The Meteor

The Newsletter of the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt

  April 2013

  1. The Meteor is the official publication of the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt, Greenbelt, MD. Articles & other contributions are welcome. 
  2. Membership in the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt is open to anyone interested in astronomy. The Astronomical Society of Greenbelt is a not-for-profit community-based organization with the goal of encouraging public interest in science & education in general, astronomy in particular. More detailed information on our club's activities & organization can be found elsewhere at our website.
  3. The editor of this newsletter, Craig Levin, can be contacted at clevin AT Unless specified otherwise, all items in this newsletter were written by the editor.

Editor's Notes

The world of astronomy outreach is seeing an ugly turn of events. On 3/22, NASA was forced to suspend many of its education & public outreach activities, pending a study of their effectiveness. That ranges from the production of posters, bookmarks & small gizmos, to the production of planetarium shows & museum exhibits, to the Night Sky Network, of which the ASG is a member. It’s possible that many of these activities will be restored, but at this date, it is hard to say which ones will make the cut, or the funding which the survivors will receive.

This is more than just a jobs program. Our aerospace industry is a net exporter, & the only way that it will remain that way is if young Americans are willing & prepared to enter the business. NASA outreach has been a major factor in sparking the interest of students in this area.

Currently, there is a petition drive to restore funding to NASA’s education & public outreach activities, at It can use all the signatures it can get.

Elected officers for 2012-2013



Email Address


Martha Gay

martylou AT


Ray Stevens

stvns.jacht AT


Cleton Henry

Cleton.Henry AT


Sue Bassett

wb3enm AT

Astronomical Events Around Greenbelt in April 2013




















Owens Science Center: Public Planetarium show

@ 7 PM


Star party @ Northway Field @ 8:30













General meeting @ the Owens  @ 7:30



Star party @ Northway Field @ 8:30


Sidewalk astronomy @ the Roosevelt Center @ 8:30



For other astronomical events in the DC area, see: Astronomy in DC

Star Party & Business Meeting Reports

March 2: Star Party: [Report from Martha]:

Saturday afternoon Ray brought back the batteries, which he had kindly charged. Cleton and I did a bit of maintenance in the observatory. We found the loose bolts that had permitted the telescope to wobble on the mount and hand tightened them. We also installed the Telrad 1x finder. Bill Orleans brought Doug over for this event - he was looking tired and had no energy.

Saturday night was more clear than expected. Apparently visitors were discouraged by the earlier clouds. In any case we had no guests. Cleton and I aligned the Telrad and I showed him around the dome opening procedure. We observed Jupiter. It was cold and we went home. Since I will be out of town for our next star party, Cleton and I are working on getting him familiar with the operation of the dome and telescope. I'd like to have a couple more sessions with him in the next two weeks.

March 4: Officers’ meeting: This month’s meeting was held at Doug’s place, as he is not up to travelling. Cleton has a key to the dome, so that he can be in charge of a star party. He’ll go for a dry run on opening the dome & operating the telescope this Friday, weather & occasion permitting

Martha noted that the dome needs a lube & cleaning job. Also, we need to fuel up its generator. Martha will ask contractors about painting & gasketing the dome. Question of March & April speaker settled-2 prominent local telescope makers & marketers have been wanting to speak to us for some time. [Craig] will cover May, with a presentation of his latest planetarium show.

2 new people have joined our society.

March 16: Star Party: [Report from Cleton]:

I went to the observatory on Saturday evening even though it was overcast. I did not go inside but just waited around for about 45 minutes until 8:15 or so. There were no visitors - nor was there anything to see.

March 28: Monthly meeting: Our speaker for the evening was Dr. Robert Calahan, who talked about the Earth’s energy budget. He worked on the SORCE (Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment ) satellite, which tracked the amount of energy coming from the Sun. The instruments aboard the satellite were so sensitive & accurate that they redefined the solar constant-that is, the amount of energy we receive from the Sun. Dr. Calahan also discussed how the overall output of the Sun changes slightly as it goes through its Sunspot cycle-years with a lot of spots generally are more productive. To date, the verdict on the case that the solar constant is rising appears to be “not proven”.

This brought him to the question of the Earth’s climate. If our planet’s overall temperature is rising, but the solar constant remains constant, then what’s the cause? Until the Nineties, atmospheric models showed a balance of energy coming from the Sun & being radiated from the Earth. However, since then, new studies of the atmosphere have clearly shown the role of greenhouse gases. Earth currently keeps more energy than it radiates away, causing our atmosphere to heat up. This leads not to more storms per year, but to the same number of storms, just with each storm possessing more energy than before. it also leads to some very serious problems in the sea: First, the seas themselves are warming up. The seas will take a long time to cool down, just as they’ve taken quite some time to heat up, so even if we cut emissions sharply, the effects will still remain. Also, some of the CO2 is dissolved in the seas as carbonic acid, which lowers the pH of the seas. This will harm coral reefs & shellfish, as many of them rely on the sea to be above a certain pH level to grow their shells.

Dr. Calahan pointed out that there is one way we can tell that the solar constant has remained constant: If we ever go back to the Moon, we can dig a borehole about 30 m deep. The lunar regolith preserves the temperatures of former times, as layers of insulating regolith are added in a constant “drizzle”, so careful measurement of the temperature at different levels of the borehole would show if the Sun’s output changed markedly.

March 30: Star Party: By the time that Elizabeth Suckow (ES), Elizabeth Levin (EL), & I got to Northway, Martha, Cleton, Kevin, & Matt were already there. We also had a pair of enthusiastic newcomers who had seen Jupiter through the observatory’s Celestron, & when they wanted to see low-powered views of the Pleiades & the Orion Nebula, which I kindly provided using my 9×60 binoculars. Mike Chesnes came by later.

Jupiter was the target of choice-it showed up well in everyone’s telescope-but I went hunting for Comet PanSTARRS. Unfortunately, it escaped me in the trees & the ground haze, so I switched to some secondary targets. I find open clusters fascinating. I looked for M.35, & I think I saw it (though I’m not sure now-I’ve got to work on my star hopping). I tried for M.44, & bagged it. The Hyades are a naked-eye pleasure, especially as Jupiter looks like a spot on the forehead of the Bull. By 10 PM, everyone was getting tired & cold, & ES, EL. & I were calling it a night. Kevin showed us a gem through his refractor as we were packing up: Saturn rising through the haze over GSFC. ES remarked that Saturn looked “Titan-colored” due to the crud in the air, & I agreed.

Amateur Astronomers & Citizen Scientists during Operation Moonwatch

By G.W. Gliba

Many people don't know that amateur astronomers and citizen-scientists played an important role in tracking the first few man-made satellites during the early days at the dawn of the Space Age, back in the late 50s and early 60s. During that time, a government project called Operation Moonwatch was run by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), under the directorship of the famous comet and meteor astronomer, the late Fred L. Whipple. These were the days before NASA, and in 1958 the U.S. Army and the Naval Research Laboratory were planning to launch the first artificial satellites for the International Geophysical Year (IGY (July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958)). The Operation Moonwatch teams were formed to be primarily a back-up system of visual observers with small specially designed Moonwatch Telescopes that would help keep track of the U.S. satellites, and any possible Soviet satellites that could possibly be launched during the IGY. Although there was a U.S. Navy system in place, called Minitrack, that was to be used for Radio Doppler Tracking, it did not give as accurate positional information as provided by visual and photographic tracking. For that, the U.S. would rely on the sophisticated Baker-Nunn cameras which the IGY would have under the direction of the SAO.

However, the USSR shocked the world when they launched Sputnik I early on October 4th, 1957! The planned IGY network of sophisticated Baker-Nunn cameras were still not ready, and their deployments were still months away. They were still being built at the Boller & Chivens optical shop in Pasadena, California. So, the Operation Moonwatch Tracking Teams, that luckily were in place and ready, had to take on the task of being the primary satellite tracking system for the U.S. for the USSR Sputnik I & Sputnik II satellites; and later the U.S. Explorer 1 satellite, until the Baker-Nunn network was finally put in place several months later. Although they did frantically assemble one in the parking lot at Boller & Chivens to get a few quick pictures, this didn't amount to much. It was the Operation Moonwatch Teams that saved the day.

To add insult to injury, when the U.S. Navy frantically tried to send up our first satellite, Vanguard TV3, before the end of 1957, and before the Soviets launched a 3rd satellite, it blew up during launch on the launch pad, shown live on TV on December 6, 1957. Finally, the U.S. Army launched the first successful satellite for the United States on January 31, 1958, Explorer I, after the two highly successful USSR launches of Sputnik I and Sputnik II (Sputnik II carried the dog named Laika). However, Explorer I became the first satellite to make the first significant scientific discovery of the Space Age when it detected the Van Allen Belts!

So, these Operation Moonwatch Tracking Teams were instrumental in providing positions for these first three satellites, allowing orbital determinations and predictions to be made, not only for scientific reasons, but also for our national security. For this happened during the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and many in the U.S. government were justifiably terrified of the prospect of not knowing what was flying over our American cities and towns! Luckily, there were 205 Moonwatch Teams in place by the end of 1957, 114 that were in the US, 71 in Japan, and the rest in 9 other countries friendly to the US. After the early 60s, the Moonwatch teams were not as important, but they continued to do good work, albeit of lesser importance, until 1975, when Operation Moonwatch officially ended.

A Hubble picture of Hodge 301, which lies inside the Tarantula Nebula, a star-forming nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, similar to the Orion Nebula, courtesy of Great Images in NASA