Kopernik Winter Star Party – February 6th, 2010

So what do a bunch of up state New York Amateur Astronomers do in the heart of winter?  Well they throw an outdoor astronomical observing party for the public.  I mean why not?  What’s a little cold anyway?  Ok so we aren’t talking 40 degrees F out there, but rather something more like, well ok, 10 degrees F.  But hey we are a hearty bunch right?

The day started out at around 4 PM, when we began the event with a special family workshop to build a small telescope.  The gist of the program was to accomplish two goals.  First, to teach families about how telescopes work, and then to also get them to look through the scopes.  We had 19 families, for a total of about 60-70 people including moms, dads, children, and other family members.

The telescope kits we went with were the International Year of Astronomy 2009’s Galileoscopes.  These scopes were specifically engineered for ease of assembly, low cost quality optics, and ease of use.  The views presented by these telescopes are identical to those Galileo used to perform most of his work nearly 400 years ago.

Various historical and telescope physics presentations were given, and a video showing the assembly of the telescope was displayed.  A quick laser demonstration was also given to demonstrate various lenses’ behaviors.

We supported the families in assembling the telescopes, and then took them outside to view terrestrial objects such as treetops, etc.  This viewing was a bit difficult in 20 mph winds, but most were hearty and found the stamina to stick it out for a brief view through their newly assembled scopes.  As far as I could tell, I think the program was a great success, and most families seemed thrilled with the workshop.

The Star Party programs began at 6:30 PM, and quite a few folks from the workshop stayed around, plus maybe 30 more people from the public.  The first program was a lights and laser demonstration given by Roy Williams.  This is always a great crowd warm up demo.

Next at 7:00 PM, Art C. gave an hour overview of “Buying Your First Telescope.”  A great presentation given for the benefit of the public who may be looking to buy their first telescope, but don’t know where to start.  The other purpose of this presentation is to help improve success of that person’s purchase.  There’s nothing like having someone buy a $200 telescope, not having it meet their needs, and then it becomes a dust collector in some corner.  One of the items in the KAS mission is to help people understand equipment, and ensure that they get many hours of enjoyment looking through to the cosmos, and that they become folks who pass on the curiosity to others.

At 8:00 PM, was the headliner for the event, and an excellent speech.     Ann Martin, a PhD candidate from Cornell’s astronomy department presented her talk on “The Universe in a Computer: What Simulations Can Teach Us.”  The presentation included a very brief overview of galaxies, the types of galaxies, what they are made of, the theories of formation, and how simulation can help to fill the void of experimentation.

The gist of her work is that they simulate interactions of galaxies and stars because they cannot create a galaxy or a star in any lab.  The simulations help fill that gap in terms of the scientific method and its requirements for experimental evidence.  This part of the speech was very educational, and presenting analogues that many folks could relate to made the deep subject matter relatable.  For example, she made an example of chocolate chip cookies, and how no two cookies are ever identical.  This was related to galaxies, the universe and the structure of the universe.

Then came the really cool part.  Ann presented us with about a half hour’s worth of simulation end results in the form of video.  Very intriguing to see how closely her team was able to create these simulated galaxies and how they formed.  So many of the results very closely resembled what observations illustrate and the predictions that were made.  Of course some simulations were also presented that didn’t necessarily complete the picture of the way nature seems to work.  The “failures” are just as good as the successes; in that it starts to highlight areas of understanding we have yet to gain.

After the presentation, we took to the scopes.  At first it seemed like we were going to get some clouding, but then things settled down in pure clear skies.  We had observed some just prior to the main presentations, and were able to get some objects in like the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), The Orion Nebula (M42), and of course the planet Mars.  With all the scopes up and running, including three dobs and a refractor out in the yard, we quickly pushed through most of the public by 9:00 PM.

A whole slew of objects were viewed through the telescopes.  However, the cold weather put a damper on the night.  Galaxies M81 and M82 in the Big Dipper were shown, along with the Double Star Cluster in Perseus.

After the main portion of the public program had completed at 9:00 PM, we started to pack up the shop so to speak, and then a pleasant surprise came at around 9:30 PM.  About six Binghamton University Students showed up, quickly we became excited again, pulled out a few more scopes back to the yard, and the 20” scope was spun up to view some distant objects.  We again ran through the standard objects with the students, and through in a few new objects in the 20” telescope.

The energy and vigor of the college students was more than enough to keep us fueled through the cold for another hour or so.  And closed out the night with a tour of the observatory for the students.

The 2010 Winter Star Party was a great success, and I am very proud of the KAS and the Observatory staff for their hard work and efforts in making this night a spectacular event.  I for one get very excited to support these events and provide public outreach that is both entertaining and educational.  May we be blessed with many clear skies to come.

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