Southern Maine Astronomers
2 September 2021, 1830 hrs
Attending were members Paul Howell, Russell Pinizzotto, Ara Jerahian, Greg Thorup, Dwight
Lanpher, Bob Dodge, Ron Thompson, Forrest Sumner, George Bokinsky, James Shields,
Kerry Kertes, Al DiSabatino, Earl Raymond, Dave Thibeault, Howie Marshall, Mark Love, Mike
Mack, Tom O’Connor, John Saucier, Rob Burgess, and guests Doug Yates, Kat Taylor, Ken
Dennison, Maame Andoh (Simmons College) , Carl Gurtmann and Greg Shanos
1900: Rob Burgess opened the formal portion of the meeting welcoming several new guests
including Greg Shanos of the Skyscrapers Astronomy Club of Rhode Island. Greg will be our
November speaker discussing recent exploratory missions to comets. Club members Al
DiSabatino and Dwight Lanpher attended the State of Maine Star Party at Cobscook Bay State
Park near Lubec on the weekend of August 27-28 and reported on an enjoyable event but with
fewer instruments in use because of COVID concerns.
A speaker for October is to be announced, and the Program Committee is working to secure
speakers for December and following months.
Rob reviewed recent club activity since early July citing significant progress at Club
Headquarters in Brunswick with our equipment shed now having new shelves and an access
ramp and our entrance hallway into the building having a photo gallery on both sides displaying
astrophotographs by various club members. The club also has a new brochure that is available
for distribution by members. The club held an Open House for club members on August 21; co-
hosted a Perseid Meteor Star Party at Crystal Springs Farm in Brunswick with the Brunswick
Topsham Land Trust on August 11; a Star Walk on August 13 in Scarborough with the local
Land Trust; and a “Moon Music” event with the Earthshine String Quartet on Popham Beach
under a setting crescent moon and a dazzling Milky Way, also on August 13, attended by about
100. The Club also participated in the Astronomical League’s ALCON Virtual 2021, held online
August 19-21. Rob addressed the gathering on behalf of SMA, describing the club’s history,
mission and activities preceding the awarding of a door prize the club donated to the event.
Rob encouraged all members to complete the short questionnaire mailed to them a few weeks
ago to better assist the club in its service to its members. Of particular importance, the club is
seeking to develop a list of publicly-accessible dark sky observing sites throughout our footprint.
The questionnaire asks members for the names and location of those sites in their vicinity.
Upcoming events include the thrice-rescheduled Cumberland Star Party Friday, Sept 3 at Twin
Brooks Recreation Fields at 7 p.m., in which SMA was invited to co-host with Ed Gleason from
the Southworth Planetarium. The Lady Adventurers Club has requested a star Party for their
group tentatively scheduled for Oct. 29 at Neptune Drive. The club has also been asked to
participate in a star party hosted by the Windham Public Library on Friday, Nov. 12, from 6:30 to
8 p.m. The club is also planning regular star parties at Neptune Drive around the new moon
throughout the fall. September’s will be club only to serve as a shakedown cruise for our new
equipment and best place to stage various scopes. Events thereafter will be open to the public
and advertised. Ara Jerahian also reported that the Cape Elizabeth Public Library has
requested a virtual star party relying on EAA, date and time TBD. Assistance will be needed
from club members to provide narration of the virtual evening sky and the objects to be imaged.
The library is also going to display 10 of Ara’s astrophotographs and then host an online
reception to hear about the subject matter of each.
The club determined that USM has the capabilities to permit us to offer hybrid Zoom/in person
events in the lecture hall in the Science Building. However, in light of the recent surge in
COVID, the club decided it would continue with zoom meetings until further notice. The club
has also established a mask requirement by members and guests at all of its sponsored events.
Invited Speaker: Dr. George Bokinsky, SMA club member and Director: “Astrobiology”
George stated that his source material was a relatively new textbook - “Astrobiology” - authored
by Prof. Charles Cockell of the University of Edinburgh. He reviewed the first two chapters
discussing the history of the topic and the intriguing and essential question of “what is life?”
George noted that as far as we know, Earth is the only place in the universe where life exists.
While there is enormous speculation about its presence elsewhere no proof exists of its
existence anywhere but on Earth. However, it has been subject of thought and discourse for
millennia as evidenced by writings of Greek philosopher Metrodorus of Chios in the 4 th century
BCE, who believed in the atomist theory of matter and plurality of life elsewhere. Two thousand
years later, in the mid-16 th century, Giordano Bruno, espoused similar beliefs that unfortunately
got him burned at the stake for heresy. The term astrobiology was coined in the mid-20 th
century by Russian scientist Gabriel Tikhov who was a spectroscopist, studying plant
spectrographic signatures that might serve as a clue to life outside Earth. Work was further
advanced by American molecular biologist and Nobel Laurate Joshua Lederburg in the 1950’s.
Today, the field is replete with scientists studying extremophiles and has been the central thrust
of all of our Solar System explorations, most notably missions to Mars from as far back as the
mid-1970’s. The recently-ended Cassini mission to Saturn added the exciting prospect of life
outside the so-called “habitable zone” when it detected water vapor containing numerous
complex hydrocarbons being expelled by thermodynamic forces from Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
A pivotal role in the discussion of “what is life’ came from a series of three lectures Dr. Erwin
Schrödinger delivered to the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies in 1943. Amazingly, in the
midst of WWII, attendance was at 400 for the lectures, including the Prime Minister and other
dignitaries. The lectures were later incorporated into a book What is Life. Shrödinger employed
a physics perspective of the second law of thermodynamics in which entropy is normally the
outcome but where life resists decaying into disorder and achieves equilibrium. He also
conceived of an “aperiodic crystal” structure as part of the gene system. Ten years later, in a
one-page letter by James Watson and Francis Crick to Schrödinger, they explained how his
book inspired them to study DNA. They went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or
Medicine in 1962 for their work.
George then described a more recent scientific experiment involving the bacterium Deinococcal
radiodurans, conducted by Japanese researchers, on the International Space Station. This
bacterium is very hardy being able to withstand 5,000 “grays” (similar to rems) of radiation, with
5 grays being lethal to humans. Three identical packets of bacteria in a medium were prepared,
with one placed on the outside of the space station, one inside and one on Earth. Multiple
packets were set to cover one, two and three-year exposure. Packets retrieved from the space
station were returned to Earth for analysis. Results showed that those exposed to the harsh
environment of space, including dessication, UV, Cosmic ray and temperature exposure
endured and revived when place in a growth medium, whereas samples from inside the space
station all died, attributed to the humidity from the astronauts’ respiration. The analysis
suggested that these bacteria could endure for nearly 50 years in an outer space environment,
potentially long enough for transport from one planetary body to another, and supporting the
possibility of life from one planet seeding life on another.
At the conclusion of the presentation a lively discussion ensued about if it was even possible to
say that life started here on Earth or was the result of some form of panspermia. Greg Shanos
then held up a piece of the Murchison meteorite that fell in Australia in 1969. The meteorite is
one of the most studied meteorites in history because of its landing being witnessed and pieces
being found. It is estimated to be more than 7 billion years old and is rich in various organic
compounds including amino acids. Paul Howell posed the question of whether panspermia was
only a “local” phenomenon in a solar system, given the vast distances between stars and the
time it would take to for organisms to survive such travel.
More to come on this exciting topic in a future installment from George.
Russ Pinizzotto provided a wonderful tour of Sagittarius identifying a number of observable
treasures. The challenge with this constellation, lying in the heart of the Milky Way, is that there
are too many objects to describe in one session: there are 15 Messier objects, 1 Caldwell and
18 Herschel objects, to name a few. Russ identified several asterisms including the very familiar
Teapot, the lesser known “Teaspoon” and “Herman’s Cross” asterisms. He described M54 and
the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, the first found outside the Milky Way. There are several
impressive nebulae including the Lagoon Nebula (M 8), the variously labeled Omega, Swan,
Horseshoe and Lobster Nebula (M 17) and the beautiful Trifid Nebula (M 20), all areas of heavy
star formation. Russ also noted that immediately off the tip of the Teapot is the galactic center
of the Milky Way, and that Sagittarius A Star is the location of a supermassive black hole that
shows wild structure in the vicinity when seen in radio images. Russ showed an image of M1-
42, the Eye of Sauron, a planetary nebula similar in appearance to the Ring Nebula. The
reference is to the Lord of Rings trilogy. It turns out that Sagittarius is the source of many
references in modern day science fiction literature. In the interest of always finding something
unusual in each of the constellations he profiles Russ pointed out NGC 6537, the Red Spider
Nebula, that contained a very hot white dwarf at its center, estimated to be in the hundreds of
thousands degrees Kelvin, almost as if we were looking right into the center of the star!
In short, Sagittarius is a treasure trove. Explore while you can as it drifts westward and will
soon be gone until next year.
The meeting concluded about 21:15.