Amateur Astronomy Under The Big Sky
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  • New pictures in the Gallery

    New pictures were added to the Gallery (see tab above) from the August Stars Over Yellowstone and the Glacier Labor Day event at Logan Pass.  If you have pictures that you would like to add, please send them to me.

    Here is a picture of the Milky Way taken by Ray Stinson on August 31, 2013.


  • Closing out Summer

    It has been a very busy summer!  Lots of great viewing.  We had three successful Stars Over Yellowstone programs with three wonderful speakers.  Lots of great feedback.  Our telescopes had over 4,000 sets of eyes  view through them this summer. It was nice to catch up with old friends and to make new friends.

    2013 Montana Star Watch

    The Montana Star Watch was successful and memorable – friends, tornado and aurora.

    Here is a picture heading up to the Cottontail Observatory, note Joe’s house on the right and the campers and telescopes on the left.  Click on the picture to see it enlarged.

    More pictures will be added as they come in.  Many thanks to all who helped make our 16th annual Stars Over Yellowstone such a great program.

  • Our Explosive Sun

    The American Astronomical Society – Solar Physics Division will be holding its annual meeting in Bozeman the second week  in July.   There will be a public lecture on Monday July 8, 2013 at 7:00 p.m. at the Emerson Cultural Center.  This is a free event and open to the public.

    Our Explosive Sun: Understanding the origins and potential impacts of “space weather”

    Dr. Thomas Berger

    National Solar Observatory

    Project Scientist, Advanced Technology Solar Telescope

    In 1859 a huge cloud of magnetized plasma erupted from the Sun and directly impacted the Earth causing the largest magnetic storm in recorded history. The telegraph system – the internet of the day – experienced such large induced currents in the wires that fires broke out in some offices. The Aurora Borealis extended south as far as Central America and was so bright that campers in the Rockies woke up in the middle of the night thinking it was dawn. This was the “Carrington Event”, named after the astronomer who made the connection between the storm and a large flare he observed on the surface of the Sun. If the Carrington Event were to recur today the impact on our technologically dependent society would be catastrophic, with damage to the GPS satellite system, long term black-out of large portions of the power grid, and potentially lethal radiation doses to astronauts in space among the likely consequences. We now know that the Sun is nearly constantly erupting, launching magnetic clouds of plasma into interplanetary space in all directions. Some of these eruptions have been estimated to be as large or larger than the Carrington Event, but none has yet had the impact on Earth of that eruption. Understanding these magnetic storms from the Sun, the hurricanes of “space weather”, and whether, or how, they will impact the Earth is a major goal of solar astronomical research today. We will review the current state of the art in space weather observations and examine these magnetic explosions as they originate at the Sun and propagate through interplanetary space towards Earth. Looking forward, we will anticipate the capabilities of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, the largest solar telescope in history currently being built in Hawaii with the purpose of studying the details of the Sun’s magnetic field as it builds up energy toward eventual eruption into space.

    Dr. Thomas Berger is the Project Scientist for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, currently under construction on the island of Maui, Hawaii. He works for the National Solar Observatory at the Sacramento Peak observatory in New Mexico. His research focuses on the observation and analysis of dynamic flows in the solar atmosphere, particularly those associated with large-scale non-potential magnetic structures in the Sun’s outer atmosphere. He was previously a Senior Staff Physicist at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, California and a Co-Investigator on the Japanese/US/UK Hinode solar satellite mission. Dr. Berger was born in Berkeley, California and educated at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University, receiving the Ph.D. degree in Applied Physics from Stanford in 1997.

  • NASA IRIS mission launch event

     Join us on Wednesday June 26, 2013 at the Museum of the Rockies.  Free and open to the public 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm.  for the launch of the new NASA mission IRIS.

    MSU work set to launch June 26 on NASA mission

    June 18, 2013 — By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

    BOZEMAN — Montana State University faculty and students who designed and tested optics for a NASA solar mission are counting down the days when their work will head into space.

    The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) is scheduled to launch at 8:27 p.m. Mountain time Wednesday, June 26, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch could be postponed at the last minute, but the MSU scientists are inviting the public to watch with them at the planned time. The free event will run from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the planetarium at MSU’s Museum of the Rockies.

    “It’s very exciting to see the work of so many people come together,” said Charles Kankelborg, leader of the IRIS team at MSU. “A rocket launch like this is such a focal point and such a milestone.

    “You know that things usually go just fine, but it’s always very stressful, and you always worry,” Kankelborg added. “It’s always very exciting. The only satisfying way to enjoy it is to hold a party and invite a lot of people.”

    NASA will also offer the public several opportunities to follow the launch. Extensive prelaunch and launch day coverage will be available on NASA’s home page.  To view the IRIS webcast and launch blog and learn more about the mission, visit

    MSU became involved with IRIS in 2007 after Kankelborg attended a solar physics meeting in Honolulu and long-time colleagues at Lockheed Martin approached him about collaborating. Kankelborg had come to MSU in 1996 from Stanford University where he earned his doctorate in physics. In 1998, he moved to Maryland and spent eight months at the Goddard Space Flight Center, which housed the operations center for another solar mission called the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE). During that time, before Kankelborg returned to Bozeman, TRACE was launched.

    In the past six years, more than a dozen people at MSU have helped design and test optics that are part of the IRIS mission to answer some of the biggest questions about the sun, Kankelborg said.

    Besides Kankelborg, the team includes program manager Larry Springer who worked at Lockheed Martin before coming to MSU. Other current or past participants are professor Joe Shaw, postdoctoral researchers Nathan Pust and Sarah Jaeggli, Keith Mashburn, Christy Dunn, Janet Glenn and Erica Lastifka. Angela Des Jardins, Randy Larimer and Joey Key in the Montana Space Grant Consortium organized education and outreach efforts, such as the recent National Student Solar Spectrograph competitionheld at MSU.

    Stefan Eccles was an undergraduate student in physics when he joined the team, Kankelborg said. By the time he graduated in 2011, he had become such an expert at testing optics that he was invited to do the same during a summer at Lockheed Martin.

    One of the biggest mysteries about the sun is why the corona is millions of degrees Celsius when a layer closer to the sun is much cooler, Kankelborg said. That layer, the photosphere, averages 6,000 degrees Celsius.

    IRIS will focus on the layer between the photosphere and corona – the chromosphere. Expected to give the most detailed look ever of the sun’s lower atmosphere or interface region, IRIS will observe how solar material moves, gathers energy and heats up as it travels through this largely unexplored region of the solar atmosphere. The interface region, located between the sun’s visible surface and upper atmosphere, is where most of the sun’s ultraviolet emission is generated. These emissions affect the Earth’s climate and can interfere with satellite communications and the transmission of power.

    IRIS will carry an eight-inch ultraviolet telescope, a spectrograph that contains MSU optics, and a “bus” carrying transmitters and batteries. It will fly 390 to 420 miles above Earth and pass over the poles every 90 minutes. The telescope is tentatively scheduled to open for the first time on July 17. The occasion, called “First Light,” is the next big thing after the launch, Kankelborg said.

    Once the telescope opens, it will transmit ultraviolet light to the spectrograph. The spectrograph will then split invisible light into wavelengths like a prism splits visible light. This allows scientists to identify physical processes and measure such things as solar temperatures, velocity and composition. At the same time, IRIS will take high-resolution photos of the sun. Scientists will then match the photos and images and analyze the results.

    “IRIS data will fill a crucial gap in our understanding of the solar interface region upon joining our fleet of heliophysics spacecraft,” Jeffrey Newmark, NASA’S IRIS program scientist, said in a NASA press release. “For the first time, we will have the necessary observations for understanding how energy is delivered to the million-degree outer solar corona and how the base of the solar wind is driven.”

    The satellite is the first mission designed to use an ultraviolet telescope to obtain high-resolution images and spectra every few seconds and provide observations of areas as small as 150 miles across the sun.

    “Previous observations suggest there are structures in this region of the solar atmosphere 100 to 150 miles wide, but 100,000 miles long,” Alan Title, IRIS principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, said in the NASA release. “Imagine giant jets like huge fountains that have a footprint the size of Los Angeles and are long enough and fast enough to circle Earth in 20 seconds.

    “IRIS will provide our first high-resolution views of these structures along with information about their velocity, temperature and density,” Title said.

    IRIS is designed to operate for two years, but if it’s like TRACE, it will operate much longer, Kankelborg said. TRACE was launched in 1998 and retired in 2010. It was designed to operate for eight months.

    IRIS and TRACE are both part of NASA’s Small Explorer (SMEX) Mission. The goal of the program is to provide frequent flight opportunities for world-class scientific investigations from space using innovative and efficient management approaches.

    “It’s an exciting program to work with,” Kankelborg said. “The Small Explorer missions build up more quickly and generally they are lower-cost operations where you can get a lot of science done for relatively little money.”

    IRIS was about a $100 million mission. By comparison, interplanetary missions can cost more than $1 billion, Kankelborg said. He noted that there are cheaper interplanetary missions, such as the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN). That mission is projected to cost half a billion.

  • Stars Over Yellowstone 2013

    Dates for SOY Summer 2013, our 16th year.

    June 14-15, July 12-13, and August 9-10

    June – Jim Manning:

    Friday night, 6/14: Cosmic Update 2013 – what’s up, what’s new, what’s hot in the big wide universe and our exploration of it.

    Saturday night, 6/15: Did Mars Start Out like Yellowstone? – a look at our search for life elsewhere, and how Mars may have started out like Yellowstone as a possible source of life.

    July – Tyler Nordgren:

    Friday night, 7/12: Curiosity for Mars – Everywhere we look on Earth we see life (even in the boiling hot pools of Yellowstone); might we find the same on Mars? Four hundred years of wondering about the Red Planet has brought us to the exciting missions roving across Mars today. What will we find now that we are there? And how can what we find there tell us about our own planet back here?

    Saturday night, 7/13: Stars Above, Earth Below – A star filled sky with a Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon is now as rare a sight as the grizzly bears and geysers that bring visitors to America’s national parks every year. The park service that protects our national parks by day has also protected these amazing sights at night. What can we see when we look up in a pristine starry sky at night? How can we learn about our own planet and distant planets by what we see there? In the national parks the sky begins at your feet.

    August – Van Allen Storm Probes Mission – Space weather: Dr. Harlan E. Spence
    Mysteries of the Radiation Belts Revealed

    Learn how new observations from NASA’s Van Allen Storm Probes mission are answering mysteries of Earth’s radiation belts, as well as revealing incredible new ones.

    Dr. Harlan E. Spence is Director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) where he also holds a Professorship in the Department of Physics. His research interests include theoretical and experimental space plasma physics; cosmic rays and radiation belt processes; heliospheric, planetary magnetospheric, lunar, and auroral physics. Prior to joining UNH, Spence was a Professor of Astronomy at Boston University and member of the technical staff at The Aerospace Corporation. Spence is principal investigator on several space experiments, including NASA’s Van Allen Storm Probes mission.

  • 18th Year for SMAS Astro Fair

    On Saturday April 20th 1-4 p.m at the Museum of the Rockies, SMAS will be participating in the 18th Annual Astro Fair. Now part of the national Astronomy Day events, SMAS started Astro Fair in 1995 to bring astronomy to the Bozeman community.  The club will set up some of our scopes. MSU departments have joined in on the fun.  There will be many activities, come join us!

  • Bozeman High School Astronomy Club

     NASA lets Bozeman High students reach for the stars

    GAIL SCHONTZLER, Chronicle Staff Writer

    Posted: Saturday, March 30, 2013 12:15 am

    Hannah Cebulla and Madie Kelly may be only teenagers, but they and other students in Bozeman High School’s Astronomy Club have the chance to do original research on Mars and the stars, thanks to NASA.

    The students are doing such a good job, two or three will get to travel in June to Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Lab to learn more about star formation and how to conduct astronomical research.

    “I’m so excited,” said Cebulla, a sophomore, adding that the Jet Propulsion Lab is where she’d like to work someday.

    “It’s incredible,” said Kelly, a junior who wants to become an astrophysicist.

    Bozeman High’s club is also one of five student teams remaining in the Mars Exploration Student Data Teams competition.

    They’ve been working with NASA and Arizona State University scientists to do research on Mars, using images taken by an instrument called CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) aboard NASA’s Mars Renaissance orbiter.

    One image from CRISM of a region called Nili Fossae makes the red planet look as colorful as tie-dyed shirts. The colors actually help scientists determine what kind of rocks are on Mars. The students are analyzing the region to see if it would make a good landing site for a future Mars Rover, and if the geology suggests there once was water flowing on the planet and possibly the right conditions to support life.

    The Astronomy Club adviser is Lynn Powers, Bozeman High library secretary, a passionate amateur astronomer who is president of the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society and a NASA-JPL “solar system ambassador.”

    Powers said for the Mars competition, students are preparing an online PowerPoint presentation that will be judged in April by scientists at Arizona State. The winners will get a free trip to Washington, D.C., in June to present their research at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

    The Bozeman High club members are so dedicated, they even gave up part of spring break to work on their project, she said.

    “They’re doing phenomenally well,” Powers said. “It’s amazing.”

    As soon as the Mars project is finished, the students will jump into a new research challenge. Using images from space collected by the Herschel Space Observatory, the students will analyze an area of cold, dense gas in the constellation Cassiopeia where stars are being born.

    “It will be like pulling the blanket off a baby in a bassinette,” Powers said. “We’re going into the nursery.”

    The Herschel telescope has gathered thousands of hours of data that have been archived because NASA doesn’t have enough man-hours to look at everything, Powers said. So the space agency has created opportunities for citizen-scientists.

    Powers has been working with scientists from Harvard and Caltech and teachers from Illinois, Connecticut and Virginia to gear up for the stars project.

    Astronomy Club members said they got hooked on the stars in different ways. Brittany Suisse, a sophomore, said she has always liked watching astronomy documentaries with her dad. Brandon Kelly, a freshman, said he loves watching “The Universe” in high-definition on the Science channel. Cebulla said when she was younger, she read a book on astronaut Sally Ride and “she became my idol.”

    “I’ve always been a fan of science fiction,” said Matthew McWhorter, a sophomore. “The one thing cooler than science fiction is science fact.”

  • March 2013 Winter Lecture

    NOTE: New night – WEDNESDAY March 27th.  Same place – Museum of the Rockies, Hagar Auditorium. Same time – 7 p.m. Same great price – Free and open to the public.

    Einstein’s Legacy: Studying Gravity in War and Peace

    A popular image persists of Albert Einstein as a loner, someone who avoided the hustle and bustle of everyday life in favor of quiet contemplation. Yet Einstein was deeply engaged with politics throughout his life; indeed, he was so active politically that the FBI kept him under surveillance for decades, compiling a 2000-page secret file on his political activities. His most enduring scientific legacy, the general theory of relativity – physicists’ reigning explanation for gravity and the basis for nearly all our thinking about the cosmos – has likewise been cast as an austere temple standing aloof from the all-too-human dramas of political history. But was it so? In this talk, David Kaiser – Germeshausen Professor and Department Head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society -examines ways in which research on general relativity was embedded in, and at times engulfed by, the tumult of world politics over the course of the twentieth century. Kaiser’s books include Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics (2005), and How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011). A Fellow of the American Physical Society and recipient of the Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society for best book in the field, Kaiser has also received MIT’s highest awards for excellence in teaching. His work has been featured in Science, Nature, Scientific American, the London Review of Books, and the Huffington Post, as well as on NOVA television programs, NPR, and the BBC.

  • Comet Panstarrs

    A few of our club members have taken pictures of comet Panstarrs. We will add more as we get them. This first one was taken with a 200 mm lens on March 10th from Bozeman.

    This next one was taken from the Cottonwood Observatory,  3/16/13.  Let us know if you’d like us to post your pictures, too.



  • Celebrating Einstein

    Celebrating Einstein is a multidisciplinary outreach event centered around communicating the beauty and significance of Einstein’s theory to the general public; this event will be one of the first in the nation to celebrate the centennial anniversary of general relativity. Celebrating Einstein will culminate in events the first week of April of 2013 in Bozeman, Montana. All events are free and open to the public with seating available on a first come, first served basis.

    For a list of events visit: