ALCON 2018

Hosted By the Minnesota Astronomical Society

By Dave Falkner

In the Fall of 2015, Brandon Hamil came to me as president of MAS with the idea that we should host an Astronomical League Convention (ALCON). Brandon had been to several and loved them. They were in dark sky locations like Las Cruces and Austin, so he thought having the ALCON in the upper Midwest was long overdue. I gave it some thought and said, “Sure, why not? How hard could it be?” After two and a half years of planning with a very capable team, ALCON 2018 came to fruition on July 11-14. Innovative ideas and thorough planning made this ALCON incredibly successful—one that will be remembered for years.

The convention began on Wednesday, July 11. This was primarily setup day for the vendors and check-in for attendees. The AL Board also held its annual meeting this day. The ALCON planning committee had targeted getting an attendance of at least 300, so we were thrilled that at the start of the conference we were at 335. By the time the conference concluded we would have 363
attendees registered—the largest ALCON in recent history except for last year at Casper, which was an anomaly with the total solar eclipse. Registration check-ins went like clockwork, thanks to the exhaustive preparation by Jerry Jones and his team. With the hotel’s freight elevator out of order, one of our major challenges was getting the 8” Explora-Dome in the front door and up the stairs. Fortunately, the dome was flexible enough to deform it and get it through the hotel front door. Six men carefully maneuvered the bulky dome up the stairs. The remainder of the pieces were much smaller, and the dome was easily assembled in the space we had for it.

After the AL Board’s annual meeting, their room was quickly converted into the Historical Astronomical Equipment Exhibit. Vintage telescopes, accessories and documents were set up. It was a real blast-from-the-past with a replica of Newton’s original telescope, Unitron 6″ , Gebelein 8”, Coulter CT-100 and many other great telescopes.

On Wednesday there was a field trip to the Science Museum of Minnesota in the afternoon and the Bell Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in the evening; attendees really enjoyed these. We also had a star party at Eagle Lake Observatory (ELO). The weather was a little iffy but the 30-or-so attendees who made it were able to see Jupiter, Saturn and a couple of deep-sky objects.

Thursday began bright and early with many more attendees registering. The Historical Astronomical Equipment Exhibit was in full swing now, as was the Vendor Expo. There were field trips to the John T. Tate Hall and Observatory at the University of Minnesota as well as to the Bell Museum. In speaking with folks who attended these field trips, I found that both were big hits. Visitors to Tate Hall not only saw the Warner & Swasey 10.5” telescope but were treated to briefs about some of the research work going on there. The exhibits at the Bell Museum were fantastic, as was the planetarium show.

Meanwhile, back at the Hilton, the main speaker programs went on, beginning with Lou Mayo from NASA speaking about the Space Science Education Program and the NASA-Astronomical League partnership. He outlined NASA’s education program and described how NASA and the Astronomical League are working together to engage the country in exploring the many wonders of our universe. MAS’s own Dave Tosteson then spoke about “Observing the Deep Sky.” Dave talked about his experiences using both his 15” and 32” Dobsonian telescopes to observe some of the faintest observable objects in the night sky, including brown dwarfs, gravitational-lensed arcs and quasars. Following lunch, one of our featured speakers, Bob Berman, spoke. Bob is the author of “The Strange Universe” page in Astronomy magazine; he used his years of experience with star parties and astronomy trips for his talk. Bob’s presentation, “Lessons from Hollywood: How to Create a Great Backyard Sky-Show” gave attendees several tips and tricks to keep star party visitors engaged and have them leave with a memorable experience that will keep them coming back for more.  A location mix-up meant that our next scheduled speaker was unable to make it to the ALCON site, so we shifted the schedule a bit. Brandon Hamil, MAS’s unofficial ambassador, gave his very popular talk, “The Traveling Astronomer.” Brandon travels quite a bit as part of his job and makes it a point to visit local astronomy organizations and companies as he goes around the country. His presentation was about some of the places he has visited and the interesting and innovative things these organizations are doing. With a gap in the speaker schedule, MAS’s outstanding outreach speaker, Ron Schmit, graciously offered to give a talk on the spot. MAS was highlighting our Eagle Lake Observatory as part of ALCON, so Ron gave a history of ELO with images of the construction of the buildings and the equipment there. The Larson telescope was a central object, so he talked about the history of the telescope, how it was obtained by MAS, and the fate of the telescope after it was replaced by the Meade 16” LX-200. Afternoon field trips included a repeat tour of the Tate Building at the University of Minnesota and a tour of the Joseph J. Casby Observatory at the Belwin Conservancy. The weather deteriorated throughout the afternoon and storms rolled in by dinnertime. As a result, the imaging workshop, originally scheduled to be held at Cherry Grove Observatory, was moved to the Hilton. Even though there was nothing to look at, the presenters, Robert Miller and Doug Neverman, talked about tips and techniques for imaging; it was quite informative. At Eagle Lake Observatory there was no viewing, but the HotSpot Classroom hosted presentations by Bob Morrow of Bob’s Knobs and Bill Tschumy of Simulation Curriculum (Starry Night and Sky Safari). They talked about their products and their newest offerings.

Friday morning began with the continuation of the Vendor Expo and Historical Astronomical Equipment exhibit. The lone field trip was to the Bakken Museum, displaying historic medical equipment and documents. In the Hilton main ballroom, the morning session began with the announcement of door-prize winners. Raffle tickets also went on sale for three prizes provided by astronomical equipment retailer Starizona. The morning session included a second workshop featuring Dan Joyce, who gave a presentation and demonstration on mirror making. Friday afternoon main ballroom speaker presentations began with a fascinating talk by Dr. Jay McLaren entitled “The Eye as an Astronomic Instrument.” He began by discussing the anatomy of the human eye and how it detects objects in both daytime and nighttime. He then built on this discussion to talk about the best techniques for viewing various objects through the telescope eyepiece, including ways to detect faint, low-contrast objects. The next presentation featured Dr. Clem Pryke from the Institute of Astrophysics at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Pryke spoke about his work in Antarctica, using specialized telescopes and detectors to measure the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) in an effort to detect gravitational waves from the inflationary period of the universe immediately following the Big Bang. Following a break for lunch, we were treated to our next featured speaker. Phil Plait is well known through his blog and social media as the Bad Astronomer. His talk, “Science Communication in the Age of Snapchat,” was an informative and entertaining talk on using social media for communicating factual astronomy to the public. The various forms of social media reach people in different ways, and Phil talked about the best way to use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Dr. Terry Jones from the University of Minnesota Institute of Astrophysics was the next speaker. His talk, “Mass Loss in Hypergiants,” raised the question of how these huge stars can survive with the volume of mass being ejected from their surface. If these stars replaced our own Sun, their surfaces would reach between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. The nuclear processes taking place in these stars is not well understood. Dr. Jones’s work is trying to unravel these mysteries. The last Friday afternoon event at the Hilton was a panel discussion with some of our speakers who are actively involved in outreach. The panel was moderated by Bob Berman and consisted of Dr. Pamela Gay, Dr. Phil Plait, Bob King and Ron Schmit. The panel talked about how we can attract women, members of minorities and under-represented demographic groups to astronomy and other STEM studies. They also discussed some of the issues in academia and society with gender discrimination in STEM. It was a lively and frank discussion that could have lasted hours, but we had to cut it short so we could make the evening’s activities. We broke from the afternoon’s session and over 200 attendees traveled to Baylor Regional Park and Eagle Lake Observatory for the Star-B-Q. The spread was at the pavilion by the lake with an extra tent because of the number of participants. The caterer,
Just North of Memphis, served excellent pork and beef brisket barbeque with all the fixings. The Mr. Winky Band provided excellent live entertainment. The cloudy, stormy weather we had on Thursday gave way to clear, still skies for the evening. After enjoying the food and entertainment by the lake, folks migrated to Eagle Lake Observatory to observe the Sun and the daytime planets. There were two speakers at the HotSpot classroom that evening. Pranvera Hyseni from the Republic of Kosovo told her extraordinary story of how she and some of her friends brought astronomy to the people there. Her talk, “Little Things Make a Big Difference,” revealed how social media allowed her story to spread throughout the world. She was invited to visit astronomy and space exploration sites around the world and to meet people who would help her with her mission to spread astronomy to her country. She has been traveling around the United States, speaking at several venues about her experience and mission. Telescopes and equipment have been donated to her organization, Astronomy Outreach of Kosovo, and she continues to spread her message of bringing astronomy to the people of this war-torn country. With the opposition of Mars only a couple of weeks away, Richard Schmude Jr. from the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) gave his talk on “The Polar Regions of Mars.” He spoke about techniques for observing the polar icecaps of the Red Planet. Of course, actually observing them this time around may be a little challenging because of the recent global dust storm on Mars. After dark the ALCON attendees were treated to spectacular views of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, thanks to clear skies and unusually still air for Minnesota. We couldn’t have asked for a better night. Several attendees brought their telescopes and set them up around the observatory. There were reports that a couple of folks were able to observe Saturn’s Polar Hexagon through a 23” telescope brought by Dan Joyce. It was a fantastic night for observing.

Saturday was the final day of ALCON, and it started with Astronomical League Youth Awards and presentations. The National Young Astronomer Awards were presented to Vivek Vijayakumar and Pranti Modumudi. The Horkheimer Youth Service Awards were presented to Abigail Bollenback, Tyler Hutchison and Madison France Parks. The Horkheimer Youth Imaging Awards were given to Tyler Hutchison and Vivek Vijayakumar. The Horkheimer Journalism Award was given to Benedict Althoff. The first speaker of the morning session was Kristen Finnigan. Her presentation, “Space Law 101: The Basics” delved into existing international treaties and agreements as well as U.S. national legislation around space exploration. She examined the history of space law, how it shaped some of the early space programs, and the future implications for government and commercial activities such as asteroid mining, human settlement and on-orbit satellite servicing. Bob King gave his talk on “Summer Celestial Showstoppers: Getting the Public Excited about the Night Sky.” Bob emphasized how it should be easy to get the public excited about astronomy this summer with four planets visible, as well as a favorable night for the Perseid meteor shower on August 12. He talked about key weekends for observing, good locations for sidewalk astronomy, and tips on contacting the local media to get the word out. After lunch Dr. Larry Rudnick from Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics at the University of Minnesota gave his talk, “Too Good to be True?” This captivating talk explored the potential for life as we know it in the universe. Dr. Rudnick outlined the physical laws and examined the question of whether life on Earth is an exception or perhaps an accident, or whether conditions in the universe favor the creation of life. The final presenter of the afternoon was Dr. Even Skillman, director of the Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics at the University of Minnesota. He talked about how the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) program was created and spoke in detail about how the amazing high-definition image of the Andromeda Galaxy was made. He went on to talk about how the Andromeda Project enabled the largest systematic study of the distribution of the initial masses of stars. This data implied no significant dependencies of the distribution of initial masses on cluster age, mass or size, providing direct observational evidence of a universal distribution.

The sessions adjourned around 3:30 p.m. to allow the hotel to set up for the Astronomical League Awards Banquet that evening. The reception began at 6:30 and at 6:45 we had the raffle drawing for the Starizona donations. Katherine Hammad of Sumner, WA, won the Microtouch motorized focuser; Rich Willits of Ely, MN, won the Hyperstar for a Celestron C8; and Erik Gisselquist of Cottage Grove, MN, won the Hyperstar for a Celestron C11.

John Goss, president of the Astronomical League, announced the Youth Award winners of that morning. Then he presented the winners of the Mabel Sterns Newsletter Editor Award. The winners were Dave Thomas (Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society), Brian Thieme (Warren Astronomical Society), and Terry Dufek (Popular Astronomy Club). The AL Webmaster Award was presented to Shawn Loescher and Curt Lambert. The Leslie C. Peltier Award was presented to astro-imager Damian Peach. Several Master Observer plaques were awarded to AL members who had achieved the distinction of Master Observer.
The surprise of the evening was the presentation of the G.R. Wright Service Award for volunteerism that benefits the Astronomical League and its members. Valts Treibergs and DaveFalkner were presented the award for their leadership in planning ALCON 2018. They were greeted with a standing ovation from the audience as they came on stage to accept the award. Before introducing the keynote speaker, Dave Falkner recognized the members of the ALCON 2018 planning committee, whose hard work over the last two years resulted in an incredibly successful ALCON. The keynote speaker was Dr. Pamela Gay, Director of Technology and Citizen Science for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and principal investigator of CosmoQuest. Her talk, “A Brief History of Great Amateur Achievements in Science,” revealed how everyday people have done extraordinary things throughout the years, such as finding planets, observing emerging stars and discovering the universe in new colors of light. She went on to discuss how anyone can become a citizen scientist and spoke of all the ways a person can become part of the scientific revolution in this new golden age of astronomy.

ALCON 2018 was a tremendous success. Many attendees commented how this was the best ALCON they had ever attended. It was even suggested that this would be the one by which future ALCONs would be measured. Many thanks to the following members of the ALCON 2018 committee: Dave Falkner, Valts Treibergs, Jerry Jones, Mark Job, Brandon Hamil, Mark Connolly, John Poppele, Heather Birch, Antone Gregory, Trena Johnson, Robert Miller, Chris and Lilah Blinkman, Bob Kerr, Lauren Nelson, Roy Sarver, Andy Fraser, Stu Chastain, Mary Williams, Suresh Sreenivasan. Also, thanks to Doug Neverman and Dave Venne for helping at the imaging workshop, to Dave Venne for creating the ALCON 2018 graphics, and to MAS president Clayton Lindsey for his support of the committee. It took over two years to plan this, and it was the dedication of the ALCON committee that produced the best ALCON ever!
We hope everyone enjoyed it.

Please view the photo archives of ALCON by Ben Huset:'s ALCON 2018 Wed…

Posted by Ben Huset on Wednesday, July 11, 2018's ALCON 2018 Wed…

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Posted by Ben Huset on Saturday, July 14, 2018's ALCON 2018 Wed…

Posted by Ben Huset on Sunday, July 15, 2018

Watch the ALCON Video #1 Here!

Watch the ALCON Video #2 Here!


Dave Falkner

Valts Treibergs

ALCON 2018 Co-Chairs