Winter, 2001

News from the Morgan County Observatory Foundation

Winter Skies - Coming Events:

January 12 MCOF Program Committee meeting 2pm
January 13 New Moon - Dark Sky Night
January 26 MCOF Winter Star Show at the Ice House 7pm
January 28 Full Moon (Winter Moon or Old Moon)
February 12 New Moon - Dark Sky Night
February 15 MCOF Scope Test at the Observatory
February 16 MCOF Program Committee Meeting 2pm
February 27 Full Moon (Trappers' Moon or Snow Moon)
March 9 MCOF General Business Meeting 2pm
March 14 New Moon - Dark Sky Night
March 15 MCOF Scope Test at the Observatory
March 22 Grand Opening of Observatory
March 28 Full Moon (Fish Moon or Sap Moon)
April 6 Springtime Special at the Observatory
April 6 MCOF Spring Star Show at the Ice House 7pm
April 7 Spring Forward to Daylight Savings Time
April 7 Sunday Afternoon at the Observatory
April 12 New Moon - Dark Sky Night
April 12 MCOF Star Party at Greenwood Elementary

More information can come from:
Kevin Boles, President MCOF (
Dave Fye, The Sky Guy (
Jim Mattson, MCOF webmaster (


The Winter sky offers many sights for Morgan County families, among them:

The Orion Nebula is easily seen on a cold winter evening in the southern sky, in the sword that hangs from Orion's belt. The Nebula is an enormous cloud of fluorescent gas, mostly Hydrogen with traces of Carbon, Helium, Nitrogen and Oxygen.

It is 40 light years in diameter, and glows by the ultraviolet radiation from the star Theta Orionis, the brightest of the 4 stars within the Nebula, known as the Trapezium. All of the hot young Trapezium stars are no more than 1 million years old. In contrast, our Sun is 4.5 Billion years old. There are probably more than 1000 new stars less than 1 million years old within this Nebula. Pictures taken with the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed this. It shows swirls of colorful churning gas, forty billion mile long comets of dust and gas shrouding newborn stars, and dark protoplanetary disks silhouetted against the Nebulas glow.

This double star is one of the finest in the northern hemisphere, and is 4 seconds of arc apart. It is best observed in moonlight. The colors of the two stars are yellow and green. You will need a small telescope to observe this double star.

Jupiter shines brightly in the evening sky this winter in the constellation Gemini, the Twins, in the Eastern sky just after sunset. Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System, the 5th planet from the Sun, and is more than 10 times the Earth's diameter of 8000 miles, and is 13 times the Earth's mass. It is larger than all of the rest of the planets put together.

Jupiter's 4 moons are easily seen with binoculars or a small telescope. You can actually watch them revolve around the planet, passing in front of and behind Jupiter as they orbit. The moons always appear in a straight line when observed from Earth, because we are seeing their orbits on edge, instead of from above.

Saturn is also in the evening sky this winter. It shines in the Constellation Taurus not far from the open cluster, The Pleiades. Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System, and the 6th from the Sun. Like Jupiter, Saturn is huge. It has a diameter of 72000 miles, but what makes Saturn the most beautiful object in the Solar System, is it's ring system. The rings are not solid but consist of countless tiny moonlets which shine by reflected sunlight as all moons do. Because of their great distance, they appear solid. Cloud bands are also seen on Saturn, like the bands on Jupiter.

An Open Star Cluster of about 1000 stars, also known as the Seven Sisters, because with good eyesight you can see seven stars. Binoculars will reveal many more. In Mythology, the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione. It is said that they were placed in the sky because of their many fine qualities, but another story relates that they were so honored because of their grief at the task imposed on their father, Atlas, of holding the world upon his shoulders. The Pleiades is in the eastern sky in early winter, then almost overhead, and this winter, appears near the planet Saturn.

Kevin's Corner

It looks like 2002 will be a great year for MCOF, when our dreams of a public observatory for Morgan County finally come true. This project has been a team effort composed of the energy from many individuals over the last eight years, including the help of every member of the Foundation. I have only been a part of this for the last three years, but I have been very inspired by the amount of work that has been contributed by the members of our community. Tom Collins, who first notified then superintendent of schools Dr. Jerry Jones that the telescope was available, has given many hours of his expertise beyond what was contracted for in refurbishing and upgrading our donated telescope from the US Naval Academy and we are all indebted to him for his central role in the project. Architect Matt Grove of Grove & Dall'Olio Architects has volunteered countless hours in the design and specification of the observatory building, which is nearing completion. Construction Manager Warren Cowles has given us the benefit of his years of experience in creating a beautiful facility from the complex and unique set of requirements needed to make an observatory functional. It was very satisfying for me to be able to help out and observe on December 6, 2001 when the telescope was finally put into place on its pedestal in the observing room and the aluminum dome was lowered into place by crane, as the school children of Greenwood Elementary and many of those involved in the project looked on.

There is still much work to be done before the first public viewing of the stars through our telescope occurs. The mirrors will be taken to be re-silvered at a facility in New Jersey to enhance the light gathering capacity of the scope. Cedar siding arrived this week at the construction site. Giselle Aoussat and Eugene Weaver, professional painters, have agreed to donate their labor in staining the siding. The Ice House is letting us use their space heaters during the painting and drying process next week. Warren Cowles and his son Justin will be completing the curved steps into the observing room. Tom Collins will be reassembling the wiring to the telescope and hooking it up to the electric service in the building when it is installed. Lighting and electricity will soon be in place. Although we are slightly short on funding to finish the interior, I am confident that the materials, labor, and money needed will be there given the past generosity of our community.

The possibilities for use of our observatory are endless, from shows and classes for the schools and public to student science fair projects and grant funded scientific research. In the news recently, on December 26th scientists discovered an asteroid approximately 300 meters across and quickly calculated its orbit would take it within 500,000 miles of earth, about twice the distance to the moon. Traveling at 68,000 miles per hour relative to Earth, this asteroid would have devastated an area the size of Texas if it had been on a collision course. It is my hope that we can participate in the Near Earth Object project and help to discover new asteroids and plot their orbits. There is funding available for many other things that our telescope is perfect for. The very idea that cutting edge scientific research can be done here in Morgan County should help broaden the horizons and expand the perspectives of all our citizens of any age.

I hope to see all of you at our various public events, and I have faith that we will be able to complete the observatory in time for our planned grand opening date. I urge all members to try to get others involved and supporting our work. I will soon be finalizing the list of names to go on the founding members plaques inside the observatory, which will include all contributors of $50 or more and will recognize their levels of donation as listed on our brochure. My thanks to all those with the vision and foresight to contribute to the Morgan County Observatory while it was still just a dream. I am happy to have had the opportunity to work with so many people that helped in making it a reality.


THE LEONID METEOR SHOWER (comments from Dave Fye)
First, a few words about the Leonid Meteor Shower/Storm of the night of Nov. 17th. It was a very clear night, and was moonless. The Leonids didn't provide a meteor storm, but it was the best display of meteors I have ever seen. Between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 AM there were about 700 meteors per hour, with spurts of 20 to 25 meteors per minute, which works out to 1200 meteors per hour. There were a few that would qualify as fireballs and actually lit up the sky. It was quite a night, one that I will never forget.
I hope that everyone got a chance to view it.

Some bright objects in the sky look "fuzzy" because they are a cluster of bright stars very far away, and some look "fuzzy" because they are comets with haloes and tails dimly reflecting sunlight as they move across the sky. The dedicated comet searcher Charles Messier cataloged over a hundred "fuzzy" objects during his search for moving comets. He didn't discover many comets, but his catalog remains very popular. The list of Messier objects visible with regular eyesight or with binoculars includes some beautiful galaxies, open clusters, and nebulae. Three beautiful ones are noted previously on this Newsletter. Photos of all the Messier objects are seen at

Long after a "dirty snowball" comet has rushed around our solar system, Earth circles around and crosses the path where dust trails of the parent comet remain. The small particles crash down into Earth's atmosphere to make hot, bright streaks of meteors - sometimes showers and storms as seen for the Leonids during some Novembers. Each comet that comes and goes leaves a trail that delights us for years with "shooting stars" that light the night sky and fill us with wonder about what is happening "out there".

You can find lots of information on visible meteor schedules at the International Meteor Organization. More than 300 comets have been located in space. Different famous comets from earlier years have left enough reminders behind to give us a show in nearly every month of the year.

Comet 1861-I - Lyrids - Apr 19
Comet 26P/Grigg-Skellerup - Pi Puppids - Apr.23
Comet 1P/Halley - Eta Aquarids - May 6 and Orionids - Oct.21
Comet 7P/Pons-Winnecke - Bootids - June 27
Comet Tuttle-1862-II - Perseids -- August 12
Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner - Draconids - Oct 8
Comet 2P/Encke - Taurids - Nov.12
Comet Temple-Tuttle - Leonids - Nov.18
Comet Tuttle - Ursids - Dec. 21-23

Senior Moments - Enjoying A Sense of Place and Time

Today is Tomorrow's Yesterday
We mark our life experiences with familiar measures in place and time. The quarters of the Moon mark our weeks and months while sunrises mark our days and heartbeats mark the seconds of our life, about 60 times per minute. Along with the Sun, Moon, and stars in the sky, the compass and the clock give us our bearings in minutes and seconds. Past experience lets you predict much about what you and your family will experience next at 39 degrees 37 minutes and 35 seconds North latitude. Imagine looking back at the 360 degrees of the Earth's surface where each degree of the curved surface extends about 60 miles, each minute extends about 1 mile, and each second extends about 100 feet, the width of a typical suburban subdivision lot. Every place has a simple way to locate it and describe what the time is there.

The Tropics - exotic places in the winter
The Earth's axis always points to Polaris as it moves around the Sun every year, leaning its North Pole 23.5 degrees toward the Sun in the summer and 23.5 degrees away in the winter. As a result, people at the Equator have the noontime Sun directly overhead only at the Spring and Fall Equinox, when we all have nearly equal daytime and nighttime. The most northern places with noontime sun directly overhead occur at the Summer Solstice along a line at 23.5 degrees North called the Tropic of Cancer. The most southern places to have noontime sun directly overhead occur at the Winter Solstice along a line at 23.5 degrees South called the Tropic of Capricorn. Right now the Sun is clearly not overhead in Morgan County! The noontime solar angle (<) is a steady reliable clock to mark your days and seasons through the year.

What's Your Personal Angle (<)?
Long shadows moving across the yard this afternoon brought me a certain sense of place and time. Our Earth spins 15 degrees per hour (360 degrees every 24-hr day) and it's axis leans away from the sun every winter as it points to Polaris. Here in Morgan County, the long shadows of winter are getting shorter every day as the sun reaches higher and higher elevations in the southern sky. Each noontime after the Winter Solstice has the sun at a higher angle until it begins to drop lower after the Summer Solstice. All of these facts mean that my birthday has its own noontime solar angle - - different from that of most other people in Morgan County. With different birthdays, each of us can have our own angle (<)! What's yours?

The angle of the noontime sun in the Morgan County sky on your birthday is easily found by taking 90 degrees minus the latitude of your house and adding or subtracting the angle of tilt of the Earth's axis to the Sun for the date of your birthday. The tilt in the Earth's axis gives us our seasons, and a table of these changing angles, with the Sun through the year, is at the

These measures of Earth's inclinations give an angle (<) for any day of the year. For my house at 39 degrees, 34 minutes, 30 seconds North, I use 50 degrees, 25 minutes, 30 seconds and add 20 degrees and 19 minutes for the tilt angle at July 22. Then, I just wait for the decreasing noontime solar angle in July to reach 70 degrees, 44 minutes and 30 seconds and CELEBRATE! That's my personal birthday angle (<).

Of course, I might also celebrate May 23 when the noontime sun is moving upward through my angle (<), but that would make me twice as old as I am already! That's a different angle to consider. Once a year seems OK for me.

What's up in Morgan County Skies

Earth's size: How Far is Far?
Eratosthenes (276-196 BC) was a Greek astronomer who heard of a deep well in Seyene in which people could see the sun's reflection at midday on the summer solstice. At midday on that day, he measured the shadow of a tower in Alexandria, 500 miles north of Seyene, and saw that the 6.6 feet long shadow was 0.13 of the height of the tower. From these measurements, he calculated the Earth's circumference quite close to what we know it to be today.

Estimation of the Earth's size depends on a very useful property of an angle (<), its tangent. Tangent tables (like that at help you find the angle that matches any length to height ratio. For Eratosthenes, the ratio of 0.13 is the tangent of an angle of about 7.4 degrees, a small part of the full 360 degrees in a circle. Multiplying the 500-mile distance between the two sites by 360/7.4 gave 24,324 miles for the full distance around the Earth. Not bad for a time long before computers, telescopes, and global positioning satellites!

Knowing that the distance around the Earth was over 20,000 miles likely influenced the Portuguese to NOT fund Columbus's expedition to sail west to India. Over two hundred days at 100 miles per day! That's too far to carry enough food and water! Once you start planning measurements of the Earth, you will find lots of ways to increase the accuracy and precision of measuring the distances and angles involved.

Now, two thousand years after Eratosthenes, you can also estimate the Earth's size by comparing two shadows at locations listed below along a North-South line through Berkeley Springs. This works easily if you can phone to a friend at the other location to make the same type of measurement at solar noon on the same day. Place in a North-South direction a straight 8-foot piece of 2x4 lumber level on the ground using a carpenter's level. Then, at solar noon, hold a 10-foot plumb line so that its full shadow lies along the 2x4. Using tape measures, measure the lengths of the two shadows. Then, subtract the lengths of the two shadows and divide the difference by 10 feet to obtain a ratio that is the tangent of the solar angle - just like Eratosthenes did.

Your measurements define an angle (<) whose tangent equals the difference in lengths divided by 10 [(northern shadow - southern shadow)/10]. The following locations will give you differences in shadow lengths equivalent to angles around 3 to 4 degrees: Warsaw, NY, 203 mi.; Batavia, NY, 213 mi.; Smithyfield, NC, 287 mi.; Clinton, NC, 321 mi. With a little help in the other town, you can estimate the distance around the Earth. Of course, you'll need to wait until April for the seven feet of snow to melt in Batavia, NY. Have fun!

Eratosthenes lived at a time of Archimedes when mathematicians were active in interpreting distances and sizes of the Earth, Moon, and Sun. They were astronomers and geographers as well: Eratosthenes

He was followed later by Hipparchus who used eclipses to estimate the distance to the Moon Hipparchus

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