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Clear skies & 110 vistors last night. August 30, 2008

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, Observatory, telescopes.
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My thanks to all the people who helped make EIU’s first observatory open house of the semester a success. 110 visitors saw Jupiter through the 16″ telescope last night! I saw some faces that were back for their second or third visit. When you do this in the center of Illinois the last Friday of every month, you may have to wait to get a clear sky. Most people are quite content, the first time, to talk astronomy and look at the big scope, instead of through it. And rotating a 10 foot dome just never gets old, no matter what your age!

My thanks to Tim McCollum for bring his science class and his 8″ scope. Thanks also to Dr. Tim Camden and John Pratte for bringing their big light buckets. Thanks also our Astro Club’s VP, Maggie McAvoy for running the tripod binoculars, and all the members of the EIU Astro Club. It takes more than one big telescope to make a star-party go.

Tim Camden, John Pratte, Tim McCollum

Tim Camden, John Pratte, Tim McCollum

OPEN HOUSE TONIGHT August 29, 2008

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy.
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Our first open house for the semester, 8:30 pm. We’ll be looking at Jupiter through the big 16″ scope and we’ll be having some small & not so small telescopes outside.

To download a map of the observatory’s location go to http://www.eiu.edu/~physics/observatory.php

Astronomy in Charleston, Illinois August 26, 2008

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, IYA 2009, Observatory, telescopes.
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The second day of class.

Welcome to EIU! For those interested, the Society of Physics Students and the Astronomy Club will be having a joint meeting and cookout this Wednesday at 6:00 PM, anyone interested just contact me through email.

Later on this week, on Friday August 29th, we will be having the first public open house at the observatory. Rain or shine, we’ll be there, and if the skies are clear the object for that night will be Jupiter. If you don’t know where the observatory is, you can download a map at: http://www.eiu.edu/~physics/observatory.php

Which bring me to the main part of this blog. What’s going on in Charleston for astronomy? Well, as I mentioned above, we have a observatory on campus, run bythe physics department. It has a 16″ Schmidt -Cassegrain telescope. Most of the time we don’t have an eyepiece in it, but a CCD camera. The camera is an SBIG8, with a filter wheel, for doing color pictures or photometry. When we aren’t taking pictures, we’re using our new spectrometer. Spectra is where much of our knowledge of the universe comes from. The whole place is run by myself and the students of the astronomy club, and our new astronomy option-physics majors.

If you look down to some earlier posts, you’ll see a picture of both the telescope and the outside of the observatory. But … that’s not all that is around !!

We are also lucky to have, just on the edge of Charleston, ARI, the Astronomical Research Instituite. This is a private observatory run by Robert Holmes. It has a 32″ and a 24″ telescope, with plans for a 50″ telescope. The major project there, is the NEO project, short for Near Earth Asteroid project. It’s the search for those large asteroids that have the potential to hit Earth. The wonderful thing about this is that high school teachers and students can become involved in this. If you’re a high school teacher that might be interested in getting your students involved go to:



For students out there interested in coming to Eastern to study physics an Astronomy here’s a picture

ARI’s 32″ telescope.

Clear skies, and I hope to see you Friday.

The CERN Rap August 24, 2008

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy.
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Brought to you by those wild Swiss!!!

A show on the elementary particles, and their new toy!

The CERN Rap

Also, if your this peaks your interest let me direct you to Astronomy Cast, where the next few podcasts will be dealing with the 4 fundamental forces in the Universe.

Thanks to Chris Richardson for pointing this out to me.

Students are back! August 21, 2008

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, Observatory.
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Of course it’s drizzling! What would move in weekend be without a little rain. I’m spending today inside finding a leak in the observatory dome…ha! and people think rainy weather is totally bad for an observatory. If I can ever get to my office I’ll start to install software on my new office computer. I bit the bullet and got a PC, mostly because nearly all of the programs that I use to run the observatory are for PCs. So I’m installing The Sky6, which I use for telescope control and general planetarium stuff, and MaximDL for image processing.

The observatory is remote enough that I have parking. Closer to campus polite anarchy is the rule. Between 4000 students moving into dorms, and my office being next to the bookstore, you can’t even find an illegal parking place! Also, if your a pedestrian, you have to watch out for the drivers who don’t know which are the one way streets.

My only bright spot was pointing out to my friend Jeff, who’s the sculpture professor, that he will finally have to hunt for a parking place since the new Doudna Fine Arts center is on campus!

He just growled…

More IYA 2009 plans at EIU August 14, 2008

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, IYA 2009.
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Six outside speakers, twelve observatory open houses, this blog, and now two more project are coming through.

Every third grade class in the Charleston schools will get a Galileoscope ! The IAU and member nations will be ordering at least 100,00 of these telescopes. While they are inexpensive they are high quality. This is part of the world wide plan to get 10,000,000 people world wide to look through a telescope for the first time.

The IYA 2009 fever is spreading here at EIU, along with the support of Dean Hanner of College of Sciences, both Dean Jackman of the College of Education and Dean Johnson from the College of Arts and Humanities have been willing to lend support.

We are looking at some venues for the display of large astro-murals, either print or via digital projection. We will be covering the second floor of the physical science building. However we are looking for other public venues in 2009 around campus.

One possibility is the new Doudna Fine Arts Center ! Opening up in 10 days.

Doudna Entrance

Doudna Entrance

Associate Dean Lynch was kind enough to show me around, literally giving me the backstage tour. The building is vast, more than triple the space of the old center. It houses the departments of Theater , Art, and Music.

I had a very useful discussion, after the tour, with Deans Johnson and Lynch, about display options. Thanks, to both of you, for taking your time to see me in the final days before the completion of this massive project.

The 2008 Perseid Meteor Shower August 9, 2008

Posted by jcconwell in Asteroid, Astronomy, Observatory.
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The 2008 Perseid Meteor Shower peaks this year on Tuesday, August 12. If you miss the peak, the shower can be seen several days on either side of this date. Meteor showers are as low tech as you can get, don’t bother getting out the telescope, put away the binoculars. The naked eye is the best thing to observe the shower. That and either a lawn chair or blanket.

The shower occurs when the Earth passes through the debris of the Comet Swift-Tuttle or, more technically 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Now comets, to a first order approximation, are dirty snowballs. When they get near the sun and heat up the volatile gas, dust, and larger hunks break off, forming the tail that comets are famous for. This debris stays more or less in the same orbit, due to Newton’s Laws, and over many cycles around the sun it spreads out. When the Earth goes through the orbit of the comet it runs into this debris and we get a light show from the comet fragments burning up in our atmosphere.

The best time to observe will be after the moon sets on August 12 between 2 AM to dawn. Look to the northeast about half way up to the zenith. The meteors will appear to come from a point in Perseus. This effect is the same as driving a car in a snowstorm. All the snowflakes appear to radiate form a point.



Twinkle, Twinkle little star, how I wonder what shape you are. August 4, 2008

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, stars.
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One of the most exciting talks at the American Astronomical Society meeting last month was about an old friend, stars. The problem that stellar astronomers have is that stars are so very far away, compared to their size, that they appear as points in photographs. Close galaxies can be as wide as 1 degree of arc in the sky, twice the size of the moon, but a close star may only a few millionths of a degree, or about 5 millisecond of arc ( 5mas).

Now most stars rotate, our sun completes one rotation in about 25 days, but many heavy and brighter stars are rapid rotators. Since stars are gas, when they rotate their equators bulge out as illustrated by Achernar

illustrtion of Achernar

illustration of Achernar

The problem is how do we know it’s real shape? Until recently we could not image the shape of any star except for the sun. Diameters could be measured, but not imaged, using interferometers. They were first used in 1920 at Mt Wilson observatory by Michelson and Pease to measure the size of Betelgeuse. In the last few years one of the first stars to be imaged by the Hubble space telescope was Betelgeuse, an easy target since it is 45 mas , compared to 5 mas. for bright stars.

To form an image you effectively need several pairs of telescopes, along different oriented paths, and different spacings. This was first done at radio wavelengths, and now it has final been done in the infrared. The shorter the wavelength, the better the detail (or resolution), but the harder it is to keep the phases from different telescopes in sync.

Thanks to Dr. John Monnier and associates at the U. of Michigan, and Georgia State U. we have some of the first pictures of Altair in the infrared, using the CHARA interferometer at Mt Wison.

U of Mich.

Credit: U of Mich.

What is seen here is not only the distorted shape, but the distribution of temperature, deep red is cooler, yellow hotter. Rapid rotators were thought to be cooler along the equator compared to the poles, up to 1000 degrees difference. Now, for the first time, the effects of rotation can be observed. One of the modifications that might be needed in the near future is a modification of the old H-R diagram to include modification of spectral class due to rotation.

In the future, this tool can open up new vistas, such as observing differential rotation, the poles rotating differently than the equator, along with convection, star-spots, and how all of these effects can vary in time.