RFO’s Speaker Series consists of monthly presentations geared to the general public about various astronomy-related topics. Most presentations are free to the public and are offered virtually. Visit rfo.simpletix.com for more information on individual talks and to sign up for future presentations. See our RFO Speaker Series Youtube channel for links to past presentations.

Upcoming Speakers

August 18, 2022 at 7 pm PST: “Research in Space to Benefit Life on Earth,” with Liz Warren, Ph.D.

Buy tickets here!

Join RFO and Liz Warren, Ph.D., for an informative conversation on “Research in Space to Benefit Life on Earth.”

Dr. Warren will discuss the effects of spaceflight on the human body and describe research conducted in space that has benefits for those of us on Earth.

Liz Warren, Ph.D. is a physiologist with expertise in the effects of spaceflight on humans.  She has been involved in spaceflight research for over 25 years and is currently the Director of Research Development for Orbital Reef at Blue Origin.


Past Speakers

May, 2022: The LaserSETI project, with Eliot Gillum

LaserSETI is an ambitious project to continuously scan the whole sky for laser flashes from beyond the Earth-Moon system, ostensibly from another civilization.  The first two instruments in this global network were setup on the roof of RFO in August of 2019, and the second two installed on Haleakala, Maui in August of last year. LaserSETI has helped move the field of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) into “time domain astronomy,” where the sky isn’t assumed to be static and unchanging, spurred by the recent discoveries in radio astronomy of Fast Radio Bursts and in physics of Gravity Waves. This talk will give an overview of the science underpinnings as well as design of the LaserSETI project and instruments.

April, 2022: “The Top Tourist Sights of the Solar System,” with Andrew Fraknoi

Andrew Fraknoi gives an informative conversation on “Where Jeff Bezos’ Great Grand-Daughter will go for her Honeymoon: The Top Tourist Sights of the Solar System.” Fraknoi explores the most intriguing future “tourist destinations” among the planets and moons in our cosmic neighborhood. Our stops include the 4,000-mile lava channel on Venus, the towering Mount Olympus volcano on Mars (three times the height of Mount Everest), the awesome Verona Cliffs on the moon Miranda (which are the tallest “lover’s leap” in the solar system), and the recently discovered salt-water steam geysers on Saturn’s intriguing moon Enceladus (nicknamed “Cold Faithful.”).

March, 2022: “Historical Contributions of Women in Astronomy,” with Laura Sparks

In honor of Women’s History Month, this talk will highlight the historical contributions of women in astronomy, while also exploring some of the most fascinating mysteries that women are working on today: dark matter, black holes, and the ultimate fate of the universe. 

February, 2022: “Star Death ~ The End of Stellar Fusion,” with George Loyer

George Loyer Portrait

Join RFO and George Loyer, one of the founding members of the observatory for an informative conversation on “Star Death: The End of Stellar Fusion.”

The end of a star can take many forms, most of them controlled by the mass of a star when fusion at the star’s core can no longer support that mass.  In this talk we will explore how stars begin their life cycle and how the difference in their masses determines how they will end.  On the way you will learn how you can observe stars that are approaching their end with your own telescope.  This talk is the core of an Observing Lab that we hope to run again this year in person, where our lab participants get a guided tour of these remarkable objects.

January, 2022: “The NASA GREECE Sounding Rocket Campaign: Uncovering the Iceberg One Flight at a Time,” with Dr. John W. Bonnell

Join RFO and Dr. John W. Bonnell from the Space Sciences Laboratory, UC Berkeley via Zoom for an informative conversation on “The NASA GREECE Sounding Rocket Campaign:  Uncovering the Iceberg One Flight at a Time.”

The aurora – the Northern and Southern lights – are one of the most visible, dynamic, and beautiful manifestations of Earth’s connection to the near-Earth and interplanetary environment. Space physicists and geophysicists probe the properties and drivers of the aurora through a wide range of techniques In order to understand better the sources of energy that drive the aurora and the physical processes that produce the dramatic changes in shape, color, and motion of the aurora. These techniques utilize a variety of tools: ground cameras and spectrometers; radio receivers and radar installations; orbital satellite and sub-orbital sounding rocket measurements of electromagnetic fields and charge particle fluxes.

As part of NASA’s efforts to understand the aurora, the NASA GREECE sounding rocket campaign in Feb-Mar 2014 utilized high-resolution ground-based cameras and spectrometers to view the aurora flown over by the GREECE sounding rocket payload while it measured the energetic electrons responsible for the aurora, as well as the electric and magnetic fields associated with their variations.

Bonnell shares a primer on the causes and behavior of the aurora; images, movies, and data taken during the month-long GREECE launch campaign; and our ongoing efforts to understand the physics of the aurora.


2021 Speakers

December, 2021: Astrophotography with Justin Stevick, RFO Docent and Astronomy Faculty member at Santa Rosa Junior College

Those interested in astrophotography must first understand their camera and some fundamental camera properties such as exposure time, focal length, F-stop, and ISO. Justin will introduce guests to the basics of long exposure photography using DSLR cameras, or nearly any camera with manual settings. Not everyone has access to fancy and often expensive astronomy equipment, so first he’ll cover what can be done if you only have a camera and tripod (such as painting with light, star trails, and Milky Way shots). He’ll then talk about the benefits of using a sky tracker or tracking telescope to photograph deep space objects (such as galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae). Since this is an introductory talk, he will focus on single images without any post-processing.

November, 2021: The James Webb Telescope with Thomas Greene, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center

James Webb Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most complex and powerful astronomical space observatory ever built. It will launch in December 2021 and will unfold itself before arriving in its final orbit in the Sun – Earth system about a month later. The large 6.5-m diameter JWST primary mirror and its infrared instruments will allow it to see some of the very first luminous objects that formed in the Universe shortly after the Big Bang. Other major science themes of JWST encompass studying the assembly of galaxies, the birth of stars and planetary systems, and planetary systems and the origins of life. JWST will be the premier astrophysics space observatory for NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) over its 5 to 10-year mission lifetime. It will augment the Hubble Space Telescope, which primarily works at visible and ultraviolet light wavelengths. In addition to the topics covered in this talk, many scientists will use JWST to make discoveries that we have not yet imagined.

JWST employs many unique technologies, and the mission has been in development for 20 years. All major hardware components including the telescope, all science instruments, and spacecraft have been completed. The completed integrated observatory will be launched from French Guiana, and scientists from all over the world will use it. This talk will illustrate the mission’s science potential and highlight some aspects of its design, technologies, launch, and operations plans.

September, 2021: The Ionospheric Connection Explorer with Dr. Thomas Immel, ICON Principal Investigator at UC Berkeley

Dr. Tom Immel

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), the newest addition to NASA’s fleet of Heliophysics satellites, launched on October 10, 2019. Led by UC Berkeley, scientists and engineers around the world came together to make ICON a reality. The goal of the ICON mission is to understand the tug-of-war between Earth’s atmosphere and the space environment. In the “no mans land” of the ionosphere, a continuous struggle between solar forcing and Earth’s weather systems drive extreme and unpredicted variability. ICON will investigate the forces at play in the near-space environment, leading the way in understanding disturbances that can lead to severe interference with communications and GPS signals. 

August, 2021: “Measuring to the Stars: The Apotheosis of Trig.”, with Rick Luttmann, Sonoma State University (retired)

Rick Luttmann

From the Earth we cannot measure distances to heavenly bodies directly. However, we can measure angles and time, and with these as our only tools (and some occasional physics) we can work our way up — beginning with the size of the Earth; then the sizes and distances of the moon, sun, and other planets; then the distances of nearby stars, and then other stars in our galaxy; finally the distances of remote galaxies. (Along the way we infer the speed of light.) Most of our calculations are done using elementary trigonometry.

July, 2021: LIGO—Gravitational Wave Observatory, with Lynn Cominsky, Ph.D., Sonoma State University

Lynn Cominsky

On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) received the first confirmed gravitational wave signals. Now known as GW150914, the event represents the coalescence of two distant black holes that were previously in mutual orbit. LIGO’s exciting discovery provides direct evidence of what is arguably the last major unconfirmed prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and has launched the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy. Prof. Lynn Cominsky from Sonoma State University will present an introduction to LIGO, gravitational waves and black holes. She will also discuss the gravitational wave detection results reported to date from LIGO and Virgo.

May, 2021: “How big is BIG?” with Dave Kensiski

Dave Kensiski Portrait

To quote Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big. Really big.”  But just how big is it?  This talk aims to blow your mind by showing how big the universe really is.  We start with our humble observatory and expand from there to expose to the mindbogglingly huge scale of the universe.

April, 2021: Mars’ Atmosphere wit Laura Peticolas, Associate Director of the EdEon Stem Learning at Sonoma State University

Laura Peticolas

NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully landed on Mars in another incredible engineering feat, allowing scientists to learn more about this red planet. But rovers are not the only way that scientists study Mars. NASA also has learned about the evolution of the Martian atmosphere, that is how the air on Mars has been lost to space or its surface over time. Dr. Peticolas will describe the exploration of Mars’ magnetic fields and atmospheric loss over several decades. The discoveries from this research together with our understanding of our own planet Earth have culminated in a new question “Do habitable worlds require magnetic fields?” 

March, 2021: “Fermi Paradox and Drake equation” with Sam Cena

Sam Cena

Looking at the night sky, we can see a beauty that can be truly fascinating. But it can also be scary, as Sir Arthur Clark once said, “We are either alone in this universe or we are not, and both those ideas are equally scary”. It is in human nature to explore, question, and discover phenomenals in the world. If you’re now thinking of Aliens, you are right. Considering that the earth is just a drop in the cosmic ocean, could there be another earth-like planet somewhere? IF yes, what are the odds? Have we found any evidence? How can we find out? This and much more is coming up in the presentation, “The Fermi Paradox”.

February, 2021: “Astronomy: from passion to profession,” with Rachel Freed

Rachel Freed

Rachel talks about how she went from having a general interest in astronomy, to becoming involved in the global astronomy community, and the role that RFO played in her journey. She discusses her astronomy outreach, astronomy research and publication programs, global participation, and her roles on editorial committees and boards. 

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