Spacecraft, Cool Planets, and Magnetism on the Sun

Recent UMass Lowell Physics graduate Kate Oram came to the Bres’ with Tom, Andy and Prof. Laycock. Kate described her amazing work at UMass, and now the engineering company “L3” where she works as an optical engineer. Kate designs and builds spacecraft that hunt for alien planets, scan the earth for forest fires, study the sun, and one has even flown to Pluto!


Mrs Westgate’s class  made a giant thermometer and put the different planets in order from coldest to hottest. They even added in some ice cubes and soup for comparison!


Andy and Mrs Hoiseth’s class explore the invisible patterns of magnetic fields.

The magnets are hidden beneath the table, and scattering iron powder reveals them, and a whole slew of strange swirls and lines. We discussed how birds can “see” these patterns and use them to find their way on migration.

Solar_telescope_Kate_Bres SunHalphaMed

Kate helps Mrs Hoiseth’s class look at the Sun through  a special telescope. They see loops of flame leaping from the Sun’s surface, and dark spots where the surface is cooler. Both are patterns caused by the strong magnetic field of the Sun! Its just like the iron power patters -but waaaay hotter…….



Exploring the Sun and Planets in Newburyport

Hello Everyone,

Today, Prof. Laycock, Andy, and myself ventured back to Bresnahan Elementary School in Newburyport to lead outreach activities in the classes of Mrs. Westgate and Mrs. Hoiseth. In addition to the three of us, recent UML grad Kate Oram took time out of her busy schedule to join us for our activities and to talk to the students of both classes about all the fascinating work she is doing in optical engineering. For the activities, in Mrs. Westgate’s class, we had the students create a scale model of the solar system. They had to pick out which balls represented which planet, order themselves based on which planet they were holding, and then space themselves out. Throughout we got the opportunity to discuss why it is important to make models in science and how the scientific method is present even in something like a scale activity. From there, we had students use a giant thermometer to figure out the temperature of the planets and how they compare to every day objects like ice and soup. With Mrs. Hoiseth’s class, we talked about magnetism. Students saw a demo with iron filings and magnets that showed the effects of magnetism on the filings. From there, students made compasses their own. The compasses were made out of cork and a pin that the students magnetized themselves. The cork was then floated in water to show how it could be used as a compass. To wrap up our activity on magnetism, students got the opportunity to look through a solar telescope to see the effects that a magnetic field can have. We would like to thank Mrs. Westgate and Mrs. Hoiseth for allowing us to lead our activities with their classes and Kate for coming with us to share her knowledge and expertise with the students. Pictures to come soon!

Until next time,


Telescope Making at Lawrence High School

Hello Everyone,

On March 10, Andy and I had the pleasure of assisting Mr. Johnny Gelsomini’s Astronomy Class with a telescope making activity. The activity had the students measure the focal length of each lens needed for the telescope, the objective lens and the eyepiece. From there the students were tasked with an engineering challenge where they worked in groups to make a telescope using two cardboard tubes of different sizes, a sheet of foam-like material, the two lenses, extra cardboard, caps for the cardboard tubes, scissors, and tape. While each group had the same basic shape for the telescope, they all had slightly different methods of securing the lenses in place. Some used extra cardboard and tape while others used the caps for the cardboard tubes and everything in between. Once students got the chance to look around with their telescopes, we talked about why the images seen were upside-down and how magnified the objects being seen were. We were so impressed with the problem-solving skills that the students were displaying while constructing their telescopes and the knowledge that they already had about telescopes and light. We would like to thank Mr. Gelsomini for allowing us to come in and his students for being amazing. We look are looking forward to helping out again soon!


Outreach Activities at Bresnahan

Hello Everyone,

Today, Prof. Silas Laycock, Andy, and I had the pleasure of travelling to Bresnahan Elementary School in Newburyport for an outreach activity with Mrs. Hoiseth’s 2nd grade classroom. Our morning with the class consisted of two main activities: making a scale model of our solar system and creating a thermometer with the temperatures of the planets. For the solar system, the students had to try and figure out what object was representing which planet and then order and space out themselves before learning the actual distances of the planets. The thermometer activity had students use their prior knowledge about everyday objects, such as soup and ice, and the solar system to order the planets by temperature on our giant thermometers. To demonstrate why Venus gets hotter than Mercury, we illustrated the greenhouse effect with a water bottle and alka-seltzer tablets under a heat lamp. During our few down moments (snack time), we even got the opportunity to talk about what it might smell like on other planets. We were so impressed with how smart the kids were and how much they had learned in about space in the hour and a half that we were there. We would like to thank the school and Mrs. Hoiseth for everything and are looking forward to helping in the future.

More updates to come,


Astronomy Outreach Curriculum

Hello everyone,

In order to keep track of all of our outreach activities, we have created a wiki page with all of the different lessons that we have written. The wiki page can be accessed from the link provided below. Check back often as we will continue updating the activities! We are hoping to add in pictures, downloadable pdfs, and adding in more potential activities.


Pointing to the Horsehead

While taking the telescope for a shake-down cruise last week, students Pat and Logan obtained these images of the iconic Horsehead Nebula in Orion. Dark clouds of dust are silhouetted against a glowing background of hydrogen gas.


Main item on the night’s list of activities was learning how to create a multi-star pointing model for the telescope. The scope slews automatically to a series of locations in the sky, and at each one, an image is taken with the CCD camera, the stars in the image are automatically identified by software (practically by magic to someone who remembers doing this by hand not so long ago!), and the exact pointing of the scope is computed.

After 20 or so positions in the sky have been mapped in this way the software computes the pointing model. This is a big matrix that maps the telescope mounts drive motors and encoders onto the celestial sphere. It takes care of flexure in the mount, discrepancies in the motor drives, gears, and a host of other factors.

End result?  – we commanded the scope to find the Horsehead Nebula, took a long exposure in the Red filter, and there is was!

If you look at the 4 panels in the image, you’ll notice the at the Horsehead is only visible in certain wavelengths of light, and only with very long exposure times. So being able to point and track is essential


Astronomy Outreach Activities


Hello everyone,

I hope that you have all enjoyed the start of the new year and the beginning of a new spring semester. Last semester was great for our astronomy outreach program. We worked closely with Robinson Middle School and with teachers Danielle Sherman, Kelly Sanborn, Cathryn Szymanoski, and Douglas Bishop to perform four astronomy activities with over 100 students. We created astronomy cards to help build student understanding of the relationships between celestial objects and how they compare to everyday items. We assisted classes in creating a physical scale model of the Solar System to help explain the usage of models in science and to illustrate the scale of the Solar System. Finally, we created cardboard tube telescopes, while providing an explanation of how they worked, with the students to use at the Star Party we threw, where students could go out one night and look at the stars and space using their own telescopes and high powered telescopes we provided. I would personally like to thank everyone who helped out to make our semester a success. Thank you Jun, Rigel, Sam, Andy, and Logan for assisting with the activities in the classroom, Prof. Silas Laycock for helping to get everything in motion and providing expertise throughout both in and out of the classroom. Prof. Viktor Podolskiy for assisting at our first outreach activity. Lynne for helping to order all of our supplies. Finally, Dan, thank you for everything you did in the classroom and in our group, enjoy your new school. You will be missed here.

Bishop 3Bishop 4



In the new semester, we are striving to continue our efforts in local schools and in the community. We will continue to strengthen our partnership with Robinson Middle School and we hope to find new ways to assist in classroom now that their astronomy unit is over. We additionally will continue searching for more schools to assist with astronomy and physics education. We are hoping to continue hosting star parties and are looking forward to expanding our relationship with the North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club (NSAAC). I look forward to being able to write more posts in the future about everything we do this semester.


The First Star Party


A cold night in October 2015 was the first Star Party we had at the Schueller Observatory. I was not sure what to expect, considering I had never been to an observatory prior to this, and I’m new to studying the stars. Nonetheless, I was amazed. Not only is there just a 14″ Celestron telescope, but there is a computer program hooked up to it so we can pinpoint certain stars, moons, galaxies, and more without having to use our own eyes all the time. Granted, we have to calibrate the program before we can use it.IMG_0011Schueller_control_room_peopleIMG_0048

We also had smaller telescopes outside the observatory because there was way too many people present to all fit in the observatory. If we are lucky, we can fit 6 or 7 people in the “outside” portion of the observatory with the telescope, and 2 or 3 more in the heated room with the computer monitors. This night, we had over 25 people, so we had to rotate between exploring the night sky with the Schueller observatory and using the small telescopes in the yard.


I spent most of my time looking at the Moon, since it was the clearest thing in the sky, and the closest to us. It wasn’t a full moon, but it was still about 80 percent visible (obviously 80 percent of the possibly visible portion of the moon, not 80 percent of the entire moon). These two pictures were taken with my iPhone 6 Plus through the eyepiece of one of the small telescopes that were in the yard. They came out a lot better than expected. Hopefully I can get more pictures of more objects on the sky. For now, enjoy these.



11/23 Schueller Observatory visiting

Location: Chelmsford, MA               Telescope: C14

We have adjust the camera focal length as 3.91m.
Aperature diameter 35.6cm
Binning factor in height and width is 2X2
CCD temperature ~-20
Airmass of the telescope: 1.5
With exposure time as 2s, we took the picture for ‘Tycho 3156:1799′(RA 20:21:35.192 DEC +40:26:04.7).
The 1st pic shown here is the RGB image of Tycho 3156_1799 by combining the red, green and blue image together. 2nd one is with the filter ‘clear’.
It’s V405 CYG observed in 2003-10-13 19:26 with no-filter which is shown in the figure 3.
From the Tycho, SAO and GCVS catolog, its properties are:
Luminosity: 0.64 ± 0.52 times that of the sun
Absolute magnitude: 5.29 ± 0.89
Distance: 45 ± 19 parsecs (148 ± 61 light-years)
Slow irregular star of spectral type K or later
Photometric band: P
Maximum magnitude: 10.0
Spectral type: M6.5

. ds9Tycho-clearimage002