwear to be comfortable. Do your research on an over-sized shoe, and accommodate many layers of over-sized socks. Right up through last year, I used military surplus muc-lucs and the many layered sock approach. The downsize was I was not as stable, as I wanted to be, when I walked to my scope. So I decided, a year ago, to set my eyes on the best pair of cold weather gear, for my feet, that I could comfortably afford. And since budget is tight, I decided not to make any other purchases from the astro-department store.

Back to online shopping. The best advice I can give you is that you must know your size, ahead of time. If your novice instinct brings you to a shoe store – be prepared to accept that your salesperson will not be as knowledgeable as you portend them to be. Once you get a grip on that reality, it is time to toss the dice, and buy online.

Ah yes, size. I purchased one size LARGER. Read the comment sections, on online purchases, and a common thread emerges. The sizes are irregular. If you buy your exact size, you might get lucky. Not! Expect to return them for a larger size, and pay a restocking fee, not to mention you will bear return shipping costs. So, yes, do take my advice and buy one size larger. In any case, you are accommodating a couple pair of socks. If it is a wee slack, put on another layer!

As amateur astronomers, observing in the dead of winter, you are standing, or preferably, sitting still at the scope. And you will get cold. No amount of layering will intervene in the physical fact that your body warmth will breathe out of your clothing. Oh, wait. It’s that dream where I go to school, naked. Yes. Must put on the overcoat, tied at the waist. Add mittens that open at the fingers (best ever) and put on a ski mask. “Hoods up in five, people!” Time to get the telescope out the door.

Ah, time machine. Turn back the clock. Before I had saddled up, I cried to Janet. “Please open the door, and help me keep the cats in, while I struggle to get the Dob out the door!” As always, she obliged. Janet probably fathomed that if she put up with this mix of stellar anxiety, that once out the door, she could settle down and watch some of her favorite pre-recorded shows. I laid out the lazy susan and put the dob into place. Wired up the fan, to blow gently across the mirror, as the dob’s 12 inch mirror adjusted to the temperature change. And hooked up the push-to electronics to test drive an earlier purchase that was guaranteed to make my life a little easier.

I no longer had the benefit of sun light. I saw a forming crescent moon, in the West, and was silent. It was going to be a dark night. The weather reports were correct. Clear sky. Light, and I mean almost no wind. The verge and the neighbors fence provided ample cover.

Argh! The backyard neighbor’s dog. Woof! Woof! Intrusive lights, from a few meters away. I called out to my neighbor, thru the verge, and said, no worries it is only I. She called the dog in. Somehow, somewhere, and an hour or few later, the porch light was extinguished. Orion and I would be eye-to-eye, very soon.

50mm, 30mm, 14mm, 11mm…oops – no collimation. Eyepieces out, and laser collimator in. The secondary appeared to align quite easily. I was proud of myself. And then we had a red sweater moment. I could not seem to reconcile the red laser dot, from the business end of the mirror. Worse, I had a senior moment in not remembering it if was the black knobs or the white knobs that addressed mirror positioning!

I went back inside, and after a brief search gave up on any hope of reconciling the different knobs for my Zhumel Z8 Dobsonian. I turned on the outdoor lights, and sacrificed my night vision all-together. Armed with a flashlight, I relearned what I had forgotten. That in my installation, the black knobs control spring adjustment, while the white knobs are for lock down. I tried to collimate. And did feebly so.

Lights out. 30mm, 14mm, stop. Stars are skewing from right to left. No pinpoint. Is it my eyes? Do I need a pair of glasses? Perhaps it is the astigmatism that I’ve always been concerned about. No. I did not collimate.

Pull the optics, and put in the laser collimator, again. The neighbor dog barks. Incessantly. I get annoyed. I start the collimation procedure. Secondary looks good. Laser is pointed dead center at the mirror. I get on my knees, again. And look for the laser point of light. Dog barks. Woof! Woof!! Woof!!! I loosen all knobs, and tug down slightly on the mirrors armature. And then start to tighten up on the spring based knobs. A little at a time. Clockwise. Woof! “Would that dog please stop her incessant barking?”, I thought out loud.

And then I see it. A red dot appears at the two o’clock position. Keep on barking, old gal. You are now and forever to be known, as “Astro-Dog”. She quiets down, sensing my confidence at the business end of collimation. I make the final adjustments. I recheck the secondary, and all is well. I tighten the lock downs, being ever so careful to keep my laser dot in the middle. Collimation at last!

50mm, 30mm, 14mm, 11mm, 6.7mm. Happy is the man that can see pin-point precise stars. I am pleased, yet not overjoyed. I muse to myself that there must be a lot of pollen, from the last two years, and dust, that needs to be attended to on my 12 inch mirror. The stars are centered without distortion, although not pinpoint. It could be my eyes – although I would attribute that this is the finest resolution I can achieve, given the mirror condition, and that the sky is somewhat unstable. I look up, and see twinkling. Yes. The atmosphere did not provide me with a a perfect night. However, I agree with my red sweater and confided to AstroDog that this is “as good as it gets”.

The quadrature showed me her soft underbelly, as there was a fifth star to behold that evening. And the glow of The Great Orion Nebula was my companion for hours, on end. Pleiades nestled me in her blue disquiet. I finally started to feel the cold settling in.

One last look for the dwelling of a spiral arm, and none to be found. Straight up, again, at the thinnest part of our atmosphere, and little compensation, here too to be found.

The inevitable night chill sets in. My coffee turns to ice. I strip down the optics, and put away our astronomy tools. I cover her nakedness with a cloth made from aluminum. Through the night, she would wait. Daybreak, it was agreed, we would put our dob away. “Oh baby, it’s cold outside!”

Posted in March 2019, Sidereal Times | Tagged | Leave a comment

Were Apollo manned moon landings fake ?

by Prasad Ganti

In a recent gathering of friends and family, this topic came up. There are some conspiracy theorists who believe that NASA faked the moon landings. The reasoning is that the enormous pressure during the cold war to keep up President Kennedy’s challenge of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade (1960s). And secondly we did not go back to moon ever since the program ended in early 1970s. They sound like plausible arguments. My take is that they were not fake and they were as real as any other human achievement like the manned conquest of the North and the South poles and the scaling of Mount Everest.

The manned moon program started in early 1960s with the Mercury program which put a man in Earth’s orbit. It was followed by the Gemini program which produced a bigger spacecraft or more than one person. It proved the concept of space walks and also rendezvous of two spacecraft in space. Apollo program followed. This program was meant to shoot the spacecraft from the Earth’s orbit to the trans lunar trajectory, basically catapulting it towards the moon. All of these programs involved the design and implementation of life support systems. These systems make the design more complex. A human habitat needs to be established in the spacecraft. The cabins need to be pressurized using a mix of oxygen and nitrogen, thus simulating the Earth’s atmosphere. The exhaled carbon dioxide needs to be scrubbed and converted back to oxygen. Drinking water was generated as a byproduct of the fuel cells which used hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity.

The Apollo spacecraft consisted of the command and the lunar modules. And the service module too. But the command and lunar modules were for human habitation and had the life support systems. Command module was used by the astronauts to travel to the moon. Then the lunar module detached itself from the command module, carrying the astronauts to the surface of the moon. While the command module pilot kept it in the lunar orbit, waiting for rendezvous for return back to the Earth. It is like a big ship docked offshore at a distance while a small boat carried the crew to the land (some crew are needed to stay back in the ship to take care of it).

The life support systems on the Apollo missions came in handy for the design of the space shuttle, which had very limited budget, as opposed to the seemingly unlimited budgets during the Apollo times. Space shuttle life support systems could not have been designed within its budget if it did not inherit the system from the Apollo program.

Media is like a hawk. The New York Times exposed the Pentagon papers which was a cover up of the losses occurring in the Vietnam war. The Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal which sent the Republican President Nixon home before his term was complete. These events happened roughly during the manned moon landings. Media scrutiny would have been intense. Yet, no findings on a fake moon landing.

There could have been a whistle blower to expose the fake. Tens of thousands of people worked for NASA and its contractors. Many of them lost their jobs in the aftermath of post-Apollo budget cuts. There could have been at least one disgruntled person who could have blown the lid. But it did not happen.

Then we have the cold war competitor Soviet Union who was watching the American developments very closely. So much Apollo footage is out there. It would have been put under the microscope and every pixel examined. And there was no Photoshop or any of the sophisticated digital manipulating tools in those days ! Even if all these sources were evaded, statistically you cannot fake six moon landings without any detection. Even one may not be doable, but certainly not six. What about the moon dust and the rocks which were brought back ? They could not have come from any place on the Earth. Again, these artifacts have been examined to death too.

I recently took an MIT course on “Engineering the Space Shuttle”. Most of the lecturers were from NASA. Most of them were original Apollo designers and managers, who used their expertise to design the space shuttle and its life support systems. I could see the passion and pride in their eyes. Passion with which they pursued their work and proud of their accomplishments. It looked very genuine to me. They could not have faked it.

The manned moon landings stopped as the space race was won during the cold war, which itself ended a couple of decades later. There was no appetite for spending huge sums of taxpayer money on manned missions when unmanned missions advanced the technology as well as provided more bang for the buck. The economics may be changing in the future. Till then, manned moon landings are for real !

Posted in March 2019, Sidereal Times | Tagged , | Leave a comment


compiled by Arlene & David Kaplan



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