President's message for November, 2011

This edition of NOVA rounds out our series for 2011, and so it presents a natural forum in which to take a look back on a year of astronomy at Vancouver Centre.

The first thing that I did in preparing to write this message was to go back to the first edition of NOVA for this year, and there, in my first President’s message, I found a list that I recorded of the goals that your council had set for itself, and our society, for the coming year (finding that list came as a bit of a surprise – which does not speak well for my memory!). Happily, I think I can say that we did very well, accomplishing almost all of what we set out to do, with one very important exception – a goal that will be first on our plate for next year (more on that at the end).

Top of the list in that article was to ensure a successful year of monthly lectures. Our Speaker Coordinator Barry Shanko set the bar very high with our first lecture of the year, when we hosted Dr. John Mather of the Goddard Space Flight Centre, co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics, for a talk on the James Webb Space Telescope. That January lecture was standing room only in the auditorium at the Space Centre! Although we did not fill the auditorium to bursting again this year, we had a series of top-notch speakers on a diverse range of topics, which helped to generate a consistently high attendance record, topping 150 people on two other occasions, and getting in the neighborhood of 100 on a few others. These other high water marks included our annual Paul Sykes lecture, held in October at SFU, when we hosted Jon Lomberg, astronomy artist and long-time collaborator with Carl Sagan; and Kaspar von Braun of Caltech, a world-leader in the exo-planet business, who we hosted at UBC.

Another major goal for 2011 was to strengthen our partnerships with other regional groups committed to astronomy outreach, and we vigorously worked this objective throughout the year! Our major partners were Metro-Vancouver Parks, Simon Fraser University, the International Lunar Observatory Association, the NRC/Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, the Vancouver Telescope Centre, and Canadian Telescopes. In particular, we held multiple events with Metro-Parks all across the greater Vancouver area, from Pacific Spirit Park on the west side, through Deas Island Park in Delta, and out east to Aldergrove Lake Regional Park (where we held our very rainy Astronomy Day in May). All of our collaborative efforts were in addition to our own very active program of community-based outreach, which included multiple presentations at the Roundhouse in Yaletown, at the Maple Ridge Public Library, and at malls, schools and community centres across town.

These events represent the collective work of council members and volunteers from the membership at large, are were managed under the direction of your outstanding Events Coordinator Suzanna Nagy, who deserves special mention for her creative and tireless work, including her successful efforts to enlist new volunteers. Another particular mention goes to your Education Chair, Bill Burnyeat, who this summer once again travelled to numerous provincial parks and campgrounds throughout BC, to bring observational astronomy to the public under dark skies. In addition to support from council for this effort, Bill received a prestigious grant from NSERC PromoScience, a federal government agency that promotes science outreach initiates (and I can tell you from personal experience that they don’t fool around when it comes to allocating support!).

Council also set the goal of reaching novice astronomers, especially young ones! To this end, we instituted a new “What’s Up?” segment, 20-minute presentations that were held before many of our monthly lectures. These were very successful, turning out many newcomers to Vancouver Centre, thanks in part to Simon Fraser University’s extensive contacts with parents and teachers who have attended its grade school oriented astronomy workshop program. (As an aside, for 2012 council intends to pick a few monthly meetings to devote entirely to a “What’s Up?”, rather than staggering short segments ahead of our lectures, as we did this year, since our presentations are generally too tough for a young audience.) Our “What’s Up?” segments included practical tips on observing the night sky, and educational morsels (light but filling!) on a variety of topics, from what amateur astronomers actually do, to unsolved mysteries at the cutting-edge of astronomy and space science, and a light-hearted hands-on, do it yourself expanding universe ;)!

In connection with our efforts to reach young people, a very notable development this year came in the form of a new sponsor: Canadian Telescopes. Babak Sedehi, the owner of this very successful startup in the business of on-line telescope shopping, was an enthusiastic and very generous supporter of just about every one of our activities that were directed to young people. This included a telescope door prize at every one of our “What’s Up?” segments, and a top-quality 8” Dobsonian telescope at our Paul Sykes lecture (only kids were eligible!). But Babak didn’t stop there. He generously subsidized publication of NOVA for much of the year, insisting that this include four pages in colour! And he offered new members of Vancouver Centre a $20 gift certificate from

Rounding out the goals that we set and met this year, we continued to develop our web site, which has a professional look, a well-organized structure, and new content, thanks in particular to our Webmaster and IT Chair Harvey Dueck; our LPA Chair Mark Eburne made substantive progress on this important issue, working his contacts in the media and municipal government; and good progress was reported at the AOMO, including work on a guide scope, and increased use by members and the public, thanks to co-Chairs Leigh Cummings and Mark Eburne.

We fell down on our goals in only two areas: establishing a Twitter presence, and a Biggie: membership. Our numbers are down this year, despite the many new faces that we’ve seen at our many events. Tackling the dual challenges of retaining our existing membership, and attracting new ones, will be job #1 for 2012. Bearing this in mind, at our annual planning meeting in October Council established a short but carefully chosen list of priorities in which to focus our efforts and resources for next year (this process owes especially to the leadership of your Webmaster and IT Chair Harvey Dueck, and your Secretary Alan Jones) – details on our 2012 priorities will be found in my President’s message in the January 2012 edition of NOVA ;).

I think there is much cause for optimism for a successful 2012 at Vancouver Centre, including for a strong return on our planned all-out assault on the membership challenge. My optimism is further stoked by the fact that there will be eight newcomers to council for 2012. Some familiar faces will be stepping down from Council, some after very many years of service, and I want to record here the deep indebtedness of Vancouver Centre towards these dedicated members – in alphabetical order: Doug Montgomery, Gavin McLeod, Pomponia Martinez, and Wayne Lyons. In their place, the eight incoming council members have chosen to follow the example set by the outgoing councilors, in the service of the membership at large, and our public – and I can tell you, the newbies are full of beans! Introductions will have to wait for ratification at the December AGM ;). I can’t wait!

Howard Trottier

President, RASC-VC

Professor of Physics, SFU

President's Message for September, 2011

As I start to write this message, it’s nearing 2AM on the Saturday of Labour Day weekend. This will be the last day of my family’s first summer in rural south Okanagan, much of it to be spent in the usual ritual of tidying and packing that comes with the end of summer vacation (though with time for a hike into the woods with my son Alexandre). Tomorrow we will drive back to Vancouver and into the real world.

Many an amateur astronomer has been born under the deep dark skies of a rural summer, not to mention the countless childhood memories that are forged when the Milky Way is seen to trace its glorious summer arc through the zenith. No wonder that for so many members of our Vancouver Centre, as with thousands of RASCals across the country, the urge to get under a rural sky has its greatest power in the summer.

Annual summer star parties in isolated rural locales are held throughout North America. The Mount Kobau Star Party (this year’s 28th edition having run from July 30 until August 7), and the Merritt Star Quest (which started on August 27 and wraps up today), both draw many of our members. Mind you, not even summer skies can compromise the commitment of your Council and other member volunteers to bring astronomy to the public at convenient locations in and near to the urban light swamp that is Vancouver! (Full confession: my own public outreach efforts this summer have been confined to a keyboard .)

RASC Vancouver participated at the New Westminster Grimston Park “Summerfest” on July 16; at the Metro Parks Deas Island Regional Park “Starry Night” on August 13; and at Metro Parks “All Night Stargazing” at Aldergrove Lake Regional Park on August 19. (BTW, this makes four events so far this year at which Metro Parks and Vancouver Centre have partnered to bring astronomy to thousands of people. We started with Metro Parks annual “Night Quest” at Pacific Spirit Regional Park back on March 19, and held our very rainy Astronomy Day at Aldergrove Lake Regional Park on May 7, with Metro Parks awesome logistical support.)

As I reported in the July/August edition of NOVA, your Council decided to devote our July and August public meetings at the Space Centre entirely to our “What’s Up?” program, which is tailored to newcomers to astronomy (especially young ones!). The back story is that attendance by members at summer meetings has historically been on the low side (owing in part to the need that so many of us have to scratch that rural summer sky itch), and there always exists the temptation for Council to cancel the summer meetings, so that its members can parktake to the fullest in the rural summer sky odyssey. (Another confession: while others on Council have done good much work this summer, I’ve been fixed under south Okanagan skies >:).) On July 14 Bob Parry, well known to our members as a past President and Director of Telescopes, took our audience on a tour with “Robots of the Solar System”, and on August 11, your Education Chair, “Mr. Stargazer” Bill Burnyeat, gave our audience an introduction to the celestial treasures of summer skies, and a look ahead to astronomical treats of autumn. Both meetings were very well attended, with many young families present, and Canadian Telescopes once again donated a telescope door prize at each meeting, in support of our ongoing efforts to bring young people into astronomy.

With summer nearly over, RASC Vancouver is gearing up for a very exciting fall season, chock full of A-list guest lecturers, star parties, and special events. Here are just two examples of what’s in the offing.

Our September 8 public meeting brings a distinguished guest lecturer to the Space Centre: David Halliday, President of Dynamic Structures. Mr. Halliday was appointed to the Order of Canada in December 2010 for “advancing the field of astronomy, notably through his leadership in the design and construction of some of the world’s largest telescope observatories.” Your Council recently and unanimously approved a motion to elect Mr. Halliday as an honorary member, as provided under our bylaws. We are honoured that Mr. Halliday has accepted. A formal presentation of his honorary membership will take place just prior to his lecture, which is entitled “In Focus”.

Our annual Paul Skyes Memorial Lecture will take place this year on Saturday October 1, at Simon Fraser University, and will be given by Jon Lomberg, a world-renowned astronomy artist and speaker. Lomberg has done many high-profile astronomy art installations, and works of scientific artistry, including for the Voyager “Golden Record”, and a beautiful rendering of the Milky Way galaxy for NASA, illustrating the search region for the Kepler spacecraft exo-planet survey. In addition to delivering the Skyes lecture, Lomberg will be at SFU for consultation on a very exciting project … but I can’t reveal what that is about just yet ;). But come to the Paul Skyes lecture to hear Lomberg talk about his 25 years of collaboration with Carl Sagan, a stellar example of how the arts and sciences can inform each other, and the public. You might also find out what’s going on under the stars at SFU, with the essential support of Vancouver Centre!

Finally, to close out this column, why am I writing this column at 2AM (oops, make that 5AM now), besides trying to surprise NOVA editor Gordon Farrell by submitting a President’s message ahead of time (for once!)? I’m trying to capture every last deep-sky photon that I can get into my camera before the end of this summer of celestial bliss .

Howard Trottier

President, RASC-VC

Professor of Physics, SFU

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 web site, your destination for the complete schedule and details of Vancouver Centre events:
Here’s to clear skies and more time under the stars!

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

Introducing "What's Up?", a new prelude to our monthly meetings

Starting at 7pm , half an hour before each monthly meeting, “What’s Up?” features a brief presentation of things to see in the sky that month.  Usually the presenter will also speak a few words on a topic of interest to new astronomers, especially young ones.

Our first “What’s Up?” presentation will take place at 7pm on February 10, 2011.  The topic will be ““Where’s the centre of the universe? What’s it expanding into? And where is the limit of our vision into space?” RASC President and SFU Professor Howard Trottier will demonstrate a do-it-yourself expanding universe and take questions from the audience.  He’ll also tell you how to find the Orion nebula and the moons of Jupiter!

Whats Up? February2011-PDF

President’s Message for January 2011

On behalf of the Council of the Vancouver Centre of the RASC, and as its new President, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome you to the exciting start of a New Year of activities that is sure to inform our membership, reach out to the public, and provide many opportunities to experience the cosmos! I would also like to look ahead to a new set of opportunities for us to collectively strengthen our Vancouver Centre (VC).

I first wish to extend my warmest personal appreciation and affection to our Immediate Past President, Ron Jerome. At our 2010 AGM, Ron was publicly recognized by council for “his kind stewardship, and sage advice in directing our centre over the last two years as president” (to quote from Secretary Alan Jones’ AGM report). His leadership has set the stage for many of the new initiatives that will be brought forward by council this year, in concert with you, our membership.

We start off the year with a truly exceptional “catch” for our public meeting on January 13, when (thanks to our resourceful Speakers Chair, Barry Shanko) we host Dr. John Mather of the Goddard Space Flight Centre, co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics! Dr. Mather is currently a principal investigator for the James Webb Space Telescope (set for launch by 2015). He will talk about his work from the early 1990’s that led to his Nobel Prize, and will look ahead to the potential for the discovery of alien life by the new space telescope! (Looking for a short backgrounder on Dr. Mather’s Nobel Prize work? I give my take below ;). Our speaker line-up for the rest of 2011 already includes a noted amateur telescope maker and astro-imager, and a science writer with an intriguing story to tell, long-forgotten until now, of one man’s (impossible) dream to build the world’s largest telescope, on Grouse Mountain!

Look forward as well to a wide range of community events and star parties! VC is partnering with several groups committed to astronomy outreach, to put on events throughout the year and across the Greater Vancouver area and beyond. These groups already include Metro-Vancouver Parks, Simon Fraser University, the International Lunar Observatory Association, the NRC/Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, the Vancouver Telescope Centre, and of course the HR MacMillan Space Centre.

Council has also set an ambitious set of goals to strengthen VC in 2011. First among these is to increase the value of VC for our membership. In particular, in February we will change the format of our monthly public meetings at the Space Centre, to include a short new “What’s Up?” segment, geared especially to newer and/or less experienced members, including practical tips on observing the night sky, and accessible segments on new developments in cutting edge astronomy and space science. This content should also help to attract new members, and might even be entertaining for more seasoned members ;).

Of prime importance is to increase membership, especially young families and university-age students. To this end, council aims to increase the presence of VC on the web, which will also increase service to our existing membership. This includes a revamped and higher-profile web site, with content to attract the public and of interest to our members. And we aim to connect VC to the public, and our members to each other, through Facebook and Twitter, including real-time postings from our events, and messages on anything astronomical that happens to grab the interest of our members! We also aim to capitalize on VC involvement with the successful Simon Fraser University outreach program for young families (on this I’m wearing two hats: see below).

Council also aims to establish new ways to encourage our members to volunteer, and to better coordinate our public events; to build on the recent successes of our Light Pollution Abatement campaign; to increase our media exposure (see our web site for my appearance as the new President of VC on the GlobalBC morning news show in December!); to make improvements to our observatory in Maple Ridge (the Antony Overton Memorial Observatory), and encourage use of that facility by our members, as well as by invitation to local university students; and to improve our telescope loaner program for VC members.
This might also be a good time to answer the questions “Who the heck am I?”, and “How the heck did I get on Vancouver Centre council?”, for the many members who I have yet to meet ;). While my day job is as a Professor of Physics at Simon Fraser University, my nighttime identity has for sometime been best described as Obsessive Amateur Astro-Imager (more on that in a future NOVA article!). But over the past two years my obsession for astronomy has fused with my day job, with SFU hosting a program of public outreach that has welcomed over 2,500 grade-school age kids at daytime astronomy workshops on the Burnaby campus, along with hundreds of their teachers, parents, and guardians. SFU has also hosted some 2,000 members of the public at evening star parties and special “theme” events over the past two years. And here’s the rub: None of this would have been remotely possible without the extraordinary support provided by Vancouver Centre, in the form of the many dedicated RASCal volunteers who assist at SFU events, and financial support that has provided educational resources through SFU to kids, teachers, and schools. Joining Vancouver Centre council began as a way for me to return a small part of that support. But this has turned into a wonderful avenue for doing more of what I love: sharing experiences with fellow amateur astronomers, and reaching out to the public. As President, I hope to help realize the many exciting new initiatives of Vancouver Centre, with my number one personal goal being to recruit new members, especially young people, who represent the future of VC.

Here finally is the backgrounder I promised on the work that won Dr. Mather the Nobel Prize ;). In 2006 the Nobel committee recognized Dr. Mather and Dr. George Smoot “for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.” Their work as principal investigators of the COBE satellite mission in the early 1990s dramatically established the presence of very small variations, or anisotropies, in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the leftover “heat” of the Big Bang. These variations trace the tiny contrasts that were present in the distribution of matter in the early universe, and which grew to become the large-scale structures (immense galaxy clusters and super-clusters) that we see in the universe today. The detection of the anisotropies in the CMB (which “had” to be there) had been a “holy grail” of astrophysics ever since the discovery of the CMB itself in 1964, by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, for which they received the 1974 Nobel Prize. More precise measurements of the anisotropies in the CMB, to more deeply probe the physics of the early universe, continue to be an extremely hot pursuit in space science. These include stunning measurements of the age and geometry of the universe obtained by the NASA WMAP satellite, launched in 2001, and with still more penetrating results expected to come from the Planck satellite mission of the European Space Agency, launched in 2009.
In closing, I look forward to getting to know many more of our members, and I hope to encourage you to come forward and volunteer for any one of our many activities and initiatives. Please contact me, or any other member of council. Our contact information can be found on the VC web site.

Here’s to clear skies and more time under the stars!

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