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Club Meeting Summary - Jul. 7, 2022

· Club Meeting Summary

Southern Maine Astronomers

Club Meeting

7 July, 2022 7:00 p.m.


Attending were members David Gay, Kevin, Kane, Russell Pinizzotto, Greg Thorup, Ron

Thompson, Paul Schumann, Greg Shanos, Jack Gelfand, David Manchester, Al DiSabatino, John

O’Donnell, Jon Wallace, Craig Snapp, Mike Efron, Paul Howell, Owen Buck, Jeff Van Fleet, Ted

Hebert, Scott Lovejoy, Chris Parent, Mike Mack, Joe Long, Dana Hutchins, Carol Alcott, Rob

Burgess and Maame Andoh and guests Jack Madden and our speaker, Stella Ocker.


Reports from Club Members:

The meeting began with club president, Rob Burgess’s Report of the club’s growth. Rob

welcomed six new members, and the club is now close to having 80 members. Moreover, the

club has 17 female members, a far cry from its earlier single digits. It’s clear that SMA is

diversifying its membership, and we hope for increased representation in the future.


Russ Pinizzotto informed members that he had imaged a few more nebulae and clusters in the

Herschel 400 Catalog, and has 20 more objects left. Russ is now, in a few years, nearing the end

of a challenge that many take a decade to complete; a fantastic achievement. He also imaged



Rob reported he and a friend tried to catch all five planets (aligned in order) and the moon at

dawn on June 24 th from Winslow Park in Freeport but couldn’t locate Mercury in the early

morning glare. John O’Donnell stated he also caught the whole alignment from his home in

Carmel, IN.


Greg Shanos reported that he recently imaged Mercury from his home in Sarasota, FL. Rob

asked Greg to send his images along so they could be shared.


Greg Thorup informed the group that he recently camped on Cupsuptic Lake in northwest

Maine and had one of his best views ever of the Milky Way.


Finally, Ara Jerahian, Dana Hastings, and Rob Burgess met with Sarah Kirn, a NASA

Representative at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Sarah focuses on Citizen Science

opportunities. Through this connection it is hoped that SMA members will have opportunities

to become involved in Citizen Science, and meaningfully contribute to NASA’s research.


Finally, Rob reminded everyone of the Club’s “Second Saturday” Star Party at Neptune Drive on

July 9th, from 8 - 10 pm. More volunteers are needed, especially those who feel comfortable

using a telescope and laser pointer. However, all are welcome so please show up and enjoy.

Troy Bennett, the southern Maine photojournalist for the Bangor Daily News plans to attend to

cover the event for the paper. He also noted there would be no club meeting in August – get

out and observe!


Special Recognition

On behalf of the club recognized Ron Thompson, former Treasurer and longtime member of

SMA’s Board of Directors. The Club nominated Ron for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s

Las Cumbres Volunteer Outreach Award. Although Ron was not selected it in no way

diminished his extraordinary outreach efforts on behalf of SMA and the southern Maine

community. Rob highlighted Ron’s efforts that included handling the club’s books as Treasurer,

membership renewals, tax filings, liaising with the AL and NSN as well as performing frequent

outreach to students in the Cape Elizabeth school system, through Space Day Maine and at club

star parties over the years. Perhaps most significant was Ron's representation of SMA with

Cornerstones of Science’s Library Telescope Program. According to Cornerstone’s Executive

Director Cindy Randall over the last decade of volunteer work Ron logged nearly 4,400

volunteer hours retrofitting telescopes for library use, and trained almost 200 librarians on how

to use the telescope. Thanks to his dedication, there are now telescopes in 22 states and in four

dozen Maine libraries in large part due to Ron’s efforts Rob thanked Ron on behalf of the club

for his extraordinary commitment, dedication and enthusiasm. His will be the standard against

which future volunteer efforts will be measured.


Speaker and Presentation:

Our speaker was Stella Ocker, a Phd Candidate in Astronomy from Cornell University. Ocker has

a Bachelor of Science in Physics from Oberlin College. She studies radio wave propagation in

interstellar space, the Milky Way galaxy and other galaxies, and also joined the Voyager team

as a Guest Investigator. Her presentation was on her research on the conditions and

environments of interstellar space.


Ocker began her talk by acknowledging notable individuals who had aided her research on

interstellar space. These include Don Gurnett and Bill Kurth, the Voyager Principal Investigators,

Jim Cordes and Shami Chatterjee, her research advisors, and Linda Spilker and Suzy Dodd, the

Voyager project managers.


The story of the Voyagers begins in the 20th century. Voyagers1 and 2 were launched within a

few weeks of each other in 1977. While both headed to Jupiter and Saturn, to provide close-up

views from fly-bys, thereafter their trajectories deviated: Voyager 2 continuing on along the

plane of the Solar System to pass Uranus and Neptune, while Voyage 1 departed at an oblique

angle. Both entered the Interstellar Medium (ISM) in the 2010’s. The instruments currently

operating on the Voyagers are the cosmic ray subsystem - meant to monitor high energy

particles - the magnetometer, low energy charged particle instrument, the plasma wave

subsystem, and the plasma spectrometer (only on Voyager 2). These instruments help the

spacecraft study different properties of plasma, which is essentially electrically charged gas.

Plasma is the main form of matter in the ISM, so analyzing it is important for understanding the



Ocker began by explaining the way in which the ISM interacts with our solar system. First, as

the sun moves through space, conventional understanding was that it generates an upstream

shock wave known as the bow shock. Also, the sun constantly dispatches material known as the

solar wind, which creates a protective pocket around the planets called the heliosphere. The

heliosphere safeguards the planets from interstellar radiation such as cosmic rays. Solar wind

also contains plasma known as solar rays. Second,, is the heliopause, which is the boundary

between our solar system and the ISM. We are fortunate to still have two functioning

spacecraft in the ISM providing direct measurements of it. Most Earth-based observations of

the ISM provide information of farther areas of the region. However, Voyager has provided us

information on the local ISM.


The ISM accounts for over half of mass of our galaxy, regulates star formation, and influences

planetary habitability. When Voyager 1 entered the ISM, solar cosmic rays, which are the

source of energy particles that constantly interact with Earth, were expected to inform

scientists of this transition by way of changes in the direction of magnetic fields. However,

when the magnetic field direction remained the same, scientists were puzzled. What they

found instead were intense changes in magnetic field intensity, and also in plasma density,

which is the number of plasma particles per cubic centimeter. The typical interstellar plasma

density is 100 times larger than inside the heliosphere. So, an increase in plasma density was

indicative of Voyager crossing the heliopause and moving into the interstellar medium. By

contrast, Voyager 2’s transition into the ISM was much smoother, suggesting that the

heliopause boundary is not uniform.


Ocker’s study of the ISM illuminated many interesting details concerning the relationship

between the ISM and our solar system. First, her research revealed that interstellar space is

very turbulent. Solar storms from our Sun move through the heliosphere and send vibrations

through interstellar plasma. For this reason, it is clear that the heliopause is more of a leaky

boundary, than a solid wall, and the solar system and ISM are easily influenced by each other.

Second, Ocker and her team also discovered low level, consistent plasma activity, which they

referred to as the ‘hum’ of interstellar space. Before this discovery, Voyager could only measure

interstellar density during moments of increased activity such as solar storm-related plasma

oscillations. However, the revelation of the hum means researchers can measure interstellar

density continuously. Such research from Earth is virtually impossible because our ionosphere

blocks the low frequency signals – research needs to be done in situ. Unfortunately, we may

have only a few more years of data gathering from the Voyagers as their batteries are failing

and not expected to last beyond 2025. An Interstellar Probe Mission is on the drawing boards

for the 2030’s, based on a 50-year mission, and planned exiting of the solar system much faster

than the Voyagers. Whether such a mission garners the support and funding necessary remains

to be seen.


Finally, scientists know that the sun lives within a grove of interstellar clouds. However, Stella’s

research helped reveal that the sun is heading to and will settle into a different cloud in roughly

2,000 years. As such, conditions within our solar bubble will change once we enter this new

cloud. Only future research will reveal how that affects Earth and the solar system's

relationship with the ISM.


Tour of Globular Clusters:

To close off the meeting, Russ Pinizzotto led us on a tour of globular clusters as part of the

Astronomical League’s summertime observing challenge. The challenge involves 38 possible

targets in the constellations Sagittarius and Ophiuchus. Globular clusters are relatively similar in

shape as most appear to be round. Moreover, most of the clusters in the challenge are brighter

than magnitude 10. To participate in the challenge, observations of at least 12 globulars must

be made from July 1st through September 30th, and reports submitted by October 30 th . See

the Astronomical League’s website at for details.


September’s meeting tour: Vulpecula, Sagitta and Equuleus.


Reported by:

Maame Andoh and Rob Burgess