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Martz makes use of downtime for maintenance

Photo submitted by Dave Wilkins of Martz-Kohl Observatory Martz-Kohl Observatory board member Tom Traub speaks in the Martz dome beside the observatory’s 24-inch telescope during a 2019 open house.

The Martz-Kohl Observatory has been making the best of downtime caused by COVID-19.

And, with a major astronomical event coming up in a few years, if there had to be a shutdown, the timing was pretty good.

“We’ve been pretty busy,” board member Tom Traub said. “Even through the observatory’s been shut down to the general public, we’ve been utilizing the time as best we can.”

“It’s given us time to work on the telescopes,” he said. “Getting them to work better and more accurately. We’re trying to get all the systems updated.”

“We’ve taken out the mirrors and cleaned the mirrors — a lot of pieces of necessary maintenance,” Traub said. “The tracking system for the Kohl 20-inch telescope. … we’ve been doing upgrading on that so it’s much more accurate.”

“You can visually watch the International Space Station through the 20-inch as it’s passing over,” he said. “If there were an astronaut doing a space-walk, you would be able to see it.”

“I got to watch the new Chinese space station that just got launched pass over,” he said.

“We’re doing a major upgrade on our 24-inch on the telescope drive system and automation,” Traub said.

That work will improve the use of the telescope for off-site users.

Students working on projects, observatory members, and some others will be able to request access to the telescope. They don’t have to put their face up to an eye-piece.

“They can sit on their tablet, phone, laptop, wherever they are in the world, log in and run the telescope and do observations,” Traub said. “I’ve done that with the telescope sitting on the beach in Hawaii.”

Most will not have that kind of backdrop for the research.

“Part of our goal is to work with the school systems, even the grade schools, mostly in Chautauqua and Warren counties,” Traub said.

Older students have astronomy needs, too.

“Edinboro, Penn State Behrend, Fredonia, and many others so that if they have students in an observational program, they could log in and get observations for a project or a thesis,” he said.

“It’ll be offered to our members,” he said. “We will end up training the membership on how to run the telescope, how to submit plans of observations.”

The observatory’s lecture series has gone virtual.

“We have guest lecturers every month,” Traub said. “It might be a professor that’s doing lectures on space.”

There have been presenters from Jamestown Community College and Behrend.

“We’ve had several NASA scientists giving talks on various subjects,” he said. “On May 19, the presenter is Dan Gray, owner and CEO of Siderial Technology, a company that builds telescopes and telescope drive systems.”

“Laurie Abadie is one of our regular presenters,” Traub said. “She is a NASA scientist working on the human aspects of a flight to Mars. She is the only woman in the world who is qualified to dock spaceships to the ISS.”

Astro-photographer Ted Wolfe will be the presenter in June.

The lectures are recorded and posted to the website.

Still, the board is ready to welcome visitors back into the observatory.

“We’re hoping in June to fully open it up to the public again,” Traub said.

That process has already begun. “Membership is starting back on a much fuller basis this month,” he said. “We can have up to 10 members at any given time at the observatory.”

“We will be starting to schedule groups in,” he said. “They really have to call before-hand to get scheduled in.”

A significant event is coming up fast.

“One of the activities coming up this month, there is a total eclipse of the moon at moon-set on May 26,” Traub said. The eclipse will begin before the moon sets, but totality may not be visible locally.

There is another event in June.

There’s an annular eclipse of the sun on June 10,” he said.

The moon will be relatively far away from the earth when it passes between the observatory and the sun. Because of the distance, the moon will not cover all of the sun.

Again, locally, the best part of that eclipse will be hard to catch.

The eclipse is at sunrise. “When the sun rises, it will have a big chunk out of it,” he said.

The observatory itself will not have a clear view of the sun at the proper time. “We’ll be observing that from right near the observatory,” he said. “I know where it’s going to be rising. We can’t get right down to the horizon right there.”

Those interesting in watching that event are cautioned to protect their eyes.

“You need to have special filtering,” Traub said. “Solar glasses allow you to look at the sun safely.”

Observers will also have to be ready at 5:40 a.m.

TOTAL ECLIPSE OF 2024

“This is sort of a precursor to the big eclipse … a total eclipse of the sun,” Traub said.

That will happen on April 8, 2024.

Total eclipses happen more than once a year, but they can only be seen from narrow bands — 50 miles wide, or so.

The last time there was a total solar eclipse visible from Warren County was in the 1800s, Traub said.

For the 2024 eclipse, “Warren sits right on the edge of the path of totality,” he said. That means some people in the county will be able to see a total eclipse, while people in a neighboring township will not.

“If you’re on the south side of the Allegheny River, you probably won’t see totality,” Traub said. “The farther north and towards Lake Erie you go, the more into the path of totality you will get.”

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