Date: September 6, 2010

Title: Astronomy Vacations


Podcaster: Diane Turnshek


Description: Popular spots in the world for astronomy enthusiasts are explored as vacation destinations including Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, dark sky campsites, Newgrange, Stellafane, various museums and observatories, cruises to nowhere and other solar eclipse path sites to explore.

Interesting astronomical places can be found anywhere, as demonstrated using Pittsburgh as an example. Those interested in astronomy can tour the Allegheny Observatory (University of Pittsburgh), the Buhl Digital Dome (Carnegie Science Center), the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh’s two observatories, the Bruce and Astrid McWilliams Center for Cosmology (CMU), an optical factory and the brand new telescopes of both CCAC and St. Vincent College.

Bio: Diane TurnsheUk is an astronomer and a science fiction author. She teaches astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, Sinclair Community College, the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute, Carnegie Mellon University and St. Vincent College. She runs a free monthly lecture series at Allegheny Observatory. Her decades of K-12 outreach have earned her the nickname Starlady from the locals. She’s been interviewed on the news, filmed in documentaries and published in a popular astronomy magazine. The AAS invited her to the 2010 Congressional Visits Day where she talked science policy to staffers on the Hill. She has four stellar sons.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the Alpha Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Workshop for Young Writers, which is held annually south east of Pittsburgh. Next year, in 2011 it runs from July 13th to the 22nd. We’re looking for talented young writers ages 14 to 19. Come work with author Tamora Pierce and other professionals. For more information, visit us on the web at


Astronomy Vacations

Hi, I’m Diane Turnshek. I’m an astronomer and a science fiction author.

Don’t you think it’s time to take an astronomy vacation?

Two of the oldest astronomical monuments are Stonehenge, ninety miles west of London and the ancient burial ground Newgrange in Ireland, which is flooded with light in the tomb on the winter solstice. Both of these date back before 2000 BCE and demonstrate by their layout that our ancestors studied the heavens. At Stonehenge, you can get special access tours to take you into the inner circle of stones.

Not so at Chichén Itzá, which was built before 800 A.D. on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Tourists are no longer allowed up onto the main pyramid after vandalism started affecting the monument. The main pyramid is the last, and I think the greatest, of all Mayan temple structures, showing clear alignment with risings and setting of the Sun on the solstices. It was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World by an Internet poll with over a hundred million votes.
Machu Picchu in Peru was also selected as a Wonder. This small city at an elevation over 9000 feet was built in the Andes Mountains, then abandoned by the Incas and not found again for centuries. Observatory buildings were clearly used to monitor the motions of the Sun and mark the times of equinoxes.  
After class one day, a student thanked me for finally explaining why she had stood in a seemingly endless line of tourists to see a spot of sunlight on the floor of a solstice cave in Mexico. The lesson? Do your prepwork before you travel. Never is that more important than when chasing a solar eclipse.
If you would rather leave the calculations to others, use a tour company for the eclipse on November 13, 2012 in Australia and the Pacific. There are a couple of eclipses coming up in exotic locations in 2015 and a couple more in 2016, but the one I’m waiting for will take place on August 21, 2017. The path will cross the entire United States from the Northwest to the Southeast. Kentucky will have the maximum eclipse duration at two minutes and forty seconds. I called around to some of the large hotel chains to get an idea when I can make a reservation and was told to wait until a year in advance. Considering the length of the path, be flexible planning this one. Wait and take into account the local weather patterns.

A star party is dark sky gathering of astronomy enthusiasts. One of the most enjoyable I’ve heard of is Stellafane, the yearly convention of Amateur Telescope Makers. Around 1000 people gathered on Breezy Hill in Springfield, Vermont in August for the 75th convention that lasted three days.

How about Space Camp held at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville Alabama? Educational programming goes from age 7 (if the child is with a parent) to adult.

Too bad you can’t visit the space elevator yet. It will be built near the equator, possibly on a moving platform at sea. I predict a hopped-up form of today’s airport security, so you probably won’t get even near it if you aren’t a screened passenger.

Cape Canaveral is a favorite vacation destination. Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX now has the successful Falcon 9 launch facility at Complex 40 at the northern tip of Cape Canaveral. Discovery is scheduled for its last launch on November first. Endeavour, the very last shuttle to launch, is currently scheduled to go up February 26th, 2011.

If observatories are your thing, try the National Radio Telescope in Greenbank, West Virginia. Its free educational programs and $5 a night dorm facilities can’t be beat. Didn’t you ever wonder what the huge radio quiet void was on wireless coverage maps?

Kitt Peak National Observatory is located fifty-six miles southwest of Tucson Arizona and at nearly 7000 feet above sea level. The Visitor Center is open to the public during the day, but there’s also a night observing program using sixteen and twenty-inch telescopes. It books up fast, though, so call a few weeks before you arrive.

There are large telescopes on every continent, for example in Australia, major observatories include Mount Stromlo, Siding Spring and Paul Wild. Antarctica has the Ice Cube Array, a high energy neutrino telescope, which is scheduled to see first light in 2011. The largest optical telescope in the world is now the 10.4-meter Gran Telescopio Canarias. The second largest optical telescopes in the world, the 10-meter twin Keck telescopes, are located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. When selecting a telescope to visit, be sure it’s open to the public. Go for grand masters, like the 200-inch Hale telescope at Palomar Observatory in San Diego, which is open daily to the public, over privately owned remote ones that are off limits to normal folk.

While you are enjoying the inspiring exhibits at the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington DC, don’t forget there’s an annex nearby in Chantilly, Virginia. The companion facility, the Udvar-Hazy Center, has flight simulators and displays large items like the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

Science museums and planetariums reside in every major city. Let me vouch for three: the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas.

If you’re a science fiction author, consider Launch Pad, a practically free, NASA-funded astronomy workshop held in Laramie, Wyoming. Launch Pad is designed to teach twelve attendees about modern astronomy with the hope that they will spread their new appreciation through the stories they write. Mike Brotherton is the genius behind this workshop, which runs for a week in July.

On a budget? How about dark sky camping? Don’t like to travel? Interesting astronomical places can be found anywhere. For instance, my hometown.

The Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh is now over 400 strong and attendance at their star parties numbers in the hundreds per clear night. It’s an active group that sponsors contests and holds meetings every month with local speakers. They have two observatories, Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park with 11 and 20” telescopes and Mingo Creek in South Park with a 24” telescope and a planetarium.  

L-3 Brashear Optical and Telescope Systems is in RIDC Park, up the river on Route 28. Their website says they make telescope mirrors up to 4-meters.

Groundbreaking will occur soon at the Community College of Allegheny County for the new science center, the K. Leroy Irvis Building. On the roof, a 10-foot dome will house a Meade 12” Cassegrain reflector. The telescope will be remotely controlled and can be fitted with a spectrograph. Not only will astronomy and physics lab students at the Allegheny Campus use the new telescope, but students at the other campuses (Boyce, North, and South) will also get a chance to remotely control the telescope. On designated nights, the hope is that the public will be invited to look through the telescope via the Internet at targets of their choosing. Ideally, building occupancy and telescope first light will occur by January 2012.

At St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA construction is soon to be completed on the 39 million dollar Sis and Herman Dupre Science Pavilion. In September, 45,000 square feet of new construction, including the Angelo Taiani Planetarium and Astronaut Exhibit will open. The planetarium features a brand new 24-foot dome with Spitz SciDome full dome projector and a seating capacity of 30. Public shows are planned starting in the fall. Telescopes in the new observatory include 12 and 14-inch Schmitt Cassegrains, and several smaller telescopes. 

Saint Vincent College is please to host Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson on Thursday, October 7 at the Carey Center at 7:30 pm. Dr. Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He was voted “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People Magazine in 2000. His latest popular books are The Pluto Files and Death by Black Hole, in which he defines “spaghettification.”

The Carnegie Science Center is home to both the Buhl Digital Dome planetarium and the IMAX theater, which is now showing the new production “Hubble” on the biggest screen in Pittsburgh. A huge, touchable meteorite rests at the entrance to the planetarium. Friday nights, a dollar will get you rooftop observing session on clear nights.

The Bruce and Astrid McWilliams Center for Cosmology at Carnegie Mellon University supports research in a multidisciplinary effort to find answers to the mysteries of the cosmos. Every spring, don’t miss the public Buhl Lecture at CMU, featuring a luminary in the field of physics.

Public tours of Allegheny Observatory, which is part of the University of Pittsburgh, run on Thursday and Friday nights during the warmer months. Reservations must be made, although the tours, observing and lectures series are free.

The elegant, 100 year old building is worth seeing. It’s set on a hill in a public park, with three domes gleaming white and stately columns. Inside you’ll find brass statues, stained glass windows, marble floors, foot-thick mahogany crown moldings, hand-turned plasterwork, antique fireplaces and cherry wood furniture. There’s a archival vault with one hundred and eleven thousand glass plates of star positions and a three-story open library with a glass roof.

The 30” Thaw refractor is the third largest refractor in the world with a 47-foot focal length. The 13” Alvin Clarke refractor is used for public viewing. In a basement crypt are the cremated remains of astronomers. Inscribed above one resting place is a quote from a Sarah Williams poem. “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

I hope I’ve inspired you to go–do–taste the history–experience the wonder. Until next time.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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