Winter/Spring 2003


What’s  Up

Morgan County Skies ?


News of the Morgan County Observatory Foundation (MCOF)         

Learn more at the MCOF website:


Winter/Spring Skies - Coming Events: Orion, Sirius, Jupiter & the Pleiades  

February 21  MCOF Members’ Night at the Observatory

February 24  Moon and Mars are 2 degrees apart around midnight

February 28  Public Star Party at Greenwood School (March 2 New Moon)

March 14  Moon and Jupiter are 4 degrees apart around 7 pm

March 20  Spring Equinox – Spring begins at 8:01 pm EST

March 28  MCOF Members’ Night at the Observatory


April 4    Public Star Party at Greenwood School (Apr. 1 New Moon)

April 18  MCOF Members’ Night at the Observatory

April 26  Spring Star Show at the Ice House


May 2    Public Star Party at Greenwood School (May 1 New Moon)

May 17  MCOF General Business Meeting  

May 23  MCOF Members Night at the Observatory

May 30  Public Star Party at Greenwood School (May 31 New Moon)

June 22 Summer Solstice – Summer begins at 3:12 pm



More information can come from:

Kevin Boles, President MCOF  ( )

Dave Fye, The Sky Guy  ( )

Johnna Armstrong, MCOF webmaster ( )

Bill Lands , Newsletter Editor (

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            This Winter/Spring issue is particularly oriented toward items that we hope school children and their parents will find interesting. Page 3 has comments by Dave Fye to help teachers find timely topics for classroom discussions. Page 4 has comments by Loretta Brown for families with elementary school students, and page 5 has a story picked from the large set of NASA items available on the internet.  MCOF members want to learn from parents and teachers how we can help them enrich backyard family viewing as well as classroom activities.  Let us know.  


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            Step outside on a cold clear winter night when the sky seems clearer than on summer nights.  Then, look to the south to see the brightest constellation in the sky, ORION the hunter.                       

            What you notice immediately is the three second magnitude stars in a row. This is Orion’s belt. Above these 3 stars is a very bright reddish star, Betelguese.  Betelguese is a red giant star.  Red giants use up their energy much faster than other stars, and they burn out much sooner.  Betelguese is about 460 million miles in diameter, and it is 2500 times brighter than the sun.  It is 270 light years away.  Below and to the right of Orion’s belt is the bluish star Rigel.  Rigel is 540 light years away, even farther from us than Betelguese.    

            If you look at the lower of the 3 belt stars, and down from it, you will see Orion’s sword.  Here you will see the most interesting object in the winter sky, M-42 The Orion Nebula. This Nebula is a huge cloud of flourescent 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.  All of these hot young stars within the Nebula are no more than 1 million years old.  In contrast, our sun is 4.5 billion years old.  Pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope confirm that probably more than 1000 new suns are being born within this Nebula from swirls of colorful churning gas.  Forty billion mile long comets of dust and gas shrouding newborn stars, and dark disks silhouetted against the nebula glow.

            Above and west of the constellation ORION is the constellation TAURUS the Bull.  The bull is attacking Orion, and Orion has his sword drawn and is prepared to defend himself.  Near the right horn of Taurus is the first Messier Object, M-1, the Crab Nebula. The Crab Nebula is the remains of a cataclysmic explosion in our own galaxy in the year 1054 AD. Chinese skywatchers described it as a guest star.  It shined as bright as the planet Venus, was visible for 23 days and was seen in the daytime. Then it dimmed to become the 16th magnitude star that it is today.  This neutron star is rotating rapidly which makes it a pulsar. The illuminated gas that forms the Crab Nebula is what is left from that explosion.

            Although the Crab Nebula is a telescopic object, not far from it is the Pleiades, an open star cluster that is perfect for binoculars. The Pleiades , is a  cluster of about 1000 stars about 490 light years away, and is commonly known as the seven sisters.  It looks like a very small dipper in the constellation Taurus, and is very beautiful in binoculars.  Hundreds of stars can be seen.   

In mythology, the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione.  It is said that they were placed  in the sky because of the grief at the task imposed on their father of holding the world upon his shoulder.   Two stars to the east of Orion are the Dog Stars, Sirius and Procyon, Orion’s hunting dogs.  Along with Betelguese, they make the Winter Triangle.  Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, and one of the closest to the earth at 8.7 light years.  The three stars in Orion’s belt point directly at Sirius. Procyon, yellow in color, is about 10 light years away.   

            Jupiter and Saturn, the two giant planets, will both be in the evening sky all winter.  Saturn provides the best view, because the rings are at their greatest tilt toward the earth at this time.  Look for the dark space between the two sets of rings, the Cassini division.    Jupiter will be in Cancer and Saturn will be in Taurus during the winter months.  Saturn will rise first, followed about 1 hour later by Jupiter. They are both very bright and should be easy to find.

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Kevin’s Corner:

The Foundation thanks the following new or returning members and donators for their generous support: Evan & Lois Reichard, Jeff Pope, Bob & Peggy Sclater, Brice Williams and DME Consulting.  Thanks also to Mark Klosinski, NASA/JPL’s Solar System Ambassador and all who came out to hear his presentation on Europa the Watery Moon given at the Ice House on Saturday night. All donations of $50 or more will be memorialized on Founding Members’ plaques to be displayed inside the Observatory. More information about astronomy and MCOF can be found at the Foundation website at  Thanks to Johnna Armstrong and Patuxent Software for their excellent work donated to update the website.

Also, see the article at featuring our observatory:


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Morgan County Observatory Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit educational organization founded in 1999.  Current officers are:  Kevin Boles, President; Brice Williams, Vice-president; Roger McIntire, Secretary ; Karen Shoemaker, Treasurer.  Additional members of the Board of Directors are:  Pat Aragon, Robert Campbell, Warren Hart, Leigh Jenkins, Bill Lands .  

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MORGAN   COUNTY   OBSERVATORY  FOUNDATION - -   Notes For Teachers and Students

          Some objects easily seen in the sky during January, February and March 2003

The giant planets Jupiter and Saturn are in the evening sky this winter.  Saturn rises first, Jupiter follows about 1 ˝ hours later.  Both are very bright right now as the Earth is on the same side of the Sun as Jupiter and Saturn.  In other words these planets are near opposition. Saturn presents the best view because the rings are tilted at their greatest angle to the Earth this winter.

Jupiter is always interesting.  The four moons, Io, Europa, Ganemede and Callisto are easily seen in a small telescope.  If you are lucky one of the moons will pass in front of or behind the giant planet.  Also look for the permanent storm on the face of the planet Jupiter, known as the giant red spot. 

            To find Jupiter and Saturn, face east at about 9:00 PM .  Saturn will be high in the East, almost overhead.  Jupiter will be brighter and near- er the eastern horizon.  They will be brighter than anything else in the evening sky, even Sirius which shines to the south of Saturn.  Also helpful in distinguishing a planet from a star is the fact that the planet does not twinkle.  You can check this out.  Look at the bright star Sirius, watch it twinkle in the winter sky.  Then look at Jupiter or Saturn. both shine with a steady bright light. 

            M-31 and M-32…..The Andromeda Galaxy, is our closest Glactic neighbor.  It is an elliptical galaxy almost twice our size and contains about 300 billion suns spread across 130,000 light years.  There are about two dozen galaxies in our local group, of which our Milky Way Galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy are a part.  It can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night overhead in the constellation Andromeda, as a fuzzy patch, and is an impressive sight even in binoculars.  Photos of all the Messier objects are seen at 

            NGC869 & NGC884…..The Double Cluster in Perseus.  This is a wonderful object for the beginner, and  should be viewed with low power with binoculars.  Look to the north of the Andromeda Galaxy near the easily seen  “W” in the sky that is the constellation  Cassiopeia. 

            M-45…..The Pleiades.  Also known as the seven sisters, is an open cluster of more than 200 stars in a faint nebulosity.  To see 7 stars with the naked eye is a test for good vision.  Look high overhead not too far from the planet Saturn for this open cluster that looks like a very small dipper.  This cluster is perfect for binoculars

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Developing Astronomy Concepts  - -  with Loretta Brown

            Since we all develop complex skills by learning in sequential steps, it is helpful to explore the building blocks of basic astronomy concepts. It would not be reasonable to put a two-year-old on a bicycle or give a five-year-old a novel to read or algebra problems to solve. A lot of skills and knowledge need to precede an advanced task. To understand a black hole, one needs to know about such things as mass, gravity, atoms and energy, etc. This article may give some insight into which concepts should be learned in a scaffold of the knowledge of our universe.

             The most natural beginning for an interest in outer space is with the observation of the moon and stars on a clear night. A key concept that can be developed by observations is recognizing that the stars, sun and moon appear to move. It is a major shift of thinking to understand that the earth is moving. Observing a free-swinging pendulum is one demonstration of the effect of the earth’s movement.  Keeping notes and charts and illustrations of observations can provide a record of the learning process.

             Another basic concept to learn through observation is the changing of night and day. Observing and recording a shadow for several hours during a day give the concrete evidence needed to understand the complex idea.

             Most of the understanding of the solar system is accomplished by means of manipulating models. Using a flashlight and spheres, a student can emulate phases of the moon, eclipses, and seasonal changes on the earth.  Rotation and revolution are internalized when a student copies those motions with his/her body. There are many useful hands-on activities to teach astronomy and physics, but much information must be learned through reading what others have observed or learned.

             Astronomy is a complex and ever expanding science which impacts everyone’s life. Understanding our Earth’s relationship to all the various factors in the universe is crucial to providing for our Earth’s survival. We must learn from the base of knowledge handed down by astronomers past and present and strive to expand our understanding for the wonders still to be unfolded.   


 A broomstick jammed into the ground creates your own solar observing station.  Learn more about this at:   Look further at this site.  You can build your own sundial if you want.

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 website:   

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Frisbees in Space     by Dr. Tony Phillips

            When Pete Rossoni was a kid he loved to throw Frisbees.  Most kids do-it's pure fun.  But in Pete's case it was serious business. He didn't know it, but he was practicing for his future career Š in space exploration.
            Grown-up Pete Rossoni is now an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  His main project there is figuring out how to hurl spacecraft into orbit Frisbee-style. 

The spacecraft are small-about the size of birthday cakes.  "This wouldn't work with big satellites or heavy space ships like the shuttle," notes Rossoni.  But a cake-sized "nanosatellite" is just right.

Nanosatellites-nanosats for short--are an exciting new idea in space exploration.  Ordinary satellites tend to be heavy and expensive to launch.  The cost alone is a deterrent to space research.  Nanosats, on the other hand, can travel on a budget.  For example, a Delta 4 rocket delivering a communications satellite to orbit could also carry a few nanosats piggyback-style with little extra effort or expense. 

            "Once the nanosats reach space, however, they have to separate from their ride," says Rossoni. And that's where Frisbee tossing comes in.
            Rossoni has designed a device that can fling a nanosat off the back of its host rocket.  "It's a lot like throwing a Frisbee," he explains. "The basic mechanics are the same.  You need to impart the spin and release it cleanly-all in about a tenth of a second." (The spinning motion is important because it allows the science magnetometer to measure the surrounding field and lets sunlight to play across all of the nanosat's solar panels.)
            The ST5 nanosats are designed to study Earth's magnetosphere-a magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet and protects us from the solar wind.  But their primary goal, notes Rossoni, is to test the technology of miniature satellites.
            "We haven't done anything like this before," says Rossoni.  Soon, however, the concept will be tested.  A trio of nanosats is slated for launch in 2004 on the back of a rocket yet to be determined.  The name of the mission, which is managed by JPL's New Millennium Program, is Space Technology 5 (ST5).
            Can groups of nanosats maintain formation as they fly through space? Will their internal systems-miniaturized versions of full-sized satellite components-satisfy the demands of both the harsh space environment and critical science measurements? Is Frisbee-tossing as much fun in orbit as it is on Earth?

ST5 will provide the answers.   Read about ST5 at at .  Budding young astronomers can learn more at

            This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. An image is at the following URL:

Other NASA links are: ;  ;  ; ;  ;   ; .


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Senior Moments - - - Enjoying A Sense of Place and Time            by Bill Lands

Thinking about things is one of my pleasures in life.  They say “Take time to smell the roses”, and I do.  Then I start thinking about their odors and colors - and the warm Spring sunshine - and the shadows under the trees - - and how they stretch out across the yard as afternoon changes to evening.  A nice way to spend the day!  Those shadows have shape and movement that links my yard (spinning around at 15 degrees per hour) to the sun radiating energy out there (about a hundred million miles away). How fast things happen and how far the energy has to travel to make me warm!  The thought is enough to make me sit down and think about that some more!  You can tell that the last two snowstorms sure did turn my thoughts to Spring!

Thinking about things is probably a lot easier if things have names and concepts with which we can discuss them with friends. But just knowing names is pretty dull without some knowledge of size and distance and speed and how they are measured. For many people, astronomy is truly “out of this world”, and too distant to fit into their life and conversations.  In spite of the truth of this, The Sun has a big effect on life on Earth, and the Moon and stars are out there waiting to become part of your world.  Loretta noted on page 4 the first two basic steps in science, art, and literature: observing and note-taking.  A good, detailed note-book or diary can be a great tool for learning.

During the past few months, Berkeley Springs students taught me how hard it is to develop new interests when their friends and family do not use the new words and concepts by which they can understand and talk about what they learned.  We all need to have the words that can carry our interest forward to other people - - and people need more and more words to handle new ideas that they never discussed before.  Can anyone enjoy talking about things about which friends don’t know?  New words are entry points to new understanding, but they also can seem like barriers between friends who aren’t sure what the words mean.  The value of learning a lot of new words and concepts isn’t so obvious to students who are anxious about remaining close with their friends.  Can the adventure of new concepts and new words ever be shared?  Some ideas are fun. This issue of the MCOF newsletter includes several short articles from members to explore the situation in several ways.

MCOF members are eager to know how local families would like to share with us our enthusiasm for observing and interpreting astronomy.

Some links for learning:

You can find lots about visible meteors at   and more at the International Meteor Organization website  

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

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

                        Some stars are brighter than others, with magnitude 1 stars being a hundred times brighter than magnitude 6. (See more at )

            Take a look NASA’s site, Thursday’s Classroom at  or at    Another NASA site filled with educational links is  



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