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RASC Vancouver at 90!

In 1917, the Canadian Government opened the Dominion Observatory at Saanich, near Victoria. Local amateur astronomers formed a new centre of the RASC which included a few members from Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

As membership grew, despite the distance to Victoria and the onset of the Great Depression, by 1930 the astronomers (which by then included a few professional astronomers from UBC) had decided there were sufficient numbers to form a centre in Vancouver. By fall of 1931, the details had been finalized to create a new Centre of the RASC.

On the 2nd Tuesday of November in 1931, the first meeting of the Vancouver Centre was held at UBC in the now long-gone original Astronomy building. The Centre would meet there (and later in the new Astronomy and Geophysics building) until 1969. The Centre then moved to the H. R. MacMillan Planetarium and stayed there until 2011. The Centre moved around temporarily to various locations such as bcit and Douglas College (now Kwantlen University) and SFU, and a few years later decided to make the move permanently to SFU.

From the beginning, public outreach has been a big part of Vancouver Centre’s mandate. The monthly meetings have always been open to the public, and star parties were frequently held. Originally these would be held on various members’ properties. However, by the beginning of the 1950s, the number of people grew too large to be held on private property in the Lower Mainland. Thus, our star parties were moved to various public spaces where access to the sky could be had and that the public could reach. (The author encountered the RASC Vancouver Centre at the Brockton Oval Track in Stanley Park in 1977.)

Additionally, visits would be arranged for members to go to various scientific institutions and facilities that would allow visitors. Members have trekked to Vancouver Island to visit the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, to UBC to visit their telescopes and later to visit the Tri-University Meson Facility (TRIUMF). And now we have access to the Trottier Observatory at SFU as well.

So it has been an interesting 90 years so far with comets, planetary conjunctions, eclipses and other interesting things in the sky to bring us together and look at. And in 10 years (in 2031) we will celebrate 100 years of the Vancouver Centre, so make your plans now to be here to help us celebrate that happy date.

– by William Fearon

Remembering Ken Jackson

Being the President means that, in addition to many other duties, one sometimes has sad news to report. This is one of those times.

On June 21, we lost our webmaster, Ken Jackson, to complications from a bone marrow transplant he received years earlier to treat leukemia. Ken never told us about his condition, but some of us had suspected he wasn’t well. We had no idea it was as serious as it was so his passing came as a shock to all of us.

Ken, a member of Vancouver Centre since 2012, first joined council back in April of 2016. As a software developer, his skills were essential to getting our web presence into proper shape and making our council emails function more effectively, improving both reliability and security as our one-man IT department. When we were forced to go virtual last year due to covid, Ken’s skills proved invaluable, not only getting our lectures online, but enabling us to quickly pivot the GA that Vancouver Centre was hosting from an in-person to an online event. His torch has now been passed to the capable hands of his two assistants, Karimbir Singh and Renuka Pampana, who will keep things running smoothly into the future.

Ken also loved public outreach and was a constant presence at our many events, engaging with the public and sharing his love of astronomy, often with his partner Sumo at his side. He also volunteered at sfu’s Starry Nights public astronomy events on Friday nights, where Howard Trottier described him as a “kind and gentle presence.”

Ken was a loving father to three daughters. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations to Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” programme (https://plancanada.ca/because-i-am-a-girl). The Vancouver Centre has made such a donation in Ken’s honour.

Clear Skies, Ken.

Astronomy Day & Science Rendezvous 2021 (Virtual)

RASC Vancouver will be celebrating International Astronomy Day in conjunction (as we do annually) with Simon Fraser University’s Science Rendezvous. Due to COVID19, the event this year will be virtual.

RASC Vancouver will be hosting four astronomy-themed presentations and SFU’s Faculty of Science will be hosting a variety of science presentations as well as an afternoon forum of professors on astronomy-themed topics.

Registration in advance is required at EventBrite to receive the Zoom links. Registration is free. The Zoom links will be emailed out to registrants a week prior.

Events for RASC International Astronomy Day can be found at this link:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/international-astronomy-day-livestream-events-with-rasc-and-sfu-tickets-149786835457

Events for SFU’s Science Rendezvous can be found at this link:
https://www.sfu.ca/science/community/science-rendezvous-2021.html

Highlights include:

RASC Vancouver:
11:00 am: NASA’s Voyager Missions: Matthew R. Borghese, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Solar System Ambassador
11:45 am: Solar Observing (weather permitting): Gordon Farrell, President of RASC Vancouver Centre
1:00 pm: The Moon 101: Ted Stroman, Member of RASC Vancouver Centre
2:00 pm: The Jim Bernath Meteorite Collection: Suzanna Nagy, Secretary of RASC Vancouver Centre

SFU Faculty of Science:
11 am to 3 pm:

  • Chemistry in the Kitchen: experience the magic of chemical reactions right in your own kitchen
  • Get Inspidered: learn about spiders, get creative and build your own creature
  • Digestive System: see what happens inside your stomach and intestines, simulate your own digestive process
  • Robotic Forearm: see all the muscles, tissues and nerves up close and learn how to construct your very own robotic forearm
  • Anatomy Bone Word Search: get familiar with what your bones are called, and get busy in a word search
  • Indulge in Physics: from forces and motion, to electricity and magnetism, matter and optics

3:30 pm: Learn more about aerospace physiology, astrostatistics, and dying galaxies from SFU Scientists:

  • Dr. Andrew Blaber, Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology – aerospace physiology
  • Dr. David Stenning, Statistics – astrostatistics, exoplanets
  • Dr. Joanna Woo, Physics/Trottier Observatory – astronomy: mysterious death of galaxies

Paul Sykes Memorial Lecture: Dr. Phil Plait: Strange New Worlds: Is Earth Special?

On Thursday, April 8, 2021 at 7:30 pm, please join us on Zoom for our annual Paul Sykes Memorial Lecture. See Meetup for the Zoom link for the talk.

For as long as he can remember, Dr. Phil Plait has been in love with science.

“When I was maybe four or five years old, my dad brought home a cheapo department store telescope. He aimed it at Saturn that night. One look, and that was it. I was hooked,” he says.

After earning his doctorate in astronomy at the University of Virginia, he worked on the Hubble Space Telescope as a nasa contractor at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He began a career in public outreach and education with the Bad Astronomy website and blog, debunking bad science and popular misconceptions. The book Bad Astronomy was released in 2002, followed in 2008 by Death From The Skies! He was most recently seen in “Crash Course Astronomy,” a 46-part educational web series he wrote and hosted that has over 20 million views. He hosted the TV show “Phil Plait’s Bad Universe” on the Discovery Channel in 2010 and was the head science writer for “Bill Nye Saves the World” on Netflix, which debuted in 2017. Dr. Plait’s blog has been hosted by Discover Magazine and Slate, and is now on Syfy Wire.

Dr. Plait has given talks about science and pseudoscience across the US and internationally. He uses images, audio, and video clips in entertaining and informative multimedia presentations packed with humour and backed by solid science.

He has spoken at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute (home of Hubble), the Hayden Planetarium in NYC and many other world-class museums and planetaria, conferences, astronomy clubs, colleges & universities, and community groups. He has appeared on cnn, Fox News, msnbc, Pax TV, Tech TV, Syfy, Radio BBC, Air America, NPR, and many other television and internet venues. His writing has appeared in Discover magazine, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy magazine, Night Sky magazine, Space.com, and more.

Synopsis: Since the 1990s, astronomers have found over four thousand (and counting!) exoplanets, alien worlds orbiting other stars. These planets orbit a wide variety of stars, and themselves are all wildly different; huge, small, hot, cold, airless, or with thick atmospheres. As we learn more about them, we come closer to answering the Big Questions: Is there another Earth out there? And if so, will it support life? Is Earth unique, or is the galaxy filled with blue-green worlds that look achingly like our own? In this engaging and fun talk, astronomer Phil Plait will show you how we find these planets, and how our own compares to them.


These annual memorial lectures honour Paul Sykes. Paul actively pursued his interest in astronomy, attending conferences and joining RASC, where he became a Life Member. Paul Sykes passed away in October 2005 at the age of 87 and left the Vancouver Centre a generous gift.

Paul Sykes was born in Hummelston, Pennsylvania USA in 1918. He acquired his interest in astronomy at an early age. During his teens he published his own monthly astronomical column and gave at least one lecture.

He was an officer in the United States Air Force, served in the Pacific during WWII attaining the rank of Captain. He was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, the U.S. Air Medal, the Oak Leaf and Cluster and the Bronze Star. Following the war he attended UBC earning a degree in Physics in 1948. He rejoined the United States Air Force and attended the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology, studying nuclear physics. He worked on the NERVA Project, a nuclear rocket development effort and rose to the rank of Major.

Paul was appointed a lecturer and administrator in Physics at UBC and remained there until retirement in 1983.

Star Visibility – Sirius vs Antares

by Milan B

We are approaching the 2021 Vernal Equinox and are witnessing how fast the daylight hours are increasing for observers at 49 N. This phenomenon will affect the visibility of certain stars more than others. Sirius, the brightest star in the sky will be greatly affected by this day lengthening and will go quickly into its summer sleep around mid-May and stay out of sight for about three months for observers at 49N. On the other hand, the mighty red giant Antares is just “warming up” for its’ “opposition” with the Sun in late May – early June, when it will dominate the low southern skies.

The very bright star towards the upper left corner of the frame is Antares. Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org), CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, which of these two famous stars has better visibility for observers at mid-northern latitudes like 45 N or 49 N?

Many would say that Sirius, being almost 10 degrees higher in the sky for northern hemisphere observers is the absolute favourite. But hold on a sec, Antares is not throwing the towel in yet.

The chart below shows the hours of visibility for Sirius and Antares for each Friday in 2021. On the first sight the blue bars dominate the red ones, especially in the months when Sirius is visible for almost 10 hours each night.

Visibility hours for Sirius compared to Antares throughout 2021, courtesy od Sky Safari and Milan B.

But, on a closer look, the gap of invisibility for Sirius seems much wider than the one for Antares, revealing the fact that Sirius is invisible for much longer than Antares.

So, to answer the above question we need to refine the definition of “better” visibility. If we add up all visibility hours throughout the year, we can see that Sirius’ total hours dominate. This is confirmed by the average (for the year) line for Sirius, which is close to 5 hours per day compared to the average line for Antares, which is at around 4 hours per day. However, if we add up all days when each star is visible, then Antares becomes an unexpected winner. It is out of sight for observers at 49N only for about three weeks in late November – early December when the late autumn sun slides just above it, on its steady stroll along the ecliptic.

It is important to mention that for the reason of simplicity, the visibility hours in the above chart have been calculated when the star is above the horizon while the Sun is below the horizon. To compensate for the fact that stars are not visible immediately after rising or before setting, especially if the Sun is not far below the horizon, a one hour correction line was added to the chart. This line will “bite” a lot more into the visibility of Antares, as the mighty red giant spends more time in very low altitudes of just a few degrees above the horizon compared to Sirius.

Even if we subtract three weeks on each end of Antares’ “conjunction” with the Sun, which falls around Nov 30th, Antares will be the winner in this category.

It is also worth mentioning that the visibility in “wee” hours (after 1 AM) is being treated equally to the visibility at more friendly hours such as early evening. If we took just the observability at “normal” hours, when each star is not hugging the horizon, the outcome might be totally different.

Milan B, avid sky observer with both SkyWatcher and SkySafari.

NOVA Newsletter for Mar/Apr 2021

The latest edition of our NOVA newsletter is available as a pdf file. An archive of older issues can be found on our Newsletter page. The contents include:

Strange New Worlds: Is Earth Special?
(Paul Sykes Lecture, Thurs, Apr 8 @ 7:30pm, Dr. Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer)

Life on Mars? by J. Karl Miller

President’s Message by Gordon Farrell

Astronomical Events in the Remainder of March by Robert Conrad

Live Streaming of the Great Conjunction

if the weather on Dec 21st disrupts your viewing of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn then you can try out these live streaming events.

SFU Trottier Observatory, SFU Faculty of Science. – 15:30 PST Dec 22nd from 15:30 PST

The Trottier Observatory will try for a daylight view if the skies clear enough.
keep an eye on their YouTube channel:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc7O3_KzRGC8QQ0OaNScToQ

Update: Hoping for better weather tomorrow. SFU Trottier Observatory is going to go ahead with a stream tomorrow Tues Dec 22nd from 3:30pm to 5:30pm. https://youtu.be/vmoXUBUzjDk

RASC Global Star Party with Explore Scientific – 16:30 PST

RASC is partnering with Explore Scientific to bring you a star party of epic proportions! Explore Scientific will be livestreaming throughout the day on their channels (list and links available here). RASC members will be joining for the evening livestream, starting at 7:30pm EST. There will be presenters from across the country.

https://explorescientific.com/pages/explore-alliance-live

Tim Yaworksi, @LivingSkyGuy – 15:00 PST

Celebrate the #GreatConjunction of #Jupiter and #Saturn. I will share my eyepiece with you as these two planets are 0.1° apart. Watch on @twitter @youtube or @Facebook as LivingSkyGuy. #astronomy #astronoMYtime #astrophotography

https://www.instagram.com/p/CI3pr5KnutU/?igshid=4aqwrrncsv6elivingskyguy

York University Allan I. Carswell Observatory: Jupiter and Saturn – The Great Conjunction of 2020 (ONLINE) – 13:00 PST

Announcing a Special Event at the Allan I. Carswell Observatory: Jupiter and Saturn – The Great Conjunction of 2020, Dec 21 from 4:00pm Toronto local time! A conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn only happens about once every 20 years (which is why it is called a great conjunction).

https://www.youtube.com/user/YorkUObservatory/live

Slooh GREAT CONJUNCTION STAR PARTY LIVE 11:00 PST

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9IXsJK_9io

Lowell Observatory, AZ, USA – 16:00 PST

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrRcfaWutLQ&feature=youtu.be

The Virtual Telescope Project – 07:30 PST

From Rome, will share live views on its website.

https://www.virtualtelescope.eu/2020/10/01/the-2020-jupiter-saturn-great-conjunction-online-observation-21-dec-2020/


Telescope.live from Spain & Chile – 09:00 and 16:00 PST

The Great Conjunction From Spain
Time: Dec 21, 2020 at 9 am PST, 11 am CST, 5 pm GMT, 6 pm CET
Zoom Webinar: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83524324756
Youtube Live: https://youtu.be/QcikTa2iO_E

The Great Conjunction From Chile
Time: Dec 21, 2020 4 pm PST, 6 pm CST, 12 am GMT (next day), 1 am CET (next day)
Zoom Webinar: https://zoom.us/webinar/89719525741
Youtube Live: https://youtu.be/o3gFw-TDJ9s

The Extra-Special Great Conjunction of 2020

Great Conjunctions are pretty cool – Jupiter and Saturn line up and appear close together from our viewpoint. They occur somewhat rarely but regularly (about 20 years apart) due to the orbital periods of Jupiter (11.9 years) and Saturn (29.5 years). The next Great Conjunction, coming up in a few weeks on Dec 21st, 2020, is an extra-special one.

It is extra-special because Jupiter and Saturn will be extremely close together, just over 6 arc-minutes apart.  You would have to go back almost 400 years to July 16th, 1623 to find them as close! To help visualize it, hold out your pinkie finder at arm’s length, that covers about 1°, so at conjunction, the two planets will be separated by a distance equal to about 1/10 the width of your pinkie – that is close enough that the two will appear as a single bright star to the naked eye. They will appear low to the horizon in the South-West around sunset on Dec 21st (sunset is at 4:15 pm PST). 

Jupiter and Saturn will be low in the South-West, as viewed from Vancouver, BC on Dec 21st at 5:00 pm PST.

There’s no need to wait until Dec 21st as Jupiter and Saturn are already quite close together, starting off December about 2° apart. Both will easily fit within a 1° field of view (typical of common telescopes) from Dec 17th through to Dec 25th.

Saturn and Jupiter getting closer together as the Great Conjunction 2020 approaches on Dec 21. Image Credit: Sky At Night Magazine, Peter Lawrence.
DateSeparation (arc-minutes)
Dec 1728
Dec 1818
Dec 1913
Dec 208
Dec 216
Dec 2211
Dec 2316
Dec 2422
Dec 2529
Jupiter and Saturn in a simulated 1° eyepiece field of view – click to open a larger version.

The low altitude and weather will be challenges for observing the conjunction from Vancouver. You may want to watch a live-streamed event from a remote location rather than betting on clear skies in December in Vancouver – Virtual Telescope, for example, is hosting a live-streamed event.

Sky-At-Night magazine has an article on the Great Conjunction with more info, and you can get some general observing tips from SkyNews’s Guide to Observing Jupiter.

Annual General Meeting 2020

Our Annual General Meeting will be held virtually on

Thursday, December 10th, 2020 at 7:30 pm to 8 pm

The Zoom link to join this meeting is:

https://zoom.us/j/97268910998?pwd=a2V0M2ttTnlUU0ZSb1lES0hxS1owUT09

or via phone:

  • dial: 778 907 2071
    Meeting ID: 972 6891 0998
    Passcode: 527299

We are canvassing for one Executive position and one Council position. The position of National Representative is vacant and our Webmaster is seeking an assistant. If you wish to step onto council, please send an email to [email protected] to connect for follow-up.

The Agenda is as follows:

  1. Meeting called to order
  2. Acceptance of the Agenda
  3. Reading of the 2019 AGM Minutes
  4. President’s Report
  5. Secretary’s Report
  6. Treasurer’s Report
  7. National Representative’s Report
  8. Election of councilors in addition to the position of National Representative which is currently vacant for the remaining year of that position’s two-year term). If a member wishes to join council, they may step forward. Nominations for the aforementioned executive position can be taken from the floor as long as our bylaw requirements are met.

Rare Yellow Supergiants

Supergiant stars, including both red and blue supergiants, are rare making up less than 1% of stars. Yellow supergiants are an even rarer but important subclass that includes prominent stars such as Polaris and δ-Cephei.

Our North Star,Polaris, is a Yellow Super Giant. Image credit: APOD Jan 11,2008, Steve Mandel & Research Collaboration: Adolf Witt (University of Toledo) et al.

Yellow Supergiants must meet two criteria: they have to be yellow with a spectral class of F or G, and they have to be bright with an absolute magnitude from about -5 to -8. It turns out that not many stars can satisfy both criteria for more than a short amount of time.

A Hertzsprung Russel Diagram shows how stars fall into different classes depending on their brightness and temperature. Image credit: http://collinspolarisstarslife.weebly.com/polaris-main-sequence.html

To understand them better, it is helpful to learn a bit about Hertzsprung-Russel Diagrams (H-R Diagrams) and stellar lifecycles. H-R diagrams help astronomers understand stellar evolution because stars fall into different positions and classes depending on where they are in their life cycle. Most stars, including our sun, spend most of their lifetime in the main sequence class where they produce energy by fusing hydrogen into helium. But as a star goes through its life stages, its luminosity and temperature change, hence its position on the H–R diagram also changes.

Our sun, for example, will spend about 10 billion years in the main sequence class and then expand and cool as it becomes a red giant. In doing so, its position on an H-R diagram will move up and to the right into the red giant class. The Sun will remain in the there for up to a billion years powered by the fusion of helium into carbon. After the helium is exhausted, the Sun will expel it’s outer layers as a planetary nebula then contract into a white dwarf. At this point, its position on the diagram moves into the white dwarf class where it remains for a long time. This lifecycle can be visualized as a path on an H-R diagram as shown below.

The Sun’s lifecycle as a Path on an H-R Diagram. Image credit: Carneiro, Robert L., Social Evolution & History. Volume 4, Number 1 / March 2005

Yellow supergiants, on the other hand, start off in the main sequence class and remain there for just a few million years. They live in the “Instability Strip” as a sort of pit stop on their way to becoming red giants. Stars in the Instability Strip oscillates between contracting/heating up and expanding/cooling down. This results in periodic variations in the star’s luminosity making them variable stars. In fact, most yellow supergiants are Cepheid Variables – an important class for determining stellar distances. The prototypical Cepheid variable, the star δ-Cephei in Cepheus, is a yellow supergiant.

In some cases depending on chemical composition, a red giant can heat up to become a yellow supergiant. This transition is called the “blue loop” as labelled in the H-R diagram below.

Evolution of a star 5X the mass of our Sun, showing a blue loop and other tracks across the yellow supergiant region
Image Credit: Lithopsian, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yellow supergiants only exist in the Instability Strip for a few thousand years. This short pit stop, coupled with the fact that 10+ solar-mass stars account for less than 1% of all stars explains the rarity of yellow supergiants. It is pretty cool that we can easily observe one with our naked eyes just by looking at Polaris, our prominent North Star.