The nights are longer and colder, but yesterday (October 5th) was International Astronomy Day so we set up for a night at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. It’s not quite as good as Carp as we can’t turn the parking lot lights up, but we set up a little farther away on the grass (I had thought we would set up on the pavement as we did one other time, but we were all on the grass and a clear patch of gravel). I was initially worried about dew but had no issues for the night.
One of the best parts of events at CASM is I don’t have to be the event marshal. 🙂 I just go and observe. I helped out on the social media side for announcements and promotions, but that was all. Chris in our group is the lead for liaison with the Museum and did solar observing during the day. But at noon, he had to make the call for GO/NO GO, and I emailed him with my views for what they were worth, but I was glad it was him making the call and not me. At noon, the forecasts showed clear for early in the night, but I was doubtful after 9:30. If we had been going for Carp, earlier in the year with later setup, I would have said NO GO, but there was a promising window. The problem with those windows is they can expand and be great, or collapse and miss everything.
At 6:15 when I was heading out, it looked like the window would close. All the way from my place to the museum, it was getting cloudier and cloudier. Sigh. When I got there, there were about 10-12 scopes set up, and crowds were starting to form. I gave it another 20 minutes and was undecided if it was worth it. But ultimately I was worried about the crowds. Lineups were starting to be 15 deep at the scopes! While there were still pockets to see through the clouds, and we could see the moon, Saturn and Jupiter, there was also an open gap coming towards us that looked promising for viewing to be decent for a while. Okay, I would set up.
10 minutes later I was done, turned around, and I already had 15 people in line waiting! Holy snooker doodles! The night was INTENSE. In the end, there were 18 scopes overall, and somewhere between 500 and 750 people. The parking lot was jammed. Even with the clouds up there — did nobody LOOK UP before they came? Or perhaps part of it was the fact I posted the GO messages and noted earlier would be better than later as the clouds could roll in at 9:30 (which as an aside, was DEAD ON for timing!). Whatever. But at some points, the lines were as many as 30 deep for scopes, with 400-500 people wandering around. People were WAITING for parking spots to open. Craziness.
And we were ONLY able to show the Moon consistently, with Jupiter and Saturn playing peekaboo with the clouds. Near the end of the night, I kept my scope going the longest, hoping for the moon to reappear. It did a bit, but only the hard cores were still there to see it. One guy came right at the end, and was so excited just to see ONE STAR low on the Eastern horizon. He wanted to know which it was, but there was no way to know, it was just one star in an opening in the sky, and not terribly impressive either! Yet he was happy to see SOMETHING. Earlier in the night, one woman was REALLY confused. She was looking at the moon and looking in the EP, looking at the moon, and looking in the EP. And they didn’t match. Because my scope does a horizontal flip of the image PLUS I had the diagonal rotated for lower height viewing out the side. So it was flipped AND rotated. So while the moon was looking like it had a vertical terminator line, the moon in the EP had a horizontal terminator line. It was totally throwing off my perspective too for identifying which craters were which!
On my way home, I saw the moon peek out a few more times, but we didn’t miss anything by packing up. I felt bad as a couple of people arrived around 10:00 when we were done, so when I got a chance, I tweeted an update to say the clouds had rolled in.
A fun night, and with the crowds, another “different” experience than the normal experience at Carp where I have maybe 6-7 people waiting at most. I’m glad I set up, even if in part I was guilted into it that the lines were so long and I wasn’t sharing the observing load.
Chris also does a different role than me when he’s marshalling — he doesn’t set up a scope, he just wanders around and talks to people. He mentioned that one of the guys who had messaged the page on FB was asking about accessibility in terms of seeing through the scopes. He mentioned that he couldn’t look through an eyepiece, but that isn’t always accurate. What they often mean is that they can’t stand up to do it. So I had mentioned that if scopes are set up lower, or a Dobsonian style, wheelchairs often can get closer to the scope than with a standard large tripod like mine. Or sometimes people have cams set up to broadcast to a tablet for people to look at, but that is often hit or miss. I also mentioned that if people mention they’re coming, we can remind people to set up lower. But he said he wouldn’t be coming, so I didn’t fuss about it. And he showed up with more severe impairment than I expected. Oops. I thought it might have been a disaster with the lines and the scopes we had, but Chris said another member was just setting up, so set it lower for him, did the config to make it more accessible, and the guy got to see the Moon, Saturn and Jupiter, so went away super happy. Awesome!
As an aside, I also found the crowds more grateful last night. Or at least more effusive. Numerous times I had people commenting how awesome it was for us amateur volunteers to come out and share this, and it was all free. I suspect the difference was because the crowds at CASM often were first-timers (looking through a scope), unlike the Carp crowds that are often repeat visitors. It’s not a big deal, I just noticed how many times people were not only asking and commenting on it, but then doing longer thank yous than normal before heading to the next scope.
A bit intense for a 2-hour viewing, but it was a blast for the night.
I had my doubts about the star party scheduled for September 21 in Carp, including the fact that I’m a bit tired of organizing them. I don’t mind GOING, but I’d much prefer to go with Jacob, set up his scope too, and then just be able to leave when we want to, even if only there for an hour or so. If I go as an event marshal, I have to stay all night. I had no other marshals seemingly available for this one, so I went without the cub. However, when I got there, one of the other marshals had shown up and already had all the cones set out, etc. Awesome!
I set up in a different spot than normal, and parked in the upper bowl just in case I decided to bail early. However, I was surprised that the location of the setup changed the experience for the night. The area I was in was a bit more social, plus I was close to the long line for the big scope at the events. So lots of people wandered over while someone else was holding their spot in line. And I got a lot of “extras” coming by just after leaving the big scope. I found it oddly more social than normal, people were more chatty and less “look and go”.
Jupiter and Saturn were up, and I did the Albireo colour question (i.e. “what colours do YOU see?”), although that wasn’t the conversation starter it had been previously. A couple of people came by that I knew, but the timing was off for most of them as I didn’t have time to chat — they came by when people were lined up at the scope and I was doing adjustments and explaining. Usually, it is less “busy” and I can chat when they’re looking or while others are looking.
At the end of the night, I snagged the Pleiades before we packed up, and I held off wrapping up until a couple of imagers had grabbed their last frames. We were still there about 12:30 a.m., but it was just the hard cores like me who still had the scope running for the one or two public stragglers who were wandering. Except for the imagers, I was one of the last to pack up! Yet I had wondered earlier if I was going to stay!
Good night, ran about 175 people for the night and I counted 24 scopes.
For my first outing of the year, I did a basic alignment, didn’t really worry about levelling for example, I just wanted to blow the cobwebs out of my head. On Saturday, May 4th, the local RASC Centre was having members-only observing at the Fred Lossing Observatory (FLO) near Almonte and I was hoping to go. But the sky clouded in near me, the forecast was looking iffy for anything longer than an hour, and I was a bit tired. So I bailed. Apparently, I missed a good night though. Sigh.
But Sunday night had decent darkness, clear for skies, and transparency was average — about the best I can usually do, so I decided I’d go out to FLO for that night instead. I thought there might be one or two other people, but I was by myself initially. I unlocked the gate, set up my scope, and realized that I no longer knew where even West or North was in relation to the mound I was using. My phone wasn’t much help initially, so I eventually had to resort to the old school method — a physical compass that I keep in my gear for just such an emergency!
Another member dropped by, Nathan, and while he didn’t have a scope, we got by just fine using mine. The first star we saw was Capella, and almost the same time, Castor, Pollux and Arcturus. I decided to go for the full setup — setup with all the tightenings in the right spot and tube at the right height from the mount; levelling; aligning the spotting tool (although I skimped a bit on that one, I was pretty much dead centre already); and full GPS location coordinates. While my research tells me I should be choosing Arcturus and Regulus, or Polaris and Mira, when I chose Arcturus as the first star, the second star it suggested was Capella. Almost 180 degrees away. Okay, why not? Did the alignment, almost instant success, and when I then tested it back to Arcturus, it was DEAD CENTRE. A perfect alignment, first try.
So Nathan and I started a sky tour. Which we did for an hour, with some globular clusters, Mars, open clusters, some faint fuzzies, and a couple of decent doubles. It was fun, but Nathan couldn’t stay too late, and off he went. My alignment was still holding and I realized I have never really had a full sky tour from the settings, not really. Never with full proper alignment. So I reset to the beginning and started again.
I did almost three hours more for the sky tour of about 100 objects. Or about 1-2 minutes per item. I swapped out my 2″ x 42mm wide-angle for a 1.25″ x 32 mm decent size and when I could go tight, I used my 17.3″ mm Delos, my favourite eyepiece. Mostly I stayed at the 42mm size unless I was doing doubles or checking out how tight I could go on a globular cluster.
My best viewing ever
Everything worked. And with the 42mm guiding the majority of the star tour, pretty much everything I was looking for was easily within the Field of View. Of course, at 42mm, it seems like half the sky is in the FOV, so that’s not saying much. But it did mean I could find EVERYTHING that wasn’t below the horizons or caught in some trees. Here’s what I saw…
For open clusters, I found 21 objects:
M103 showed me an orange star at 42mm; still nice at 32mm; and good bright centre for an open cluster at 17mm;
The Christmas Tree Cluster was more impressive earlier in the night, but when I returned to it, it was a bit low on the horizon. Earlier, I could see lines of stars and a bit of structure in the shape of a triangle at 42mm;
M38 was a bright open cluster at 32mm;
M36 was slightly dimmer, and best seen at 42mm;
M37 is apparently the richest open cluster, but only mildly interesting at 42 and 32mm…however, at 17mm, it looked like a dark maze between stars;
M35 was good at 42mm;
M67 was good at 42mm but had a bright centre at 32mm;
The Beehive Cluster at 42mm didn’t seem to have a particular overall shape, but some structure was visible;
I loved the structures more apparent in the Stargate Cluster (still clear at 17mm), Seven cluster (at 42mm), Arrow Cluster (at 42mm), Crown Cluster (at 42mm), Coma Star Cluster (at 42mm, with arcs), Mini Coathanger (although hard to see shape), S Cluster (at 42mm), W Cluster, Coathanger (not much structure, even at 42mm), and the Horseshoe Cluster;
Spiral Cluster, M29 and M39 were all open at 42mm, but not super impressive;
For globular clusters, one of my favourite types, I saw 9 of them:
The Double Cluster was big at 42mm, good at 32, and still tight at 17mm;
M48 was pretty close to the treeline but nice at 42mm;
M5 is a tight cluster, at 42, 32 and 17mm;
Hercules is too;
As is M12;
M92 is equally tight;
M3 is like M5, only brighter in some ways; and,
M52 is pretty faint.
For double stars, I saw 28 of them:
19 Lyncis was visible at 17mm;
Castor was barely split at 17mm;
Tegman was supposedly a quad, but all I could see was a double at 17mm;
Theta 2 at 42mm showed a double of equal magnitude;
Iota cancer showed a blue and yellow/white double at 17mm;
Algieba was a very bright double at 42mm;
54 Leo could be split at 32mm;
M40 was a double, but it was very faint at any size EP;
Algorab could be split at 42mm;
24 Com was a colour double at 42mm;
Porrima required the 17mm to split the double;
35 Com is supposedly a triple colour, but at 17mm, it was only clear that it was a double;
Cor Carroll split at 32mm;
Mizar separated at 42mm;
Kappo Bo was average double at 42mm;
Epsilon Bo was a bright double at 42mm;
Xi Bo was average double at 42mm;
Delta Set was bright double at 42mm;
Graffias was a triple/double at 17mm;
Rasalgethi was a bright double, even at 42mm;
Nu Dra was an easy double at 42mm;
95 Her had different magnitude stars, even at 42mm;
Epsilon Cap is a quadruple star, but it shows more as a double+double, even at 42mm;
Zeta Lyr easily doubles at 42mm;
Albireo is one of my favourite bright coloured doubles, even at 42mm;
17 Cyg could be split at 42mm;
61 Cyg was easy at 42mm; and,
Delta Cep was another easy coloured double at 42mm.
For other DSOs, there were 47 objects :
There were a lot of faint fuzzies, mostly visible at 42mm – M95, M96, M105, M108 (could go to 32mm), M109, M98, M99, M106, M61, M100, M84 and M85, M86, M49, M102, M107, M56, M87, M88, M89, M91, M90, M58, M59, M60, M94, M53, M83, M101,
Other galaxies were soft fuzzies too at 42mm — Sombrero, Black Eye (a little brighter), Sunflower, Whirlpool, Cat’s Eye, Dumbbell;
The Perseus Cluster is a collection of galaxies, but mostly I just saw a bit of structure and a curved line of stars at 42mm;
The Little Fish asterism had a bright yellow star in the centre, possible double, viewed at 42mm;
M81 (spiral galaxy, Bode’s Galaxy/Nebula) showed in the same F.O.V. as M82 at 42mm. You could also see the core at 32mm and a faint core at 17mm;
At 32mm, you could see M82 as elongated galaxy;
The Eskimo Nebula is a planetary nebula, but all I saw were some basic stars at 42mm;
M65 had three galaxies showing at 42mm, along with M66 and NGC3628;
The Blinking Planetary Nebula didn’t seem like anything, even at 42mm; and,
the Ring Nebula and Ghost of Jupiter were both hard to see, even at 17mm.
In total, there were 21 open clusters, 9 globular clusters, 28 double stars, and 47 other DSOs = 105 objects for the night!
There were probably a couple of other ones in the first hour too. Like Mars, for instance.
Wrapping up the night
I tried taking a couple of photos but had no luck at all, and I was pretty tired at that point, so I started packing up. I noticed as I was moving from the parking lot to the mound though that Jupiter was above the trees if viewed from the parking lot, while still hiding where the scope was. Soooo, last effort for the night, I picked up the scope and carried the whole kit over to the parking lot and set up quickly again (without alignment). I focused in and saw four moons easily, and bands out the wazoo on the planetary surface. Normally, I’m lucky to see a band or two; this time, I could see smaller shadings too. What the heck, I thought, I might as well go for broke.
So I swapped my 17mm out for the 10mm Delos and looked again. I forgot for a moment that I`m looking at an inverted image, and I thought I was seeing a transit shadow — until I realized it was red/orange and it was in the right place since the image was inverted. The Great Red Spot! I saw it, for the first time!
What an amazing night. I packed up and headed home. My three-hour sky tour was awesome. And my best viewing night EVER. I felt like an astronomy god!
Usually, I am out of the astronomy business from sometime in October to sometime in May. Last year, I did both April at the start of the year (Kicking off my 2018 astronomy season with two outings) and November for local RASC events, partly as I’m the Star Party Coordinator and I try to show up for all the events. But I didn’t accomplish much last year overall, and April and November were pretty cold.
But I have astro issues, so to speak. It’s practically a saga unto itself:
If you read all those, you would see me struggling with alignment problems, and finally — FINALLY!!! — getting a decent alignment with a very careful alignment process. And yet, to be frank, even with that “solved”, there have been lots of star party nights where I just can’t seem to follow my own instructions perfectly and I’m back in the world of a bit of hit or miss. Some alignments are good, and I can find some stuff; other nights, I still feel like I’m off on something. Usually, because I’m rushing to set up, people are milling around wanting to look, and I start to feel self-conscious that after six years, I am still not really sure what I’m doing. Could I improve that for this year? Perhaps if I take stock of last year, I might have a better base, I said hopefully.
One thing people say to do is to keep a log. Then you can document your progress, keep track of the things you saw and what you liked about them, and slowly build your capacity. I even went down a rabbit hole to create my own logbook (Draft Astronomy Observing Log). And I thought that if I could take a picture of what I was seeing, I could use it as blogging fodder to maintain my interest and momentum. For example, I could take a picture of the moon and show the Sea of Tranquility and where it is on the moon’s surface, noting some things about it that I could remember the next time I was moongazing. Not Astrophotograph of the Day (APOD) quality, more like a souvenir shot. I don’t have the right mount for serious AP, but I know a couple of people who have used my same setup to get some great shots with just an iPhone and an adapter. So I wanted to try it. I used a Meade adapter that I already had, and my wife’s iPhone 6. It had some promise, although a bit basic, and it was my wife’s phone with limited memory and the basic camera app, so not a long term solution, just a test.
I got a pic of the moon — it’s not horrible, but I’ve taken way better before.
I tried for Jupiter and got a few shots, although again, not my best:
Nevertheless, there was SOMETHING there, which was encouraging. Not great, but not the worst I have done either. So I upped my ante and went for the REAL challenge — a bright Messier object, like a globular cluster. I got a faint fuzzy to start:
A little bit brighter:
Then in June I doubled down and bought a new adapter, the Celestron NexYZ. It’s the Cadillac of smartphone adapters. I wanted to do a full review, and expected that I would be able to get some really good stuff. Snort. Instead I just got discouraged. It’s a good mount, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t get much out of my smartphone.
Celestron NexYZ smartphone adapter
The piece facing you (flat-ish, with a clip on each side) is where your smartphone goes, also facing you. The two clips are spring-loaded so you pull them apart and put in your phone, bob’s your uncle. Except the clips could be a bit taller to account for the fact most people have cases on their phones, so it would have been good to go up a bit more before angling inward. It works better for me if I take the case off.
The two knobs shown in the picture below adjust the plate (i.e. where your smartphone is) right and left, and up and down (horizontal and vertical axis when you’re looking at the phone). This allows you to centre your camera eye at the back over your eyepiece. Most adapters have very rudimentary adjustments, more like a slide and then when it’s close, you tighten it in place. These two are more granular and let you go a little left, a little right, back a bit, okay now up, etc. Way easier than trying to get it into place on the old Meade adapter and then tightening everything in place only to discover I was actually off a bit and having to loosen it, readjust, retighten, etc. This you just turn the knobs slightly and you’re there. Hence one of the three reasons why I call it the Cadillac of adapters.
The next image isn’t a great angle. In the photo, you can see two adjustment knobs (not the orange dial with the Celestron logo on it but the orange knob next to it and the black knob sticking straight up). The black knob is reason #2 — it adjusts the height of the phone above the eyepiece. Many of the adapters don’t have this as an adjustment option, you just eyeball it or rest it against the phone, and that’s where you’re set. This allows you to go closer or a bit farther away to improve your focusing. I’ll get to the orange knob in a second, just remember it is there.
In this photo below, you can see the black knob and orange knobs much more clearly, while the horizontal and vertical axis knobs are hidden behind the plate in the image. In this photo though, there are three things to notice to get us to the third reason why it is the Cadillac of adapters.
First, we have the two pincers that look like a mechanical hand wrapping around the eyepiece. Lots of adapters have very little flexibility in how big of EPs they will take, most almost guaranteed to be limited to small diameter plossls. Not this baby. It opens up quite wide, and I can put my 17 mm Delos in it. These are fat EPs. The one in the image below is actually a 2″ EP. Most adapters won’t even come close to taking those. The trade-off to do that and the second benefit is that the orange dial acts as a hinge, with the little lever out to the right. Push on the lever, the fingers open, and you can swap EPs quickly. While that is a plus, it is also a danger — what if it comes loose when you don’t want it to? Well, that is what the third benefit — the orange knob — is for. You can use it to lock the lever in place i.e., lock the fingers in place so they won’t open. Making sure the EP is a firm fit. Plus, if you go back to that height option (the black knob), you can have the EP stick up as high in the fingers as you need to go to get a firm grip.
Combining it with my old Samsung phone
Alas, my smartphone wasn’t quite up to the same tasks, sensor- and software-wise. Jupiter wasn’t very hard to get close to, but focusing was a challenge with what I was using for software.
I couldn’t even get a good lock on the moon with my phone and the adapter. Some of that was just trial and error, some of it was just the limits of the setup. I tried for some stars, nothing took. And when I upped the ante again to try for something like a bright globular cluster, my old Samsung phone couldn’t even tell there was ANYTHING there to even take a picture of. It would try, and then come back and tell me, “Nothing there”, i.e., it couldn’t find a light source bright enough for the sensor to register anything but blackness. Sigh.
The only real thing I had going for me was something I found online. I hate the focusing knob on the NexStar 8SE. I have frequently felt like the knob was just too large of adjustments. One nudge left and you’re past focus, one nudge right and you’re past focus again. It almost felt like every time I was trying to focus, I needed a “half” focus option. There are digital focusers you can buy for hundreds of dollars, but that seems like overkill. Instead, I saw that someone online had 3D printed a simple larger knob that fits over top of the existing knob. The guy sent me the file, I found a local place to 3D print it, cost me $20. It looks like this:
The focus knob on my OTA sits in the little hole and now I can do much finer adjustments. Sweet.
Fast-forward to New Year’s, my wife and I got new smartphones, and I went for — wait for it — an iPhone with all the bells and whistles that work well for prime AP. Also sweet.
Hopefully, all of this will give me a better start this year.
This is the second annual survey of RASC Centres about their public observing events and pertains to events held in 2018. The survey has been streamlined from last year to more clearly focus on public observing events rather than outreach in general or members-only observing, but still retaining links to both. Now, the survey only contains 14 short questions broken down as:
Q1 RASC Centre profile;
Q2-Q6 Public observing offerings in that Centre;
Q7-Q11 Infrastructure at public observing events
Q12-14 What worked in 2018 or what’s planned for 2019
For last year’s survey, I attempted to track down the public observing representative for each of the RASC Centres, and emailed them to invite them to participate. For this year’s survey, I used the old email list, our National Representative shared the survey invite with the National Committee members, and we made links with the Youth Coordinator whose duties also link to to public observing, youth outreach, and learning events.
Q1. Which RASC Centre do you represent?
All possible Centres were listed as simple click boxes, and 14 Centres responded including:
Ottawa, Prince George, Mississauga (x2), Montreal, Regina, Niagara, New Brunswick, Edmonton, Hamilton, Windsor, Belleville, Toronto, Okanagan and Calgary.
This was one more than last year, but what was surprising to me was that there was little consistency from last year to this year – eight of the Centres responded in both years, but five of last year’s Centres didn’t respond this year, and an additional six did. Between the two years, 19 Centres have provided information on their public observing events. In addition to decent coverage over the two years, responses in both years represent a good mix of large and small Centres. While not 100% comprehensive, it is a fairly large representative sample.
Q2. What types of public observing does your Centre offer?
No public observing offered [0 = 0%]
Special public observing events (such as for an eclipse) [11 = 78.6%]
Add-on public observing (such as with Centre meetings, lectures, etc.) [5 = 35.7%]
Pre-scheduled regular public observing (such as at an observatory or more than four times a year) [14 = 100%]
Astro day, sidewalk astro throughout the year, Public star parties, school and service group visits, etc [1 = 7.1%]
At schools and youth clubs after a talk [1 = 7.1%]
As expected, most are doing special events (such as for an eclipse) and some add on observing to monthly Centre meetings. Last year’s report was not quite as definitive about having pre-scheduled / pre-announced regular public observing events, but is the area that most interests me as the coordinator for such events in Ottawa. We do public events for the non-snow months, and in 2018 that was April to November; traditionally we have done May to October.
Q3. How many times a year does your Centre offer public observing?
No public observing [0 = 0%]
1 to 3 times a year [0 = 0%]
4 to 6 times a year [0 = 0%]
7 to 9 times a year [4 = 30.7%]
10 to 12 times a year [3 = 23.1%]
With the streamlined survey this year, this result was much more revealing. While 7 of the Centres could fit within the question’s bounds (up to 12 times a year or approximately once per month), the other six Centres surpass that total. Four average 20-25 per year (~2 per month), one does every weekend that the weather permits plus special events, and one has so many it is difficult to total them up (monthly solar observing, night observing with a local science organization, regular events at one observatory when there’s no snow, regular events at a second observatory, public star parties, and a larger public star party), but over 50.
Cross-referencing some of the data behind the scenes in the individual responses, it is clear that most that surpass 10 times per year are able to do so, in part, due to access to a permanent observatory with the ability to grant public access. By contrast, in Ottawa we do monthly public observing at one of two main locations, one that is provided by a Museum several times a year and one that is provided by the City several times a year. In short, we tend to rely on the generosity and support of our partners for space for public events, which limits the frequency and spontaneity of our organized public events. Note that I did not count our frequent local “pop-up sidewalk” observing events that happen in Ottawa as those are organized by an excellent active informal astronomy group, not RASC itself, even though most of the people sharing their scopes with the public are members of both the informal group and RASC.
Nevertheless, the offerings of some of the other Centres are extremely impressive. In the future, perhaps one of them could compile a “year in the life” summary of all their events for sharing with other Centres.
Q4. Did you do any theme nights?
No special themes — the stars are enough [4 = 26.7%]
Spotlight on the Moon [6 = 40%]
Spotlight on a particular planet [4 = 26.7%]
Solar viewing [8 = 53.3%]
Conjunction night [1 = 6.7%]
Messier marathon [2 = 13.3%]
Partnering with other non-RASC astronomy groups [2 = 13,3%]
Special “partners-only” night for official partners for the Centre [2 = 13.3%]
Partnering with a company or organization for a “special night” (Boy or Girl Scouts, a business, etc.) [7 = 46.7%]
Various observing categories or special targets or certificate programs [2 = 13.3%]
Special outings to other regions, cities, much darker sites [6 = 40%]
Demo nights for technology or Introduction to Astrophotography [3 = 20%]
Newbie nights (help them see different types of scopes) [2 = 13.3%]
Kids nights [0 = 0%]
Spooky Nights for Halloween [1 = 6.7%]
Additional events included solar transits, meteor showers, family nights, Milky Way
Every time I think of “things we could do differently”, and look at adapting lessons learned from other types of service organizations, “theme nights” tend to jump to the fore. Yet what I learn the most from the Centres’ responses is the wide variety of approaches, not the least of which is that “no themes – the stars are enough” remains a strong undercurrent (more than a quarter of the Centres). Obviously, there are pluses and minuses to theme nights…the largest “plus” is that you might spark some extra interest, while the largest “minus” is the extra effort involved. Some of the most popular ones, like the Moon, are easy – with 40% of Centres doing it. Another quarter include a spotlight on a particular planet. Equally, almost half of the Centres do special nights for a company or organization, as does Ottawa, although we tend to count those as “outreach” more than public observing events.
For me, based on what we do in Ottawa, there were still a few surprises. More than half are doing solar viewing, and while we do it too, it is not that frequent. Special outings to other regions or darker sites tend to be ad hoc events in Ottawa, often organized by individual members with each other, rather than formal “Centre” outings. I was expecting a very clear and resounding emphasis on kids nights (particularly when you count partnering with Boy or Girl Scouts). Instead, nobody said they had kids nights. I was hoping to compare the results with the Youth Coordinator’s info, but I had no info to share!
Last, but not least, I was intrigued that one fifth of Centres have done “tech” nights for demonstrating technology or astrophotography. There is interest in Ottawa to add it to a night, but we have not done so yet. We have also not specifically aimed to have a “newbie” night to demonstrate different scopes or specifically to help setup scopes, although we have done some workshop training separately, and it was interesting to see that some Centres have done them.
Q5. How many members of the public (in total) do you estimate attend public observing over the course of the year?
No public observing events [0 = 0%]
1 to 100 people for the year [0 = 0%]
100 to 250 people for the year [0 = 0%]
250 to 500 people for the year [3 = 20%]
500 to 750 people for the year [1 = 6.7%]
750 to 1000 people for the year [2 = 13.3%]
Over 1000 people [7 = 46.7%]
Other entries written in included 3-5K, and, wait for it, 21K!
In 2017, the eclipse was huge for us in Ottawa, as it was elsewhere. In 2018, the weather was a beast for having to push from our primary dates to our backup dates. Each time, not surprisingly, our attendance is lower at a backup date than at the primary date. I also must confess that I did not keep very accurate totals from each event, or more accurately, I didn’t record them immediately afterwards to save for a year-end total.
However, regardless of the distribution in the “up to” and “over” 1000 mark, all of us pale in comparison with two Centres, one that estimated 3-5K and another that had approximately 21K for events in 2018. If we had three eclipses in the same year, I’m not sure we could make it to those levels, and I am in absolute awe of the raw totals.
Overall, it gives an overall combined estimate of 33K-37K for the year for the 14 Centres that responded.
Q6. Anything else you want to share about types, frequency, themes or attendance?
We do scheduled observing sessions once a month at our observatory for groups.
Similar to previous results above.
Q7. Where do you offer public observing?
Not offered [0 = 0%]
Urban / sidewalk astronomy [7 = 46.7%]
Suburban astronomy (such as slightly darker park, field) [8 = 53.3%]
Near a science-based organization [6 = 40%]
At an observatory [7 = 46.7%]
Dark-sky site [7 = 46.7%]
Additional responses included city parks, provincial park, own Centre’s observatory, schools and youth clubs after a talk, parking lots, community events, regional rural libraries
These results are relatively similar to last year, although it is not so much about “where” in general but as a pre-cursor in the next few questions as to the infrastructure available in the areas mentioned above. This is an area of some interest to me for Ottawa as we use a rural library parking lot, and there is no infrastructure available to us during the events other than the parking lot itself. It’s a good location for us, but it is sparse in terms of what we offer to the public. Of course, the more flexible the location, the less permanent the infrastructure.
Q8. What types of infrastructure do you have to support public observing events?
No infrastructure [1 = 6.7%]
Washrooms in a building [7 = 46.7%]
Portable washrooms already on-site [3 = 20%]
Portable washrooms provided by the Centre [2 = 13.3%]
Dedicated parking lot [11 = 73.3%]
Parking controls around how “close” members can park to the viewing area for unloading/loading and at what times [8 = 53.3%]
Light barriers to block headlights from spilling into the viewing area [3 = 20%]
Set start / stop times [11 = 73.3%]
Kiosk or table for information or membership [9 = 60%]
Formal signage [7 = 46.7%]
ID badges for all members [5 = 33.3%]
Strict rules around use of white light (phones), light pens (even for guests), or smoking [5 = 33.3%]
Event marshals who run the events on-site [7 = 46.7%]
An additional response thought the question was “stupid” as infrastructure was dependent on the location wherever the events happened to take place
As noted in my comments on the previous question, the last response (suggesting the question is case-by-case for the event) is precisely why the question is asked. Pop-up sidewalk events are certainly case-by-case. Others, who have permanent observatories with on-site washrooms, have available infrastructure for most of their formal events. By contrast, Ottawa has little, and in 2018 we added a portapotty to the viewing location, even though we don’t manage the site and are merely hosts to an event once a month. While I agree that many of the ad hoc events for outreach are case-dependent, the results last year and this year show that most Centres have basic infrastructure of some type at the majority of their events (whether through design or happenstance).
On a separate note, I feel this type of question goes to two aspects simultaneously – “preventative” infrastructure to prevent a negative experience, and “pro-active” infrastructure to help ensure the likelihood of a positive one. For example, for any service organization, two of the most common complaints for public events revolve around parking or washrooms (a third common one, price, doesn’t apply to our free events). And while the amazing stars are a nice positive offering, the parent whose child has a full bladder with no bathroom in sight is likely to have a negative experience for the night. Equally, complicated or confused parking setups for members or guests frequently can lead to another “bad” element for the night. Solving those are, in my view, more preventative, and for washrooms, 12 out of 15 Centres have washrooms available whether in a building, already provided by the site, or provided separately by the Centre for the event. In a separate survey of members in Ottawa, two thirds found it a “bare minimum” to include to ensure we were offering a quality event.
Several of the other elements in the list are enhancements – kiosks, badges, etc. We tend to have very little additional “outreach” infrastructure of this sort for our monthly events, and I was curious how much other Centres did for their events. I also confirmed that half of the Centres had on-site marshals for their events, as Ottawa does.
Q9. What types of support do you provide to people for public observing events?
Nothing, no public observing supports [3 = 20%]
Physically-accessible site (port-a-potty, handicap parking, wheelchair-compatible surface) [4 = 26.7%]
Accessible scopes (lowered for height for kids or as accommodation) [10 = 66.7%]
Projections to tablets [2 = 13.3%]
Existing transit to the location [1 = 6.7%]
Informal or formal carpooling, rides [0 = 0%]
Chartered bus to the location [1 = 0%]
Dedicated newbie zone to help people set up [0 = 0%]
Other responses included that it was a stupid question, event-dependent, live digital astrophotography
While there are some basic supports provided, the most common one is height access for the scopes, an easy-to-emulate option for other Centres.
Q10. What formal roles were assigned by the Centre for public observing events?
Only basic coordination is done [1 = 6.7%]
Individual members come and setup their scopes [11 = 73.3%]
Pre-event logistics and recruitment of volunteers, members (single lead) [7 = 46.7%]
Pre-event media (single lead) [8 = 53.3%]
Pre-events logistics, recruitment and media are handled by the same person (single lead) [4 = 26.7%]
On-site marshal to handle logistics (single lead) [3 = 20%]
On-site outreach to talk to the public or provide specific demonstrations (single lead) [10 = 66.7%]
Hybrid: All pre-event coordination is done by one person [4 = 26.7%]
Hybrid: On-site logistics and outreach are handled by the same person [6 = 40.0%]
Coalitions: Pre-event and on-site are handled by different people each time [3 = 20%]
Other responses included Open House nights with predetermined presentations, separate volunteer coordinators, public event logistics are spearheaded by a single lead, media contact person and a separate person to do the media interview, public presentations at events are done by a team of 2-4, separate 1-2 people who handle the display, brochures and membership recruitment.
I confess that this was my most coveted question to ask for the year as I’ve been reviewing the way we divide up duties in Ottawa for my own role as “Public Star Party Coordinator”. Ottawa is similar to many of the other Centres’ responses, in that individual members setup their scopes (most Centres), pre-event logistics are a single lead (half the Centres), someone does some pre-event media (half the Centres), etc. Where there is variation is in which Centres have hybrid models and which ones have “single lead” models.
In Ottawa, I have been doing pre-event logistics, recruitment of marshals, and acting as one of the marshals at the event. With 6-8 events per year, with multiple dates for primary scheduling and backup dates for weather, I have been finding it too much for one person. Based on the results, that seems consistent with the other Centres as bigger Centres tend to divide up the work, while smaller ones tend to have it with one person. What I found particularly interesting was that on-site outreach is being done by two-thirds of the Centres as a separate function at the event, while other Centres have it handled by the marshal.
Q11. Anything else you want to share about infrastructure or roles?
We work with the park who provides advertising through their site and volunteers for traffic.
We have 3 meeting groups as well as an event coordinator. Each group has a single lead for logistics, recruitment and media.
Consistent and similar results to above questions.
Q12. What was the most successful thing your Centre did in 2018 for public observing?
Astronomy days with local science museum
Partnered with local planetarium and the city for a STEMS outreach
Created lit signage for each telescope
Our joint presentation with another Centre to do a provincial Summer Star Party
Hosted several thousand people during our normal openings. 1 event hosted 500 people, another event saw 1500 people come through.
Mars Opposition Sidewalk Astronomy Event
Ran an outreach program on a clear night!
Hard to say. Probably the re-opening of observatory to the public and the public programs. We had had increasingly positive collaboration with the local science centre and do about two dozen events a year with them.
Observatory attendance was over 400, nature centre very well attended, Perseids
We have always had a robust social media presence advertising our events (Meetup.com – works in some cities with large pre-existing Meetup community, Twitter and Facebook, as well as a widely-visited web site), but one small but successful tweak has been setting up Facebook events and having hosting organization (Park, science centre, etc.) co-host the event online. Surprising number of people use Facebook to ‘plan’ their leisure time.
While there will never be “one best option”, I admit I’m personally intrigued by the STEMS outreach, lit signage, and “co-hosting” events online.
Q13. Do you have any special plans in your Centre for public observing in 2019?
Vests for telescope operators.
No, we just finished our Centennial Celebrations.
To continue our involvement with Provincial and local engagements such as Astronomy Day, Canada Day and various civic gatherings.
Lunar Eclipse in January and Mercury Transit in November
Any special astronomical events are always coordinated and offered to the public. We have a person that continues to offer live Facebook feeds at least 3 to 4 times a month and has been doing so for the last 2 yrs.
We also offer 5 star parties every year and countless school and public observing/ education events
We have for the last two years been offering free workshop courses on anything astronomy including beginner astrophotography sessions and are in the process of offering more of these classes.
We already had the Lunar eclipse on Jan 20 which saw close to 2000 people come through. We’ll be opening the observatory with its 32″ telescope this September. We’ll be working with a partner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Our planning for other events are in progress as well as Astro Day.
Mercury Transit on November 11, 2019
Bi-monthly hosting of “Dark Sky Nights”
Transit of Mercury
Monthly events at the same spot
In collaborative communication with a public service group in the City, who will bring a “Museum of the Moon” in September in support of the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing.
Fri nights at Observatory, about 4 events at nature centre, 4 community events for solar viewing, Perseid viewing at observatory, trips out of our catchment area to assist other communities
As with the previous question, there is no “one solution fits all”. I am personally intrigued by the vests for telescope operators, the Mercury transit (since it also combines with solar viewing!), live Facebook feeds, beginner AP sessions, and the anniversary of Apollo 11.
Q14. Is there anything else you want to share about public observing in your Centre?
We have Spring and fall sessions of open house night every Friday
Most of our Public Observing Nights are accompanied by an indoor AV presentation on astronomy. Should we have foul weather the public get some astronomy.
We do a lot of public outreach at our Observatory, schools or camps, and through sidewalk astronomy at local parks.
We find holding the events at the same spot with a partner works well.
Happy to chat outreach and share ideas any time. Contact [email removed for public report]
We have 3 meeting groups, each doing their own public events as well as a coordinator at the observatory for the Perseids. We have had a hard time finding space for Sidewalk Astronomy although with all the other events, our volunteers are pretty well stretched to their limit. Last year we lost at least 6 weeks due to smoke from forest fires. Hopefully this won’t become an annual occurrence.
We have had many successful years of many public outreach sessions (since 2009) and what seemed like a daunting task to host so many events in a year now seems commonplace. There are still people who worry about volunteer burnout but this worry appears to be overblown when the totality of volunteers is considered, but may apply to individuals.
As much as I am grateful for all the comments through-out the entire survey, and happy to share it back to the other Centres in case it can help with their own thinking, it is the free-form open-ended questions at the end that help me get a full flavor for some of the approaches. And this final set of responses is indicative of the quality of responses to share – dealing with volunteer burnout, challenges with the weather or other factors, and the full range of offerings from weekly open houses at observatories and indoor A/V presentations to sidewalk astronomy events. Thank you to everyone for sharing their views.
In conclusion, while I try to take the position of RASC Ottawa Public Star Party Coordinator seriously enough to do these surveys and look at the results, I am reminded in the corresponding survey I do of just the Ottawa members of “what should we offer” there is still a strong counter point to my organizing: