Skyward -- March 2019

David Levy

Skyward, March 2019

  If you have read this column more than once, you probably are not too surprised to understand that I love comets.  Comets are a part of me, a part of who I am. 

But I had to wait a while before I saw my first comet.  I was already 17 years old and had been interested in the sky for a number of years.  When I learned that the two young Japanese amateur astronomers Kaoru Ikeya and Tsutomu Seki had discovered a comet that could become the comet of the century, I was spellbound.  During the mild autumn of 1965, as I awaited this mighty comet, I decided to begin a comet search program of my own. 

At the end of October I finally saw this comet as it rose, tail first, in the sky to the east beyond the St. Lawrence River.  I observed it again a week later in early November.  I have never forgotten it, even as, in later years, I finally was able to correspond with the comet’s two discoverers.   Their comet did become the brightest comet of the 20th century, and my own program, after many more years of searching,  was successful.

To me, comets are as personal as almost anything in my life.  I have discovered or co-discovered 23 of them, but my favorite is Comet Hyakutake. (prounounced Yah-koo-tah-key.)  This comet provided everything a great comet should:  it was big, it was bright, and its tail stretched majestically across the sky.  I followed the tail one night from Polaris, the north star, all the way past Corvus in the far southern sky.  When I reported my observation, a professional astronomer wrote to me that it was simply impossible for the tail to be so long.  In order for that to happen, the tail would have had to stretch from Earth past Jupiter.  A few years later, scientists studying the data from the Ulysses space probe identified its detection of the tail at the orbit of Jupiter, and the astronomer confirmed what I saw.

There is one other aspect that I can write about Comet Hyakutake.  Between the time it passed so close to the Earth and the time it passed close to the Sun a couple of months later, Wendee and I were growing closer.  One evening as we were driving home to Arizona from Las Cruces, New Mexico, I pulled over, turned off the car, and we enjoyed the comet together as it was ner its perihelion, or its cloest point to the Sun.  It was the first time Wendee saw a comet.  She saw another one, Hale-Bopp, the next year on our wedding night. And on October 3, 2006, she saw a third comet, one I had discovered the previous morning.

Oh, how I wish that more young people could capture this love of the night sky.  Maybe soon another bright comet will pay us a visit, and a young teenage girl or boy will look up, watch it wander lazily across the sky, its tail pointing off in some direction, and maybe this comet might inspire that young person to learn about the night sky that is so much a part of us.

Picture Caption: Halley's comet, taken with the 61-inch telescope at Mount Bigelow, near Tucson, Arizona.  The image clearly shows a bright tailward jet of dust emanating from the nucleus.  Picture by Steve Larson and David Levy.

David Levy's Skyward

March 23

In 1963, while living as a patient at the Jewish National Home for Asthmatic Children in Denver,  I strolled outside on the evening of March 23 to observe the evening sky.  The sky was brilliant and clear that evening so long ago as I set up my small first telescope, Echo, and proceeded to sketch a portion of the Milky Way as it shone in  the sky over Denver.  It was a silly and immature project of no particular value whatsoever, but it was important to me, and it resulted in a small chart of the winter Milky Way.

Over many years, the particular date of March 23 has brought many treasured  memories to my personal life and my skywatching life.   Late in 1988 I began studying the behavior of TV Corvi, a certain variable star that had been discovered in 1931 by Clyde Tombaugh, the same person who discovered Pluto. On the evening of March 23, 1990, TV Corvi erupted againlike a nova, brightening from fainter than magnitude 19 to magnitude 12, an increase of almost 250 times in brightness in just a few hours.    Even though it has gone through outburts of energy many times since then,  one of those outbursts also took place on another March 23.

All these events paled in contrast to what happened next.  On March 23, 1993,  Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker and I, while observing from Palomar Observatory, took the two photographs of a region of sky that led to our discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.  Sixteen months later, the 21-odd pieces of that tidally disrupted comet collided with Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, in what is now regarded as the mightiest collision ever witnessed by humanity.  This event captured the attention, and the imagination, of the world, and was directly responsible for inspiring many people to become interested in the breathtaking majesty and behavior of the universe.   

The fact that my youthful map of the Milky Way, a new variable star, and one of the most interesting comets in the history of science (according to scientists around the world),  all began on March 23, left a most lasting impression on me regarding that special date.   In the nonastonomical parts of my own life, on March 23, 1992, I typed a postcard to Wendee Wallach, a teacher in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  It was my not very romantic way of asking her out on a date.  At the time it was just a coincidence that the letter was written on that particular date.  But five years later, it was not a surpise, therefore, that Wendee and I were married on March 23, 1997. 

There is a special reason that March 23 recurs in this way.  The various astronomical happenings associated with this date comprise not just a single part of astronomy, like a planet, a comet or a star that suddenly changes in bightness, but almost the whole gamut of what can happen in the sky, from a comet that collides with a planet, to a unique variable star, and on to the vast expanse of our galaxy across the night, and how all these things relate to the happiest parts of my personal life.  The date reminds me once again of how exciting and unexpected the night sky can be.

Nov 9 GAAC Program Note

This month we're pleased to have as our speaker Sarah Blunt from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Sarah's presentation is titled "Know thy Star, Know thy Exoplanet."

Sarah's talk is based on the simple fact that nearly every known exoplanet has been discovered indirectly; that is, in order to detect and characterize the planet, we make measurements of its host star.

Because of these relationships, many exoplanet measurements have been limited by our knowledge of their stars at the time the planets were detected. In this talk, Sarah will discuss exoplanet discoveries that have now been made possible by more precise stellar data, and will introduce ongoing stellar research that has the potential to improve our understanding of exoplanets.

There are more planets out there than stars --  hundreds of billions just in the Milky Way alone.

See you there, 8 Vulcan Street in Lanesville, 8:00 pm on the 9th -- lots of good things to eat, lots of fun stuff to know, and great conversations to be had!

October 12 GAAC Meeting Program Note

At our Friday night October 12 GAAC meeting we are pleased to have with us Phil Orbanes, with "Tales from the Cosmic Dark Side," a Halloween-themed presentation illustrated with Phil's excellent astrophotos, touching on all sorts of dark objects -- Dark Nebulae (and Bok Globules), Molecular Clouds,  Integrated Flux Nebula, Dark (“Rogue”) Planets, “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy.”

Calling on examples from the Pipe nebula through the possible eventual heat-death of the universe, Phil will elucidate the universe of dark phenomena all around us. We'll see you there, 8:00 pm at the Lanesville Community Center, 8 Vulcan St in Lanesville. There will be goodies of every stripe, friends old and new, and just a generally good time to be had for all.

September 14 GAAC Meeting Program Note

At our September 14 meeting we're pleased to have Charles Law, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, with “From Young Stars to Planets: How to Make a Solar System.”

How did the Solar System form? This question has taken on increased significance with the discovery of a vast number of exoplanetary systems in the past two decades. Public and scientific interest in planetary science has also been piqued with NASA’s recent Juno and New Horizons missions to Jupiter and Pluto. Throughout the last decade, radio telescopes have been revealing exciting new results and deepening our knowledge of planet formation.

In an entertaining, colorful and educational presentation, Charles will outline our current understanding of the planet formation process, explore recent observational findings, and briefly touch on questions related to the origins of life and astrochemistry.

You definitely don't want to miss this one -- see you there, at the Lanesville Community Center, 8 Vulcan St, 8:00 - 9:30pm. A map is here.

GAAC July 13 Meeting -- Program Note

Friday night at 8:00pm, July 13, the Gloucester Area Astronomy Club is pleased to host Astronomy Magazine columnist and President of the Amateur Astronomy Makers of Boston, Glenn Chaple, with a presentation titled “Double Stars For Backyard Telescopes — Double Stars are TWICE the Fun!”

In the 19th century and early decades of the 20th, when refractors were the telescopes of choice, double stars were the favorite fare of amateur astronomers. With the discovery in the 1920s that the so-called “spiral nebulae” were actually distant galaxies and the emergence in popularity of the reflecting telescope, double stars took a back seat to deep-sky objects.

Light pollution has made it harder and harder to observe deep-sky objects, but double stars remain relatively unaffected by streetlights or the Moon. As a result, double stars are regaining popularity among backyard astronomers.

In a colorful and informative presentation, Glenn will explain the nature of double and multiple stars, discuss the history of double star astronomy, and offer hints on observing double stars with unaided eye, binoculars, or telescope. He’ll conclude with a look at a Top Ten double star list, the Double Star Marathon, and resources for the double star enthusiast; you’ll come away well-prepared for some double-star observing.

We’ll hope to see you on Friday July 13, from 8:00 to 9:30, for an evening of great snacks, great conversation, and a terrific presentation by a GAAC favorite.

GAAC meets on the second Friday of every month except August, at the Lanesville Community Center, 8 Vulcan Street in Lanesville. A map is here. There are no dues or fees, and the public is warmly invited. No special knowledge or equipment is needed to have a great time.

Friday June 8 is Welcome to Amateur Astronomy Night at GAAC!

Friday night, June 8, at 8:00pm is the Gloucester Area Astronomy Club’s “Welcome to Amateur Astronomy” night! Free, of course.

This annual event is always a GAAC favorite. We’ll be featuring a group of quick, 10-15 minute presentations on topics of interest to anyone interested in pursuing astronomy, as well as a roomful of different binoculars and telescopes to inspect and ask questions about, and all the great conversation and goodies you’ve come to expect at GAAC meetings.

You’ll be able to find out more about what you need to get started, how to do astrophotography, places to shop and how much to spend, what you’ll be able to see, the advantages of different telescope optical designs and brands, and much much more.

If the weather cooperates we can step outside after the meeting and look around a bit with some of the scopes. Jupiter’s up!

You’re invited — see you there!

GAAC members meet at the Lanesville Community Center, 8 Vulcan Street in the Lanesville neighborhood of Gloucester MA, from 8:00 – 9:30pm on the second Friday of every month, for presentations, discussions and activities related to observational astronomy. There is no cost.

May 11 GAAC Program Note

GAAC is fortunate indeed to have Dr. Jonathan McDowell with us this month, at 8:00 pm Friday May 11 at the Lanesville Community Center, speaking on "Space Junk: A Traffic Crisis in Outer Space."

Dr. McDowell is an Astrophysicist with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a mathematician and a programmer. Dr. McDowell maintains one of the world’s best databases of orbital material launched into space – aka space junk.

It's been over 60 years since the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and space is getting busier and busier.

There are over 1,500 working satellites up there, but there are also over 18,000 known pieces of orbital debris whizzing around at up to 18,000 miles an hour. At that speed, a collision with even a small piece of junk can ruin your whole day.

Dr. McDowell will talk about the demographics of the satellite population: who is putting satellites up there, what are they doing, what the space junk is, why there's so much of it -- and most important, what can we do about it?

Join us on May 11th for this colorful, engaging and important talk. Come early for great goodies, fun conversation with friends old and new, and really cool and accessible science.

You can subscribe to Dr. McDowell’s monthly space report here: