89th Spring Meeting of the AAVSO: Meeting and HEA Workshop Synopsis

89th Spring Meeting and HEA Workshop

Text by Dan Brannen Junior (from AAVSO Newsletter 24).

The AAVSO held its 89th Spring Meeting on April 15, 2000, in Huntsville, Alabama. The meeting followed the High-Energy Astrophysics Workshop for Amateur Astronomers, which AAVSO co-hosted with the NASA-Marshall Space Flight Center on April 13-14. Amateur astronomers came from twenty-eight states and ten countries to learn about high-energy astrophysics, celebrate past contributions to professional astrophysics, and plan future collaborations, especially in the exciting field of gamma ray burst (GRB) research.

Dr. Gerald J. Fishman, Chief Scientist for Gamma Ray Astronomy at NASA-MSFC, began the Thursday morning session with a thorough survey of high-energy astronomy and astrophysics. Next Dr. Charles Meegan gave a presentation on gamma-ray bursts, explaining what astronomers know about these mysterious objects and what they hope to learn in the upcoming decade. Referring to the great variety in GRB energy curves, Meegan quipped, "If you've seen one burst, you've seen one burst."

Dr.Scott Barthelmy followed with a presentation about the history of and future plans for observing GRBs with rapid response times. Dr. Chryssa Kouveliotou, who conceived the idea for the workshop with her late husband Dr. Jan van Paradijs and AAVSO Director Dr. Janet Mattei, finished the morning session with a presentation about soft gamma repeaters, neutron stars, and magnetars.

During the Thursday afternoon session, attendees enjoyed hearing Dr. Martin C. Weisskopf talk about x-ray astronomy and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Dr. B. Alan Harmon followed with a presentation on microquasars, which emit radiation from gamma rays to radio waves. Dr. Marshall Joy taught about future plans for x-ray observatories. Dr. Colleen A. Wilson-Hodge told attendees about x-ray observations of pulsars. Finally, Dr. Valerie Connaughton finished the afternoon session with a presentation on Cherenkov radiation and blazars.

From left: Charles Curry, Janet Mattei, Jerry Fishman, and Scott Barthelmy enjoy the unusually cold Monte Sano State Park cookout.

On Thursday evening, workshop participants boarded buses for a cookout at Monte Sano State Park and then headed for the Von Braun Astronomical Society Observatory and Planetarium. Although clouds and telescope renovations precluded stargazing, Dr. Weisskopf entertained everyone with a lively talk about Chandra observations of the Crab Nebula.

For AAVSO members, the Friday morning session was a highlight of the workshop. Dr. Fishman introduced a panel of speakers who talked about plans to alert amateur astronomers about GRBs through AAVSO's GRB Network. Observations by Network participants will allow professional astronomers to construct the first optical light curves for GRBs. Dr. Fishman called the opportunity for amateurs historic: "This has never happened before in astronomy, where response is required in minutes or hours."

Panel speakers included Dr. Barthelmy, who operates the GRB Global Coordinates Network from NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The Network alerts professional astronomers within minutes when an orbiting observatory detects a GRB. Because only about twenty professional telescopes conduct follow-up observations, Dr.Barthelmy noted that AAVSO GRB Network participants will more than quadruple the number of telescopes devoted to this important research. Aaron Price, who designed and operates AAVSO's website, explained how Network participants will receive GRB alerts from Dr. Barthelmy's Global Coordinates Network. Dr. Arne A. Henden then explained how amateur astronomers should equip their telescopes and time their observations to maximize the usefulness of their data. Mario Motta urged AAVSO members to sign up for the GRB Network and to use Johnson R and V filters to standardize observations. Dr. Motta noted that the Network particularly needs more participants from the southern hemisphere. Finally, amateur astronomers Warren Offutt and Bill Aquino described their recent GRB observations. Dr. Offutt observed the optical component of GRB 990123 at magnitude 21.5 in January 1999. Bill Aquino and other members of the Buffalo Astronomical Association observed GRB 000-'IO IC at magnitude 20.6 on March 4, 2000.

After lunch, Dr. Jean Swank began the workshop's final session by describing work with the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer. Dr. Mark Christl followed with an interesting talk about cosmic ray bursts. Dr. Steve Howell spoke about extreme-ultraviolet astronomy, including research on polars, another area in which amateurs can contribute to professional work. Finally, Dr. Mattei closed the workshop by describing the impressive contributions amateur astronomers have made to research by sixteen high-energy satellite observatories starting with Apollo-Soyuz in 1975.

Marshall Group
HEA Workshop attendees tour the Marshall Space Flight Center.

On Friday afternoon, workshop participants enjoyed a tour of the facilities at NASA- MSFC. Attendees saw a Compton Gamma Ray Observatory data control room, a solar observatory, a mock-up of the International Space Station, and an enormous tunnel facility used to calibrate telescopes. Later that evening everyone gathered for a barbecue dinner at the Huntsville Marriott.

On Saturday, April 15, AAVSO members convened for the 89th Spring Meeting. Dr. Mattei opened with her report, which appears in Newsletter 24. President Lee Anne Willson then moderated an aggressive schedule of interesting paper presentations. In the morning, Kevin Marvel told members how they can lobby Congress to increase funding for astronomical research. Roger Pickard spoke about the Variable Star Section of the British Astronomical Association. Guy M. Hurst gave a history of the first twenty-five years of the United Kingdom Nova/Supernova Patrol. Alexander Murphy finished the morning with a report on supernovae alerts by neutrino and gravitational wave detectors.

During the afternoon session, David B. Williams reported on his photographic investigation of four Bamberg variables. Arne Henden reported on research with M67 to determine if unfiltered CCD observations can be transformed onto the Johnson-Cousins system for V- and R-band photometry. Mark Slovak proposed using the Landolt selected areas for photometric identification of faint supernovae and GRBS. Robert S. Fritzius presented his thoughts on an old explanation for the apparent magnitude and color modulation of variable stars. Tom Cragg gave predictions for the current sunspot maximum, suggesting that the recent 150-year alternation may not continue. Casper Hossfield presented a paper for France C. Berger and James C. Carlson, who say sunspot statistics suggest that the Sun has changed activity modes during the last ten cycles. Edward M. Sion presented a paper on Hubble Space Telescope spectroscopy of the dwarf nova RX Andromedae 1.

The paper session continued in the afternoon after a coffee break. AAVSO President Lee Anne Willson gave an interesting talk linking Mira variable research with the ultimate fate of Earth. Kevin Marvel took the podium again to talk about water maser proper motions near evolved stars. Hideo Sato described his studies of polarimetric photometry data for three RV Tau stars and the way light variation relates to pulsation period. Dr. Mattei presented a paper for herself and George Hawkins about the unusual long-term light curve of the Mira variable R Centauri. Eric Broens presented an observational history of Chi Cygni. Richard W. Schmude Jr. and Benjamin Jiminez talked about their photoelectric magnitude measurements of RX Cephei. Raymond R. Thompson spoke about interesting sine wave curves that he found in photoelectric photometry of RS Cancri. Finally, Casper Hossfield closed the session with an interesting presentation on a very low frequency gravitational wave antenna that he has constructed.

Space Glove
AAVSO President Lee Anne Willson tries on the glove that John Grunsfeld, astronaut and guest speaker, wore in space to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.

On Saturday evening, AAVSO members gathered one last time for a banquet, awards presentation, and lecture. The featured speaker was Dr. John Grunsfeld, an astronaut who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope's December- 1999 servicing mission aboard the Space Shuttle. Dr. Grunsfeld's slide show gave AAVSO members an inspirational glimpse into the heart of one of astronomy's most popular telescopes.

At the end of the weekend, attendees had high praise for the HEA Workshop. David Hurdis was "all fired up," while Neyle Sollee said, "I haven't been this excited by anything in years." Most everyone agreed that the workshop was an invaluable opportunity for amateur astronomers to interact with professionals while learning about high-energy astrophysics. Adolf Schaller called it a "veritable treasure chest of topics, all fascinating." According to Schaller, "It's clear that this meeting will be viewed as a landmark in the continued collaboration between amateur and professional astronomers".