A jam-packed first day at the 2014 Northeast Astronomy Forum

Posted by David Eicher
on Sunday, April 13, 2014

Astronomy magazine’s 2014 Youth Essay Award winner, Sarah Chinski of Marion, Iowa, enjoying her first time at NEAF; she is attending with her whole family, April 12, 2014. // all photos by David J. Eicher
Wow. I have been to the Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) many times since the late 1980s, and I’ve never had a day there quite as jam-packed and intensely busy as was Saturday, April 12, the first day of NEAF 2014. Many thanks to my colleague Jeff Felbab, Astronomy magazine’s advertising sales manager, for setting up our impressive, new and improved booth. We were busy nearly continuously talking to hundreds of amateur astronomers throughout the whole day, handing out magazines, showing videos on our TV, and generally catching up with huge numbers of our readers, Web viewers, and social media friends. It was quite an amazingly busy time. And thanks to the many telescope manufacturers we spent time with, catching up on new products that will hit the pages of our magazine. Quite an amazing crew of people who make up this hobby, and it is a joy to know every one of them.

I was really pleased to see how joyous Sarah Chinski, our 17-year-old Youth Essay Contest winner, was to be at her first NEAF. Traveling with her whole family from Marion, Iowa, Sarah was in heaven being at the show and really seemed to relish the entire day and every part of it. She has an amazing and bright future as an astronomy enthusiast ahead of her, and who knows where it will take her! What a delightful young lady.

I met an old friend for the first time — Garik Israelian, astronomer at the Institute for Astrophysics at Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Garik and I had never met, but for the past three months we’ve been working on the Starmus book along with astronomer and Queen guitarist Brian May. Garik is the founder and director of the Starmus Festival, and I encourage you to consider coming this September to the second incarnation, which will be held in again in the Canaries. I had a great time introducing Garik for his wonderful talk on exoplanet characteristics, as well as the 20-minute presentation on Starmus. I encourage you to check out the website at starmus.com because nothing else like this event exists in the world. It was also a joy to meet Starmus Managing Director Ashley Oulton, a really wonderful guy who is loads of fun. You’ll be hearing much more about Starmus as the weeks roll on, as Astronomy is the festival’s media partner.

Alan Stern delivers a spectacular talk on Pluto and the New Horizons mission, NEAF, April 12, 2014.
Garik’s talk was not the only activity that had the auditorium buzzing, however. Neil deGrasse Tyson joined the audience via Skype to discuss the current Cosmos TV series, in a session moderated by Tele Vue’s legendary Al Nagler and by Kelly Beatty, longtime Sky & Telescope editor and activist for the International Dark-Sky Association.

I was really amazed with the keynote talk that followed, an analysis of Pluto and the New Horizons mission by Alan Stern, the mission’s project scientist. Alan delivered a great summary of the poor quality of the International Astronomical Union's definition of a planet and the ambiguity of “clearing out” an orbit. Why should an object be considered a planet or not depending chiefly on its location? A house is still a house wherever it stands. If Earth were located 40 AU from the Sun, it would not clear its orbit of many coexisting bodies. Would Earth then be a dwarf planet? In the end, the clear answer is that Pluto is a dwarf planet AND a planet — it’s just that simple. And planetary scientists term many smaller planets, large asteroids, and large moons “planets” — as they are nearly identical to other planetary bodies, but are simply located in different places. Yes, even moons: stars orbit stars, so why shouldn’t some planets orbit planets? Ah well.

It was a great day, filled with many discussions, updates on many projects, and many story ideas for future issues of the magazine. And we're already underway on another full day. Stay tuned.

For all images from this trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.

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