Observatory Tackles Newest Discoveries


Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut
Martz/Kohl Board of Directors

The Martz/Kohl Observatory is totally staffed by amateurs and volunteers who are looking for new members to join their growing ranks. Modern astronomy is almost unique among 21st century sciences in that much of its most important work is carried out by amateurs.

Space telescopes orbiting high above the earth and enormous, remote mountaintop observatories cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate. They have big jobs to do. It takes the world’s thousands of dedicated amateurs, like those at Martz/Kohl, to carry on the “everyday work” of Earth-based space exploration.

The Weirdest Star
Take Tabby’s Star, for instance. Its other name is KIC 8462852. Though it seems only an ordinary, tiny pinpoint of far-away light, it’s recently discovered, peculiar, huge fluctuations in brightness are so strange that it has prompted speculation about alien megastructures and new searches for ET’s radio signals. Recent ongoing observations that rule out theory after theory make Tabby’s star even weirder than anyone thought. Nightly observations, weather permitting, by Martz/Kohl’s John Anderson, a retired engineer from Jamestown, are now adding to the worldwide catalog of data that may soon reveal previously undiscovered science.

Perhaps best of all, newly developing programs at Martz/Kohl may soon allow local school students to carry out similar research by robotic control of the observatory from their own classrooms.

Watching a Near Miss
On Saturday night, August 27 this summer, Martz/Kohl tracked an asteroid – mere hours after its discovery – that was big enough to demolish a small city, similar to the one that exploded over Russia recently. Astronomers labeled the space rock as asteroid 2016 QA2. It streaked past earth at 15 miles per second and only one-fifth the distance of the Moon, a disturbingly close near miss!

Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, is currently in discussions with Martz/Kohl to establish a formal teaching/research relationship. Behrend’s astronomy professor, Dr. Darren Williams, who began his own career in astronomy as a teenage star watcher at Martz many years ago, and Martz/Kohl amateur astronomer, Tom Traub, along with other observatory members, is currently mentoring a group of Behrend students studying planets around distant stars and a number of other fascinating research projects.

The Black Moon
In its monthly path around the Earth, the moon passes between the Earth and sun at least once. At those times, only the back, dark side of the moon faces earthward, the so-called new moon or black moon. It becomes only a dark shadow passing among the stars. This month’s black moon will cross the night sky on October 30, an unusual occurrence only one day before Halloween that once would have excited the superstitious and today remains an interesting celestial event. The dark skies of the black moon make the best observing skies for the telescopes at Martz/Kohl, but may also inspire just a little extra vigilance by parents of the littlest trick or treaters.

For a deeper look at the night sky, planets, stars and the entire universe, visit the Martz/Kohl Observatory online at martzobservatory.org, check the schedule of events and visit in person. Thank you to Hall and Laury Opticians for sponsoring these Martz/Kohl column.