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July 2010

July 2010 Meeting Notes

At our July meeting, instead of a single, formal presentation, we had several short demos.  Following the demos we had a business meeting and discussed plans for an August Star Party meeting, a club scope upgrade project, and participation in public outreach.

iPad Astronomy  -  Mike Woods
Mike Woods presented a engaging demonstration of the astronomical capabilities of the Apple iPad.  By displaying the iPad output on the meeting room projector, Mike was able to give everyone a close-up look at the features of Sky Walk for iPad, which is an award winning personal planetarium program.  Not only are the graphics beautifully detailed, the performance is exceptional, usually seeming nearly instantaneous.  During a discussion of possible dates for our August star party, Mike was able to quickly display a series of moon phase images for successive days, to help us determine the viewing conditions for our selected dates.

Operation of the software was very simple, just tapping or swiping one finger on the iPad's touch screen.  Of particular interest was Sky Walk's time travel feature.  By adjusting the time interval and then swiping his finger along the time scroll bar, Mike was able to display an animation of the sky through the course of the night, or at the same time from night to night, or even over intervals of months and years.  He was able to quickly demonstrate the precession of the north celestial pole by using a long time interval while viewing Polaris.

Sky Walk's features are too numerous to list, but include the ability to save bookmarks for specific objects or locations in the sky, capture pictures from the screen and export them to the iPad's photo collections and search directly for specific celestial objects.  One of the most remarkable features of Mike's demo was the ability for Sky Walk to display a clear, well annotated image of the region of the sky where the iPad is pointing.  To do this, he simply held the iPad out in front of himself and the screen displayed what would be in the sky in the direction he was looking.  As he rotated around, or tipped the iPad up and down, the screen updated to show the appropriate region of the sky.  This feature alone seems like a very powerful educational tool.

Mike's demonstration of the impressive astronomical capabilities of the iPad leaves little doubt that we will soon be seeing more of these at star parties and astronomical events.

CalSky On-line Astronomical Calculator  -  Daryl Doughty
CalSky is an on-line astronomical calculator with a wealth of valuable functions.  In his impressive demonstration, Daryl Doughty illustrated a few of the ways he uses Calsky to assist with his observing and imaging activities at Moosejaw Observatory.  Satellite observing and imaging is one of Daryl's interests, so he has put CalSky to good use to calculate visible passes of satellites, such as the International Space Station.  It will even calculate transits of ISS across the face of the Moon or the Sun, alerting Daryl to rare, but unique imaging opportunities.  CalSky doesn't stop with providing time and location information of visible passes, though.  It will even calculate Iridium flares, which are sudden, dramatic brightenings of Iridium satellites, when the geometry is just right to produce glints from the Sun off of the satellite's solar panels.

But wait, that's not all.  CalSky can calculate a wide range of Solar System information, such as physical data, visibility charts, conjunctions, finder charts, ephemeris and much more.  Not only is this information available for the Sun and Moon and all the planets, but also for many asteroids and comets.  There's even plenty of information on deep sky objects.  To make all this even more convenient, CalSky can be configured to automatically send an email alert about specific events, such as satellite passes or planetary conjunctions, or even a complete astronomical summary calendar.  It can be very helpful to have such alerts just show up in your inbox.

Daryl's presentation has highlighted a very powerful, and individually customizable tool for planning astronomical observations.  This opens up new observing and imaging opportunities for many of us.  Who'll be the first to observe ISS crossing the face of the Moon?

Meade LT-6 Go To Telescope  -  Steve Plank
If you've wondered why we've had such a stretch of cloudy skies accompanied by monsoon-like rains, you don't need to look to climate change for the answer.  It's the BAS Double Whammy!  Every amateur astronomer knows that purchase of a new telescope guarantees days or weeks of cloudy skies.  But two scopes in a month?  That's just asking for trouble.  Less than a month ago Duane Perkins received his brand new 14" Celestron telescope, and about a week and a half ago Steve Plank got his new Meade Go To scope.  No wonder we've had bad weather!  Steve made amends at the July meeting by bringing his new scope and doing an interesting, hands on demo.  (We have not yet figured out how to get Daune's 250 pound telescope to the Library meeting room).

Steve's new scope is a Meade LT-6, which is a fully automated,  six inch Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope (SCT).  It's a solid, well made scope with excellent optics, yet its light and portable enough to serve as a convenient grab-and-go scope.  The single arm alt-az mount reduces weight without sacrificing rigidity or support for the Optical Tube Assembly (OTA).  And the precision metal worm gear drives were an important factor in Steve's decision.  Less than two months ago, Steve purchased his first new Go To scope; a Meade ETX 125.  However, during a viewing session at our Hulah dark site, the ETX started making ominous clunking, ratcheting, grating sounds and stopped tracking.  Turns out the plastic gears (yes, plastic!) in the scope had stripped.  The bright spot in this sad story is that the vendor where Steve had ordered the ETX, Optics Planet, was very cooperative.  They took back the bad scope and credited it against Steve's LT-6, once Steve made sure it had metal gears.

Steve's demo walked us through the startup and alignment procedure for the LT-6.  Once the scope was mounted on its tripod and the hand controller was plugged in, he used a clever compass / bubble level accessory provided by Meade.  This fits into the diagonal like an eyepiece and allows the user to simultaneously level the scope and align it with magnetic north.  This is the starting point for power up, from which the scope begins its alignment procedure.  Steve has found however, that when Polaris is visible, aligning the scope with Polaris to establish true north improves the scope's Go To precision after alignment is completed.

On power up, the hand controller requests location, time and date input so that it can calculate the approximate location of celestial objects.  It then selects the first alignment star and slews the scope to where it thinks the star is.  At this point the user refines the alignment by adjusting the scope orientation with the hand controller until the star is centered in a high power eyepiece.  After the user instructs the scope to accept this star location, a second alignment star is picked and the same procedure is repeated.  When the second star has been centered and accepted, the hand controller displays a message stating that the alignment was successful. The scope is now ready for use, and thousands of stars and deep sky objects in the scope's database are now just a few button presses away.

So far, Steve's experience with the LT-6 has been very good.  It's mechanically very solid and stable, provides very good Go To's after alignment, and is optically superior.  For anyone interested in a convenient, portable Go To scope, the Meade LT-6 should be a serious consideration.  But please allow us a couple of weeks of clear skies before you order.     :-)

Club Scope Upgrade Project 
One of the club scopes currently stored in Milt Enderlin's garage is a 12.5" Dobsonian reflector built as a club project under Fred Frey's direction in the 1980's.  The scope was used at club events for many years, but more recently has seen very little use, perhaps partly because of it's size and lack of easy portability.  During the meeting we discussed the possibility of refurbishing this club scope to make it more portable, more convenient for viewing, more stable and safer.  There was general agreement that such an upgrade would make a good club project.  David Tobola's 12.5" Dob might serve as a good model, since it is reasonably portable and can be set up and taken down by one person.  With David and Fred directing an upgrade project, and other club members providing input and assistance, the scope could once again become an important addition to club star parties.

During our discussion, it was suggested, and we agreed, that before we undertake an upgrade to the scope, we should get it out under the night sky a time or two to assess how its performing, and what, if anything, should be done to it.  However, after David and I took a look at the scope at Milt's house yesterday, we agreed that  this would probably be a risky undertaking.  The scope is considerably out of balance and the friction on the azimuth axis is no longer adequate to prevent the scope from suddenly rotating to full vertical or horizontal position, potentially causing injury to a bystander or a hand trapped between the scope and the mount.  The mirror appears to be in good condition, but it might be a good idea to test it before deciding whether to proceed with a major upgrade.  After seeing the scope, David is pondering how best to make use of the salvageable components and replace or upgrade the others. Once he has a plan, he'll forward it to club members for review and suggestions.

Public Outreach and Liability Insurance 
The issue of liability insurance has once again come to the forefront.  We've talked several times during the past year about our need to acquire club liability insurance.  Although we did, for many years, undertake a wide range of public events with no concern about insurance or lawsuits, the legal environment has worsened over the years to the point that nearly all astronomy clubs, and many other non-profit organizations, simply cannot take the risk of legal action resulting from and accident at a club sponsored public event.  This is a disappointing and discouraging situation, but its the reality we must deal with.  If we can't find a source of income to pay for liability insurance, we can't participate in public outreach.  It would be one thing if legal action targeted what little money the club has in its checking account, but it would be another matter entirely if it expanded to include club officers and members.  It would be irresponsible for BAS to put any of its members at risk of legal action.

These concerns have recently appeared in a very concrete form.  The Astronomy Club of Tulsa was targeted for legal action as a result of an accident during a public star party at their observatory near Mounds, Ok in 2007.  The good news is that ACT did have liability insurance, and recently their insurance company settled the case out of court.  However, the settlement was considerable, and as a result the insurance company cancelled the ACT policy.  About a month ago the ACT newsletter indicated that there was the very real possibility that they would be forced to cancel indefinitely all public activities by the middle of July, if they weren't able to find an affordable replacement policy.  This would have had a serious impact on the club.  In the end, ACT approved purchase of a new policy that more than tripled their premiums to $2400 per year.

So, as I see it, BAS has two alternatives.  We can either eliminate our involvement in all public activities, or find a way to pay for liability insurance.  The first alternative is simple, but very unsatisfying.  The second is more complicated.

There are several obvious ways to fund liability insurance.  The first that comes to mind is to raise club dues.  The quotes I received for insuring our club last winter were in the range of $350 per year.  With our current membership of 20, that means an increase in dues of about $17.50 to approximately $30 per member per year.  If the membership accepts this, then we're good as long as our premiums don't increase.

Another alternative is to affiliate our club with some larger organization, such as a local college or museum, that can protect us under the umbrella of their insurance.  But we would need to be able to offer some benefit in return.  There are some small astronomy clubs that are able to make this work.  It's unknown at this time if there are any local organizations that would be willing to offer us such an affiliation.

Corporate sponsorship is another possible solution.  A contribution or grant from a corporate sponsor might cover the cost of liability insurance, although it's unclear if we can find a willing corporate sponsor in the current economic climate.

Our discussion at the meeting about these issues was incomplete and we did not arrive at a decision.  Feedback from the BAS membership is much needed, and any additional ideas would be very helpful.  We need to settle this issue and make a decision in the next couple of months.

Next Meeting
August 2 in the Bartlesville Public Library Meeting Room (tentative).  Program to be determined.

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