President’s Message for March 2011

March brings news about the many astronomy outreach activities taking shape for Vancouver Centre this year (details below). March of course also brings the vernal equinox, when the Sun will stand directly over the equator at Noon, continuing its northwards climb along the ecliptic and, for those of us in the Northern hemisphere, auguring warmer and longer days ahead. And so we gear up to engage the public!
Mind you, for recreational astronomers, who prize long nights for hunting celestial treasures, summer can occasionally be seen as a bit of a mixed bag! In fact, at our latitude, we stay in perpetual “astronomical” twilight for just over a month, from the beginning of June to early July, when the centre of the Sun never quite descends further than 18 degrees below the horizon, the angle that is taken to define the point at which scattered sunlight is no longer visible.
It was just last year that I had the good fortune to enjoy a sequence of nights of dusk-to-dawn observing at this latitude, from spring through fall, under truly dark skies. I grew up in Montreal, and since I was a teenager, I had done almost no “personal” astronomy, until about three years ago, when I acquired a taste for astronomical imaging. Last summer, I was finally able to go “really deep” into deep-sky imaging, from an exceptionally dark location. I intensely followed the evolving sky conditions each night, recording which frames might need to be discarded when I would later combine the individual exposures, and process the results. I was also keen to assess just how dark the skies were from this location in the South Okanagan, so I would routinely scan the skies all around the horizon and to the zenith. I managed about two nights each month, from May through the end of August (with a really fabulous stretch at the end).
The weather in May and June was mixed, most nights having intermittent cloud cover. But finally, one night in June, I noticed a very dim glow, barely perceptible to the northwest, well after sunset. I was a little puzzled at first, because I was sure that there wasn’t any source of light in that direction, for some considerable distance. I studied the glow intently, as my scope and camera continued to track their target behind me. At first I didn’t trust my senses (being a little slow on the uptake on this one!), but after a time it became clear that the glow really was moving to the north. I confess that I had to check some tables to trust myself, never having realized that Vancouver is just above the latitude at which one experiences “Midnight Twilight”! It was quite exciting to track the glow throughout the (too few) hours of darkness that night, for quite an extent to the northeast!
By the way, an excellent source on “Midnight Twilight” (and the “Midnight Sun”) is the article by Roy Bishop in the RASC Observer’s Handbook (fittingly on pg. 211 of the 2011 edition).
A final note about astronomy and the seasons, before I close with an update on Vancouver Centre’s programming. We’ve just gone through an awful winter for observational astronomy, and at the March council meeting last week, when the Chair of our Observing Committee, Doug Montgomery, was asked for his report, he said it all with a very long, and very deep sigh! This triggered quite an outburst of pained laughter all around the council meeting table.
Finally, it’s time for that news update on your Vancouver Centre.
We have had two outstanding speakers at the first two meetings of the year. In January, we had standing room only at the presentation by Dr. John Mather, co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize. Dr. Mather gave an inspiring talk on progress in the construction of the James Webb space telescope, and on the stunning observations that we can expect from this successor to the Hubble, scheduled for launch around 2015. Dr. Mather was also kind enough stay for our coffee, held in the ground floor reception area next to the auditorium, which was kindly made available to us by the Space Centre. In fact, Dr. Mather was with the last of us to quit the Space Centre that night.
Another notable die-hard that night was Bob Naeye, Editor of Sky & Telescope! Naeye happened to be in town as a guest of long-time member (and Observer’s Handbook contributor) Lee Johnson. Lee did all of us an enormous service by bringing Bob to this event, for I can tell you without a doubt that Naeye was very impressed, having talked ourselves hoarse on the sidewalk outside the Space Centre until very late.
I also had the good fortune to host Dr. Mather at SFU for the physics department colloquium the following day, as well as to take him out for dinner, along with Barry Shanko (your speaker coordinator, who engineered quite the coup to bring us a speaker of this caliber!), and some colleagues from SFU and UBC. Ask me at one of our meetings about the very moving story that Dr. Mather told us over dinner about James Webb, who was the second administrator of NASA, during the lead-up to the Apollo landings, and who is the first administrator to have a major astronomical mission named after him (and for good reason).
In February we had the good fortune to host Richard Berry, who has made enormous contributions to “amateur” astronomy (and there is nothing amateur about him), including serving as the first editor of Astronomy magazine, and publishing classic books on telescope making and astronomical imaging. He gave us a spirited history of three of the greats from a golden age of “amateur” astronomy, in the 18th and 19th centuries, when many of the greatest discoveries were made by those who pursued astronomy for the love of it: William Herschel and his son John (not to forgot William’s sister Caroline), and Lord Rosse.
At our February meeting we also kicked off our new public outreach segment “What’s Up?”. This new series of presentations and activities, which is held before the start of the regular RASC Vancouver monthly guest lecture, is tailored to newcomers to astronomy, especially young ones! More experienced astronomy fans might even find something of interest ;)-. Yours truly delivered the kick off, which sought to answer three questions inspired by Dr. Mather’s presentation the month before: “Where’s the centre of the universe? What’s it expanding into? And where is the limit of our vision into space?”. This was actually an audience participation question and answer session, which included a do it yourself expanding universe! We had a great turnout, thanks to the many dozens of families who came, and it was very rewarding to have the enthusiastic participation of so many kids, of all ages ;).
We look ahead to a packed schedule of exciting activities already in place through the month of May. Two notable events are the result of partnerships with Metro Vancouver Parks. We have been invited to participate in Metro Parks annual “Night Quest”, at Pacific Spirit Regional Park, Saturday March 19, starting at 7PM. This is a truly magical family-oriented experience of the magic of the nocturnal forest and of the night sky. We’ve also partnered with Metro Parks to host International Astronomy Day on Saturday May 7, together with their annual Urban Star Quest. This will be an all-day and all-night astronomy extravaganza for the public, to be held at Aldergrove Lake Regional Park!
Another notable event is “Galaxy Forum 2011”, to be hosted by the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) at the Space Centre, on Sunday April 10, from 3-5PM. Vancouver Centre has agreed to partner with the ILOA for this event, and I am also proud to say that two of the featured speakers are from SFU.
These are just a few of the many activities that are already in place over the next few months. Please be sure to checkout our Meetup.com web site, your destination for the complete schedule and details of Vancouver Centre events: http://www.meetup.com/astronomy-131/.
Here’s to clear skies and more time under the stars!

Howard Trottier
President, RASC-VC
Professor of Physics, SFU