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Photo by Neil Saunders on flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

Science and beauty in local Astronomy Archive

By Brian Carroll on June 15, 2016









Once a month, a group of local time travellers meet to swap stories about their travels. They travel back in time: years, decades, centuries, thousands, millions and sometimes billions of years. Many of them bring pictures, including photos of stunning beauty, and even some painstaking, meticulous sketches. All their stories share a sense of wonder.

These time travellers are amateur astronomers of the Ottawa Chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). Their monthly meetings are open to members and the public alike.

One RASC member, Eric Kujala, is so enthusiastic that he (with one assistant, three video cameras and a computer) records the entirety of every two-hour meeting. He then edits the video recordings and the computer images from the presentations into a permanent record of the meeting.

I interviewed Eric Kujala about the video archive that he makes public online.

What is the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada?

The RASC is a group  of local astronomers, scientists, other professionals and people of all walks of life who’ve gotten together to promote and to share their astronomy.

The Ottawa Chapter is part of 28 centres in Canada that are focused on doing astrophotography, teaching about astronomy, teaching about the universe, and cosmology. We’re a group of about 300 people who meet once a month and talk about astronomy.

What happens if somebody’s sick or stuck at home? If there’s a snowstorm? Or they’re out-of-town?

That’s where I come in. We can actually go to you and bring our meetings to you online on the Internet, for free. All you have to do is log into our RASC web link. You can watch us on your mobile device, your desktop, anywhere where you have the Internet. The meetings are broadcast live. After that, I save them to the same web link. They’re viewable, on demand, through that site for 30 days, after which they are posted to YouTube.

So there are a lot of them now on YouTube?

We’ve recorded over 120 presentations, workshops and events to YouTube. The links to all of those are available on the RASC website.

I’ve seen some of those, and they are extraordinarily high quality videos.

I do my best to provide a professional level of quality of our presentations. The RASC has high standards. We try to show that in everything we do, including our webcasts and our video productions.

It’s not just presentations. There is also some wonderfully beautiful astrophotography that winds up in those archives. Tell us a little about that.

The astrophotography is a staple of our meetings and our work. The RASC is very visually oriented. Providing high quality photographs online and showing those on the videos in high quality is very important.

How big are the archives?

My first meeting that I recorded was 2007. I’m making my way backwards to that, from the present. We’re at about 2010 right now. We have about 120 videos available online. That’s meetings, presentations, workshops and other events.

That’s a lot of video! A new visitor would find that pretty daunting. Can you help us guide a new visitor into the archive, please?

The archive is set up by year and then by month. It’s not set up by subject, yet. That’s something I want to see done. I’m also counting on YouTube actually keeping all the videos online. We don’t have a server big enough to hold all that video data.

It’s all in high definition, by the way.

One of the popular things at the meetings seems to be planetary geology. Where’s a good place to start for that?

We’ve done a lot with Simon Hamner on planetary geology. He’s a professional geologist. He’s lent his expertise to studying other bodies: the moons of Jupiter, Mars, Venus and the Moon. Simon has a set of presentations that we’ve highlighted on the website that you can go to directly.

Here’s one of Simon Hamner’s recent presentations about Mars at time 59:06 of the February 2016 meeting:

Speaking of craters, RASC Ottawa has people who actually travel to craters. Can you talk a bit about that, please?

Yes, myself and my partner, Chuck O’Dale, we’ve been exploring impact craters for the last 11 years. It was the reason why I met Chuck. We ended up partnering to do that as a science. We study impact craters. We visit the sites. We do science onsite. We try to find evidence for new craters.

See one of their presentations here from 2008:

Still on craters, Earth’s Moon is visible a lot of the time. Where’s a good place to start in the archive for that?

We don’t have a specific archive for the Moon. But there’s… we call him our “resident lunatic”, Brian McCullough. He’s our resident “Moon guy”. Brian knows a lot about astronomy in general, but the Moon is his speciality.

Here’s an example of Brian McCullough’s knowledge of astronomy: How I Found Pluto at time 27:55 of the August 2015 meeting. His Moon observing challenges in 2008-9 are not yet in the video archives, but text and pictures are archived here.

Another popular item is “What’s new in astronomy?”. Who’s on top of that?

We have a 10-Minute Astronomy News Update that’s normally given by Al Scott. That’s near the beginning of the meeting. Al will talk about the most recent developments in astronomy. For example, recently, we had the LIGO (Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory) that detected gravitational waves. This month, we had a focus on a supernova that caused iron-60 isotopes to come our way, telling us about this object that exploded a few hundred light years away from us.

Here’s Al Scott’s update about LIGO at time 14:55 of the April 2016 meeting:

Not all astronomy is new. There’s a long history. Where to start there?

We have a person, she’s been talking about the history of astronomy. That’s Carmen Rush. The history of astronomy is enormous. It’s the oldest science we know of. She’s been doing a lot more on more recent astronomers, ones in the last 500 years.

Here’s Carmen Rush’s presentation on Johannes Hevelius at time 33:20 of the February 2015 meeting:

There are new generations of presenters at RASC Ottawa. Two co-presenters come to mind. Care to talk about a father/daughter team?

This is great! Gordon Webster and his daughter, Julia, they’ve brought a new dimension to astronomy by showing how even a child can get involved in astronomy. Julia has been a real blessing to us. She represents the future for our club and for astronomy in general, showing that astronomy is really something that young people should get involved in. She was three or four years old and she had already started doing observing.

Julia Webster being interviewed by CTV News. Still from the above video.

Julia Webster being interviewed by CTV News. Still from the below video.

Through a child’s eyes, observing is an interesting thing because they see things that we may not see. Plus, children normally have very good eyesight. With fresh young eyes like that, astronomy is a wonderful thing for them to learn about the universe, about our world, and about science too.

Here’s Julia Webster being interviewed by CTV about the Transit of Mercury. Time 25:50 from the June 2016 meeting:

RASC Ottawa has some accomplished astrophotographers. Some have had their work on sale at Cube Gallery. Some have been published in astronomy magazines. Their images in the archive are stunningly beautiful. Where should someone start?

We have a very long list of astrophotographers. I should mention that Gordon Webster is an astro-sketcher. He doesn’t photograph objects, he actually draws them, by looking through the telescope and drawing what he sees.

Through the years we’ve had a lot of people contribute their work to our archives. Our website now has a very good collection of these photographs, and, more recently, animations. We have people not only photographing the sky, they’re filming the sky, using stop-motion photography to add the dimension of motion that wasn’t possible before.

Is there a particular section of the meeting that’s set aside for astrophotography?

The meeting is set up in two parts, with a break. In the second part, normally after a presentation, we have a section called Observation Reports, where anyone can contribute photos and show them at our meeting and describe how they took the photo, where they were, what kind of equipment they used, and talk about the object itself. The Observation Reports are really a staple of our meetings. That’s where we get into the meat of what we do in astronomy. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use, or the quality. We’ve had beginners come in with fuzzy pictures. But is was their FIRST picture! We encourage them to go from there and try to do better.

Here are the Observation Reports at time 1:23:55 of the May 2016 meeting, with photography by Dave Chisholm and Bob Olson:

RASC Ottawa also gets impressive guest speakers. Any “must sees”?

We’ve had a lot of people who’ve come in, not just from across Canada, but across the United States as well.

For example, Haley Sapers did a presentation on astrobiology. She talked about what is the definition of life. What we should look for when we try to find life outside the Earth.

Here’s Dr. Haley Sapers presentation at time 5:45 of the March 2015 meeting:

Ivan Semeniuk, science writer of the Globe and Mail, presented recently. Please tell us a bit about that.

His talk was about dark matter and dark energy. This is where astronomy is headed – studying what actually makes up more than 80% of our universe. We’ve been studying the universe optically, looking at the matter that we’re more familiar with. His talk had a lot more to do with – when we study dark matter and dark energy, what that will really tell us about the universe.

Here’s Ivan Semeniuk’s presentation at time 10:40 of the November 2015 meeting:

This interview has been edited for length. 

The Ottawa Chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada meets on the first Friday of each month at the Aviation and Space Museum at 7:30 pm.  If the first Friday falls on a holiday, the meeting is pushed back a week, as will be the case in July! Meetings are free and open to everyone but the museum charges $3 for parking.