Picnic on the Green

It was more of an event than I expected, and a much larger crowd. There were two bands, multiple food trucks and stands, performances by a dojo and a hālau, and of course a bunch of telescopes provided by Keck and the West Hawaii Astronomy Club.

Scott in the Sun
Scott showing folks the Sun with a white light solar filter

Maggie , the school librarian had contacted Keck to see if we could provide a speaker and a few telescopes for viewing. Given the telescopes part the request got passed along to me to get the club’s assistance with the telescopes side.

As usual the club members volunteered quickly, no problem getting enough people and telescopes into place to do the event. As long as the weather held over Waikoloa this would be a good event.

Continue reading “Picnic on the Green”

Star Party at the Beach

I do enjoy doing school star parties, one of the best parts about running our little astronomy club is arranging these events.

Students of Mauna Loa School enjoy views of the Moon during a camp-out at Spencer Beach Park.
Students of Mauna Loa School enjoy views of the Moon during a camp-out at Spencer Beach Park.

The school in this case is Mauna Loa School, a Hilo charter school. This did not entail a two hour drive to Hilo as they came to our side of the island. Much of the student body was camping out at Spencer Beach Park after a day spent visiting nearby sites including Anna’s Ranch.

The school had reserved the entire camping area of the park, along with the large pavilion. About 40 students, staff, and parents. We arrived to a small tent city and the smells of Mexican beans being prepared for dinner.

Invited for dinner we had burritos with the students while the sun set over the ocean. A classic Hawaiian evening with the beach and palm trees, a gentle sea breeze and a glowing sunset.

Early in the evening we were troubled by clouds, with nice views of the Moon through the gaps every few minutes. As usual for this coast the clouds slowly dissipated as daytime heat faded leaving a mostly clear sky towards the end.

The timing was perfect, with a crescent Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn all high and available for viewing. Four telescopes were available for viewing keeping lines a bit shorter at the ‘scopes, with many eager eyes.

As usual when viewing Saturn somebody jokingly accuses me of faking the image… A slide, a sticker, that has has to be fake. Yet there is was, encircled with those beautiful rings, the large moon Titan just above the planet.

Our deadline was 9pm, when the gate above the park would be locked. I gave everyone a 20 minute warning to break down and head out. After a few last looks at Saturn and profuse thanks from the students and staff we just made it, park security locking the gate behind us.

Next week it is Waikoloa School.

Dear Keck Staff

We have a lot of fun when the kids come to visit. We regularly offer tours of Keck to local school groups. When they come we lay in a schedule of activities… Solar telescopes, an IR camera demonstration, tours of our remote operations, the activities can vary depending on the grade level.

After the last tour we got a packet of thank you letters from one of the classes. These are just fun to read, it is great to see what the kids remember from their visit. A drawing of telescopes set up in the lawn caught my eye, I was responsible for running the solar telescope activity!

Dear Keck Staff
A thank you letter from a student after a tour of Keck Observatory

Laupāhoehoe Charter School Star Party

It was a great school star party.

Setting Up the 'Scopes
Preparing for the crowd at Laupāhoehoe Charter School
I worry a bit about helping out with a school star party sometimes. When I drum up a few volunteers and telescopes for an event I wonder if we will have clear skies and a good audience. These great guys are coming because I asked them. Will it be worth the effort of the volunteers to pack a ‘scope and drive across the island?

Nothing is more frustrating than a crowd of kids wanting to see through the telescope and all you can show them is the bottom of a cloud. I was worrying again as I left Waimea under a solid overcast. Maybe it will be better on the other side of the island? My fear is justified by past experience, the windward side is often cloudy or even rainy in the evening. Arriving at Honokaʻa it was still overcast, maybe down the coast? Over Laupāhoehoe it was clear! How can this be? We got really lucky.

The next worry was the crowd. While setting up there were a dozen telescopes but only a handful of folks waiting for us. But as it got dark the people kept arriving, a steady stream of students and families. A large area of blankets appeared, covering the playing field. William and the other organizers had done a great job of putting out the message to the community, we had a great crowd.

With a quarter Moon we had a good target even before it got dark. Better yet, there were no lights on the field and only a small town below us. After the light faded it was pretty dark on the field, dark enough to show nebulae and star clusters in all their glory.

I spent much of the evening on the Orion Nebula. It looked great in the ‘scope and I could tell the tale of star formation occurring in the clouds of gas visible in the eyepiece. I took a few iPhone photos of the Moon, demonstrating how it was done. The quarter phase was revealing great topography along the terminator.

In the end my worries were for naught. Everything went very well. A lot of happy kids and parents, presented with a good view of our endlessly fascinating universe.

A Star Party for WHEA

They got lucky.

Cliff Livermore
Cliff setup and ready for viewers at WHEA.
I often caution folks scheduling star parties in Kona that the afternoon and evening clouds will often spoil the attempt. The large Hualalai volcano is the culprit here. In the afternoon the clouds form in the lee of the mountain and give Kona the afternoon showers that nourish the rich rainforest found on the upper slopes.

We try anyway.

WHEA, or West Hawaii Explorations Academy is a charter school located in the NELHA complex just north of Kona and just south of the airport. They concentrate on science, mostly marine science, with an outdoor hands-on curricula. Large pavilions serve as additional classrooms. The campus is littered with evidence of various projects, from large pools, various gardens, and a phalanx of handmade cargo pallet catapults in the back.

Maureen Salmi
Maureen using her big dob at WHEA.
The school was having an overnight camp-out on campus, providing a large crowd of students wanting a look through a telescope.

There were some clouds to hamper us, but nothing that would obscure the view for more than a minute or two. A nearly full moon, just a few days shy of this week’s eclipse, was beautiful in the telescope. We also had Saturn, still available in the evening sky at the head of Scorpio. As the evening passed so did the clouds, thinning to a few wisps across the sky.

Maureen was there with her big dob. Chris and Doris with the C-14, Brad with his twin refractor that shows the Moon beautifully. Cliff set up the C-11 giving us five telescopes in all, plenty of eyepieces to supply visions to waiting eyes. I need to spend a little time working on our NextStar GPS 11″, the motor control issue is back, I was running in manual mode much of the evening.

We gazed at the terrain of the Moon and I showed kids, and a few teachers, how to take photos with a cell phone through the eyepiece. A good school star party and a well spent Friday evening. Even if it did take half an hour for the security guard to arrive to open the gate and let us leave. There were also too many chocolate chip cookies available.

The Lights Went Out in Kapaʻau

An interesting bit of news passed along, HELCO was planning a power outage at 8pm. I expect my reaction to this information was a little different than most… This is great! With a school star party scheduled at Kohala Elementary, the news that the entire town would be dark for the star party was a pleasant surprise.

Mr. O's Stars
Mr. O shows a family the stars at Kohala Elementary
It would be a long day… Up early to pack the telescope, up to the summit for a day of working on the AO system, troubleshooting a couple issues plaguing observations. Then an early departure from the summit to head for Waimea and over the Kohala Mountain Road to Kapaʻau on the very north end of the island.

I stopped to get dinner in Hawi on the way. Surprisingly the Bamboo Restaurant was open early, they normally do not open until 6pm. I find out that the whole town was bracing for the power cut at 8pm, with events and opening times moved up. Not everyone had gotten the notice, I was the only diner in the restaurant. A pleasant meal chatting with the staff and a good burger were just what I needed, food and a brief rest to prepare for the evening.

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Science Fair Season

School science fair season is here! As an engineer, it is wonderful to see school kids doing science and engineering tasks. I enjoy going to see what the students have come up with and giving a little of my time to support science and engineering education.

Science Fair
Students from Parker School participate in science fair
In the past two weeks I have served as a judge for two science fairs, Parker School and Kanu o ka ‘Āina. Parker is a private school in Waimea with a well deserved reputation for excellence. Kanu is a charter school with a heavy emphasis on Hawaiian culture. Both schools make a special effort with science fairs, expecting their students to participate and go on to the county and state wide competitions.

As usual, the projects are quite the mix. Some projects are simply the usual stuff, variations on the standard projects one can find posted to the internet, standard fodder for science fairs nationwide. Not that I totally disapprove of these common projects, students can gain valuable experience when performing any good experiment, even one done many times before. It is all in the execution.

One difference you really find here in Hawai’i, is a heavy emphasis on Hawaiian culture and special problems unique to the islands. This leads to unique experiments that address local issues. Propagation of native plants, alternative energy, permaculture, issues that have a direct connection with island life. Some student explore aspects of native Hawaiian technology. I was particularly impressed by experiments in traditional dye mordants examining the effectiveness and permanency of various mordants with tumeric dye and cotton cloth.

The results are likewise quite the mixture. Experiments that result in good success, to others that do not fair so well. Looking at a growth chart with all zeros in the data table I was forced to ask… “did the plants just not grow?” …”They all died.” Still, failures can be just as good learning experiences as success, sometimes better. I am always impressed by a student who admits failure and can explain what went wrong.

Some of the students I graded will go on to the regional competitions, I expect some will do quite well. Good luck!

A School Star Party

Something was wrong… it was not raining.

Four previous times we have attempted to do this, hold a star party for the students of Waikoloa Elementary School. Four times it has been either cloudy, or outright raining. Yes, raining in one of the driest areas of the island, a place that gets, maybe, ten inches of rain each year.

We even had clear skies!

It was a great event, perfect skies, several big telescopes, and hundreds of eager eyes.

Mr. O and the Kids
Students of Waikoloa Elementary School enjoying the night with Mr. O
Early in the evening I was worried that it was all for naught. About 7:30pm we were all set up and had a total of two guests, a mother and her daughter. They were getting a private showing of the sky at my telescope, with good views of Saturn, star clusters and nebulae. But where was everyone else? Classroom announcements had been made. Flyers had been sent home with every student. Two people?

They hit us just after 8:00pm, a steady stream of students and parents drawn to see the sky. I would guess that well over two hundred folks came by the star party. The skies in Waikoloa are wonderful for this sort of thing. Nice and dark, with the summer Milky Way glowing brightly overhead. We slewed from globulars to nebulae, to binary stars. Steady lines of folks waiting to look through each telescope. I have never gotten tired of the reaction when someone sees something spectacular through the eyepiece for the first time.

Cliff used his 24″ ‘scope to hunt down the new supernova in M101, visible as a small star like object at the edge of a faint halo. I was wondering which star was actually the supernova. Examining some photos afterwards I realized we were looking at the correct object. It will be interesting to observe this event over the coming week, as a nearby Type 1A supernova it should get quite bright.

My thanks to the guys from WHAC who supported this event. Mr. O, our school contact had everything perfectly arranged, from the flyers, to insuring the lights and sprinklers were off for the night. It was a great event, I expect we will do this again.

Rained Out

Well, the Waikoloa Elementary School star party wasn’t much for stars. We did see one star briefly through the clouds. There were four telescopes setup in the schoolyard waiting in hopes that the clouds would clear, but it was not to be. We stood around talking story and examining Cliff’s 24″ telescope. A truss tube dob is a great scope to show how a telescope works, all the inner parts exposed.

We waited an hour, but around 8pm the first hints of rain began. As the drops thickened we scurried to get the telescopes put away.

My thanks to the WHAC members who came out in support of this event! We will be attempting to reschedule the event, possibly for May 22nd.