Space Weather with Dr. Patterson

My father and I drove to UMKC Saturday evening to attend the first club meeting of 2013 for the Astronomical Society of Kansas City. We went an hour early to take in Astro 101 (topic: telescope mounts).

Astro 101 (topic: telescope mounts) Jan 2013
Astro 101 (topic: telescope mounts) Jan 2013

After sifting through club business, including some great observing awards and a new observing program for asterisms, our Education director, Jay Manifold, flashed through the observing highlights for the upcoming months.  He paused at the end long enough to introduce our special guest speaker, Dr. Doug Patterson, Professor of Astronomy and Physics at JCCC, and his topic “Space Weather: Understanding the Sun-Earth Connection.”

Dr. Patterson’s first slide, at first glance, did not appear to be related directly to space or weather.  He explained that besides astronomy and physics, his other abiding passion happened to be photographing race cars.  For the past twenty years, despite appearing quite youthful and brimming with energy, he’s been  teaching astronomy and physics at the Johnson County Community College.

Astronomy in academia really only requires a research computer and spreadsheet program.  Incredible amounts of data (terabytes upon terabytes) are freely available for astronomical researchers.

Dr. Patterson joked that he frequently tells his students that “Space is not empty!”

Highlights from his “Space Weather” talk:

  • Super Flare 1859 observed by Carrington (on 9/1/1859 around noon).  The flare took seventeen (17) hours to read Earth.
  • Birkeland and his aurora machine
Kristian Birkeland and his terrella experiment.
Kristian Birkeland and his terrella experiment. The Figure shows the whole arrangement with the new vacuum-box of 320 litres. Floor and ceiling are here made of 12 mm. steel plates, the pillars between are of bronze, and the sheets of plate-glass at the sides are 30 mm. in thickness. The experiment shows the “zodiacal-light ring”. It requires little magnetising of the globe (11.3 cm. in diameter), but a great discharge-current (up to 100 milliamperes).
  • Solar Wind discovery and proof

    • comet tails
    • Super-Sonic Model by Eugene Parker confirmed by Mariner 2 on way to Venus.
    • Voyager 1 is beyond solar wind and actually in interstellar space (first man-made ‘spaceship’ to be truly interstellar).

Dr. Patterson showed a video of the corona and sun from NASA’s solar satellites.  He also displayed an animation of a coronal mass ejection (CME).

Fluctuations in the solar wind compress our magnetic field.  Some of the effects on Earth include:

  • compression and fluctuations
  • electrical conductors embedded in Earth’s mag field
  • radiation & navigation airline flights over arctic
  • interference with GPS (and Google Maps)
  • In Mar 1989, we (the Earth) learned the hard way (Quebec w/o power for three (3) days).

As a result, NASA launched the Advanced Composition Explorer (real time plots available here of solar wind data), which gives us one (1) hour advanced warning.  This satellite is parked in a halo orbit at L1.  Real time space weather data is available at

Van Allen Belts

  • Discovered by Explorer 1, the first satellite we launched into orbit
Exporer 1 press conference
Pickering, Van Allen, and von Braun display a full-scale model of Explorer 1 at a crowded news conference in Washington, DC after confirmation the satellite was in orbit.
  • We just sent our second probe last year, a gap of over fifty years
  • Trapped radiation and particles
  • Why study the belts?
  • Low Earth Orbit (LEO) very cluttered
  • GPS already in the belts

The Van Allen Probes (fka Radiation Belt Storm Probes) were launched last year and Dr. Patterson had the privilege of witnessing the launch first hand, despite hurricane Isaac.  Note to self:  Rocket ion trails make great lightning rods.

Dr. Patterson concluded with a Q&A opportunity where several ASKC members asked cogent questions and received animated responses.

Dr. Patterson during the Q&A time after his talk (ASKC Jan 2013)
Dr. Patterson during the Q&A time after his talk (ASKC Jan 2013)

Due to the warmth of the evening (upper 40s or lower 50s), the club opened up the Warko Observatory on the roof of Royall Hall for a brief time.  A haze obscured nearly everything except the full moon and Jupiter.  Dad and I skipped the climb to the roof and headed home to Leavenworth.

Heat Bubble Bursts Just in Time for Summer Stargazing

Powell ObservatorySaturday evening I headed south to Louisburg to volunteer for my second scheduled night of the 2012 Powell Observatory public season.  My dad decided to tag along, to enjoy the show and help keep me awake for the long drive home.  We left Lansing about twenty minutes after five and my car’s external thermometer reported 106 to 107 degrees, which has been our afternoon average for about a week now, give or take two or three degrees either way.  We stopped in Bonner Springs to grab a quick, cool sandwich from Subway and returned to the highway just shortly after six o’clock.  I needed to be at Powell Observatory by seven o’clock to help prepare the facility for the weekly public program and observing night.

As we approached Louisburg from the north, I noticed a definite increase in the wind, so much so that my car was jostled several times.  At the same time, I noticed a significant drop in the external temperature.  By the time I exited US-69, the thermometer read 92 degrees, and was still falling.  Except for early mornings the past couple of weeks, I had not seen or felt such low temperatures while the sun still shone.  I pulled into the west observing field parking area and realized I was again the first person to arrive.  Since the temperature had dropped, I turned off the car and opened all the windows.  The breeze felt incredibly refreshing.

My team leader arrived within a few minutes and I received my Powell Observatory ‘Staff’ T-shirt, which I changed into as soon as the building was unlocked.  I helped setup the class room for the program, ‘Sounds of Space.’  Another ASKC member arrived and setup his ten-inch Dobsonian for solar observing and I caught a glimpse of some great sunspots before our public guests began arriving.  The clouds provided some dramatic solar observing situations.

Pre sunset from Powell Observatory
Click image for more sunset photos from Powell Observatory

I repeated my role as gatekeeper and accepted donations from the public and queried them for their ZIP codes to record for future grant petitions.  The first group of twenty-five guests began the ‘Sounds of Space’ program at 8:30 p.m., but I soon had at least that many waiting for the second showing. At one point as I sat waiting for more guests to arrive, what I thought was a stray dog wandered into the observing field, soon followed by three horses, two with riders and a third colt between them.  They trotted across the field to the west, with the dog trailing after, riding off into the sunset … literally.

Constellation Scorpius
Constellation Scorpius

As the sky continued to darken, despite a few wispy clouds, we opened the dome so those waiting for the next program could observe Saturn and a globular cluster found in the constellation Scorpius.  I didn’t get a chance to look at the cluster through the 30-inch scope, but I believe they looked at M4, which is near the bright star Antares.

We ended up having nearly ninety public guests Saturday evening and ran a third showing of our program.  After the last two guests had left the dome a bit after eleven o’clock, I quickly snuck a peak at the Ring Nebula in the constellation Lyra, one of the Messier Objects I’ve been trying go get a glimpse of for quite some time.  Lyra is also home to the very bright star Vega, one of the three stars that form the Summer Triangle.

As the final guests drove away, my team members and I began cleaning the building and storing chairs, tables and other items for the next Saturday.  I signed myself out of the Observatory at 11:35 and gathered up my dad for the long drive home.  He related information he’d gleaned from another team members about various types of Dobsonian telescopes and helped keep me alert as we sped north towards Leavenworth County.

Next week, we present a program on ‘Our Amazing Moon’ and the following week we’ll pose the question ‘Is There Life Out There?’  We look forward to showing you the astronomical sights (and sounds).

Until then, Keep Looking Up!

Adventures on My First Science Convention: Day Three

John Reed leads a workshop on widefield astrophotography with a DSLR at MSRAL (Sun 03 Jun 2012)

After a handulf of hours sleeping, I drug myself out of bed early Sundy morning.  Rather than eating breakfast, I composed my blog post recapping Saturday at the MSRAL convention.  I published at ten after eight o’clock, leaving me less than an hour to drive to UMKC from Lansing.  The last day of the convention consisted of a morning dedicated to three workshops.  Not knowing what I might need, I packed up my laptop and my DSLR camera and zipped down I-70, arriving with about ten minutes to spare.

I burdened myself with my laptop bag, camera backpack, purse and water bottle and trudged up the stairs to the Student Union.  I opted not to take the additional four flights of stairs on the interior of the building, taking full advantage of the elevator to the top floor.  I planted myself on the first row (as I’ve done each day of the convention) so I wouldn’t have any trouble hearing or seeing (or taking photographs like the one above).

First Workshop: Widefield Astrophotography with a DSLR by John Reed

Very interesting workshop on using consumer camera equipment (a Canon DSLR and a 200 mm telephoto with an AstroTrac mount) and some post-production work with Photoshop for stunning astrophotography.

Second Workshop: Variable Star Research with Modern Amateur Equipment by Jim Roe

The middle workshop presented by Jim Roe dealt with variable stars and doing some hands on scientific observation and research.  I got to know his old friend Z Umi (a variable star in the Little Dipper).

Third Workshop: Successful Web Cam Astronomy by David Kolb

David Kolb answering questions after his Successful Web Cam Astronomy workshop at MSRAL (Sun 03 Jun 2012)

The final workshop of the day got really hands on, for those who wanted to participate in the step-by-step process of massaging web cam videos taken of Saturn to produce a nice crisp stacked image.  The entire presentation will be uploaded to David’s website (Sunflower Astronomy) in the near future.

Final Musings on the Convention

I learned so much and met some great people.  I have many fascinating ideas and concepts revolving through my brain and many new projects I’m inspired to pursue.  I look forward to attending similar conferences when they pass through the area again.

Adventures on My First Science Convention: Day Two

Just can't get away from my work area
Beautiful, clear morning from atop the UMKC Student Union (looking northwest ~ June 2, 2012)

I survived the second day of the MSRAL convention.  I think I overdosed on science, as my brain worked overtime while I slept to process the fascinating concepts, breakthroughs and forthcoming projects in astronomy and astrophysics I absorbed Saturday.

I arrived just in time to wait for the business meeting (scheduled for the eight o’clock hour) to run over into the first session.  I strolled around the fourth floor of the UMKC Student Union, watching the venders setup their tables in the room adjacent to the main conference one.  Several conference attendees also brought their solar telescopes and began setting them up on the rooftop deck of the building to facilitate solar observing throughout the entire day (and we had crystal clear skies for the duration).

Morning sessions:

  • History of U.S. Astronomy and funding forecast, presented by Dr. Dan McIntosh, who kindly provided a link to his entire presentation during his talk: U.S. Astronomy: Past, Present and Future.  Some highlights from my notes:
    • I need to watch The Journey to Palomar via PBS’s website.
    • NSF founded/funded in 1950
    • NASA founded/funded in 1958
    • Public investment in science led to a boom in our economy.
    • In the 20 year history of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), more than ten thousand (10,000) scientific papers have been published.
    • Out of our huge $3.7 trillion federal budget, only 0.85 percent of it relates to science funding (NSF, NASA, DOE, etc.) or about $60 per year per family.
    • Is Science a Good Investment?  It inspires dreams, drives innovation, new technologies (just a few of NASA’s 6,000 patents and 2,000 spinoff ventures: water filters, cordless tools, shoe insoles, memory foam, scratch resistant lenses, UV sunglasses, cell phone cameras), which lead to economic growth and we, the public, come to rely on the new technology (GPS, weather, communication satellites).
  • Local amateur astronomer discovers comet (skipped most of this session because I saw it at a club meeting in March).

I returned to the stairs leading from the third floor to the top floor of the Student Union for the group photo just before we broke for lunch.  I ended up standing in the second row directly behind Fred Bruenjes (see local comet discoverer mentioned above).

More solar observingSolar observing

Afternoon sessions:

Location of the Kepler Mission FOV on the Sky
Location of the Kepler Mission FOV on the Sky
  • Helioseismology leads to Asteroseismology via the Kepler satellite aka Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star: The End of Wondering in the Era of Asteroseismology. presented by Dr. Bruce Twarog.  This session really stretched my flabby scientific brain muscles.  The professor presented his topic with great enthusiasm.  I took copious notes, because I knew I needed to research and review most of what he talked about.  The first portion of his talk dealt with some history, including a crash course in Fourier transforms.  Once we were all on the same page, he could talk about helioseismology.  Finally, we connect the dots of how the data gathered by the Keppler Mission can build upon our discoveries in our own sun and apply them to other stars in a leading edge branch of astronomical research called asteroseismology.
  • Webcam Imaging by David Kolb: Interesting, but it seems like an awful lot of post-production work involving a myriad variety of software packages.  I will learn more this morning during a workshop with this presenter.
  • NASA’s Night Sky Network – There actually is an app for that (stargazing that is).  All these tools, kits, videos and services provided free by NASA to astronomy clubs around the country.

Evening Keynote: LSST by Dr. Barbara Anthony-Twarog.  Wow, just wow.  This telescope, when it becomes operational (currently proposed completion and operational in 2022), will survey the sky like never before.  All the data (15 terabytes per night) will be freely available to everyone (not just the US public, but the entire world).  By the time it finishes its ten year run, there may be nothing left for traditional observers (both professional and amateur astronomers alike) to discover.  The future of astronomical research will no longer rely on observations, but will need computer scientists and data miners to sift through the avalanche of data produced by the LSST.

Observing the Moon via Warko atop Royall Hall

After Dark: Warko on the rooftop of Royall Hall

I moved my vehicle from the parking lot next to the Student Union to the parking garage next to Royall Hall, parking on the fourth level to take the sky bridge across to the building and then a couple of flights of stairs up to the rooftop observatory.  The nearly full moon shone exceptionally bright on a clear, calm evening.  We trained the 16 inch telescope on it, at least until the sky darkened enough to move on to other targets.  I snapped a quick photo with my cell phone of the bright moon through the eyepiece:

Moon via Warko

We moved on to Saturn and stayed there until I had to leave (around 10:30) because I had a forty minute drive home and had been up since five.

I saw my first iridium flare last night.  What is an iridium streak, you ask? Check out the Heavens Above web page to find out and to search for a streaker in your neighborhood (sky that is).

I enjoyed my second day at the convention.  I learned more than I can possibly absorb on just five hours of sleep.  In just a few minutes, I return for the final half-day of workshops.  I’ll post my final thoughts later this afternoon, perhaps after I’ve had a nap.

Adventures on My First Science Convention: Day One

Gottlieb Planetarium at Union Station
Gottlieb Planetarium at Union Station

Since the late 80s, I have attended many conventions, all across the country.  All of those conventions had one thing in common with the convention I’m attending this weekend in Kansas City:  Science.  Well, that’s not entirely true, those other conventions also included stars, but I’ll let that rest for a moment and wait for the shoe to drop.

Yep.  I frequently attended science fiction conventions, mostly of the Star Trek flavor, but more recently of a more eclectic variety, culminating in a trip to Atlanta last fall to attend one of the largest in the country called Dragon*Con.  I won’t be repeating the experience this fall.  In fact, I could have attended the local science fiction convention, ConQuest, hosted annually over Memorial Day Weekend by the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society.  But none of the guests of honor intrigued me, so I decided to embark on a harder challenge.

I registered early to attend the Mid-States Region of the Astronomical Leage (MSRAL) Convention and get a fix of hard science.  I am a member of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC), which in turn is a member of the Astronomical League.

The convention started Friday evening at six o’clock with the Star-B-Que, catered by Jack Stack, at Union Station, followed by a program at the Gottlieb Planetarium.

Friday, of course, was a work day for me.  Normally, I can make it home to Lansing by 5:25 p.m., after dropping off all my vanpool riders.  Fortunately, one of my riders left early for a weekend trip, and it just happened to be the person whose home is fifteen minutes off my direct route home.  So, I managed to make it back to Lansing by 5:10, giving me enough time to change clothes, put some gas in the car, and fly back to midtown Kansas City.  I made it to I-670 and within sight of my goal by five ’til six.  Then all traffic became a parking lot and I began to panic.  I exited I-670 midway across the bottoms and took a slight detour around Kemper Arena, approaching Union Station from the west-southwest.  I could not believe the amount of traffic!  Something was going on, because streets were barricaded and people were flocking to the midtown and/or Crown Center area in droves.  I wanted to scream!   I finally wound myself through the mess, using an old shortcut I knew from my days of working next to Union Station (in the Two Pershing Square building) and arrived only ten minutes late.

I picked up my registration packet and got in line for the barbecue.  I sat at a table and met some new astronomers and reacquainted myself with some ASKC club members.  Seven o’clock arrived quicker than I thought it would, and we all migrated to the planetarium for several very interesting programs presented by Jack Dunn of the Mueller Planetarium in Lincoln, Nebraska.  He awed us with parts of several shows, including a moon tour via the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Jupiter via Science on a Sphere projection and a beautiful one created by Kagaya (a Japanese artist) called A Starry Tale.  He closed the evening with a teaser trailer on the seventh planet, by popular request.

Cloudy Sunset from Union Station
Cloudy Sunset from Union Station

Announcements and updates followed and the disappointing news that neither Powell nor the Warko observatories would be opened up this evening, thanks to the clouds (see photo of sunset from Union Station at the left).  So, I found myself heading west towards the sunset and home much earlier than I anticipated.

Today will be full of sessions and workshops.  I can’t decide whether to take my laptop with me or not, as suggested during the announcements last night.  It’s heavy and bulky and I’d have to worry about it and lug it around with me all day.  I think I’ll forgo the hassle and rely on pen and paper and my Nook Color tablet for notes and research.

My only disappointment today will be not entering in the astrophotagraphy contest.  I did not review the MSRAL Convention website well enough in advance to obtain quality prints of a few of my best photos from the last few months.  The photos I would have entered are shown below (click images for larger versions).

Three Planets and a Baby MoonFrom my Mercury hunt in February 2012

EarthglowNewMoonVenusAndWesternHorizon01Earthglow Moon and Venus in May 2012

Partial Solar EclipseSolar Eclipse in May 2012

IMGP2052Lunar Eclipse in December 2011

Transist of Venus FAQ

One week from this Tuesday, at exactly 5:09 p.m. Central, Venus will begin it’s transit across the sun.  This is a once-in-a-lifetime observation opportunity and it is visible to nearly the entire world, so there really isn’t any excuse to miss it.  I checked the ten day weather forecast and as of Sunday, May 27th, the predicted whether looks favorable for the Kansas City area.

I will have my telescope (with appropriate eye-saving solar filters applied) setup in Lansing, Kansas, probably by 4:00 pm on Tuesday, June 5th.  Post a comment if you would like to join me.

Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC)Three other locations around the Kansas City area will be hosted by the ASKC (see bottom of post for more information).

The following information was compiled by the Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC):

Transit of Venus FAQ

What is the transit of Venus?

Once in a great while, Venus can pass directly between the Sun and Earth. Only the planets Mercury and Venus can do this, since they are the only two planets closer to the Sun than Earth. When they do, they appear as small black dots crossing the face of the Sun over a period of several hours.

When is the transit of Venus?

From the Kansas City area, it will begin at 5:09 PM CDT on Tuesday, June 5th, and continue until sunset, which will be around 8:41 PM. Weather permitting, we will see 53% of the entire transit before sunset.

Why is the transit of Venus such a special event?

Because of the size and slightly different tilt of the orbits of Venus and Earth, a transit does not happen every time Venus passes between the Sun and Earth; it’s almost always “above” or “below” the Sun when it reaches what is called inferior conjunction. In a 243-year cycle, there are only 4 transits. They occur at very uneven intervals – the last one was in June of 2004, but the next one isn’t until December of 2117, 105 ½ years from now!

Historically, timings of transits of Venus were carried out in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries to trigonometrically calculate the size of the orbit of Venus, which when applied to Kepler’s 3rd law of planetary motion, determined the absolute (rather than relative) size of every other orbit in the Solar System. This was actually the best way to measure distances in the Solar System until radar and space probes became available in the latter half of the 20th century.

How can I observe the transit of Venus?

You can make a pinhole projector with a couple of pieces of card stock or a small cardboard box; just poke a small hole in one of the pieces or one end of the box, and position it such that it casts a small image of the Sun on the other piece or the other end of the box.

It will be a lot easier to see, though, through a suitable filter, either with your unaided eye or binoculars or a telescope completely covered by a full-aperture filter. Safe filters are available at HMS Beagle, a science store at English Landing in Parkville.

Where will there be organized viewing of the transit of Venus?

There will be at least 3 organized events in the Kansas City area:

  1. The Astronomical Society of Kansas City will open Powell Observatory in Louisburg. A map and directions are at
  2. The ASKC will also open Warkoczewski Observatory at UMKC, on the roof of Royall Hall. Park on the 4th level of the parking structure on the southwest corner of 52nd & Rockhill and take the skywalk into Royall, then up 2 flights of stairs to the roof.
  3. Kansas Citizens for Science, with assistance from ASKC members, will host observing from the rooftop of Coach’s Bar & Grill, 9089 W. 135th, Overland Park.