The Celestial Observer – February, 2015

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By Dick Luecke, Editor.

What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing? And what do we think we might see?

Kermit the Frog, from “The Rainbow Connection”

From the President

Hello, NSAAC Members: All of the snow we’ve had lately has made observing very difficult. There is so much snow in my yard that I don’t have a place to set up my scope; fortunately my town (Andover) has been plowing the Reynolds Playground parking area, my alternate site.squirrel

If you’d like to put away the snow shovel and get out of the house, please attend our March 6 meeting at Brooks School. This is a big one for the Club. We quickly get through our annual election, enjoy coffee, snacks and conversation, and then welcome our guest speaker.

  • 7:30 – 8:00: We’ll kick off with our required annual election. A few officer positions are still open, so if you’d like to throw your hat into the ring, contact Ray Ferland at No special expertise is required, just a willingness to help run our various activities over the coming year.
  • 8:00 – 8:10: Snacks, socializing
  • 8:15 – 9:30: Our not-to-be missed guest speaker, Alan Hirshfield, author of Starlight Detectives: How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics Discovered the Modern Universe.

This blurb from a respected source says it all: “Starlight Detectives is just the sort of richly veined book I love to read—full of scientific history and discoveries, peopled by real heroes and rogues, and told with absolute authority. Alan Hirshfeld’s wide, deep knowledge of astronomy arises not only from the most careful scholarship, but also from the years he’s spent at the telescope, posing his own questions to the stars.” —DAVA SOBEL, author of A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos, and Longitude.

For more info and pre-registration for non-club members please visit the event listing on our club calendar:

The Club is always looking for presenters for its meetings, so contact me if you’d like to be one—or can suggest someone. Talk about your favorite eyepiece, a book you’ve read, or a favorite constellation. For a list of upcoming meeting entertainment and featured speakers search the club calendar of events:

I hope to see members old and new at upcoming meetings or observing sessions this winter.

Clear skies!
Kevin Hocker, NSAAC President

The Venus Transit of 1769 Observed from the North Shore

From the editor: NSAAC member Jim Utterback has kindly alerted us to a piece published in his local paper, The Daily News (Newburyport), recounting the Venus transit of 1769 and its observation by Harvard astronomer Samuel Williams from the Newbury country estate of Tristram Dalton.

To read the article by Melissa D. Berry, click-here>>

Clouds obscured the most recent Venus transit (June 2012) from most North Shore observers. Samuel Williams and Tristram Dalton were luckier in 1769: overcast skies cleared in time for the much-anticipated event. It was Williams’ second transit experience. He had accompanied John Winthrop, his Harvard professor and mentor, to Newfoundland in 1761 for that year’s transit.

Using parallax and transit data, astronomers in Europe and North America hoped to determine the distance between the earth and sun. With that goal, they fanned out across the globe in 1769, recording transit times from far-flung locations. And so, while Williams and Dalton were setting up on Boston’s North Shore, others were doing the same in Norway, Hudsons Bay, and other points. Among these observers was James Cook, captain of HMS Endeavour. The Royal Society of London had commissioned Cook to interrupt his first voyage of discovery to observe Venus’s transit from the South Pacific. In company with naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, and astronomer Charles Green, Cook and his crew constructed a three-scope observing station at “Venus Point” in Tahiti. Each telescope operator was instructed to record the exact time at which the planet: touched the sun’s outer rim; was fully inside the solar disk but still touching the outer rim; was still inside the disk but touching the opposite rim; and when the planet was outside the solar disk but touching the outer rim. This is the same measuring routine used today (see NASA chart for the 2012 transit).

Credit: Fred Espenak, NASAs GSFC, 2011

Credit: Fred Espenak, NASAs GSFC, 2011


Data recorded by multiple observers in 1769 made it possible for astronomer/mathematician Thomas Hornsby to calculate the sun’s mean distance from the earth at 93,726,900 miles, eight-tenth of one percent further than our current radar-based measurement.

The instrument used in Newbury by Williams and Dalton is not known. However, Williams’ Harvard boss John Winthrop observed the same transit from Cambridge using a small brass, alt/az mounted Cassegrain reflector acquired by the college in 1765 (see below). Built in London by James Short, a prolific producer, the scope had a 12-inch focal length and used mirrors of speculum metal, the same material used by William Herschel for his instruments and sister Caroline’s “sweeper scope.” The handles on the alt and az adjustment screws of this brass scope were made of ivory. In 1780, during the American Revolution, Williams carried this scope behind British lines to observe a solar eclipse from mid-coastal Maine.

That small, well-traveled Cassegrain, and a 24-inch focal length scope of the same design–also built by Short–have remained in Harvard’s hands ever since and can be viewed today in the Harvard Science Museum collection at Click on “Waywiser.” For a photo of the 1-foot scope, enter 0053 in the “Quick Search” box. [Regrettably, the Museum did not respond to our request to reproduce that image.]

* * *

Samuel Williams succeeded to Winthrop’s post at Harvard In the years following the 1769 transit, only to be ousted in the wake of an alleged financial impropriety involving college funds. Tristram Dalton, a graduate of Governor Dummer Academy and Harvard College, became a successful merchant after the Revolution and one of the Bay State’s first two U.S. Senators. He settled into the fine Georgian house built by his father (“Dalton House”), which still stand on Newburyport’s State Street.

Note: Venus transits are rare. They occur in pairs, eight years apart followed by a 121.5-year gap. The next transit will occur in December 2125, giving club members plenty of time to prepare!

Glenn Chaple’s Sky Object of the Month

Glenn’s object for February is NGC 1501, a planetary nebula in Camelopardalis. His chart and star-hopping guide will walk you though Kemble’s Cascade, a striking asterism containing more than a dozen 7-9 magnitude stars. A must see. You will find Glenn’s article and star chart on the Club website,

NGC 1501 has a visual magnitude of 11.5, so you’ll need a dark sky. Some observers suggest using an O-III filter.

In the neighborhood While you’re in Camelopardalis, try swinging over to IC 342, a 9 magnitude face-on spiral galaxy (like M33). It’s also listed as Caldwell 5.

Upcoming NSAAC Activities

Next Business/Members Meeting

The Friday, March 6 meeting at Brooks School in North Andover will begin at our new time: 7:30 p.m. A scope clinic will begin at 7 p.m. if –and only if–one is requested in advance. See the website for scope clinic requests.

Brooks is east of Hwy 125 and south of Hwy 133. Enter the campus from Great Pond Road at point M on the Google map below and continue to the Science Center parking lot at point B. We’ll meet there with our liaison and enter the Science Center. If for any reason the gate at point M is closed, enter the campus at point A on Great Pond Road, drive to the security gate (point C) and indicate that you are with “North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club.” Then continue on to the Science Center parking lot (point B).

The campus and meeting location:

Star Parties: Brewster LaMacchia is putting together 2015’s slate of public presentations and star parties. Stay tuned! And be prepared to answer his call for volunteer scopes if you can.

Collins Observatory: Club-sponsored public viewings are held at Salem State University with Dennis Gudzevich at the controls of the 12-inch Meade. The observatory is closed on school holidays and cloudy nights, so check the website.

Mendel Observatory: Merrimack College’s observatory is open every Wednesday from dusk until 10 p.m. when the sky is clear, with Kevin Ackert and 6 Fred Sammartino operating the 20-inch scope. Check the website before driving out.

Non-NSAAC Events

The Gloucester Astronomy Club (GAAC) will present a series of five free 1-hour astronomy classes on Saturday afternoons this Spring, from 2:00-3:00 on March 7, 14, 21, 28 and April 4 in concert with the Gloucester Lyceum and the Sawyer Free Library. Each of the five sessions will address a different topic. Presenters will come from GAAC and the University of New Hampshire. As promised by Michael Deneen, there will be “lots of images . . .and no math anywhere.”

Volunteers Needed (as always) To:

  • Assist Brewster LaMacchia with star parties and presentations. Contact:
  • Help out at Merrimack College Observatory on Wednesday evenings. Contact: Kevin Ackert at
  • Help Ed Burke with the website. Contact:

Minutes of the NSAAC Business Meeting, February 6, 2015

President Hocker called the February Business Meeting of the NSAAC to order at 8:00 PM. There were four members present plus four Board members. There was not a quorum. Meeting was information only

Secretary No Report

Treasurer Treasurer Ackert indicated that we are almost at end of the fiscal year. He will close the books sometime in May.

Membership There are currently 101 members in good standing.

Early Meeting Announcements Open forum on the agenda after New Business

Committee Reports

Merrimack College The Observatory was closed all month due to storms and snow on the dome.

Salem State University Dennis Gudzevich said the observatory was closed the entire month of January. 7

News, Correspondence, and Upcoming Activities

Star Party Committee No report.

Telescope Clinic No activity.

YAP Program No Report.

Old Business

Ray Ferland, nominating committee chairman announced the slate of candidates for the upcoming cub elections of officers:

  • President: open
  • Vice-President: open
  • Treasurer: Kevin Ackert
  • Secretary: John Hobbs
  • Membership Director: Richard Luecke
  • Member at Large: Ed Burke
  • Member at Large: open

Also, we need more volunteers for the operation of the telescope at Merrimack College. If interested contact either Kevin Ackert or Fred Sammartino.

The club still would like to find other volunteers to do star party presentations. If anyone is interested please contact Brewster LaMacchia.

New Business

John Hobbs indicated that a request to observe behind the West Boxford library has been submitted to the Boxford selectmen for approval. He has also contacted the Dark Park for a new use permit for the coming year.

Entertainment for the evening was a presentation by John Hobbs on his experience analyzing the Apollo 11 lunar samples.

The May Board meeting date will be Monday 16h at 7:30 PM at Village Restaurant in Georgetown.

Meeting adjourned 9:35 PM.

Respectively submitted, John Hobbs, Secretary NSAAC

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