December 2018 DFAC Update

quidnoviNewsletter of the Desert Foothills Astronomy Club
Captain’s Log: December 3, 2018

Greetings Fellow Stargazers,

I bid you all Happy Holidays as you spend time with family and friends. I kicked mine off on Saturday with a personal demo of virtual reality (VR), courtesy of a friend who works in IT and built his own state-of-the-art computer dedicated solely to running VR. And that takes us to our first item.

1. The VR experience
The world of astronomy tech is set to expand once more. In a way that rivals digital planetaria and CCD imaging. I’m talking about VR that makes Google Street View seem like Pac-Man. Back when I was in PAS writing a column for their newsletter, I penned a speculative essay on the future of astronomy software. Some of the first astronomy software was then becoming available. The year was 1994, and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 was the OS of choice. I’m not claiming to have been prescient — the essay was just an extrapolation of where we were then to where the future might take us. But I got pretty close. You can read that essay here:  SFT-VR.pdf

So this last weekend I went to Mars using the latest VR software. It was running on Windows 10 Pro via a Steam gaming account. The graphics card was a GeForce 1060, the 1 TB hard drive solid state for speed, and the mobo hosted an Intel i7 Quad Core CPU with a healthy 16 GB of RAM. The headset was an Oculus Rift.

We started on the floor of Gale Crater on Mars, where Curiosity rover was parked. The landscape was created from real NASA images and topography data. Mt. Sharp was visible in the distance. I walked around Curiosity viewing it from different angles and leaning in to see greater detail. It’s hard to describe how realistic this experience was. The Sun was up and shadows were cast with geometric precision. There was only a small ground area open for exploration but I was free to move where I wanted.

There were many novelty games also included, but I was most interested in software related to astronomy. You can go to other places than Mars: the Moon, the ISS, and a fictional mining colony in orbit around Saturn. You can even do a VR version of Google Earth Street View. The possibilities are literally unlimited, and new content is being developed daily. This will be my next tool (not “toy”) for exploring the cosmos. It’s more than just VR — it’s the genesis of consumer-level telepresence. If you get a chance to check out this new technology, I highly recommend you try it. I guarantee you’ll enjoy the experience.

2. Lowell GODO webcam
Some of you have heard of Lowell’s new Giovale Open Deck Observatory (GODO). They now have a webcam so you can follow construction. DFAC has not donated to this project, but I’m including this link in case you might be interested in watching their progress. Brian Skiff of Lowell reports:

It’s pretty much just a daytime camera. Some big (de)construction and preparation groundwork started this past week. Lots of trees have been snipped off to improve the view from the intended telescope platform. The larger of the two big water tanks that supplied the observatory with water pressure and fire-fighting capability has been cut up for salvage.The tall skinny one will be hauled away next week, to be erected elsewhere in Flagstaff.

3. Vatican Observatory Calendar for 2019
Their calendar for next year includes the usual outstanding collection of astronomy images. Br. Consolmagno notes that the VOF is experiencing a shortfall in funding, speculating the economy or politics of this year have had an impact on peoples’ ability or willingness to give. Every calendar helps. Order yours at this secure link:

4. DFAC Donation to VOF
With $333.77 in our treasury, and no significant upcoming expenses, I decided to send the VOF $50 to help out with their operating costs. DFAC can afford it. And you’ll see we’ve now added the VOF to the list of affiliates on our home page. If any member wants to provide additional support, they can do so at this secure link

5. January 20 total lunar eclipse
Ron Walker will be running a special event at the Star Barn for those wanting to view the eclipse next month. The entire event spans just over 5 hours, with penumbral starting at 19:36:29 MST  and totality at 21:41:17. Ron suggests attendees plan to arrive at 19:00. From Ron:

There will be at least one telescope available for direct viewing as well as a live projection in the planetarium and explanations of what’s happening. There will probably be some other visuals presented because staring at an hour of partial eclipse can get dull. Things should get started around 7 pm. Since 2000 this date was cloudy 47% of the time so it’s a coin toss as to what we will see, but either way there will be visuals under the dome. Since these types of presentations tend to be popular, please only reserve seats if you if you are sure to attend. Thanks.

As always, you can RSVP to Ron on our DFAC Events page.

6. Astronomical Eye Candy
Maybe I should have re-titled this item “Brain Candy”, since it’s an exception to our usual theme. It has plenty of great visuals and a nice sound track, and you can go full screen, but it’s not HD. I selected it because it does a really good job of answering the common question: If the Universe is expanding, what is it expanding into? I’ll provide no spoiler so you’ll have to spend 5:47 of your time to learn the answer.

Till next we meet, clear skies.

Dan Heim
Desert Foothills Astronomy Club

November 2018 DFAC Update
January 2019 DFAC Update