Richmond Astronomical Society


Notable Sky Sights in Late December

Dec 18th, 2016 | By | Category: Blog

The Ursid meteor shower will be active between December 17 and 24 with its expected peak late December 21 into the early morning hours of December 22 ( Meteor showers are unpredictable in terms of the number and brightness of the meteors they produce, but if the weather permits, you might see some interesting meteors around midnight on the 21st up to dawn on the 22nd. It’s also worth looking for meteors on the nights preceding and following the expected peak since visible meteors can be seen during these times as well, although not necessarily as frequently as during the peak. The Ursid meteor shower gets its name from the fact that the meteors appear to generally radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor, although they can be seen in any part of the sky during the shower. The Ursids are associated with Comet 8P/Tuttle, which was discovered in 1790 and then re-discovered by Horace Tuttle in 1858.

If you want to capture images of the meteor shower, one option is to take a long duration exposure with a camera on a tripod aimed to the north.  You will have to experiment to find the optimal exposure length as this depends upon the camera you have, but a sequence of a number of 30-second exposures will usually yield images that show plenty number of background stars with minimal trailing.  With some patience, you might capture a bright meteor in one or more of the images.

Approximate location of the Ursid meteor shower radiant


Mars and Neptune will appear less than ¼ degree apart from one another in the sky on December 31. This means that they will both easily fit in the same field of view in a backyard telescope, although Neptune will be quite a bit fainter than Mars. The pair will be easy to find since Mars will be a bright orange point of light in the west-southwest just after sunset, right above the planet Venus.

The pairing of Mars and Neptune on December 31.


The constellation Orion will be rising in the east all month, becoming visible in the east just after sunset. Orion is a spectacular winter constellation that contains a number of deep sky objects that are easy to find and view in a telescope. The crowd favorite is the Orion Nebula, just below the three-star belt of Orion, in the group of stars that make up his sword. This nebula is a region where new stars are forming and where young energetic stars, less than one million years old, illuminate the nebula to show one of the most interesting and most frequently imaged objects in the night sky. See for more information.

Orion rising in the east in December

Clear skies!


All images created by the author using Stellarium (0.11.3) software (

2017 Star Parties

Dec 17th, 2016 | By | Category: Blog

Lots of star party opportunities in the mid-Atlantic region.  Below are the ones for which we have information.  If you would like another event to be listed, please send a note to


Staunton River Star Party – Spring Installment, March 22-26, Staunton River State Park: More information at  For those that have not attended this party it is distinguished by being held at the newest International Dark Sky Park in the eastern US.  Staunton River State Park has been incredibly supportive of the party and dark sky preservation in the area.  Plus they are just real plain nice to us!  If you can make it to this star party, it’s worth your time and a great experience to observe the sky with other astronomy enthusiasts in a beautiful setting under a dark sky.

Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF), April 8-9, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College:  Premier astronomy and space expo.  Information at

Delmarva Stargaze XXII, April 27-30, Trap Pond State Park, near Laurel, Delaware:  Hosted by the Delmarva Stargazers.  Information at

East Coast Star Party, Coinjock, NC, May 18-20:  Fun and casual observing in a dark North Carolina sky with the friendliest astronomers anywhere.  The location is the Hampton Lodge Campground which offers casual stargazing in a coastal environment.  Pre-registration is not required.  Fees are $20 for star party registration, $20 per night camping fee (additional fee for R/V sites).  Contact Kent Blackwell for information at

NASA Langley Open House, Hampton, Virginia, October 21:  Outstanding opportunity to tour NASA Langley Research Center.  More information at

Virginia Association of Astronomical Societies, October 21:    Information to be posted as it becomes available here.  This year’s gathering will be hosted by the Back Bay Amateur Astronomers.

Cherry Springs Star Party, June 22-25, Cherry Springs State Park, near Coudersport, PA:  Hosted by the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg, PA.  More information at:

Green Bank Star Quest, June 19-22, Green Bank, WV:  The Green Bank Star Quest is a star party where there is a lot to do and see even if cloudy weather limits observing.  The event is held at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory facility in Green Bank, WV.  More information at and on their Facebook page.

The 2nd York County Star Party (YCSP), May 24-28+ (or longer depending on weather).  THANKS to all that helped make last year’s party a great success!  The York County Star Party (YCSP), sponsored by SkyShedPodPA, will be at Shreveport Airport North, York County, PA, at a private airport about 90 minutes from Philly and D. C. Facilities include flush toilets, hot showers, raffle, speakers, and a food vendor, with flat, hard-packed turf 2000-foot-long taxiway for camping. All events (except evening viewing) will take place rain or shine! The York County Star Party (YCSP) is an annual dark-sky amateur astronomy observing event. Go to  for complete current info and updates.

AstroCon, August 16-19, Casper, Wyoming:  To help celebrate the total eclipse of the sun on Monday, August 21st, 2017, the Astronomical League will hold its annual national convention in the days leading up to the event.  Casper Wyoming will host the conference as the eclipse path goes right through the city.  Information on location and registration will be in the Reflector magazine, which you should receive if you are member of RAS since your membership in RAS automatically covers membership in the Astronomical League.  Also see the Astronomical League’s web site at and at for additional information.

Almost Heaven Star Party, July 21-15, Spruce Knob, WV:  Hosted by the Mountain Institute at a high altitude dark site.  Information at

East Coast Star Party, Coinjock, NC – Fall Installment, (date to be announced):  Kent Blackwell is kindly hosting his East Coast Star Party again this Fall at the Hampton Lodge Campground which offers casual stargazing in a coastal environment. Portable restrooms conveniently located near observing area.  Showers and country store located on the campground site. Pre-registration is not required.  Fees are $20 for star party registration, $20 per night camping fee (additional fee for R/V sites).  Contact Kent for more information at

Bays Mountain Starfest, [date to be announced], Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium, Kingsport, TN:  The event is a non-profit, multi-day, astronomical convention hosted by the Bays Mountain Astronomy Club and Bays Mountain Planetarium filled with all sorts of astronomical treats! The event is going to be great as usual with fantastic speakers, food, and friends.  More information at this link:

Staunton River Star Party – Fall Installment, October 16-22, Staunton River State Park:  The October installment of the Staunton River Star Party.  For those that have not attended, this is an excellent star party with dark skies, convenient amenities and a state park staff that is very welcoming to astronomers and second to none in their dedication to making this a successful event.  More info is at


Sydney Mabry in the News!

Nov 23rd, 2016 | By | Category: Blog

Sydney Mabry and her dad, Mark, have been members of RAS for some time and Sydney has made presentations at monthly meetings.  One of her presentations was a description of how she and her dad built a telescope together – the same telescope that you might have seen at a number of Astronomy Day and other outreach activities. Sydney is back in the news, having completed her Gold Award project for Girl Scouts.  The title of the project is “STEM Grows Girls, Girls Grow STEM.”  As a final part of the project she created a video about it, which will help to convey the message even further.  Below is a link to the video – very much worth viewing.  Congratulations to Sydney from her friends at RAS – excellent project and a very worthwhile endeavor!



Belmead Update

Nov 4th, 2016 | By | Category: Blog, Events

Belmead update – good news / bad news:  The bad news is that the Belmead property is now officially on the market and this situation jeopardizes long-term continuation of our observing at Belmead and our outreach facility there, not to mention preservation of the property in general.  The good news is that a new non-profit organization, aptly named “Belmead on the James, Inc.,”  committed to preservation of the property, has been created and is planning to submit a bid for purchase of the property. However, they need our help along with help from all those interested in preserving this valuable, historic and dark sky site in Powhatan County.  A November 1 press release about the organization is here.
Belmead once existed as a place of human enslavement and was transformed in the 1890’s into a place of empowerment and education.  With the right amount of support, Belmead will continue to exist as a model of land stewardship, agriculture, equestrian activity, a living history museum and as a place of environmental education and preservation.  It will also serve as a place that offers astronomers a respite from urban lights where we can observe, image and share views of night sky wonders through our outreach education efforts.  The Belmead on the James organization is planning to submit a proposal to purchase, preserve and manage the property in a way that is compatible with this vision for the future of Belmead.
To make this happen and to ensure that their proposal is credible and competitive, Belmead on the James needs to raise $400,000 by December 1.  They have asked 4,000 of their supporters to donate $100 each to reach this goal.  If you can help Belmead on the James preserve this important property along with its history, its environment and its dark skies, please do so. Preservation of this important site will benefit a number of varied interests, including local amateur astronomy and science education.  You can donate or learn more about Belmead on the James at


Non-profit kicks-off campaign to raise $400,000 to purchase historic Belmead on the James.

POWHATAN, VIRGINIA November 1, 2016 – The newly formed nonprofit Belmead on the James, Inc. today launched a major campaign to raise $400,000 towards the purchase of the Belmead property in Powhatan, Virginia from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS). The 2,265-acre property is the site where St. Emma Military Academy and St. Francis de Sales High School, established by Louise Drexel Morrell and Saint Katharine Drexel respectively, operated from 1895 to 1972 and educated over 15,000 African American youth. On May 3, 2016, the SBS announced their intention to sell Belmead, and on October 26, 2016 the property was officially placed on the market.



Oct 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: Blog, Events

The RAS skywatch scheduled for October 21 at the Science Museum of Virginia was canceled due to clouds.  However, the less-than-favorable observing weather provided an opportunity for RAS astronomers on site to take in the Science Museum’s “Glow” event where we experienced lots of great displays including a Bernoulli blast of ping pong balls, resonant pendulums, lots of fluorescence and even fire dancers from the very proficient Circular Expressions dance troupe! The Science Museum did an excellent job with the event. Below is a short video. (more…)

Geology at the RAS Observatory?

Oct 21st, 2016 | By | Category: Blog, Events

Geology is a little different for us, but we are an eclectic lot and have widely varying interests. Recently RAS member Randy Tatum hosted Michael Davias and friends from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences to sample the sediments underlying the RAS Ragland Observatory.  As it turns out, our observatory sits in one of a number of a “Carolina Bays,” which are depressions along the Atlantic seaboard that are often not readily visible from the ground, but can be identified through aerial photography and LIDAR. Michael Davias is hoping to use data from the cores collected at our observatory to help understand more about the formation of these interesting features.  The core data will also enhance general understanding of the geology in the Bon Air area where our observatory is located.


Citizen Science

Oct 21st, 2016 | By | Category: Blog, Events

If you have read more than a few of our updates, you will have had the pleasure of seeing some beautiful images captured and processed by Madhup Rathi.  In addition to taking pretty pictures, he also submits asteroid tracking data to the Minor Planet Center & University Of Arizona scientists, as they are interested in tracking movement of certain asteroids to better understand their orbit – so that they can figure out if some large asteroid is going to wipe out humans!



Artist’s conception of asteroids passing Earth – image courtesy of NASA


Madhup periodically takes three images 30 minutes apart of the same area of sky and calculates the location of the asteroid for each of the image timestamps using specialized software and sends this data to the project manager.  If anyone is interested in participating in data collection for this purpose, please see Madhup at a monthly RAS meeting or contact  You can also find other opportunities to do citizen science at these links:





Stargazing Expedition to Cape Hatteras – John Raymond

Sep 30th, 2016 | By | Category: Blog, Events

Telescope deployment at Cape Hatteras

I visited Cape Hatteras last weekend for the purpose of stargazing. I went ten years ago and had one excellent night under dark skies. This year did not go so well.


Last time I stayed at Frisco Woods Campground, right on the northern shore of the island. The trees blocked the lights from the town. Very dark skies with good view to the NE and NW. My site was the most northwestern, right on the water, The adjoining land is undeveloped. The car blocked the other camper’s lights.


This weekend I first tried the ramp at the very southeast of the island. On Google maps this looked like the best spot, farthest from town and with a clear view to the southeast. The paved road ends with a small parking lot right at the beach. It was the perfect site – in the daytime. It would have been perfect. Except for the lighthouse. The bright beam sweeps over the site like car headlights, ruining any chance of dark adaptation.


I packed up and tried the airstrip road a few miles west in Frisco. Also away from town, but too many mosquitoes. The constant breeze at the beach isn’t strong here, and there were pools of standing water. The lights from town were too close.


Next stop was the first beach access point west of Frisco. This wasn’t a bad site. It’s a parking lot with bathrooms. Check. A wood ramp leads to the beach. Check. At the top of the ramp is a convenient deck with a good southern view. Check. The dunes east and west block the lights from the town somewhat. Check.
I set up and enjoyed ten minutes of nice views until the clouds rolled in. 🙁


On the way back home I saw a nice site just south of Rodanthe at mp 46. A beach access lot surrounded by tall scrub. The bend in the road keeps car headlights pointed away. Might be worth checking out next time.


John Raymond


RAS member Randy Tatum receives Walter H. Haas Observing Award

Sep 18th, 2016 | By | Category: Blog

RAS member Randy Tatum receives national recognition as a recipient of the Walter H. Haas Observer Award from the Astronomical League!

At ALCON 2016, this years annual convention of the Astronomical League, RAS member Randy Tatum was honored by the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers with the Walter H. Haas Observer Award for excellence in solar system astronomy. Randy has been making solar system observations since 1966. In the 1970’s he began contributing observations, data and ultimately images to the Association. In 1976 alone, Randy performed one thousand transit timings of features on Jupiter and is credited as a co-discoverer of the 1975 South Equatorial Belt disturbance. The images and video below shows Randy receiving the award at ALCON 2016.


Randy Tatum - Walter Haas Award



Belmead Update

Aug 26th, 2016 | By | Category: Blog, Events

Stars over Belmead 27Aug2016 (Bill Dickinson)

The Milky Way over Belmead Mansion (image by Bill Dickinson)


As many of you know, The Richmond Astronomical Society has developed a partnership over the past few years with Belmead in Powhatan which is a beautiful, historic and convenient dark sky location. We have held joint observing and outreach education events at Belmead near the mansion and at more light-shielded sites on the property. Unfortunately, the owners of the property have decided to sell the entire 2,200 acre tract. Recently a new non-profit organization, called Belmead on the James, Inc. was formed to preserve the property. A press release was issued on August 22 announcing formation of the organization.


Formation of this new organization is excellent news for the preservation of Belmead, but much work remains to be done.  Substantial effort will be required by those of us that care about preserving the character and history of the property as well as its dark skies for astronomical observing. Text of the press release follows along with a link to a recent story about the new non-profit organization



POWHATAN, VIRGINIA August 22, 2016 – Belmead on the James, Inc. is a newly formed nonprofit organization incorporated in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Corporation exists “as an organization whose goals are to preserve intact as much of the 2,265 acres of land currently owned by Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and located in Powhatan, Virginia … as reasonably possible, to preserve the property for the benefit of present and future generations of Virginians and Americans, and to preserve the cultural, historical, spiritual, ecological, and educational legacy associated with the property as received from Saint Katharine Drexel.”


St. Katharine Drexel, a remarkable visionary who spent much of the Drexel fortune to bring racial harmony amongst all people, founded St. Francis de Sales High School (for African-American and-Native American young ladies). St. Katharine’s sister, Louise Drexel Morrell and Louise’s husband Colonel Edward Morrell, founded St. Emma Military Academy (for African American and Native American young men). During their operation from 1895 to 1972, in beautiful facilities overlooking the James River in Powhatan, the schools provided excellent educationsfor nearly 15,000 students. Saint Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. She is the second American born saint and the third American canonized by the Catholic Church.

On May 3, 2016, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament announced their plans to sell the Virginia property. Since the May 3 announcement, there has been an outpouring of support including a petition signed by over 2,500 people calling for the preservation of the land. Belmead on the James, Inc. will soon begin to raise funds to keep as much as possible of the property intact. Building on St. Katharine Drexel’s vision, Belmead on the James, Inc. is dedicated to providing stewardship over the natural and cultural resources and striving to promote racial justice and racial harmony in the 21st Century.

During the Belmead on the James, Inc. organizational meeting on July 16, 2016, Demetrius Venable, a professor at Howard University was elected president of the Board of Directors; Joe Elton, retired Virginia State Parks Director, was elected vice president; Geri Venable, retired child welfare advocate, was elected treasurer; and Patricia C. Gunn, an Associate Professor Emerita of Law at Ohio University and an alumna of St. Francis de Sales High School, was elected secretary. Other Directors include Catherine Redfearn, principal in Partners for Place; Ryan J. Heathcock, founder and owner of Once Upon A Time; and Rodney M. Jackson, founder and former president and CEO of The National Center for Black Philanthropy.

For more information about Belmead on the James, Inc., contact Demetrius Venable by email at or Joe Elton at

4599 CosbyRoad |Powhatan, VA 23139||