Two domes

Mt. Cuba Observatory from the air (Jim Smith, CAP, 1982).


In last year's report, we used this same kick-off title - as for the first time in 40 years, we were gifted with the visitation of two bright, naked-eye comets in twelve months! Last year brought us Comet Hyakutake, which made a close, spectacular and well-watched approach to Earth in late March of 1996. Comet Hyakutake was especially noteworthy since it passed only about 9.5 million miles from Earth at its closest point on March 25th. This made it easily visible even though it is a very small and not intrinsically bright comet.

While Hyakutake was here and gone quickly, the 1997 apparition of Comet Hale-Bopp was just the opposite. Hale-Bopp did not get very close to Earth (about 122 million miles at its closest), but it is a very large and bright comet. It had the distinction of being discovered in the summer of 1995, nearly two years before perihelion. Many local folks began to observe it in the summer of 1996, when it became favorably placed, and bright enough, for fairly easy viewing. From there it only got better! Hale-Bopp brightened to naked eye visibility in late 1996 as a prominent morning object. It continued to brighten and moved into the evening sky where it received world-wide notoriety! And, well deserved that notoriety was! As with Hyakutake a year earlier, Mt. Cuba Observatory received and responded to hundreds of phone calls seeking information on when and where to look, and what kind of telescope to buy to see the comet. Our response was usually easy - to wit: just wait until dusk, then go out and look west - with your eyes and binoculars - forget the telescope! The excitement generated by Hale-Bopp, Hyakutake and the seemingly endless stream of spectacular findings of the Hubble Space Telescope apparently fueled a longer than expected public interest in things in the sky. Not only have the requests for information continued, but our public night programs have continued to be popular - more about that later.

All in all, astronomy and things astronomical have continued to play a big public role and MCAO has been helping to sustain that interest!



While not quite within the formal operating year, we were most pleased to note that MCAO Fellow, Alfred C. Webber, celebrated his 90th birthday on October 10th! Al has been associated with MCAO for decades, serving as antique telescope refurbisher, educator and helper to many, many MCAO associates and to our public. He continues to present regular public nights, host school and scout groups, put on star parties for local organizations, show the sky to many and make formal observations of total stellar occultations. Not content with these astronomical pursuits, Al continues to be very active in the camera club, the lapidary society (Al is an accomplished jewelry maker), the Chadds Ford Historical Society and the Kennett Symphony Orchestra (and probably some others). We are most pleased that Al continues to provide inspiration to so many and hope for many more years of such dedication.


We were all shocked and saddened when, on February 25th, Prof. Richard Herr died of cancer at the age of 60. As most of you know, Dick was the first astronomer hired to the faculty of the University of Delaware (in 1964), with MCAO playing a key role in recruiting him and financing his initial position at the University of Delaware. For the last 33 years, he and many of his graduate and under-graduate students (oftentimes assisted by MCAO Technical Associates) conducted research on variable stars (especially flare stars) with the MCAO 24-inch reflecting telescope. He inspired many students in those years to take up an astronomy career. Dick was a deeply valued friend and a major contributor to research at the Observatory. He will be missed by everyone at the Observatory.


Unfortunately, we also learned of the death, on July 19th, of Mr. Leo G. Glasser, after a long fight with Alzheimer's disease. Leo, along with Harcourt C. (Ace) Vernon and Daniel D. Friel, was one of the sparks that started MCAO. All three men were with DuPont Company's Engineering Department, back in the late 50's, when interest in space and astronomy took off with the beginning of the age of artificial earth satellites. They felt that there was a golden opportunity to foster interest in the public, the schools, and the University of Delaware, both for education and research. So, with the interest and assistance of Dr. Arthur Valk, who donated the land on which MCAO was built, they founded the Observatory and served in key roles through all the startup years. Leo was director and chairman for many years - especially after his retirement from DuPont. He was particularly instrumental in the selection and procurement of the Tinsley 24-inch reflecting telescope. His contributions will long continue to be appreciated, and missed.



As alluded to earlier, our Monday public evenings (as well as the even more extensive day and evening programs for school, home-school, scout troops and other organizations) have maintained a high interest level - especially in the first half of 1997.

Following Hyakutake's visit last year, interest in MCAO programs peaked, then faded some as the comet moved out of our sky. However, this year, interest did NOT fade with Hale-Bopp. Demand has exceeded our capacity and public nights have regularly been booked for a month or two in advance! For the 1996-97 year, we had 60 day or evening programs that were attended by some 1900 adults and children - a very good year.

We have to give special credit to our staff of volunteer program hosts and co-hosts. Their interest and dedication continues to make our outreach programs possible. Thanks go to all of them!


A significant element of our educational programs is the  SUMMER ASTRONOMY SKYLAB for school children that have finished grades 1 through 7. Our loyal instructors (Judith McCracken, Clifford Brown, and Scott Jackson) again conducted five SUMMER ASTRONOMY SKYLAB sessions this last summer. The younger students got their usual introduction to the heavens, while older ones got the opportunity to make their own demonstration telescope or build an armillary sphere.

All the 'graduates' of the summer programs have the opportunity to attend evening sessions held thru the subsequent school year, for their special benefit. The sessions are coordinated by Associates Judy McCracken and Steve Rosiak.  Other MCAO Associates present programs aimed to maintain the student's interest level - hopefully until their next chance to take SUMMER ASTRONOMY SKYLAB, the following summer.


Probably because of the general high level of interest in the sky this last year, there were many chances for MCAO to present itself to the general public. Among them were: With Comet Hale-Bopp looming in the sky, we fielded numerous contacts from the local press, radio and television. Radio interviews were taped and broadcast by local stations, as well as in southern Delaware and as far south as Salisbury, Maryland. A locally distributed, complimentary publication, "OUT & ABOUT" magazine did an excellent article on the Observatory. It presented some historical perspective, as well as a good review and promotion of our current objectives and activities. The Wilmington News Journal newspaper did a very fine article on the SUMMER ASTRONOMY SKYLAB summer program. It gave a good description of the Observatory, the program itself and featured a large, eye-catching photograph of Fellow Scott Jackson and his group of campers at the F.G. du Pont refracting telescope.



With the passing of Prof. Herr, our longest running research program - the flare stars program - came to an end. This work had produced numerous publications and trained many students for careers in astronomy. We are sure it has left many good memories of MCAO in those students. We do expect to have future observing activity on variable stars, though not under the aegis of the University of Delaware.


On 6 October 1990, the spacecraft Ulysses, a joint NASA and European Space Agency project, was launched. Its purpose is to study the sun's polar regions, including the solar winds. Because the imaging of comet plasma tails are reliable indicators of solar wind conditions, the Large Scale Phenomena Network of the International Halley Watch, was called upon to help in the calibration of Ulysses. Being a part of this group, and using experience gained from it, MCAO is helping gather what could be a valuable data base. The comparison of solar wind conditions measured onboard Ulysses and cometary images will be the basis for calibration. In effect, comets will be used as solar wind probes. As a bonus, this past period has brought two exceptional comets, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. Not only have these two comets added to the base of scientific knowledge of solar winds, they have added countless numbers of people to the joys of astronomy. They have also brought astronomy back to the public by getting them to look through eyepieces and binoculars and to just plain look up at the night sky. There were times when the phone in the dome was continually ringing with folks asking questions and getting really excited about comets. The comet group here at MCAO will hopefully continue to not only add to the scientific aspects of astronomy, but also to the kind of astronomy that brings the night sky to the people.


In last year's report, we noted that MCAO was acquiring a new visible light spectrograph for use with the 24-inch telescope. Under the guidance of Associate Jack Fisher, a team has been put together with the goal of getting the system fully operational and ready for serious observational work. The optical performance of the instrument has been demonstrated. Current effort is on the CCD (charge coupled device) camera setup for gathering spectral data for computer analysis.


In November of 1996, the Delaware Astronomical Society (DAS) celebrated its 40th anniversary. A small group of design engineers in the DuPont Company Engineering Department gathered together in October 1956 to begin an amateur astronomy club. In November 1956, with the encouragement of Dr. Armand Spitz (inventor of the Spitz Planetarium), the first formal meeting of the DAS was held. Over these years, the DAS has served as a venue to foster the growth of astronomical knowledge in hundreds of individuals, young and old. It continues to thrive today. In fact, the DAS also has benefited from the surge of interest in things astronomical this year and its membership is at an all time high! The increasing size of the meeting attendance strains the capacity of the MCAO lecture room, where the DAS has held its monthly meetings for the last 30 years or so.


Through the sponsorship of Trustee, Prof. Harry Shipman, MCAO has become electronically accessible. Using space allocated to us on the Department of Physics and Astronomy computer systems at the University of Delaware, MCAO can be reached by electronic mail (at our email address of mtcuba@physics.udel.edu) and through the World Wide Web (at http://www.physics.udel.edu/MCAO/). These tools allow ready contact with others at a distance and provide a source of information about the Observatory for those who are interested in our activities.

Comet Hale-Bopp

Comet Hale-Bopp (Dr. Case).

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Last revised: January 30, 2010