This past Saturday, I had a very full day and night of outreach without a cloud in the sky the entire time. First, in the morning and afternoon, there was the PBS Kids Fun Fest in downtown Denver. Thousands of parents came by with their very young children to go to bouncy castles, meet with 6-foot tall versions of beloved PBS characters, watch dancers on stage, and generally mill about at various informational, educational, and entertainment booths. Including a booth for the Denver Astronomical Society, natch.
Four of us manned the booth: myself; Julie, the DAS outreach coordinator; Sorin, who brought his scope with a white light filter, as well as bringing me; and Dave, who had both a white light solar scope and an H-Alpha scope, the Coronado PST. For whatever reason, I couldn’t seem to find my white light solar filter, the most important part of doing solar observing (heh, heh), so I didn’t bring my scope with me. It was really bugging me that I couldn’t seem to find it anywhere, because I was sure I packed it. Lo and behold, I found it stuck to the tape from another opened box.
As I have discussed before, the H-Alpha scope is pretty ridiculous both in terms of what it shows and its price. This day there were some prominences leaping off of the left hand limb, and wrapping around over the surface. Soooo cooool to see them dancing there. Dave told me that the H-Alpha filter was tunable as to wavelength, so that with a twist of a knob, you could de-emphasize the prominences and bring out the surface features better. He had it tuned for the prominences, which are obviously waaaay cooler.
Notably, the location of the prominence activity had nothing to do with the location of the sunspot activity – they were in completely different locations on the sun’s surface. Dave had a 15mm Plossl in the scope, so the sun was only at 27x. He said he could get it to 40x; but in speaking with someone else who’s also got a PST, he said that that’s about the limit on the scope. Going beyond that just loses detail.
Unfortunately, such coolness comes at a price, approaching ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS for a scope that can only view one object. Oof. That’s a real shame, because the 50mm and 60mm H-Alpha scopes that would be able to reach higher magnifications and show even more detail are even more expensive than the 40mm PST. I’d love to get one if the price came down in the future. Hopefully there’ll be a rush to buy them in advance of the Great American Eclipse next year, and as they get more common and easier to make, maybe they’d get cheaper? We’ll see. That’s my hope, anyway.
Julie stayed at the table, answering people’s questions, and having the kids play a game where they take cards with pictures of the planets on them (only eight!) and put them in order out from the sun. Most of the time, I was the roper: “Hey, wanna see the sun?” But I also gave Sorin and Dave breaks from their scopes as the day went on, and showed people the sun myself. Of course, no one had ever seen the sun before – even in white light, it’s pretty impressive to a first-time viewer. I told them where to look for the sunspots, described how each one of them was larger than the entire earth, and how, since the sun is over a million times larger than the earth, it could swallow us up whole without even noticing. That sure impressed ’em!
I couldn’t believe the amount of grime and schmutz that got on Sorin’s eyepiece after the full day. There was a big glob of mascara on the rubber eye protector. One person even took his t-shirt and tried to wipe off the eyepiece! Ewww!!! Good thing for Sorin he had appointed a nice cheap Celestron zoom to be his outreach eyepiece.
Dave had a people counter, and by the end of the day, he had over 200 people taking a look through his dual-scope setup. But since he had two scopes on his rig, it took each person longer to look. Since the lines were roughly equal, Sorin must have had over 300 people looking in roughly the same amount of time. Over 500 people looking at the sun in about 5 hours – outstanding!
That night, Sorin again picked me up – again, because I’m a no-car loser – this time with my telescope in tow, for the monthly open house at the Chamberlin Observatory. The moon was just past first quarter, which is my very favorite phase – Copernicus and Plato were in full view, very close to the terminator. However, the seeing was only average, or perhaps a little worse than average; I couldn’t get past about 150x, and neither could Sorin. I ended up just using the 12.5mm Ortho to get 123x on the moon and planets.
Even before it was fully dark, I was able to show people Saturn with my goto against the still blue sky. As I explained to people, all I have to do is align the scope on the Moon, punch the button for Saturn, and voila! There it is! That is a lot of fun for me – it’s like being a big show off with my very cool telescope.
The first ones to look were a couple of very nice families who were really excited to be there and see all the telescopes on the lawn. Their jaws dropped open as I showed them Saturn, first while it was still light out and invisible in the blue sky, and then about 45 minutes later, as dusk was settling in, against the black sky. I love it when they grab other people and say, “You gotta see this!” Later, a father and son who I had spoken to earlier that afternoon at the Kids Fun Fest and told about the open house came by to have a look. After I told him that my scope was only $400 on Amazon, he confided in me that it looks like Santa will be bringing his young son a telescope this year!
Later in the evening, a group of four twenty-somethings hung out for a good half hour next to me while I expounded on all things astronomical – different telescope designs, how my scope worked, seeing conditions. That was also a ton of fun for me, to get to be the “revered expert” for a while, answering questions and showing them things. After a while, as it was later in the night, I asked them if they wanted to see the Andromeda Galaxy, which was rising in the east. They could barely contain their excitement in response.
Andromeda looked awful – about the worst I’ve ever seen it, due to a combination of the overall Denver light pollution in general and the bright moon in particular. I’ve seen it better off of my apartment building roof back in New York. New York! It looked like a dim globular cluster in the center of the view, without even any sort of glow around it to show that there was some additional galaxy there. After finding it and having my look, I warned them that it wouldn’t look all that impressive.
But wouldncha know it, they were beyond psyched when they actually had a look! Lots of ooohing and aaahing. They couldn’t believe they were seeing an entirely different galaxy, 2 1/2 million light years away, when we humans were nothing but australopithecines. Now that’s the kind of reaction you love to get! They appreciated what they were seeing for all the right reasons. That’s why I love to do outreach.
I wandered around. Jack, one of the old gaffers at the club, had set up a gigantic 6″ brass Alvin Clark refractor on the lawn next to me. He had it on the moon at low power and it looked gorgeous. I took a look through Sam’s scope, the 180 Mak I wrote about last month, which was also pointed at the moon. He had his scope at something approaching 200x, and the view was delicious. I saw the Straight Wall feature, Rupes Recta, and it was really sharp. I went back to my scope to have a look, and his view was definitely superior, although the fact that he had it at a higher magnification might have had something to do with it.
As we were wrapping up for the night, close to 10:30pm, those same two families with their kids were still there – they had been there for over three hours. That’s pretty amazing. Right next to where I was set up, the DAS had put out about four or five dobs that the club owns for the public to use, including three little Starblast 4.5s. These are absolutely perfect for kids, as it’s their size, and they’re incredibly easy to use. The kids were all over them, happy as clams, using the scopes to try to find things – and find things they did. Somebody’s going to be getting a Starblast for Christmas, that’s for sure!
It was an exhausting, but very satisfying day. As I told Sorin on the drive back, “I love TV. A lot. But a night under the stars with the scope beats the TV every day of the week, and twice on Sundays.”