November 2009 President’s Message
By Barbara Toy
With November upon us, we’re sliding fast into the holiday season – and genuine winter viewing, which is a grand way to celebrate life and anything else you want to celebrate. For those who like to use holidays to indulge in extra nights of viewing or imaging, this year is kind of a bust – Thanksgiving weekend is just before the full moon, and so is the week between Christmas and New Years (the full moon falls on New Years Eve). On the brighter side, we have two Anza star parties in December, which, if the weather cooperates, should give us some excellent times under the stars. I hope you’ll brave the colder nights and join us!
Reminder on the OCA Election…
We close the taking of nominations for the 2010 Board at the end of the November General Meeting, so be sure to get your nomination in! And once the ballot is available on the website – why not get your vote in early? That way you don’t have to scramble to get it in before the deadline (which is the January General Meeting), and can be sure that your votes get counted, making life much easier for all concerned.
This year was the second Pacific Astronomy And Telescope Show (aka PATS), which was housed in a different section of the Pasadena Convention Center than last year, apparently because they finished the construction that was then under way. For those who haven’t yet indulged in this great new entry on the local astronomy scene, the show featured a big exhibitor/vendor area, with all kinds of astronomical gear on display and (mostly, but not always) for sale, and booths for local clubs and such exciting entities as Mt. Wilson and Palomar, and plenty of opportunities to run into friends and indulge in discussions of all kinds of astronomical subjects. There were also lecture halls where talks were going on all day, and (though I wasn’t able to check it out myself) it looked like there was some solar scopes set up outside.
PATS itself was on Saturday and Sunday, and they had a one-day imaging conference on Friday before the show; I heard that it had two tracks of presentations for at least part of the day, for newer and for more experienced imagers. Clubs and other astronomy-related organizations are encouraged to schedule events around PATS, to take advantage of the fact that people would be gathering for this event, but I don't know what other organizations have started to take advantage of this yet.
I could only be there on Saturday, and spent most of the day at our club booth, with assistance from Kyle Coker for most of the afternoon, and from Shelia Cassidy when she was able to free some time from her other volunteering obligations. John Castillo very kindly helped me bring things in from the car and set up, and Wally Pacholka loaned us one of his spectacular images printed on canvas, so it looked like a painting, which attracted a lot of attention. We had a slideshow about the club running through the day (many thanks to Dave Radosevich for donating the projector!) with a lot of historical club pictures, mainly because that was what I had available and could edit for the show. Craig Bobchin handled the booth on Sunday, and had a different slideshow, so anyone came by that day would more modern club pictures. The historical pictures attracted a surprising amount of attention, though, and there was one gentleman who told me that he had been a member and helped with construction at Anza shown in some of the pictures. I’m sorry to say that I forgot to write his name down and don’t remember it; he left the club when he moved out of the area and is now active in a different club.
One of the best aspects of PATS for me was that our booth was next to the Mt. Wilson booth, and I could visit with the Mt. Wilson people a lot during the day. There was an ever-shifting crowd of well-wishers around their booth most of the day, talking about the fire, what was happening at the observatories and when we would have public access again (the answer? Probably several months, no official body had given a reliable timetable yet). The fact that everyone was delighted and relieved that the observatories were safe made for a certain light-heartedness around the booth, and I’d say overall that the Mt. Wilson crew is pretty optimistic, even though they have a lot of challenges ahead. They were running a slideshow with a lot of spectacular pictures of the fire threatening Mt. Wilson and the devastation left behind it, and I suggested that they modify it to include slides showing what they need and why in addition to the fire pictures, to distribute to the local clubs to show in their general meetings as part of an effort to get more support for Mt. Wilson. They seemed to like the idea, and I hope that they’ll follow through with it.
Over the course of the day, I received a number of fire tips, mostly from Dave Jurasevich (Observatory Superintendent, who was up there helping the firefighters during the fight to save the Mt. Wilson and who took a lot of the fire pictures they have from the that area), based on what he learned from the firefighters. Some highlights are…
Fire Tips From Mt. Wilson
Over the last few years, Mt. Wilson volunteers did a lot of work to clear brush and other flammable materials around the observatories and other buildings on the mountain, and took other steps to fire-harden the area. From what they said, this was a major consideration in the firefighters’ decision to devote so many resources to protect the observatories and related buildings, as those efforts made the area much more defensible and reduced the risk for the firefighters. I was told that only one of the antennas in the big antenna complex near the observatories had the area it was standing in cleared of brush and weeds so it was defensible; the firefighters worked to save that one, but not the others that were standing in weeds and brush that hadn’t been cleared in years and, where there had been some clearance, where the debris from the clearance was dumped into an adjacent gully, adding to the fuel load there. Because of this, the firefighters didn’t do much to protect most of the antennas, as it was far too risky. The moral of the story is that the more you do to reduce the fire risk on your property, the more likely it is that the firefighters will aggressively defend the area and succeed in protecting it from a wildfire. This is one reason it’s so important to keep the areas around the buildings and pads at Anza clear of weeds and brush.
One of the pleasures of visiting Mt. Wilson in the past has been the beautiful old trees around the top of the mountain that have provided shade as well as picturesque views. Unfortunately, they are also very flammable. Mr. Jurasevich told me that they will have to remove all trees and any remaining shrubs that are within 100 feet of any building, which will be another sad loss for the mountain but necessary to protect them from future fires.
At Anza, we have a lot of shrubs and trees that provide a light screen for areas of the site, help stabilize the slopes, give some shade and also make it look better. Unfortunately, all the native brush is very flammable (the dominant shrub/tree is known as “greasewood” for good reason) and, based on what the firefighters told the Mt. Wilson people, we really do need to remove all of it that is within 50 feet of any structure, and it would be better if we remove all shrubs within 100 feet from any structure. I expect that this will be a subject of serious discussion at the next Board meeting, particularly as many areas where the brush is growing at Anza would suffer more serious erosion if we clear off all the greenery.
Wildfires are generally very hot, often move fast, and produce a lot of sparks that can be driven through any opening in a building, starting fires on the inside that then burn even fire-resistant buildings from the inside out. Mr. Jurasevich told me that this is a particular concern with observatory domes and roll-off roofs, as there is inevitably a gap at the break between the non-moving walls and the moving dome/roof – any wind-driven sparks can easily enter there. They are looking at ways to install some kind of screen, probably a double-screen system, to protect this gap on the domes for the 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes. He suggested that we do something similar to protect the observatory buildings on our site, particularly those that have any wood components, which would include our main observatory.
Another important tool they had at Mt. Wilson was an enormous water tank (the biggest on the mountain) that was pressurized to deliver high volumes of water to fire hydrants throughout their facilities. We do have a water tank at Anza (that’s what keeps the water running at the club observatory and Anza House, with the water in the tank supplied by our well), but it would be drained pretty quickly if called upon to help douse a fire. At some point, particularly as the area of the site that’s in active use continues to grow and we have more buildings to protect, we will need to store more water on site, and we may need to have a pressurized system – that would be a significant expense, but would certainly help in limiting damage from any future fires.
Why the September Sirius Astronomer Was Late
When you received the September Sirius Astronomer, you may have noticed that there were three paper tabs holding it closed instead of a staple. In all the past years that we have mailed it out, the Post Office happily accepted the newsletters with the single staple holding them closed, and part of what Charlie did in processing them for mailing was to put a staple in each one (he had a series of power staplers to do this, which is a tale in itself).
Well, times change, and so do Post Office regulations. As of early September, the Post Office decreed that stapled bulk-mailed pamphlets like our newsletter wouldn’t be accepted anymore, and we instead have to use three tabs of a specific type and placement (two on the “leading” edge, one on the “trailing” edge as seen by their sorting machines; you can see the required tabs on any issue from September on).
When Charlie found out about this, it didn’t take him long to determine that manually applying three tabs to each of over 600 newsletters for our regular monthly mailings wasn’t going to work – in fact, I doubt he considered it at all, as it would be far too difficult physically as well as too time consuming. So, in his usual thorough way, he researched our alternatives, and learned that having our printer do the job would add around $400 per month to our newsletter costs, which would quickly become prohibitive. This left getting a tabbing machine for the club as the most realistic approach, and he ultimately found one that seems rugged enough to meet our needs for the foreseeable future. It was expensive, but cost less than we would pay if we had the printer do it for six months, so the club is now the proud owner of a tabbing machine that (with Charlie feeding each newsletter into it in the right orientations three times) will apply the requisite three tabs – this takes about three times as long as the old stapling technique, but does mean there is less chance that newsletters will get jammed in the sorting machines and damaged.
We had some faint hope that we would be able to get the September issue out within the short window the Post Office allowed before the new regulations came into effect. Unfortunately, Steve Condrey wasn’t able to get the finished newsletter to the printer early enough for the printer to get it to Charlie in time to get it processed and mailed before the deadline, and it took awhile for the new tabbing machine to arrive. Charlie actually had the newsletters for several days after they were delivered by the printer before the machine arrived. He told me later that just unwrapping the machine was a major project, as it was enveloped in multiple protective layers, many of which were difficult to get through. However, he did ultimately get it set up and then had a baptism of fire as he had to run the full September bulk mailing through it with minimal time to get familiar with its idiosyncrasies. The ultimate arrival of the Sirius Astronomer in September is evidence that he was successful in mastering the device.
As an aside, if you are troubled by the fact that the Sirius Astronomer is sometimes later than we would like, please keep in mind that one of Steve Condrey’s challenges each month is finding enough content for a complete issue. If you have seen or done anything of an astronomical nature, gone anywhere of astronomical significance, had any kind of interesting observing or imaging experience, please do a short article on it and send it to Steve at SiriusAstronomer@ocastronomers.org. If you've read a book that might be of interest to other members, write a couple paragraphs about it as a brief book review to let us know about it and send that to Steve (and please post any reviews on our website). Send any pictures you would like to share (of any astronomical interest, including astroimages), ideally with comments about them, such as how you achieved the effect shown or why these are of particular significance to you. The more content Steve has to work with, the easier it is for him to put each issue together, the earlier he can get it to the printer, the earlier it gets to Charlie for his processing and into the mail, and the earlier it gets to you. So please do help us out here…
© Barbara Toy, October 2009