All posts by Dave Leake

In the Shadow of the Moon

I guess this is where I’m supposed to describe the Great American Total Solar Eclipse of August 21. The problem is, I can’t. I’ve been attempting to come up with words that would give the event its props and, I’ll admit, I’m coming up short.

Camp Ondessonk. Online photo from Korte & Luitjohan Contractors, Inc.

I’ve been asked many times “How were things in Carbondale?” I didn’t go to Carbondale. That venue was a bit overcrowded for me. My and CU Astronomical Society colleagues and I descended on Camp Ondessonk, near Ozark, Illinois. The Catholic youth camp was previously directed by my brother-in-law, and my kids spent a lot of time there. We set up telescopes in an impressive row in a horse pasture, meaning you had to pay close attention to where you erected your tent! We had numerous telescopes from CUAS, the twin city group from Bloomington-Normal, and University of Illinois students. And my daughter made the trip from Chicago to go with us.

We arrived Saturday morning to avoid traffic, and my wife and daughter took part in some of the camp’s amenities like archery, hiking, and craft-making. Carl Wenning (ISU) and I did three workshops each on Sunday, and Carl did a keynote after dinner. The food was awesome! They treated us well! Stargazing was a bit disappointing as we were greeted with heavy dew and clouds both Saturday and Sunday night. But the main event was Monday.

The observing field (half of it anyway). Photo by Dave Leake.

We all smiled as we opened our tents Monday morning, greeted by blue skies with a few clouds. I did two radio interviews via cell phone before breakfast and then spent the rest of the morning setting up equipment. Our camp director said that with the influx of “Monday only” traffic (no overnight accommodations), he expected 800 people in the camp. I used my telescope to project an image of the Sun, about a foot in diameter, on a poster board. It was here that I shouted, “first contact” to the group right at 11:53 a.m.

The partial eclipse as projected by a colander. Photo by Dave Leake.

We watched as the Moon seemed to consume a wonderful sunspot group on the Sun’s face. People used pegboards, mailing tubes, and even colanders to project the partial eclipse.

As the Moon overtook the Sun, everything seemed “weird!” It is difficult to articulate! Shadows became sharper and the countryside took on a pale appearance as if it were twilight, but it was everywhere (not just one direction) and the Sun was high in the sky! It got darker and cooler. At the first diamond ring, a roar came from the crowd and there was applause as we bathed in the Moon’s shadow. The horizons stayed relatively bright, but the sky overhead darkened and Venus became brilliant. Jupiter was visible east of the Sun.

Eclipse totality at Ozark, Illinois. Photo by Saiko Rosenberger.

Some colleagues began snapping photos. I did not. This was my first total eclipse and I was advised just to watch. That was great advice. It was an emotional scene:

  • My daughter was there, with whom I had shared telescopic views of Saturn when she was just a tyke. She spent seven years as a camper here, so this was a homecoming for her.
  • Chuck Greenwood was there from Florida; he was Staerkel Planetarium’s show producer when I started. We presented shows together for 12 years. Frank Oriold was there from St. Charles. Frank and I were in the UI Astro Club together in 1981 and I had not seen him in years. Mike Rosenberger was there with his wife. Mike and I co-founded CUAS back in 1986—a lifelong friend.
  • And I was wearing my dad’s eclipse T-shirt. I lost him in 2015. The coronal streamers were nothing short of spectacular and the Moon’s perimeter took on a pearl white color. He would have loved this!

My wife kept a timer on her phone and, at 2.5 minutes, I yelled “have your glasses ready!” The second diamond ring was more dramatic than the first. The Sun’s brilliant light appeared as a point that grew in size. Given the high ice crystal clouds in the area, the point was surrounded by brilliant colors and the crowd gasped. Afterwards, club members gathered and either hugged or provided a “high five.” It was only 2.5 minutes but it will be etched in our memories forever!

The next eclipse in the area will be April 8, 2024. I hope I’m around for it. What an amazing experience! I didn’t even mind the 6.5-hour drive home!

[David Leake is director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College.]

Night in the Middle of Day

***Accommodations in southern Illinois are a hot commodity right now, filling up fast to see the August solar eclipse described below! Securing your reservations now at the Ondessonk Camp might be a good idea (It’s first come, first served), so we’re giving this blog post a very early send-out.***

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There are many experiences in nature that make you go “wow!” Maybe it is your first view of the Grand Canyon, or the ocean, or even a rainbow. But what is it about an eclipse of the Sun that draws so many people? Why do some “eclipse chasers” travel thousands of miles to see an event that can, at most, last seven and a half minutes?

If you are curious, you will get your chance this August, with very little travel required. On Monday, August 21 at 11:53 a.m., the Moon will begin to cover the Sun. The Moon will be completely in front of our Sun at 1:20 p.m., and “totality” will only last two minutes and forty seconds.

However, to see this total solar eclipse, you must travel southward. You need to be in the Moon’s shadow, which begins in Oregon and travels through the Midwest, on to South Carolina. This is the first coast-to-coast eclipse in our country since 1918! It is estimated that over 12 million people will either be in the eclipse’s path (including Kansas City and St. Louis) or will travel to the path.

Eclipse Explained
But what’s going on in August? Why is this happening? The Moon takes 29.5 days to orbit our Earth, which is our basis for our month, or “moonth.” During New Moon, the Moon is in the same area of the sky as our Sun, hence we only see the dark, unlit side of the Moon. The Moon’s orbit, however, is tilted five degrees to the Earth’s orbit.

To put this in perspective, if you hold out your fist at arm’s length and close one eye, one fist is about ten degrees. So a “half-fist” doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough that the Moon usually appears to pass above or below the Sun each month. This is why we don’t have solar eclipses at every New Moon and lunar eclipses at ever Full Moon. The Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun but it is also 400 times closer to us. Thus the Sun and the Moon appear to be the same size in our sky.

During times that the Moon does cut across the face of the Sun, the shadow of the Moon crosses the Earth, and those in the path will experience this grand event. There will be an eclipse this coming February 26 but you have to be in far southern South America or South Central Africa to see it. Which bring us to August 21.

How to View the Eclipse
If you want to see the eclipse, you must take precautions, as the Sun exhibits a blinding light. If you stay in Champaign County, 93 percent of the Sun will be covered by the Moon. While this is significant, 7 percent of the Sun will still blind you. There are several safe ways to observe the eclipse. The easiest is to locate some mylar eclipse glasses. The Staerkel Planetarium has these glasses for sale at $1 per pair. You are also safe if you have a #14 welder’s glass.

If you own a telescope, you can point the telescope at the Sun by using the telescope’s shadow. When the telescope is roughly aligned with the Sun, the shadow of the tube will look like a circle on the ground. Do NOT look through the telescope, but put a white index card roughly 6-8 inches behind the eyepiece and project an image of the Sun. Be wary of solar filters that thread into the telescope’s eyepiece! Here you are filtering the Sun at the point where the Sun’s brilliance is being focused. If the filter cracks, your eyesight is at severe risk. Appropriate solar filters attenuate the Sun’s glare before it enters the telescope.

There is also the age-old method of a pinhole camera. Hold two pieces of cardboard roughly 2-3 feet apart and put a pinhole in the sheet nearest the Sun. You should see an image of the Sun on the second sheet. Better yet, use a peg board!

Seeing the Total Eclipse: An Observing Opportunity
If you want to see the total eclipse and not a partial, you will have to head south. But where do you go? The maximum duration of this eclipse occurs near Carbondale. Good luck finding lodging in Carbondale! Any that might be available will be sold at an, shall we say, “inflated” rate. The University of Illinois Astronomy Department will set up shop in Goreville, south of Marion, Illinois.

The William M. Staerkel Planetarium is partnering with the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society and Twin City Amateur Astronomers (from Bloomington-Normal) to offer a weekend of observing from Camp Ondessonk (https://ondessonk.com), a Catholic youth camp located southeast of Marion and just south of Ozark, Illinois. The camp can provide rustic lodging and all meals for $115 per person. CUAS and TCAA will provide educational workshops on Sunday, the day before the eclipse, plus a dark-sky star party on Sunday night (weather permitting). Meals will be served in the camp dining hall. Tent camping is also allowed. If you would like to join us on our eclipse trek, you need to register by August 1. Point your web browser to https://ondessonk.com/event/2017-great-american-eclipse-event/ for more information. The planetarium will not be accepting registrations and there will be no event at the planetarium on the day of the eclipse.

Let’s hope for clear weather! IF we miss this event, the next “Great American Eclipse” will be on April 8, 2024!

The planetarium will be including information about the eclipse during our Friday night “Prairie Skies” star show. For more information on this event and how to observe it, go to the Staerkel Planetarium’s website and click on the image of the solar eclipse.

[Dave Leake is director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium.]

Image from NASA.gov, with credit: Steve Albers, Boulder, CO; Dennis DiCicco, Sky and Telescope; Gary Emerson, E. E. Barnard Observatory

“The Stargazer” Returns to the Dome . . . Sort Of

A “new, old” planetarium show returns to the dome of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium for the first time. Granted, this sentence doesn’t make much sense, but maybe a little history is in order, as the background for the show actually begins with our planetarium.

stargazer
The Stargazer

Dr. James B. Kaler is professor of astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now retired, Kaler has published over 120 papers and over a dozen popular books all concerning his first love—the sky. His appearances on television, in lecture halls, and in our planetarium dome for our “World of Science” lecture series make him a community icon when it comes to skywatching.

The Great Lakes Planetarium Association (GLPA) is the largest of seven regional organizations in the country. Members from the Big Ten states meet annually in the fall to exchange ideas, sample the latest technology, and see the newest shows.

Kaler was introduced to GLPA when he was asked to give a talk by then director David Linton when Parkland College hosted the conference in 1989. Jim gave the first Astronomy Update talk, a summary of the astronomical discoveries from the previous year. Little did he know that he’d be asked to give the update for the next 19 years thereafter! It is now an annual conference tradition.

In 1999, Kaler was GLPA’s Spitz Banquet speaker. His talk was so inspiring that two planetarians, Dave DeRemer from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Bob Bonadurer, who then was working in Minneapolis, decided to build a show around it. They applied for and received a NASA IDEAS grant to produce the show in 2001, and The Stargazer premiered to delegates at the 2002 GLPA conference in Menasha, Wisconsin using 120 35mm slides. Does anyone remember slide projectors? The show was distributed as a slide set for a short time and then included digital images not long after that.

Thanks to a team led by Ken Murphy at Southwest Minnesota State University and funding from GLPA, The Stargazer is now available as a fulldome show using the latest technology in the field. Initially we thought Ken would merely digitize the images from the show and render it out as a fulldome production, but he has completely re-envisioned the program, with different scenes not included in the original program.

Kaler himself and Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura from the original Star Trek) narrate this personal look at skywatching. The show begins with a child’s curiosity, moves on to the science of gravity, light, the spectrum, and how they help us decipher the lifestyles of the stars. This is the best treatment of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram (central to stellar astronomy) I’ve ever seen in any planetarium program! The show ends with reflections on the deeper meanings of astronomy in our own lives. The 37-minute program is aimed at 4th grade and up but it also serves as a wonderful public show.

The Staerkel Planetarium will open The Stargazer in our 8 pm time slot beginning January 20.

There are many aspects of this “new, old” show that involve the Staerkel Planetarium:

  • First, as A/V curator for GLPA, I am in charge of distributing the show to planetariums who want to purchase it for their own facility.
  • Second, part of the video included in the show was shot in the Staerkel Planetarium dome. See if you can see our Zeiss star projector in the show!
  • Third, in the show, Dr. Kaler refers to a planetarium he built himself as a teenager. With his homemade device, he can project roughly 500 stars in a room using an old Crisco can! That unique homebuilt planetarium appears on display in our lobby.
  • Fourth, this is the first planetarium show that we know about that comes with captioning for the hearing impaired. On one weekend per month, we will be running the captioned show (see our schedule for these weekends).

This is GLPA’s first show offered to other planetariums on a short-streaming contract. Interested planetariums can live stream the show on a three-day license.

We hope you will come see The Stargazer again . . . .for the first time!

[Dave Leake is director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium.]

 

Pink Floyd is Back! Well . . . Sort of . . .

laser_posterThe William M. Staerkel Planetarium, being a science facility, is going to try an experiment: On the weekend of February 19/20 and again February 26/27, we will offer laser shows in the dome at 9:30 and 10:30pm.

The cost is $8 per person per show, with all tickets being sold at the door. You can find a full lineup of programming if you check out the planetarium website.

Now. some folks may dispute this fact, but this is the first time laser shows have been offered to the public beneath Staerkel’s dome. We’ve come close to it before: Back in 1990, members of the Parkland Astronomy Club met to discuss new projects, and someone mentioned doing a musical show at the planetarium as a fundraiser. We chose Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as the classic soundtrack for the new show. The planetarium staff proposed creating it as a laser show, but the college refused the request, so club members began looking for different ways to depict the show visually.

chuckdave3
Chuck Greenwood and Dave Leake develop the first light show.

Developing the First Light Show
One of the items we looked at were light beams. At that time, the planetarium sported 70 computer-controlled slide projectors. By placing a few holes at the bottom of a 35mm slide frame that’s all dark and then putting it through a projector, light would only come out through those holes. Then, with chemical fog in the room, you could see the beams. Turning on several projectors at once made it look like we had a multiple-projector laser system! This was evident during the opening of the song Time, where the clock’s tick-tocks were synced visually using one slide in each panorama projector and only one dot in the corner of each frame. By cross-fading the dots back and forth, we had beams crisscrossing in time to the music.

Our Carl Zeiss star projector looked great in the fog, too. As we spun the machine on its three axes (diurnal, latitude, and precession), you could see all the star beams as they left the machine and headed for the dome, again appearing like laser beams (though they weren’t). The original show’s creator, Chuck Greenwood, used a special projector called a “revealer” to perform a classic prism effect as well. Using a motor, he pulled an occulting frame across the focal plane of the projector, basically revealing from right to left whatever image is placed in the projector. So one regular slide projector projected the prism and the revealer allowed the image of a light beam to appear to enter the prism and split into the classic spectrum. We had to align this effect before every show, mounting the revealer upside down so as to display the image with the correct orientation.

2010 reunionOur Premiere Weekend was Hot…in More Ways than One!
Oddly enough, our light show debut was supposed to have a laser in it! Chuck had bought a laser and built the effects to go with it for the show. It failed literally right before our premiere, so we scrambled to put a short section of film in that spot. That section of film worked so well, it stayed in the show all the way to 2010!

On our opening weekend in May 1990, we sold out all four shows! We even had some “special guests” attend our late show one evening. During the spinning of the Zeiss in one song, we had strobes go off, which was an awesome effect. I told Chuck at the time that those looked really cool. He replied that he didn’t do those! It was the fire alarm! The fog had evidently become too thick, which had set off the alarm. Then we had to convince the audience that this was real.  I don’t think the fire department was all that happy to see why they had been summoned.

(Chuck later presented a paper at a regional conference titled “Laser Shows Without Lasers.” It raised a few eyebrows since no one was doing anything like this.)

End of the Light Show Run
Unfortunately, we had to stop doing our light shows (we never advertised them as laser shows) in 2010 when the Staerkel Planetarium went digital. We had to remove all the former slide projectors from the dome, thus making it impossible to do the lightbeam effects. The last light show we did was naturally Dark Side. I had tears in my eyes performing it for the last time. And Chuck flew all the way from Florida to attend the last show. I still have one of the 1990 posters framed in my basement. It had been quite a 20-year run!

Of course, our new Digistar 4 system is phenomenal. We can do so many more things with it than we could with slide projectors … but it won’t play the old shows.

Pink Floyd…Again!
Nearly six years later, I still get asked probably twice a week, “Hey, when are you going to do Floyd again?” The interest that remains for those shows is amazing. This brings us to the last two weekends of February 2016. With the help of Audio Visual Imagineering, we will be renting a laser system for these weekends. And on February 19, night number one of four, I’m insisting on a “Pink Floyd Night.” It will be Dark Side followed by The Wall. True, it won’t be the same show, but it will be nice to hear that classic lineup of songs in the dome, once again. I hope you’ll enjoy it with us!

[Dave Leake is director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium.]

“Santa’s Secret Star” Show Opens for Holiday Season

How can Santa Claus can navigate his way around to all the different homes on the globe in one night? Does his sleigh have a GPS? Maybe, but it’s good for him to have something to fall back on, like the stars.

In fact, Santa has a “secret star,” and I bet you are wondering what it is. I’d love to tell you, but it’s a secret! You can find out, though, by checking out our holiday program for the younger generation at the William M. Staerkel Planetarium. From now through the third week of December, you can see Santa’s Secret Star Saturdays at 7 p.m.

Santa’s Secret Star was originally created at the Ritter Planetarium in Toledo, Ohio. Ritter Planetarium DirectorAlex Mak wrote the original show, which has been playing in Toledo for over a decade. His show has gone through several iterations, though.  Mak involved his students in several of these re-writes, including one young undergraduate named Waylena McCully.  Waylena would go on to work at the Sudekum Planetarium in Nashville and then move on to… you guessed it… Parkland College! Given her involvement in the show, we acquired permission to run the program on our dome.

The show was originally created for a 35mm slide-based projection system and, for several years, we ran it that way. Waylena edited our local soundtrack and also served as the show’s narrator.  Our show’s original artwork was done by Pamela Friese, who at the time was our 3/4-time artist-photographer. Pam also teaches astronomy on a part-time basis at Parkland. She drew all of the artwork from scratch and then photographed the illustrations in our darkroom. In 2010, when the planetarium converted to a digital projection system, Waylena scanned all of the slide images and converted the show to the new fulldome digital format.

In this fun holiday show for young stargazers, audiences learn about the day and night sky and how the stars seem to make pictures in the sky. Show admission is $5 for adults and $4 for students, seniors, and children under 12.

Why not visit with the whole family on a Saturday night and learn how you, too, can find Santa’s Secret Star from your own backyard?Santa