August 2020

Miss Mitchell's Comet

What's Up? by Adam England

Born August 1, 1818 to a Quaker family in the island town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, Maria Mitchell was the third of ten children raised by a schoolteacher father and librarian mother.

 

The culture of fishing and whaling was such that the women were often left alone for months and raised to be just as educated as the men, something quite rare for the time. Her mother’s profession afforded her a nearly limitless supply of reading material, and her father took every opportunity to teach his children the science of astronomy.

By age 12 she was a teaching assistant to her father, and together they accurately calculated the exact moment of the 1831 eclipse. Before age 20 she opened her own school, allowing nonwhite children to learn side-by-side with their peers.

Maria Mitchell was the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Image courtesy Vassar College Library. 

On the night of October 1, 1847, at exactly 10:50pm, she discovered a telescopic comet, invisible to the naked eye. After a brief dispute with an Italian astronomer, it was learned that Mitchell’s discovery came two days before the other astronomer’s reported finding, and she received the Cometary Prize Medal from Denmark's King Frederick VI, inscribed with words from Virgil’s Georgics: Non Frustra Signorum Obitus Speculamur et Ortus (“not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars”). The discovery of “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” made her only the third woman to win credit for a cometary discovery.

 

She became a superstar back home in Nantucket, rubbing elbows with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. The US government took notice, and she took a position tracking the movements of the planets to aid in navigation.

 

Still never having attended formal college herself, she was appointed professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865, a post she held for over 20 years. This made her the first woman to work as both a professional astronomer and a professor of astronomy.

 

She began recording sunspots in 1868, and in 1873 began photographing them daily with her students, developing many theories about the sun, planets, nebulae and double stars that still hold today. Despite this, she was paid less than much younger male professors, so she fought for equal pay, and got it.

 

She retired in 1888, a year before she died of brain disease at age 70.

 

You may not get to see Miss Mitchell’s Comet in your lifetime, but if you ever find yourself on New York's Metro North commuter line, you just might get to ride the train named the Maria Mitchell Comet.

July 2020

On July 4 we celebrate the Declaration of Independence of the United States from the monarchy of Britain. Traditional ceremonies include community parades, neighborhood barbecues, fireworks, and here in Prescott, we rodeo. After all those festivities, beginning at 8:07 MST, a penumbral lunar eclipse will grace our skies. 

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth passes directly between the moon and sun. As this puts the two on directly opposite sides of the planet, it also creates 100% illumination of the moon’s visible surface, or the lunar phase we call a full moon. 

Eclipsing Independence

What's Up? by Adam England

Image courtesy Sky and Telescope

Just after 8pm the moon will begin to slide into the outermost edge of the Earth’s shadow, called the penumbra. At 9:29 MST the moon will be at its dimmest and furthest into the shadow as we can see from Northern Arizona.

 

The darkest eclipses pass through the center of the Earth’s shadow cone, called the umbra. This eclipse will not reach the umbra, and only about a third of the moon’s surface will cross the penumbral edge. The astute lunar observer will notice a darkening of the moon’s surface, should the weather permit us to see it at all. The first week of July traditionally signals the influx of the monsoon season and daily thunderstorms, with a 34% chance of cloudy skies over the last 20 years.

 

If you still have a little energy remaining after a long Arizona summer day, and the heavens permit us to see it, look to the moon as it gives a nod to the terrestrial fireworks celebrating American independence.

Summer Solstice

What's Up? by Adam England

Modern cultures celebrate the summer solstice on June 21 this year, the day the Earth’s north pole tilts farthest toward the Sun.

This tilt of 23.44 degrees is what gives us the seasons as we move around the Sun each year. Midsummer festivals have been held by cultures across the Northern Hemisphere for thousands of years to celebrate the procession of the Sun’s path across the sky. It's one of the first astronomical events we know was recognized by ancient cultures, directly affecting their lives through weather and crop production.

June 2020

Ancient Persia celebrated Tirgan, when Tishtrya the Archangel brought the rains for the summer crops with the wind of his arrow. Where the arrow landed settled the border between two warring kingdoms, and the rains and subsequent harvest offered a welcome peace.

The Chinese hold their Duanwu Festival on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, near the solstice. The date is seen as unlucky, when snakes, centipedes, scorpions and other venomous critters emerge from their dens for the season. It's also the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, when elaborate ceremonies and feasts scare away those creatures and bring good luck.

Stonehenge is among the best known ancient structures clearly designed around the solstice. From amid the five central stones, looking northeast across the embanked avenue, one can see the sun rise directly above the Heel Stone on the morning of the June solstice. In recent years the re-creation of this Bronze-Age tradition has drawn solstice-morning crowds of over 20,000 visitors from around the world.

 

Here in northern Arizona, keep an eye out for local star-parties and solar events, including the annual Grand Canyon Star Party, held nightly on the grounds of the South Rim Visitor Center June 22-29.

To learn more about the sky, telescopes, or socialize with other amateur astronomers, visit us at prescottastronomyclub.org or Facebook @PrescottAstronomyClub to find the next star party, Star Talk, or event.

Adam England is a local insurance broker who moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or at Facebook.com/AdamEfromAZ.

Astronomy for Beginners

What's Up? by Adam England

You just bought your first telescope, or even better, received one as a well intentioned gift, and after assembling the pieces into something resembling the picture on the box, you gaze at the blackness of space and see — absolutely nothing.

May 2020

Sound familiar? Many people obtain a basic beginner's telescope and after one or two nights of fruitless stargazing it is packed away to collect dust until the next yard sale or spring-cleaning purge.

 

As with so many hobbies, getting off to the right start can mean the difference between a one-and-done or a lifelong passion. Here are my recommendations for how to get the most out of your first attempt at backyard astronomy.

 

Start with binoculars

Yup, the best way to learn how to use a telescope is to get a pair of good old binoculars. Binoculars more easily replicate the way we see naturally with both eyes, and also project a correct image instead of the inverted image most telescopes give. A decent pair of 10/50 binoculars can be had for around $100, a minimal investment for the beginner. Bonus: you can use them for other outdoor activities like birding or watching football from the cheapest seats in the stadium.

 

Download a stargazing app

There are so many free applications available for both the iPhone and Android platforms that can help you find faint fuzzies in the night sky. I use SkyView Lite and it works great. After quickly calibrating the app to your phone, it superimposes planets and nebulae over the actual sky you are seeing. Just point up with your phone, then use your binoculars to find the same objects. It will help you learn the sky, as you can choose layers with just constellations, then you will begin to learn what exciting things you can find in the different constellations and seasons.

 

Join a local astronomy club

Clubs normally meet once or twice a month for educational presentations and outside events where you can learn from other amateurs and seasoned professionals alike. They can help you pick out a telescope that meets your interests and budget, then help you learn how to use it.

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