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NASA EDGE: Astronomy Expo
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Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo
- Stephen Ramsden
- Michelle Meskill
- Larry Lebofsky
- Suzanne Morrison
- Sonny Clarke
- Geoff Notkin
- Don McCarthy
- Steele Hill
- Elaine Lewis


ANNOUNCER: Astronomy, the natural science study of celestial objects. Discover how amateur astronomers and NASA stare at the sun and other objects safely and scientifically all while avoiding the dreaded ocular ring, next on NASA EDGE.


CHRIS: Welcome to NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: We’re inside the Tucson Convention Center in Tucson, Arizona.

BLAIR: For the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo.

CHRIS: This is an exciting two-day event where we have a lot of people from the general public, kids learning about Science and Astronomy.

BLAIR: Yeah, it’s great for amateur astronomers. You can come out and see telescopes, work with them, talk to the people that made them, and actually advance in your astronomical efforts.

CHRIS: In fact, NASA has a big presence here. We have a number of booths here. We have the Space Weather Action Center from NASA Goddard. We have a James Webb Telescope booth, the Solar Dynamics Observatory booth, and astronaut Don Pettit. On today’s show, we’re going to be talking to the general public getting their feel of their passion in terms of Science and Astronomy. We’re going to be talking to some of the vendors here. And hopefully, if the weather is nice, I think it’s cooperating right now, we’ll get to go outside and actually look at the sun.

BLAIR: We’re here under the hot, blazing Tucson, Arizona sun talking to Dr. Stephen Ramsden about solar observing or solar astronomy. Tell me about what you’re doing here today, Stephen.

STEPHEN: We are setting up and have set up narrow band solar telescopes for the public and anyone who is interested to come by and look at the sun and see the magnetic veracity going on the surface all the time.

BLAIR: Is there actual solar veracity taking place today?

STEPHEN: You better believe it. The sun’s chromosphere is active as usual. There’s a gigantic floating prominence about 30 times the size of the Earth off the edge of the Sun. There are several sunspots in the chromosphere. It’s alive with heat and detail right now. Everyday it’s something different. There was stuff shooting off the side yesterday morning. There was an eruptive prominence that just blew off the edge. And today, the prominence we see on the side today is something I’ve never seen before. When I started, we were in solar minimum so it looked like a cheese pizza only. After, it kept getting more pepperonis and peppers added to it. Now, we’re kind of up to a everything, meat-lovers pizza. It’s just a fantastic thing to look at.

BLAIR: In your daily like, how often do you observe solar activity?

STEPHEN: At least four times a week and I take my outreach program to middle schools or high schools all year long. I’ve done that for the last five years. We look at the Sun at least twice a week with 500 to 1,000 kids. By myself, two or three more times per week.

BLAIR: Do you have an outreach effort aimed at kids, right?

STEPHEN: It’s centered in Atlanta, Georgia and I go to all the Southeastern states myself. And this year we opened it up to 17 countries worldwide. I have people just like Dan and my buddy, Randy, here in Tucson that brought their own telescopes for the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project to set up here and let these local residents look at the Sun.

BLAIR: What got you interested in looking at the sun? Because obviously, your parents always tell you not to stare into the sun, I’ve basically got these protective glasses. I can look only into the sun but I can’t even see you right now. What drew you into solar observing?

STEPHEN: It’s different everyday. The main thing for me with the outreach is that students are already in school during the day. There’s no need for a lot of fuss and bother getting them out somewhere. The kids are already there. It’s just a natural for me because since I was a little kid I’ve wondered what is that up there and why is it up there? And how are we going around it? And how does it bring us life and all these wonderful things you ask about the star that’s just right around the corner.

CHRIS: So, tell us, do you like studying the sun and the solar system?

CHILD: Yeah, because it’s a little hot.

CHRIS: What’s your favorite planet?

CHILD: Saturn.

CHRIS: Wow. Saturn has all the rings around it, doesn’t it?

CHILD: Yeah.

CHRIS: What do you want to be when you grow up?

CHILD: A teacher.

CHRIS: Very good. See, that’s the perfect profession, being a teacher.

CHRIS: So Jennifer, why are you here today?

JENNIFER: My son really loves space. We decide to come out and see what it’s about.

CHRIS: Jacob, what do you want to be when you grow up?

JACOB: I want to be a space scientist.

CHRIS: A space scientist. What would you like to do in space?

JACOB: Study the stars.

CHRIS: Tell me, what do you like about the sun?

JACOB: I like the flames on it.

CHRIS: What about you, Mom. What did you think about seeing the Sun through the telescope?

JENNIFER: It was pretty neat. I hadn’t seen it before through a telescope. He has a big telescope at home. I haven’t quite figured out how to use all of it, so we haven’t been able to do that. It was really neat to see.

CHRIS: Jacob will be able to teach you in a couple of years.

BLAIR: We’re here with Michelle from Celestron. How is the Expo going for you guys?

MICHELLE: It’s been really good. We’ve had a lot of steady traffic, a lot of young people, a lot of families. We’ve been really happy with the turnout.

BLAIR: The new families, are you seeing some new amateur astronomers developed even today?

MICHELLE: I think so. I really do. A lot of people have been coming by and the kids are really excited about the products, and astronomy itself. Celestron is definitely big into outreach. We do a lot of Star Parties at school. We go and set up telescopes and bring the kids out and let them view Saturn and the Moon.

BLAIR: I’ve heard this term a lot and you’re going to have to explain this to me. Star Parties? What are these? I’ve not been invited to any Star Parties, so I’m just curious, what is a Star Party?

MICHELLE: Well, you’re missing out. We set up the telescopes and we have people come out and basically take a look at the stars and the universe and help get them inspired and hopefully get some new people into the hobby.

BLAIR: Tell you what, I’m very curious about these Star Parties. It looks like I’m either going to have to start one or find one and join it because it sounds like a great event.

MICHELLE: It is. It is, definitely always a lot of fun.

CHRIS: What brought you both to the Tucson Convention Center today?

WOMAN: My husband is just now getting into astronomy. He bought a telescope a couple of months ago. He heard about it and wanted to come down.

CHRIS: How is your telescope different from the one you have?

MAN: Well, mine is much smaller.

CHRIS: What were the cool things or cool features you saw in the Sun today?

MAN: We just saw there was some activity there on the Sun. It looks like they had some eruptions.

CHRIS: Tell us about the experience inside the convention center today.

WOMAN: We’ve seen two speakers so far and both were very entertaining. One was more facts and fun, the other one was a fun story; Myans and the end of the world in 41 days.

CHRIS: Wait a minute. The world is going to end in 41 days?

WOMAN: Not according to him, no.

BLAIR: Awesome. We avoided Mayan calendar catastrophe and learned about the new field of meteorite hunting, a scientific win-win.

DR. LEBOFSKY: How do amateur and commercial meteorite hunters contribute to Science?

SUZANNE: It’s a very important aspect of this science. The meteorites have to get to the scientist in order for them to be studied. Because, the amount of information contained in one rock is phenomenal. Meteorite hunters, we’re kind of the grunts, if you will. We’re the ones who are out in the field looking for them, bringing them back in. That is the most obvious way that meteorite hunters assist scientists and are getting the samples to the lab to be studied. And when we’re out in the field within a couple of hours or 24 hours of a fall, it preserves the data. The meteorite is not terrestrialized. Not only with new finds but with cold finds such as what Sonny has found in the past, he has found meteorites that are so rare people haven’t seen them before. That is a whole other data set to add to the scientific knowledge and database.

SONNY: Recover these meteorites. Get them out of the environment. Get them into scientific hands to where this material is now being studied. The environment is not ruining the meteorite. It’s just preserving them.

DR. MORRIS: We could not do the work we do without the meteorite hunters and amateur collectors simply because as scientist we do not have the time to be out looking for meteorites. That is probably the only negative downside from a purely scientific standpoint is that meteorites cost money. Where an amateur astronomer is more than willing to give their data they’ve collected. So that is the only negative side of it. I do want to stress that we could not do our jobs. We could not study the rich history that can be found in these rocks without people going out and finding them.

GEOFF: May I weigh in on this because this is a topic that is very close to my heart. Everybody understands that if meteorite collection on a commercial basis is done properly, it benefits everyone. So, we go out in the field. We find a new meteorite. It’s not really worth anything financially as is compared to its financial value if it is properly analyzed and classified and given a name. I don’t mean to sound too self-serving here but we find a meteorite, we take it to CMS and say could you classify this please, and exchange for your valuable work, we will donate part of the piece to your permanent collection. They get an important sample, which they get to keep for all time and our meteorite then becomes recognized in the literature. People go, oh, it’s a real meteorite. It was found there. It’s not something someone bought at a rock show and pretended that it was found. That’s one of the reasons we work so closely with academia, partly because it’s the right thing to do but we want meteorite collecting to be done in a responsible manner so private collectors and commercial dealers and academia all benefit. There’s no reason not to work together and cooperate on this issue.

BLAIR: Don, I understand that you work with James Webb Telescope. Can you give us an update on what’s going on with James Webb right now?

DON: Sure. First of all, at the University of Arizona, we’re building one of the four instruments. It’s called the Near-Infrared Camera. We’re really excited because everything we’ve worked for over the last decade has now been assembled and it undergoing cryogenic testing at Lockheed Martin just as though it was in space.

BLAIR: What is it going to capture when James Webb is flying?

DON: A couple of general principles about the Infrared, one is that longer wavelengths, which infrared is, goes through murky material like gas and dust in the universe, so we can see how stars are born, how planets are born, how entire galaxies are born even though their surroundings might be a little opaque to visible light. Also, James Webb Space Telescope has sometimes been called the first light machine, which means you can see the light of the first objects that were ever formed in the universe, and it’s been stretched into the infrared by the expansion of space over all this time.

MARTY: Wait a minute, wait a minute, doc. Ah, are you telling me you built a time machine?

DON: That’s exactly right. The farther you look the older the light, but the younger the information. It’s sort of like getting a letter in the mail. It takes awhile to deliver it and when you get it you’re reading about something your friend did in the past. Every NASA project has a Science and mission component but also an education component. I’m lucky because I get to be on the Science team that helps build this Near-Infrared instrument but also I’m leading the education effort that’s connected to our instrument. We work very closely with the Girl Scouts of the USA and for ten years now have been training adult leaders in the very principles that make our telescope instrument work.

BLAIR: Are they going to come up with a special cookie when James Webb launches that they can sell from the Girl Scouts?

DON: You can already buy a special cookie cutter for the James Webb Space Telescope.

BLAIR: How awesome is that? That is a great idea.

DON: And it’s even better because our instrument has what are called optical benches, a platform on which everything is mounted. It’s made of beryllium and it’s engraved on the side “Go Girls Scouts.” So, the Girl Scouts are literally going a million miles into space with this instrument.

BLAIR: That’s fantastic. I imagine that’s part of why you’re here. How’s the crowd been today in terms of the Expo, a lot of good conversations, a lot of excitement about James Webb?

DON: Yeah. In fact, there are some people here who have worked on James Webb Telescope that I’ve never met. They’ve worked on the optics, software, and other things. This is especially exciting to see the young people come and actually look at themselves in the infrared camera and be willing to do experiments with some of the materials we have here. I like that a lot because in six years from now those young kids will be high schoolers or in college and they’ll remember back and maybe be able to explain to their friends what this was all about, or maybe will be using the data that comes from the telescope.

BLAIR: We need some kind of telescope to look into my brain and figure out why I can’t understand how complex this process actually is.

ANDY: Blair.

BLAIR: Yeah.

ANDY: Have you ever seen an ocular ring?


ANDY: Check it out.

BLAIR: All right.

ANDY: Check this out.

BLAIR: Um, I’m not seeing anything. Ocular ring? I’m not getting anything, just straight sun.

ANDY: Ocular ring.

BLAIR: I…, what are you talking about?

BLAIR: Word on the street is I’m talking with Brent who is a rocket scientist.

BRENT: Oh, of course I am. Look at the NASA right there, the rocket scientist.

BLAIR: I can hardly argue with the t-shirt. But anyway, seriously, you’re a student here in Arizona studying Astronomy?

BRENT: Yeah, I’m studying Astronomy and Physics here at the University of Arizona. I’m a freshman and I’m from Michigan actually. I came down here because I heard that the program is just phenomenal out here.

BLAIR: How did you get interested in Astronomy?

BRENT: I’ve been interested in Astronomy since I was a little kid. I’d just look at the stars and be amazed at how little we are in comparison. Soon, it just took off and I kept learning about it and reading books. It became a large passion for me.

BLAIR: What are you looking forward to most here at the Expo?

BRENT: I’m actually really, really looking forward to listening to some of the profound speakers that are here at the convention, such as Don Pettit. He is the astronaut who served several missions aboard the International Space Station. It’s going to be very interesting listening to him.

BLAIR: You’re studying Astronomy. What do you plan to do once you get out of school?

BRENT: Students who go through and study Astronomy and Physics go and become an astronomer, which is very interesting but I might take a different route. I think the amateur astronomy business is on the up rise. There are so many opportunities out there for the amateur astronomy business. Who knows? Down the road I could own a company like one of these out here.

BLAIR: Well, you realize you’re obligated to provide free telescopes to NASA EDGE if you’re successful in that endeavor.

BRENT: [laughing] I don’t know about that one.

CHRIS: Why are you here at the Tucson Convention Center today?

LADY: I’m learning a lot about Astronomy today. I’m hanging out with some really great astronomers that are in a club. So, I’m trying to fit in and learning a lot.

MAN: I even know some of the few that she is talking about. No, we’re here to visit several of the vendors that I’ve known and spoken with for many years, get to meet and greet them, and maybe even buy some of their products. You never know.

CHRIS: Pretty much what I understand is you’re keeping him out of trouble.

LADY: I am keeping him out of trouble but I’m keeping him focused on the fun stuff.

MAN: Yeah, yeah.

CHRIS: What have you learned since you’ve been here today?

LADY: Oh, I learned a lot about the Sun. There was a really great presentation about the Sun from NASA. I learned a lot about solar flares. I saw some beautiful images.

CHRIS: Tell us, what are you doing here today?

STEELE: We decided to come out and show people what we have to offer from the sun point of view from NASA. We knew that this audience would be a good audience. They love Astronomy. That’s why they’re here.

CHRIS: This is like the mecca for solar astronomy, isn’t it?

STEELE: It is. Tucson has the great skies, of course, there are some observatories, Kitt Peak and Mount Lemmon, and so forth. It has attracted a lot of astronomers.

CHRIS: It’s just amazing how NASA is involved in studying the Sun. We’re learning so much everyday.

STEELE: Yeah, in the past 30 years it’s just been huge leaps forward. When I started with SOHO 15 years ago, the images were about this size and now they’re for us 5 feet by 5 feet. With that and faster picture taking, an image every 10 seconds with STO, we’re seeing things we could never see before. That’s exciting. People get excited about it and people that don’t even know anything about the Sun that see some of the movies I show; they’re online all time, they’re amazed because they’re beautiful and yet they’re interesting, and they’re science, and all that good stuff.

CHRIS: What are some of the missions that we can see down the road for looking at the Sun?

STEELE: There are a couple, MMS, that’s going to look at the magnetosphere which responds to these storms from the Sun, then there is also Solar Orbiter which is going to get very close to the Sun, and then there is Solar Probe, which will also get very close to the Sun, in fact, about 10 million miles from the Sun, which nothing has ever gotten that close to the Sun. Of course, the big technological challenge is how can you shield something with that kind of intense heat but I think they are well on their way to doing it.

CHRIS: You’re going to be seeing the outreach from Steele over the next 5, 10 years because we’re never going to stop studying the Sun.

STEELE: That’s right. It seems like it’s there and we’re learning more and more. Yeah, there seems to be a lot of interest in continuing that.

CHRIS: What made you fly all the way from Tennessee to come to this Expo?

MAN: I heard this was going to be Tucson’s first Science and Astronomy Conference here. Tucson having so much astronomy, so much Science going on, I just wanted to come out and actually be a part of the very first Astronomy and Science Conference here.

CHRIS: Are you an amateur astronomer yourself?

MAN: Yes, sir. I’m an astrophotographer and I’ve been doing imaging for several years now. I find it to be such a joy and learning so much about the universe that we live in.

CHRIS: What made you get into Science and Astronomy?

MAN: What made me get into it was that my son at an early age wanted to be an astronaut. So I wanted to take him to places where he could learn more about space. We started going to Star Parties. We went to John F. Kennedy Space Center. And as he started to get involved in it, I found out that I had a love for space as well. His interest became my hobby.

BLAIR: I understand that what you’re doing here is sort of astronomy but basically you’re focusing on one of our old favorites, the Space Weather Action Center. Have the kids have really gotten into that? Have they enjoy predicting space weather?

ELAINE: Oh yeah, it was really funny. We had one, little girl that came over. We said, do you want to learn about the Sun? She said, “Of course.” Then we had one little boy that actually did a space weather report and then afterwards, he had so many questions about the Sun. Mike pulled up the space weather media viewer. We looked at the different images and I answered questions. He saw where there was a coronal mass ejection today and then later on he came back. I said, “Come here, look what I found.” And there was a solar flare. I had one man that came over and said, “Wow, I don’t get images like that on my telescope. What observatory are you using?” I said, “Solar Dynamics.”

BLAIR: Nice, I would have said it’s NASA EDGE’s special telescope.

CHRIS: Andy, how are you feeling right now?

ANDY: I’m a little tired but actually very, very excited by what we’ve been able to pull off here. It’s been a very, very good event. I think we brought a lot of new people into the show. From what I’ve heard from everybody else, everyone’s very excited about it.

CHRIS: Yeah, I was really amazed not only at the amateur astronomers that are here but a lot of kids are here too.

ANDY: Yeah, we’ve made it a very big point to go out into the community around Tucson, Phoenix, Arizona and get with the schools, get with the outreach programs and really start to pull the kids in. We don’t want just kids coming in and looking at telescopes and mounts, what we wanted them to do is to come in and experience planetariums, experience weather stations, experience other ancillary areas of Science and give them a firsthand taste of what Astronomy is too. Hopefully, eventually, they realize there are some connections between these two and they’ll develop into Astronomy at a later date.

CHRIS: Where do you see this Expo in the future?

ANDY: The Expo in the future, I hope, is going to grow. We’ve only had about 6 to 8 months actually to get this Expo together. We’ve done a wonderful job with all our volunteers and stuff getting out here and helping us out. I think next year we’re going to be at least twice as big. We’re definitely going to be doing this every year. We’re very excited this has worked here in Tucson. I’ve had a few sleepless nights wondering if we were going to get someone through the door. I think we’ve had thousands of people coming through the door. Of course, the first thing we’re going to do Monday is start sitting down and picking a date for next year and start working on it all over again.

CHRIS: Hey, come on, let’s go.

BLAIR: Ouch!

CHRIS: Are they real?

BLAIR: Yeah, totally legitimate.

CHRIS: We’ve come to an end at the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo. We’ve had a wonderful time here.

BLAIR: Yeah, it’s been great. It’s been an awesome experience, with lots of Astronomy, lots of Science, and lots of exposition.

CHRIS: I tell you… exposition?

BLAIR: Well, it’s an expo.

CHRIS: Okay. I tell you what the public has truly enjoyed it. Just talking to all the people, all the kids, even the vendors, what a great time for the first annual event.

BLAIR: First annual, hope to be more and most of all, lots of new astronomers probably developed here at the Expo.

CHRIS: Let’s wrap things up. I’m really worried about your finger because it’s shaking.

BLAIR: It’s good. No, I’m fine. Marshall through.

CHRIS: Okay. You’re watching NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: Let’s go to the hospital.

BLAIR: Yeah, let’s get this checked out.

CHRIS: Come on.

STEPHEN: Today, I coined a new phrase about our sun. By looking at that prom, I call it magnetospherence. How do you feel about that?

BLAIR: Wah. Wait. No, you did not coin that term. I’ve been using that term for years, for years. No, you probably…. No, this is the best news I’ve ever heard. So, basically, finally, all my efforts of preaching magnetospherence have seeped their way through the ether, down to Atlanta, into your cerebrum, and are now making a spontaneous appearance by you, here at the conference.

STEPHEN: Magnetospherence is my own term. We came upon it together I think because we’re just two great minds involved in solar astronomy.

BLAIR: I will certainly agree with that. We have it here. Confirmation that magnetospherence is not only taking place in the mind of the co-host but also in Dr. Stephen Ramsden who is clearly an expert in solar observing. I tell you what, we’ll do a lucrative deal amongst ourselves.

STEPHEN: Talk to my lawyer. [laughing]

BLAIR: Looks like I’ll get hedged out of this as well Anyway, you’re watching NASA EDGE, an inside and outside look at all things NASA. I’m really serious. How did you come upon this term?

STEPHEN: My wife thought it up to be honest with you.

BLAIR: That is three people that are involved.

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