David Levy's Skyward, January 2020

First Light

By David H. Levy

For those of us who are not astronomers, the phrase first light means dawn.   If we are up early to go fishing, hunting, or to search for a missing person, we awake at first light.  For skywatchers, first light has an entirely different meaning.    Instead, it celebrates the first time starlight enters a new telescope or the inside walls of a new observatory.  On Sunday evening, December 15,  David Rossetter, one of the United States’s most famous amateur astronomers, celebrated first light for his new observatory, completed  after he relocated to the Tucson area.  Wendee and I were there, along with some neighbors, friends, and the new executive director of the International Dark Sky Association.

         The object David selected as the first thing to be observed from his brand-new observatory was Messier 15, one of the grandest globular star clusters in the entire sky.  It is different from the object I traditionally use for my new telescopes, the planet Jupiter.  Last fall, for example, I pointed Eureka, a brand new telescope, at Jupiter for its first light ceremony.

        Jupiter shines at us from about 50 light minutes away, meaning that light reflected from the Sun leaves it and takes about 50 minutes to reach us. The globular cluster Messier 15, is much much farther away. It shines at us from well beyond the stars of its home constellation of Pegasus, from a distance of at least 33,000 light years, and at magnitude 6.2, it is barely visible to the unaided eye on a very dark night. 

         I was very glad to see M15 using David’s giant 25-inch diameter reflector from his new observatory, for I recall seeing it frequently at our Adirondack Astronomy Retreat. At the first Star Night of the Montreal Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, my first one since becoming a member, I was assigned Messier 15, the globular star cluster that was discovered by Jean-Dominique Miraldi in 1746, and added by the comet hunter Charles Messier to his catalogue in 1764.  I recently wrote about that experience in my autobiography:

“At Star Night that September I was assigned to point my telescope at M15, the beautiful globular cluster in Pegasus.  I recall doing my homework about that cluster. I learned that its distance was listed at about 33,000 light years.  We now know that M15 is also one of the oldest globular star clusters in the Milky Way, dating from at least 12 billion years ago.  We also suspect now that the central portion of M15 underwent a collapse of its core deep in the past, and that its central core consists of a huge number of stars orbiting a massive black hole.  Most of this information is more recent.  Back then the pertinent facts were that the cluster had a membership of upwards of a hundred thousand stars.”  (A Nightwatchman’s Journey, p. 68.)

Years later, I wrote: “On a beautiful clear night at one of our Adirondack Astronomy Retreats, I peered through Fritz, David Rossetter’s 25-inch Obsession Dobsonian reflector.  The telescope was pointing at Messier 15 in the Pegasus constellation, but what I had was not just a view.  It was an extended leisurely stroll among the stars of this cluster. I made some left turns, walked up hills, crossed bridges and explored valleys all decked with uncountable stars.”  (A Nightwatchman’s Journey, p. 289.)

         I thoroughly enjoyed another look at the beautiful and mysterious Messier 15 from David’s new observatory on that night.  I especially enjoy showing younger people this fabulous cluster of so many stars.  As each new generation is introduced to it, may Messier 15’s myriad stars shine for a distant and newer generation, or from another observatory as it undergoes its first light.

Image Credit: Phil Orbanes 2016

GAAC 12/13 Holiday Party Program Note

On Friday night, December 13, for our 16th annual Holiday Party, we are fortunate to once again have with us the celebrated Kelly Beatty, Senior Editor of Sky & Telescope Magazine (see more of Kelley's bio below). This year Kelly's presentation asks the perennial question "Are We Alone?

Our galaxy, Kelly writes, "likely contains more planets than stars — so what are the odds of finding distant Earth-like worlds that teem with life? After surveying the amazing diversity of life on Earth — and the theories of how it started here — we'll sample the kinds of worlds around other stars that astronomers have discovered and explore whether any of them might be suitable for life. And we'll catch up on efforts to contact alien civilizations directly, via radio transmissions and other means."

This will be a very entertaining and richly informative night, so come early and grab a good seat and some great food and conversation before all the festivities begin. See you there!


A little bit of Kelly's bio: 

Kelly has been honored twice by the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society. In 2005 he received the Harold Masursky Award for meritorious service, and in 2009 he was honored with the inaugural Jonathan Eberhart Journalism Award. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Astronomical League Award (in 2006) for his contributions to the science of astronomy and the American Geophysical Union's Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism (2009).

Kelly hails from Madera, California. He holds a Bachelors degree in geology from the California Institute of Technology and a Master's degree in science journalism from Boston University. During the 1980s he was among the first Western journalists to gain firsthand access to the Soviet space program. Asteroid 2925 Beatty was named on the occasion of his marriage in 1983, and in 1986 he was chosen one of the 100 semifinalists for NASA's Journalist in Space program.

David Levy's Skyward, October 2019


October 2019: California and the Universe

Since early in the last century, astronomers dreamed of the clear sky over California as a place to unlock our imaginations and study the universe.    In 1917, the 100-inch Hooker telescope was opened to the poetry of Alfred Noyes, who wrote:

         We creep to power by inches. …Even to-     night

         Our own old sixty has its work to do;

         And now our hundred-inch: I hardly dare

         To think what this new muzzle of ours may find.

And just think what the niog telescope did find;  among many other things, it revealed that our Universe was double the size we thought it was.  Despite the fact that I have visited Mount Wilson many times, my most recent visit in September gave me an insight I hadn’t experienced before. I was a guest of Scott Roberts, whose Explore Scientific telescope company had organized an observing party there. The place literally oozes history through every stone, piece of wood, and gear revealing the progress of our understanding of the Universe as it increased during the 112 years since the observatory’s founding in 1907.  

During my visit there I felt as though I was standing next to some of these great astronomers, now long gone.  I was standing next to George Ellery Hale as he struggled to build the Snow solar telescope, the mighty 60-inch, and the 100-inch Hooker telescope.  I was standing next to Fritz Zwicky as he used the 100-inch on so many nights.  Zwicky had quite the reputation as a curmudgeon.  He might have included me among the many colleagues he called “spherical bastards” – meaning a bastard no matter which angle or prism you choose to look through.

I was standing next to Walter Baade.  There is a story that, at the outbreak of the second world war, he was declared an enemy alien and ordered to stay near his Pasadena home.  Since he, or someone, allowed the vicinity of Pasadena to include Mount Wilson, Baade essentually enjoyed three years of uninterrupted observing time on the 100-inch.  With Los Angeles under occasional blackout conditions that darkened the Mount Wilson sky still further, Baade made his crucial observations of individual variable stars in the Andromeda Galaxy that he, and Bart Bok, later used to determine the size and shape of our own Milky Way Galaxy.

George Ellery Hale was unsatisfied with the size and abilities of the big 100-inch telescope, and he longed for a much larger one.  He hired Russell Porter, the amateur astronomer who had founded the Stellafane telescope makers meeting in 1925, to work on a 300-inch telescope. When that was deemed impractical, a 200-inch telescope was built instead.   Porter’s drawings of the 200-inch were stupendous.  Realizing that the 100 was unable to reach the north celestial pole due to its English double yoke mount design, he envisaged a beasutiful and elegant horseshoe design so that the 200-inch could point right at the pole if needed.    Even the lowly 18-inch Schmidt camera telescope, the first telescope at Paliomar, made history as the instrument Zwicky uased to discover 100 supernovae in distant galaxies, and, near the end of its useful life, it was the telescope used in the discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

I close with a variation of a quotation by Sir Kenneth Clark.  What defines the great observatories that look to the stars and revolutionize our understanding of them? I don’t know.  But I know them when I see them.  And the observatories at Mounts Wilson and Palomar are them.

Images: Figure 1:  The venerable hundred inch telescope points toward the zenith inside its enormous dome at Mount Wilson. Figure 2:  This Seth Nicholson dome once housed the 12-inch Schmidt camera that now resides at Jarnac Observatory.  Both photographs by Doveed.

September 13 GAAC Meeting Program Note

This Friday at 8:00 pm Barry Yomtov will be returning us to our regular monthly GAAC meetings with a presentation on "NASA -- the Glory Years," following NASA through the 1960's and into the 1970's. Those were exciting times, from the Mercury program through Gemini and a foreshortened Apollo program with its series of human moon landings.

Barry will also spend some time examining all the other efforts, large and small, that were needed to get the program up and running, from stitching spacesuits to actually making and delivering the massive Saturn 5 rocket.

This will be a colorful, fun and informative evening, one you won't want to miss. As always, we'll be at the Lanesville Community Center, 8 Vulcan St, 8:00-9:30 Friday evening, September 13. And as always, there'll be no dues or fees, lots of great company, great conversation, and lots of good things to eat and drink. See you there!




David Levy's Skyward, September 2nd

Skyward, September 2019

The AAR lives on!

About a year ago in this column I wrote about the final Adirondack Astronomy Retreat (AAR) that Wendee and I held in the Adirondack Mountains near Lewis, New York.  We had a special program with lectures, a banquet featuring, among other VIPs, my brother Gerry and his partner Duane, and President John Ettling of SUNY Plattsburgh.  We even presented to Dr. Ettling the first Starlight Night Prize to celebrate the University’s commitment to keep this wonderful place as dark as possible.   We concluded the week by burying a time capsule. 

Much as we tried, the enthusiasm for the event was too strong just to end it.  Now, under the direction of Patrice Scattolin from Montreal and his family, AAR is continuing.   With his high intelligence and brilliant sense of humor, Patrice ran the event with an efficiency and alacrity rarely seen.  Laurie Williams, with the assistance of daughters Clara and Sophie and son Marc, kept the indoor portion running smoothly.  And this year the weather helped “big-time.”  We had four beautiful nights, and good portions of two others.  Using the camp’s Meade 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain called Aart, a 26-inch reflector dubbed Enterprise, and Carl Jorgensen’s 8-inch reflector named Pegasus, I did almost 25 hours of visual comet hunting.  This total is possibly a record for this site.    When the sky is at its best here, I can glimpse Messier 33 with the naked eye and I did that almost every night.  The International Space Station made a nice pass, and we saw several bright meteors heralding the onset of the Perseid meteor shower.

The purpose of this particular retreat was and still is to recharge our astronomical batteries, and to remind us why we became amateur astronomers in the first place.    While last year we had plenty of down time to enjoy movies and singalongs, this year the night sky occupied pretty much all our time.   It was truly spectacular.   

While the site may be superb now, we chose it for our star party because of the memories that flood back every time I revisit it.  It provided my first serious dark sky experience decades ago, during the summers of 1964, 1965, and 1966.  I loved it so much back then that I asked Dad if I could attend SUNY Plattsburgh the rest of the year.  In one of the few mistakes Dad ever made, he resisted, preferring that I attend Montreal’s McGill University instead.  I flunked out of McGill twice.  But I have never forgotten the pristine beauty of SUNY Plattsburgh’s Twin Valleys campsite, with its unparalled views of the “forever wild” Adirondack mountains.  May this priceless spot continue to remind future generations of how beautiful the mountains are, and how beautiful the night sky remains far above their lofty peaks.   

July 12 GAAC Meeting Program Note: Molecular Clouds and Star Formation

This month we're fortunate to have Catherine Zucker of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as our guest speaker. Catherine will show us how we have begun to derive accurate distance measurements to large, star-forming molecular clouds in the Milky Way galaxy, and what that means for astronomy.

Why go to all this trouble? Obtaining accurate distance measurements to molecular clouds is important for understanding the star and planet formation process. The advent of large photometric surveys and the Gaia mission offer an unprecedented opportunity to derive the distances and properties of hundreds of millions of stars, as well as the molecular clouds between them. 

Without resorting to scary math, Catherine will explain how we have combined these data with statistical methods to create a new 3D map of molecular clouds in the solar neighborhood (the nearest 10,000 lightyears). As it turns out, these phenomena are surprisingly interrelated -- using interactive visualization software, we can find new connections between long-studied molecular clouds that reveal a link between individual star-forming regions and the larger Galactic environment.

GAAC June 14 Meeting Program Note

Our speaker for the Friday, June 14 GAAC meeting will be none other than Steve O'Meara, the amateur astronomer who, very unexpectedly, observed "spokes" in Saturn's ring system in 1976. Steve reported observing these phenomena with the 9 inch refractor at Harvard (an interesting account of the reception of O'Meara's observations is available here, in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage). His observations were discounted by professionals and others who pointed out that no such thing could exist due to differential rotation of the rings.

In 1980 Voyager 1 visited Saturn, reported spokes in the rings, and got credit for the discovery, perhaps, some speculate, because of an inherent distrust of visual observation as opposed to photographic astronomy. In his talk, Steve will speak about his observations of Saturn and the events that followed. This is sure to be a fascinating and colorful account, and, incidentally, a welcome affirmation of the value of careful visual observational astronomy.

You'll definitely enjoy this evening at GAAC, hearing from a really accomplished and deservedly well known astronomer. We'll hope to see you there.

GAAC meets on the second Friday of every month except August, at 8:00pm at the Lanesville Community Center, 8 Vulcan St in Lanesville. There is no cost, and all are welcome.

David Levy's Skyward -- May 2019

Skyward -- Trinity

May 2019

As the world prepared for war in 1939, a group of physicists was studying how to reproduce the behavior of a star on Earth:  to split an atom, either quietly to provide a virtually unlimited source of power, or explosively to create a weapon of mass destruction.  Worried that the Gemans might develop an atomic bomb first, astrophysicist  Leo Szilard wrote a letter to President Roosevelt suggesting that the Americans should develop the bomb first.  Thinking that the letter would have more impact if it were signed by the foremost scientist of that time, Szilard made two visits to Albert Einstein’s summer home in Cutchogue, on Long Island, New York.  They persuaded him to sign the letter.

Einstein’s letter had an immediate and powerful impact on Roosevelt.  He immediately set in place the initial research that led to the start of the Manhattan project in June of 1942.  Within three years, the first plutonium nuclear device was test detonated near Socorro, New Mexico in the Jornada del Muerto (ironically translated to Dead Man’s Journey) desert.  J. Robert Oppenheimer named the actual test site Trinity, after the first lines in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14:  

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you 

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 

That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend 

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

 On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 am, the nuclear device detonated and the atomic age began.  Just one month later, two bombs were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan,  and the Second World War came to a sudden end.

It is now 73 years later.  On April 6 our daughter Nannette, son-in-law Mark,  grandson Matthew,  friend David Rossetter, and Wendee and I visited Trinity Site.    It was a special and emotional experience for us.    We felt the shudder and silence of those who witnessed the blinding flash of light that turned dawn into noon across that lonely desert.  The power and force of the detontion reinforced the feeling of scientists there that this weapon was not a joke.    It was used in combat twice, and it is now a part of history.  We visited that day to expeience the effect on people who felt the shock wave from 160 miles away and who had to replace broken windows in Albuquerque, where our family lives today. We didn’t see much trinitite there, as the army did an excellent job removing the radioactive glass.  We did not get much exposure to radiation either; accoding to Army statistics, our one hour visit to Ground zero gave us at most one millrem of radiation exposure, compared to an average annual dose of 620 millrems from medical and natural sources.

As we left the site we passed a protest going on at the entrance.  After all these decades, what happened that rainy July day in 1945 still has a profound effect on the people who lived and live in the atomic age.  For a second that day, humanity witnessed the process of a star here on Earth.  And when I got home that night and looked up at the peaceful stars, I shuddered again. 

Picture 1:  Inscription on the obelisk at Ground zero.

Picture 2:  remains of a footing from the tower that supported the bomb and which was incinerated that day.

Picture 3:  The Schmidt-McDonald house, where the bomb was assembled.  All photographs were taken by David Levy.