A SHORT EARLY HISTORY OF THE A.L.P.O. SOLAR SECTION
by Richard E. Hill
Solar Section Coordinator
On Aug. 14, 1981 the annual Business Meeting of the ALPO was held “in the Red Room of the Dining Hall on the campus of Kutztown State College at Kutztown, PA at 5:15 p.m., E.D.S.T.”, not to put too fine a point on it. At this meeting the then Jupiter Recorder, Phillip Budine, suggested the ALPO establish a Solar Section. Several observers had inquired about such a Section prompting his proposal. There was some initial opposition arguing that the ALPO should only be a LUNAR and PLANETARY observing organization. So, in order to determine the extent of interest it was decided that a questionnaire should be sent out with the next Strolling Astronomer (Journal of the ALPO or SA here) to poll the members on the future direction of the Association and establishment of Meteor and Solar Sections. [SA V.29, Nrs. 3-4, Dec. 1981, p.60-61.]
Such a questionnaire was sent out and this author responded affirmatively to the establishment of both Sections with the philosophy that the ALPO should encourage the study of all astronomical matters in the solar system. This was backed up with an offer to help out with the Solar Section if needed. About 15% of the membership responded to the questionnaire. The “consensus” favored the establishment of the two Sections. These results were the topic of some discussion at the annual Business Meeting of the ALPO, this time held at ALCON ’82 in Peoria, Illinois on July 22 (at 5:00 p.m., CDT for those keeping such details). At this meeting, Richard Sweetsir suggested that “trial” Sections be established which was moved by ALPO Assoc. Director, Dr. John Westfall, to be done on a two year trial basis, conditional on discussions with the American Association of Variable Star Observers and the American Meteor Society to set areas of study that would not duplicate efforts of the groups. The motions were seconded and passed thus establishing the Solar Section. [SA V.29, Nrs.9-10, Dec., 1982, 190-191.]
Only a week or so after this meeting I was contacted by ALPO Director and Founder, Walter Haas and asked to start up the Solar Section. From the start the focus of the Solar Section was on solar morphology. There was no amateur organization in the U.S. that was studying the structure of various solar features and their activity on the Sun other than sunspot counting or detection of enhanced radio signals. Discussions on this with AAVSO Director and long time friend, Janet Mattei, finished setting our course. She was very enthusiastic about the new Section and offered some good suggestions which helped us along over the years.
An outline of the proposed activities of the new Section appeared in the Strolling Astronomer soon thereafter. It was an ambitious schedule and was nearly achieved during the height of Cycle 22. The central thrust of the article and indeed the main goal of the Section to this day, is to maintain a network of ALPO Solar Section observers around the world that can provide 24 hour monitoring of solar activity in white light. Eventually H-alpha coverage would be added as well. Similar to the AAVSO we make our data available to the professional community at no cost. This has resulted in the work of Section observers being published in professional journals and publications for over a decade now. [SA V.29, Nrs.11-12, Mar., 1983, p.234-236.]
To keep the professional community informed about our activities and available data, a newsletter called the Rotation Report (RR) was initiated with solar rotation #1735, May of 1983. This newsletter listed on the front, all data received in the preceeding four weeks, and on the back were notes and information for the observers. The Section was kept in close communication by this method. The RR was mailed out to dozens of professional researchers and institutions around the world, paid for by generous contributions from the Section members, and in some cases from the pockets of the Recorders themselves. However, it was directly responsible for the success of the Solar Section in cycle 22.
Solar eclipses fell into the province of the Solar Section at the start. The eclipse of May 30., 1984 provided an early opportunity for the Section to make a contribution. Observations of this eclipse from the U.S. and Great Britain were highlighted in a report in the Strolling Astronomer. [SA V.30, Nrs.11-12, Nov., 1984, p.248-51.]
By summer 1984 the amount of data coming in, the printing and distribution of the Handbook, and the regular publishing of the RR and articles for the Strolling Astronomer made it impossible for one person to handle the task. There were some 50 observers in a dozen countries. A call for help was sent out and Paul Maxson of Phoenix, Arizona, stepped forward to become the first addition to the Section. His more than decade long tenure with the Section helped to make it known around the world. Besides being an excellent observer, Paul was adept at organization and was the one who brought the computer age to the ALPOSS. He took in the data and produced the RR improving its readability and informative content.
The addition of Maxson to the Section staffing allowed the author time needed to go throught the laborious process of preparing the reports. Unlike any other of the Sections in the ALPO, the Solar Section does not have the annual (or more frequent in the case of inferior planets) conjunction periods to stop and analyze the submitted observations and activity. This must all be done while additional observations are coming in. In order to keep up a schedule of such reports it is necessary, as has now been learned, to have one person whose entire function is to prepare the report. The first such report appeared in the Strolling Astronomer for October, 1985 (V.31, N.3-4) covering the rotations 1735-1738, or 1983-05-08.39 to 1983-07-29.00. It established the general format for such reports that has existed to this day, albeit with some diagrammatic and other slight improvements and embellishments.
Starting about the same time, more and more computing advances in amateur astronomy were making their way into the Section. People like Brad Timerson and the new Recorder, Paul Maxson, were using IBM 286 (or clones) and TRS-80s to write ephemerides or maintain data files. It was a portent of things to come.
Early on in the history of the Section H-alpha observations were being sporadically submitted. Because of the prohibitive cost of good monochromatic equipment there were only a couple of observers that could do such observations. Notable among these were Randy Tatum, Jean Dragesco and Frank Mellilo. Randy’s work comprised both prominence and disk observations using Daystar equipment. Because of the excellent quality of his work he was asked to write up his procedures which appeared as an article in the Strolling Astronomer. [SA V.30, Nrs.5-6, Jan., 1984, p.97- 103.] In Sept. of 1984 Randy was also made a Recorder for the Solar Section. Shortly afterwards he published a Handbook for Monochromatic Observing.
Several important advances were made in amateur solar photography due to the combined effort of a number of people in the Section. These were innovations that led to the arc second quality (or better in some cases) of photographs taken by Section observers then and since. The first of these was the discovery in 1983 that the curvature of field of the standard 8″ f/10 Schmidt- Cassegrain, being similar to the surface of a basketball (a radius of about 6″) made it impossible to get the center and edge of Sun in sharp focus at the arc second level. [TELESCOPE OPTICS, Rutten, H.G.J. and van Venrooij, M.A.M., p. 82-84.] Since, in the daytime sky the seeing was only about arc second quality about 1% of the time there was no harm in stopping such a telescope down to 4″ off axis (even with the secondary taking a bite out of the aperture) increasing the focal ratio to f/20 and thus increasing the depth of focus. The second innovation was to get observers to use lighter filtration for photography. To that time the only filters that one could get over the counter were all of a density suitable for visual observations. This led to exposure times longer than 0.01 sec. The resulting photographs suffered from vibration problems, drive problems and seeing smear caused from daytime atmospheric heating. It was necessary to get exposure times down to 0.001 sec. If this were done then even a telescope with no drive could take arc second quality images. Because Tuthill offered a two sheet Mylar-type filter (and was the only one to do so) our observers could use these with each sheet mounted separately. Then for visual use, both sheets would be employed and for photography only one would be used. Further, Tuthill was willing to offer ALPOSS observers a discount on the purchase of his Solar Skreen material. Once this was done our observers, particularly Paul Maxson and Gordon Garcia, began to routinely submit photographs that showed granulation and penumbral grains and filaments. In the case of Garcia’s images one of the astronomers at National Solar Observatory remarked that only rarely could they get as good an image from the McMath- Pierce telescope on Kitt Peak!
Thus by the end of 1985, and the end of solar cycle 21, the Solar Section had it’s team in place for coverage of cycle 22.
Adendumm- After 2000, Rick Gossett was the Solar Coordinator, then stepped down in January 2006. After that time Kim Hay has been the Solar Co-ordinator and before that and still, archivist. kh