Astronomy Outreach

I feel that I owe an apology to anyone who has been following this blog. I have posted on topics far from the original subject even though it is not structured to make reading topics separately very convenient. The “Categories” headings are the best tool available to deal with this so I hope folks will try to make use of those. The primary topic is still the LX850 mount and now that I have an OTA available for testing that will be come the secondary subject and I will add an appropriate category for the OTA and add existing OTA posts to that. There is also a relatively unrelated category of Astronomy Outreach which be used less frequently but will give me an opportunity to post on other astro topics. This post, for example, will be there as well as in a new “Announcements” category to be created. I hope that with a little organizational effort on my part I can make this site a little friendlier and perhaps more useful.

My other regret is that there are occasional extended “dark” periods here. Due to weather, health, or other distractions I sometimes don’t get into the observatory for months at a time (for example, right now). When that happens there frequently isn’t much to say here.I hope that folks don’t lose interest or give up on the site. I expect to become more active as weather improves and will be doing further long exposure mount testing, DSO imaging with the 12″ F/8 OTA, and some planetary imaging with the Meade OTA and a Nexstar 5. If that latter part goes really well I’ll be upgrading the camera for more serious planet work.

Now to the “Transitions” topic. Many who see this site were directed here by Cloudy Nights ( ), arguably the premier astronomy discussion site (and the ONLY site in which I have mentioned this blog). I first joined in April 2003 so I’ve been around to see it grow and become the popular site it is. I’ve posted over 32,000 comments there, mostly in gear discussions. Users will, no doubt, have noticed that it went dark this morning. This was planned, and was announced as widely as practical but inevitably some will have missed the announcement. What is happening is that the site has outgrown the archaic software framework in which it was born and a new structure has been purchased and is being implemented. All existing discussion board structure and content is being transferred as I type this, and the new Cloudy Nights site will go active as soon as possible; perhaps even tomorrow.  It will look different and have new functions and some (including myself) will at first be uncomfortable with the changes. I remember how much traffic the Astromart discussion boards lost when they restructured a few years ago. I intend to go ahead and use the new site until it becomes familiar and comfortable, and I urge other users to give it a chance as well. The decision wasn’t lightly made, and it will substantially increase operating costs for our sponsor (Astronomics). It was done because it became necessary. The site had simply outgrown the existing structure and a replacement was required.

I’m not trying to keep up a blog on this trip, but some comments about it may be helpful to folks considering enrichment posts.


First, there have been a few hiccups – and not minor ones. They stem from this being the first normal sailing since its arrival in North America. They weren’t remedied as quickly as they should have been, which has affected me – but I am convinced that they won’t be repeated so future presenters shouldn’t have to worry about them. Example: they assigned me the second seating (which I prefer anyway) but then scheduled activities for me DURING THAT SEATING. Just a silly mistake but they took way too long to fix it and I missed a couple of dinners over it. Now folks who know me might say that I can afford to miss a few dinners – but folks who know me well know that I especially enjoy shipboard dining rooms. In all these years I have never before missed a dinner seating so it mattered to me.


Comments on speaking specifically on the Divina:


Internet access is provided at crew rate. That is unusual and if you use the internet much it is a big savings (it knocked $100 off my bill).


Most presentations are in the main showroom. This can be intimidating but don’t let it throw you. The good news is that they delivered a reasonably good audience, which helps. You can feel a bit silly standing on stage and looking at an empty 1500 seat house.


One talk was in a lounge – but a pretty big lounge. Not nearly so crowded as smaller lounges I’ve been in on other ships.


Divina staff prefer to use their own A/V hardware (even in the lounge) so just hand them a thumb drive with your Powerpoint slides. They’ll hand you a remote with laser pointer just like the one I use with my laptop.  In the lounges it is red and in the main showroom it is green (better for the large screen).


You’ll end up with more working time scheduled than on other ships because of the scheduled stargazing activities. I do them informally on every trip anyway, and this is better because they announce it (which provides a larger audience) and turn off local lights.


The spot they selected for stargazing is very good, but access to it isn’t obvious and I think a lot of folks didn’t find it. I’ll suggest that they provide a map to hand out.


Access to cruise director staff is better than I have ever experienced on other ships. Usually I meet with them the first day, hand them a topic list so they can publish them in the paper, and then if I’m lucky I’ll meet again on the last evening to talk about how things went. On Divina I speak to the assistant cruise director multiple times every day.


Unlike every other ship I’ve been on, they don’t publish the topic titles in the activities list for each day. I guess that means I can shuffle things around if I want to, but it doesn’t permit the passengers to decide whether a day’s topic is of particular interest to them until they arrive. I suspect this will change on future trips; I certainly plan to suggest it.


If you have cruised with the American cruise lines you will find subtle differences on the Italian-owned ships. The buffet is much smaller and has much less variety available. The same is true of the room service menu – there is a delivery charge added after 11:00pm. Sandwiches are free (as on American ships) but there is a charge for room service coffee except at breakfast time. The dining vroom, on the other hand, has a very familiar feel (cruise ship dining room fare tends to be European anyway).


p.s. I see that linking this to facebook has caused the comment spammers to bump their game up a notch or two; my quantity of spam attempts is way up. My blocker catches it all (so far) but as a backup I am approving comments individually for anyone who hasn’t previously posted a legitimate comment. This will cause a delay because I’m only on the Net sporadically while traveling – but I’ll get to it so don’t hesitate.

MSC handles enrichment presentations somewhat differently from NCL and Princess, and so far I prefer their approach. I’ve done one session in the main showroom and one in a large lounge so far, and in both cases they insisted on using their own A/V system rather than connecting my laptop to their projector. I just hand them my thumb drive with the Powerpoint slideshow on it and they hand me their remote. That saves some time; no fiddling with aspect ratios or screen resolutions.

I have experienced terrific cooperation from ship entertainment staff. I have a firm commitment to an on-deck stargazing session in a darkened location; I have never managed that before on any cruise ship. There’s a perfect spot on Divina, too. It’s on level 18, above all other illuminated areas so it should be easy to maintain dark adaptation. As is usual, there’s plenty of passenger interest in that. There is a session scheduled for tonight if weather permits. We tried last night but the clouds didn’t cooperate. The down side of all this is that I’ve already put in more hours (3 ½ so far) than I normally would in an entire voyage. Still have one more 45 minute presentation and the rescheduled stargazing session. That’s no burden; I love outreach astronomy.

Presentation attendance has been good, and questions have been above average. Only one Planet X (Nibiru) reference so far and one undergrad student asking math exercise stuff (galactic rotation periods).

So far, I believe that I would recommend the Divina as a venue for those seeking enrichment gigs.

Note: This is a followup to so it might make more sense if you read that first…


I only do this once or twice a year so there won’t be enough material for a separate blog. I’ve added an “Astronomy Outreach” category to this blog to accommodate this topic.

It would seem to be a no-brainer for folks doing this sort of thing to keep a real time blog while on the trip. The biggest reason I can see for this not happening is the speed and cost of internet access aboard ship. You start with a high per-minute rate and then find that everything takes a really long time (lots of minutes) when using the ship’s satellite link. Rates start around 50 cents/minute and go down toward 25 cents if you buy large (hundreds of minutes) bundles.

You quickly learn to compose email messages and discussion board posts offline and then log on and send it all in batches. I could compose blog posts in a word processor and cut and paste them onto the blog, I suppose. We’ll see. I’ll have a lot of free time to fiddle with it; enrichment and destination lecturers have the lightest duty (about 45 minutes per at-sea day) of all guest presenters. There’s almost always a bridge lecturer, too (the card game) . They offer tournament play every day so are really never off duty. They do receive the same perks as enrichment speakers so if you are a master that’s another option for you.

One good thing about the junior officer cabins sometimes assigned on Princess – you are in crew territory and within range of the wireless crew internet server. That is far less expensive  (the crew bars are also much less expensive!).  There’s a vending machine in the crew lounge where you can buy access cards at a good rate. If you are assigned a cabin in passenger territory (which is most of the time on Princess and always with everyone else) you don’t get the magic access card to reach crew areas.



The first thing one should know if considering a post as enrichment lecturer is to be flexible and to be prepared for little surprises. Some examples:

The trip next week is on the MSC Divina, which was just launched last year and which has been working in the Mediterranean. It is currently crossing the Atlantic for the first time. It is to arrive at Port Miami on the 20th and a short jaunt is scheduled (three nights) to a private beach and Port Canaveral, then back to Miami. That trip is intended to expose US travel agents to the ship, as it will be sailing the Caribbean for the Winter season. It then sails from Miami for a typical seven night Eastern Caribbean itinerary. I had originally booked for both trips back to back, making a ten day trip out of it.  Then MSC decided they didn’t need a lecturer for the three night jaunt so they cut me back to the seven night leg. OK; no big deal. Friday they changed their mind and called to see if I could join on the 20th. Well, I’m flexible but not THAT flexible; I had already firmed up my travel plans. Again, no big deal. If I had been in a position to accept that assignment I’d have been glad to be offered it.

My last lecture trip was a longer one; from Buenos Ares to Valparaiso via Cape Horn. As we were sailing back up the Western coast of Chile the earthquake struck. It had no effect on the ship;  the waves created were, as always, very small in the open ocean. It is when they reach shore that damage happens. It turned out that the port facilities at Valparaiso had been damaged by earthquake-related waves and when we arrived we had to wait at anchor for a few days before disembarking. That would have goofed up my return flight – but the airport at Santiago had been damaged by the earthquake so we were stranded there for a few more days anyway. No big deal; trip insurance reimbursed me for the extra expenses. No use being upset at the delay; the effect on me was trivial compared to the victims of the event.

The only other time I had an extended delay in returning home was caused by the 9-11 attack. We were sailing along the Alaskan coast when that happened. When the trip ended at Vancouver we couldn’t get home because US airports were closed. No hotel expenses that time, Celebrity put us up on a ship while we waited. Again, there was no important impact on me; it was the attack victims who suffered.

I generally travel in Winter so I’ve had to wait in Florida or California due to canceled Ohio flights a few times but again, an extra day is no big deal and travel insurance covers a hotel night. It’s just a matter of not being so self-involved as to consider an unexpected schedule change to be a personal disaster. All of the above impacted the revenue passengers just as much as it did me, so it wasn’t really a result of the lecture gig; it’s just that cruising more frequently creates more exposure to such events.

Flexibility specific to the job is required, though. For one thing, some cruise lines (Princess is one) don’t guarantee what class of cabin you will be assigned. Sometimes it is a junior officer’s cabin, which is cramped if you brought a guest (you always have the option of bringing a guest). You never know your full schedule ahead of time; the daily ship’s newsletter arrives each night and you have to look to see when, where, and if you are scheduled for the next day. It might be in a lounge, or in the movie theater/videoconference room, or in the main showroom. Generally you will be expected to present one 45 minute session on each “sea day” (a day on which the ship doesn’t stop anywhere). That usually works out to two or three sessions on a seven night trip and three or four sessions on a ten night trip. Ocean crossings, of course, have a LOT of sea days so you’ll need more material for those. If your topic is astronomy you’ll probably be asked for additional duty in the form of one or two stargazing sessions on deck. Binoculars and a GLP are usually sufficient, though I generally have a small refractor and an alt/az mount along. Although the ships cruise at 25 knots or so, they are stable in calm weather and so long as the magnification is kept reasonable the views are OK. Expect wind (I did say the ship will be cruising at 25 knots!).  On the South America trip I brought along a PST and offered narrowband Solar views that folks seemed to enjoy. The photo on the previous post shows this activity while we were anchored off Valparaiso waiting for port facilities to be available for disembarkation.  I’ll have the PST along on this trip, too.

The rest of the time you are just another passenger with full privileges. Some discounts are usually offered; maybe a bar discount or discounted shore excursions. Sometimes they will comp the tips (about $10 per day total is expected on most cruise ships).

The second thing you need to know is that although there are LOTS of cruise ships, there are also lots of folks who provide this service. You aren’t going to be paid unless you have celebrity status. You’ll probably have to pay your own travel costs to and from the port, too (folks who live in port cities have a big advantage here). You’ll pay a modest booking fee to the agency who sets it up. In exchange for these plus a few hours of duty, you and a guest will receive a complimentary cruise with full passenger status and probably some discounts. If you are on Princess, make sure the guest is someone with whom you are willing to share a bed in case you don’t get a passenger cabin! On most other lines you can count on a standard passenger cabin with two beds available (even if you don’t bring a guest).

If you have interesting knowledge to share (and astronomy is fairly popular as an enrichment topic), can present the information clearly but in an entertaining manner, and are willing to invest the necessary effort in preparing your materials (most lines will insist on PowerPoint visual aids – and your own laptop to play them) you might consider signing up with one of the agencies to whom the cruise lines go for such postings. I use ToSeaWithZ and have been very satisfied with them. I enjoy the presentations – in fact, when I cruise as a “normal” passenger I kind of miss them.





I know it’s been since the end of August that I made it out to the observatory. I figured I had better post something to explain that there are no equipment problems. It’s just a matter of time and weather. I won’t be out there this month, either, but I plan to be more active in December and in the coming year.

I’ll be busy for the next week getting ready for an outreach trip that will use up the rest of the month. I will be aboard the MSC Divina for a week’s duty as guest astronomy lecturer. It’s been a couple of years since I last did this so I’m looking forward to it. It will be my first gig with MSC (though I’ve been on their Poesia as a passenger). I’ve worked previously with Norwegian and many times with Princess. It lets me combine two favorite activities – and it gives me an excuse to cruise more frequently than my usual once per year.

For a very weak link to this site’s usual topic, I’ll be bringing along a Meade/Coronado PST so I can expose the passengers to some narrowband solar observing. I took one on the last trip and folks seemed to enjoy it.