2019 Nobel Prize Awarded to Canadian-born James Peebles

I was feeling a bit guilty not knowing much about James Peebles’ work and the discoveries that led him being awarded 1/2 of the 2019 Nobel Prize in physics. After all, he was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba (now part of Winnipeg) and obtained his undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba (my Alma Matter). Peebles was awarded the prize for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos. Peebles is a theoretical cosmologist whose work involves the study of the largest-scale structures and dynamics of the universe with fundamental questions about its origin, structure, evolution, and ultimate fate.

Fortunately, Dr. Joanna Woo presented a great summary of his work at Simon Fraser University’s celebration of the 2019 Nobel prizes at Science World last Wednesday. Dr. Woo is an astrophysicist who has recently joined the faculty at SFU. She is also the new Director of the Trottier Observatory. Her presentation, that described how Peebles’ theoretical work made predictions confirmed by three Nobel prize worthy observational discoveries, really highlighted the significance of Peebles’ theoretical research. The next three sections are my short summary.

Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Radiation

Peebles and his colleges developed theoretical models that started at the big bang and ran the clock forward to predict the temperature that the initial background radiation would have cooled to, predicting a present temperature of around 10° K. Penzias and Wilson from Bell labs won the 1978 Nobel Prize for their detection of the CMB at a temperature of about 3.5° K. Although both groups published their results in same issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, only Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the CMB.

Fluctuations in the CMB

Peebles realized that the young universe must have had fluctuations in density in order for galaxies, stars, and planets to form. His theoretical models predicted the impact that these fluctuations had on the cosmic microwave background. These predictions were confirmed, with the help of the NASA COBE mission in 1989, with the discovery and measurement of small variations in the CMB temperature in different directions. John C. Mather and George F. Smoot were awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for these discoveries that confirmed Peebles’ theory

Proportions of Matter, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy in the Univese

Peebles contributed to reviving Einstein’s cosmological constant, which has been renamed to Dark Energy, in models that predicted the composition of the Universe to be 5% ordinary matter, 26% Dark Matter, and 69% Dark Energy. Dark energy remained just a theory for years, until the universe’s accelerating expansion was discovered in 1998, resulting in the 2011 Nobel Prize for Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess. More recent studies, such as NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe and Europe’s Planck spacecraft have refined the proportions and led David Spergel, a cosmologist who worked on these missions, to remark “Jim Peebles is right”!

Other Half of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics

The other 1/2 of the 2019 Nobel went to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star. They discovered the exoplanet 51 Pegasi b using the radial velocity method.  This method, also known as Doppler spectroscopy, measures a star’s wobble velocity which can be evidence for an orbiting planet. Another Canadian connection here is that the radial velocity method was pioneered by G. Walker, B. Campbell and S. Yang from the University of British Columbia. The star 51 Pegasi is a solar-like star but the exoplanet is not Earth-like. It is more like a small Jupiter that orbits its star about every four days and is much closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun

More Noble Prize Celebrations

Simon Fraser University celebrates the newly awarded Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics and medicine/physiology each year. This year’s celebration included two more talks from SFU faculty:

  • “The Energy Revolution” by Dr. Stephen Campbell, doctorate in semiconductor electrochemistry, CTO at Nano One
  • “Controlling the burn – how life senses adapt to changes in oxygen availability” by Dr. David Vocadlo, Canada Research Chair in Chemical Biology, Department of Chemistry

Looking forward to next year’s celebration.

Volunteer with RASC Vancouver in 2020

Aldergrove Meteor Watch Event Photo
RASC Vancouver at the Aldergrove Park Meteor Watch

Why not make a resolution to volunteer with RASC Vancouver in 2020? There are RASC events scheduled throughout the year, and all over the Lower Mainland, that need volunteers. And this year, we need additional volunteers for the RASC 2020 General Assembly we are hosting June 5-7.

Expertise in astronomy is not required, we would be happy to have you help in any capacity. Make a on-line request to join our volunteers email list or contact our events coordinator, Hayley Miller, either at a members’ monthly meeting, or via an email to [email protected]  

Note that You must be a member in good standing to volunteer at a public RASC event due to liability and insurance concerns.

For me, the satisfaction in volunteering comes from the joy in hearing “Wow” when someone looks through my scope to see the Moon’s craters or Saturn’s rings for the first time at a RASC Star Party, the connections made when handing out a SkyNews magazine or Star Finder to someone who comments that they love he night sky, and the sense of community developed in working with other RASC volunteers to educate and inspire awe of the Universe.

You can contribute in many ways. RASC Volunteers have taken on tasks like the following:

  • Spending a few hours handing out star finders or other RASC Literature
  • Chatting with guests at our events about anything astronomy related
  • Welcoming guests and directing them to activities at our Astronomy Day event
  • Giving an educational talk or workshop at a library, to a scouts or guides group, or at a school
  • Arranging travel and logistics for speakers at our Monthly Meetings
  • Leading hands-on astronomy activities at an event
  • Doing public relations or helping with our social media
  • Bringing a telescope to a public star party to let the public have a look at what is up in the sky
  • Writing an article for our NOVA newsletter or our website
  • Advocating for Light Pollution Abatement with local governments
  • Organizing and running an event in your community

Don’t forget that there are other volunteer opportunities at the RASC 2020 General Assembly (and a gentle reminder that early-bird pricing for GA registrations ends in a couple of weeks on Feb 15th).

Help with Pacific Northwest First Nations Astronomy

You can find your way around the indigenous constellations with a new planisphere available from the RASC e-store. It includes constellation wheels that show Ojibwe, D(L)akota, and Cree star maps. A separate constellation guidebook, with the Ojibwe constellations is also available. These are great but the Ojibwe, D(L)akota, and Cree territories are located in the prairies and eastern Canada rather than out here on the west coast of BC.

RASC Vancouver would like to learn more about the sky lore, constellations, and astronomical knowledge of the First Nation peoples of the Pacific Northwest to show off at the RASC 2020 General Assembly on June 5th-7th 2020. What were their sky stories? Did they see and name patterns of stars similar to Western constellations?

Little information on the astronomical knowledge of Pacific Northwest First Nation peoples is available. If you know anything, have contact with anyone knowledgeable about this or would just like to help with some research then please send us an email to [email protected] -vancouver.com.

The Coastal Salish are a cultural group that inhabit the land around Metro Vancouver, extending down to into Washington, and north of Comox on Vancouver Island.

Coast Salish Territories
Image Credit: University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries

Other linguistic and cultural groups including the Haida, Tsimshian, Nuxalk (Bella Coola), Northern Wakashan, Kwakwakw’wakw (Kwakuitl), and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) reside further north along the Pacific Northwest coast.

Living around the Salish Sea and next to the Pacific Ocean, one would think these peoples would be sea-faring folk that navigated using the stars. The mild climate and abundant natural resources made possible the rise of a complex culture – they had time and energy to devote to the development of fine arts and crafts and to religious and social ceremonies – but what about astronomy?

Several First Nations peoples have sky lore related to “the Big Dipper”. The Mi’kmaq, who lived in southeast Canada, saw the Big Dipper handle stars as hunters chasing a Celestial Bear. The Iroquois had a similar legend. The Ntlakyapamuk, or Thompson peoples in the southern British Columbia Interior also saw three hunters but they were chasing a grizzly bear. It is interesting that the Ancient Greeks also saw a Great Bear, Ursa Major, in this pattern of stars.

Three brothers Chase the Celestial Bear
Image Credit: McMaster University

Other First Nations peoples in BC had different sky lore for the Big Dipper.

diving loons as seen by the Klamath peoples (in the British Columbia plateau region). To the Tahltan peoples in northwestern British Columbia, the stars of the Big Dipper were the Grandfather Stars. Grandfather Stars told the Thaltan people that as long as he continued to go around the northern sky, everything would be well.

Frank Dempsey, Aboriginal Canadian Sky Lore of the Big Dipper,
JRASC April / avril 2008 Volume/volume 102 Number/numéro 2

Are you a Stellarium user? If so then you can change the sky culture to something other than the default Western culture.

Screenshot Chnage Sky Culture in Stellarium
Changing the Sky Culture in Stellarium

such as the colourful Ojibwe sky culture.

Ojibwe Sky Culture in Stellarium
Stellarium with Ojibwe Sky Culture

A Recap of Some Exoplanet News

Here is a recap of some Exoplanets news that came to my attention last week – four science stories and one music video.

Orbits of all three known planets in the TOI 700 system. 
Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (USRA)

First, NASA announced that Tess, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone. TOI 700 d orbits a red dwarf star that is relatively quiet – no flares were detected in 11 months of TESS data. The star is located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. It has about 40% of the Sun’s mass and size and about half its surface temperature. Three planets have been detected but only the outermost is in the habitable zone where water can remain liquid on its surface.

Anna Hughes, a PhD candidate at UBC, spoke at the January RASC Vancouver monthly meeting about Magnetic Fields Around Dwarf Stars. Some types of magnetic fields are associated with active stars that can throw bursts of radiation and charged particles at orbiting planets, potentially sterilizing them. She explained her work in studying magnetic fields around ultra-cool dwarf stars and their impact on the potential habitability of surrounding exoplanets. Ultra-cool dwarfs were not expected to have magnetic fields because they are completely convective, without the shearing between different layers that generates magnetic fields in larger stars. Using large arrays of radio telescopes, Hughes studied several ultra-cool dwarf stars where the presence of magnetic fields has recently been detected. One of the system she studied was Trappist-1, a system with seven confirmed exoplanets, three of which are in the habitable zone.

Cool fact: ultra-cool dwarf stars have not yet experienced death. Their lifetimes are expected to exceed several hundred billion years which is longer than age of the universe.

A high-school student discovered a new exoplanet three days after starting his internship at NASA. NASA confirmed the work of Wolf Cukier, that was submitting in a paper announcing the discovery of TOI 1338 b at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting. It is a binary system and Cukier saw a signal that that was first thought to be a stellar eclipse. Instead, it turned out to be a planet orbiting two stars.

Artash Nath, a Grade 8 Student from Toronto, posted a message to the RASC mail list about his project with a free module using Python and a Jupyter Notebook that allows anyone to get started with machine learning on a dataset of transit light curves to predict the exoplanet planet-star radius ratio. An online tutorial is available from his Github account www.github.com/Artash-N.

On a lighter note, a older video on exoplanets created by Montrealer, Tim Blais from A Capella Science, got my attention by fitting “Pegasi 51-b” and “Spectral Class G” into the rhyme and rhythm of his “Whole New Worlds” video.

Plate Solving 2 – Automated Alignment

The Plate Solving 1 article described how Plate Solving software uses pattern matching to determine the stars and other objects that appear in an image. Plate Solving provides additional benefits when used with a computer connected mount – including accurate gotos with automated alignment.

The usual setup routine for using a goto mount is to first roughly polar align mount so that the mount’s polar axis is pointing at true north. This is often done with a small polar scope attached on the mount. An alignment process with the following steps is then repeated on several stars:

  • Select an alignment star that is visible from a list provided by the mount
  • Slew to the selected star
  • Use the hand-controller to center the selected star in the finder and eyepiece.

Plate solving can automate the alignment process. It requires a computer that controls the mount’s movements and can take images through the scope or finderscope. Many astronomy apps such as Stellarium, Carte du Ceil, or KStars are capable controlling a variety of mounts from vendors such as Celestron, Meade, iOptron, or Skywatcher. The process starts by selecting a target star or object in the App – then the computer takes over:

  • The computer tells the mount to slew to the target.
  • An image is taken through the scope and downloaded to the computer.
  • The computer uses Plate Solving to determine that region of the sky that the scope is actually pointing to.
  • The computer issues a sync command to update the mount’s alignment model to where the scope is pointing.
  • If the scope is not pointing at the target then the computer again tells the mount to slew to the target and the above steps are repeated

I automate alignment with my Celestron CGEM mount, Edge HD 8 scope, and a small Raspberry PI computer. The computer controls the mount and is also connected to a ZWO ASI178 camera on a piggy-backed 60 mm ZWO guidescope. The Raspberry PI is velcro’d to the mount and runs the Stellarmate OS but I connect to it remotely from a Macbook laptop running the KStars astronomy app over a wireless connection.

KStars displays a map of the sky for my location and time. I normally start by selecting a bright star relatively close to Polaris – making sure to pick one that is above 45 degrees in the North or North-East to avoid being block by the hedges or house in my front-yard. I then using KStars to have the mount “goto” to the target – in the image below my target was the bright star Mirfak in Perseus.

Screenshot of Kstars goto with Celestron CGEM mount.
Initial Goto the star Mirfak with KStars connected to a Celestron CGEM Mount

The EKOS alignment module in KStars handles the automated alignment procedure and plate solving.

EKOS Alignment Module Screenshot
Plate Solving Settings for EKOS Alignment Module

The main settings that I use are are highlighted with orange oval boxes in the screenshot above.

  • Select the “Slew to target” radio button to repeat a slew to the target if, after plate solving, the scope is not actually pointing at the target.
  • Set the Scope selection to “Guidescope” because I do automated alignment and plate solving using my guidescope.
  • Select “ZWO ASI178” in the CCD drop-down as that is the camera I have attached to the guidescope.
  • Set “Exp: 2 sec” to use a short 2 seconds exposure time. I occasionally increase this if not enough stars are visible.
  • Set “Bin: 4×4” so binning is used to combine pixels and decrease the size of the images.

Then I just click the “Capture and Solve” button. After an image is taken and plate solving is done, the image and results of plate solving, including the RA (right ascension) and Dec (declination), is displayed on the left hand side. On this night, plate solving succeeded despite the presence of the significant cloud cover seen in the image.

EKOS Screenshot after Successful Plate Solve and Alignment
EKOS Screenshot after Successful Plate Solve and Alignment

I use automated plate solving with my guidescope when doing visual observing – it turns my guidescope into an automated electronic finderscope that is faster and more accurate than doing a manual alignment.

When imaging, I extend the procedure to do plate solving with my primary scope and a Nikon DSLR camera. One great feature in KStars is that it shows the camera FOV on the sky map with its rotation after plate solving. That makes is easier to rotate the camera and compose the image so that it includes additional interesting objects.

Screenshot of Kstars with FOV plus rotation after Plate Solving
Field of View plus Rotation shown in KStars

Try it out – for technolophiles, doing automated alignment with plate solving with inexpensive hardware and free software is pretty cool stuff.

Space Talk with Scott: Jan 4, 2020

RASC Vancouver’s Scott McGillivray talks about how the recent discovery of a massive black hole was a mistake and the brightness of Betelgeuse.


Betelgeuse, a bright star that is a shoulder in the constellation Orion, has observably dimmed in recent months leading to speculations that it may be getting ready to die in a fiery supernova explosion.

General Assembly 2020 Open for Registration

You can now register and book accommodation for the RASC 2020 General Assembly.

RASC 2020 General Assembly Logo

Book early to reserve a room at a discounted group rate and take advantage of early-bird pricing that is in effect until Feb 15th, 2020.

The General Assembly, or GA, takes place at the Executive Plaza Hotel & Conference Centre on North Road in Coquitlam – just a 5 minute walk from the Lougheed Skytrain Station – from June 5th to 7th, 2020. The GA is an excellent opportunity for members of the RASC and the public to gather and strengthen the bonds of community.

The GA is of particular interest to RASC members from across Canada but all astronomy and space enthusiasts, including non-members, are encouraged to register. The GA is green, inclusive, and youth-friendly.

The Stars Belong to Everyone!

New Council for 2020

RASC Vancouver Council for 2020

Here is the new RASC Vancouver Council from the Dec 2019 Annual General Meeting. Visit the contacts page for email addresses and more information.

(Left to right) Back-row : Alan Jones (VP, AOMO), Scott McGillivray (PR & AOMO), Kyle Dally (Merchandise), Ken Arthurs (Telescopes & Observing), Ken Liu

Front-Row: Phil Lobo (Treasurer), Ken Jackson (Webmaster), Gordon Farrell (President & NOVA Editor), Leigh Cummings (LPA), William Fearon (Library), Francesca Crema (Membership), Suzanna Nagy (Secretary & Membership).

Missing: Halley Miller (Events and National Rep), Robert Conrad (Observing & Education), Andrew Krysa (Education), Howard Trottier (at-large), Bill Burnyeat (at-large), J. Karl Miller (Honorary President).

Dec 26th Annular Eclipse Report

Annular Eclipse Dec 26th Image
Eclipse Photo from Malacca, Malaysia, Dec 26th 2019. Image credit Milan B.

I was really lucky today, got to see most of the eclipse while sightseeing in coastal port of Malacca (Melaka). The photos were taken around the maximum eclipse which was at 13:17 local time. The magnitude was around 0.95 while about 92% of the Sun was eclipsed by the Moon. It was a little eerie, dark but not too dark, shadows were really unusual, but in this town full of tourists today very few people were aware of what was going on high up in the sky. My camera was hand held as well as the solar filter (my son was helping me). All in all, it was an awesome event and made me very happy. The next eclipse is also annular and will be happening in Northern India among other places, so very doable for me.

by RASC Vancouver member Milan B from Malacca, Malaysia

The final “Ring of Fire” solar eclipse of 2019 occurred early on December 26th spanning the Indian Ocean region from the Middle East to the western Pacific. An annular solar eclipse occurs when the Moon is visually too small to completely cover the disk of the Sun, leaving in a bright “annulus” or “Ring of Fire” surrounding the Moon.

Most annular solar eclipses occur when the moon is near apogee, the farthest point in its orbit around Earth – so it appears smaller as seen from Earth. This Dec 26th eclipse is unusual in that the moon is not near apogee – it is almost exactly at its mean distance from Earth. In this eclipse, the moon is still too small to cover the sun’s disk completely because the Earth is close to perihelion, its closest point to the sun for the year – so the sun appears larger as seen from from Earth.

A Unicorn Spitting 400 Meteors per Hour

Possible meteor shower in Monoceros – the Unicorn!

Radiant for the Monocerotids Meteor Shower

“What’s rarer than seeing a unicorn? How about a unicorn spitting meteors at the rate of 400 per hour?”

lead in from Sky & Telescope’s Nov, 2019 article on the Alpha Monocerotids meteor shower

A meteor shower is possible this week on the evening of Thursday Nov 21st and extending into the early morning on Nov 22nd. Meteor forecasters Esko Lyytinen (Finnish Fireball Network) and Peter Jenniskens (NASA/Ames) predict this could cause another outburst of alpha Monocerotid meteors.

During previous outbursts, in 1925 and 1935, activity reached meteor-storm levels with a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of more than 1,000. Near-storm level ZHRs around 700 to 400 were experienced in 1985 and 1995. Conditions this year are nearly the same as those in 1995 leading Lyytinen and to Jenniskens to predict a ZHR of 400.

The peak rate is centered at 08:50 PM PST on Thursday November 21st. The show is expected to be brief, with the peak rate lasting only 15 to 45 minutes. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky but the paths of meteors will appear to originate from a point in the constellation Monoceros, near the bright star Procyon. The predicted ZHR is an over-estimate based on the extending the peak rate to a full hour, observing at the zenith with very dark skies. The best case, for real observing at a good location, might be closer to a maximum of 5 meteors per minute.

There is some good news & bad news for BC observers:

  • The current weather forecast looks somewhat favourable, partially cloudy is pretty good for this time of year in our temperate rainforest.
  • The radiant will be below the horizon during the shower peak which may compromise the view, but a few long earth-grazers may appear shooting upward from the eastern horizon.
Monoceros & Procyon rising one hour after the expected peak of the meteor shower.
Nov 21st, 2019 21:50 PST from Vancouver

It is still worth going out for a look. Try to find a dark place with an open view to the east.