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

April 14, 2022 at 7 pm PST: “The Top Tourist Sights of the Solar System with Andrew Fraknoi

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Join RFO and Andrew Fraknoi for an informative conversation on “Where Jeff Bezos’ Great Grand-Daughter will go for her Honeymoon: The Top Tourist Sights of the Solar System.”

We will explore the most intriguing future “tourist destinations” among the planets and moons in our cosmic neighborhood. Our stops will 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.”). We’ll finish with the latest images of the eerie vistas on Pluto.

Andrew Fraknoi retired in 2017 as the Chair of the Astronomy Department at Foothill College, and now teaches non-credit astronomy courses for older adults at The Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco and the OLLI program at SF State. Fraknoi has appeared regularly on local and national radio, explaining astronomical developments in everyday language, and was the California Professor of the Year in 2007. He is the lead author of a college astronomy textbook (Astronomy from OpenStax) and a children’s book, When the Sun Goes Dark. He also writes science fiction and has had four stories published in the last few years. The International Astronomical Union has named Asteroid 4859 Asteroid Fraknoi to honor his contributions to the public understanding of science.  See his website: http://fraknoi.com for more information and to read his science fiction.


Past Speakers

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. 

Laura Sparks has taught astronomy full time at Santa Rosa Junior College since 2009. She earned a B.S. in physics from Arizona State University and an M.S. in Physics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her research focused on high-energy gamma ray astrophysics. In 2019 she was selected to participate in the Astronomy in Chile Educational Ambassador Program.  

Laura has been a frequent volunteer at science outreach events throughout Sonoma County, and served as a past board member of the Sonoma County Astronomical Society. She is a member of Astronomers for Planet Earth, an organization of professional astronomers, educators, and students who advocate for climate action. She also currently serves as an elected official on the Cotati City Council.    

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.

George Loyer has been studying astronomy as an amateur since the 1970’s, reading everything he could get his hands on, observing the night sky with small telescopes, and making telescopes and instruments that he and others use. He enjoys making these sometimes-remote stories accessible to an audience.  He holds no degrees, advanced or otherwise, in any field and simply enjoys the pleasure of learning and understanding more about the Cosmos every day.

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.

This evening, we share 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.

Thomas Greene is an astrophysicist in the Space Science and Astrobiology Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center. He conducts observational studies of exoplanets and young stars and develops astronomical technologies and instrumentation. Dr. Greene is a co-investigator on the NIRCam and MIRI science instruments of the James Webb Space Telescope and serves on the JWST Users Committee.  While at NASA Ames he has served as the Director of the Ames Center for Exoplanet Studies, Project Scientist of the SOFIA mission, and Chief of the Astrophysics Branch. Before joining NASA, he worked at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center on NASA astrophysics missions. Prior to that, Dr. Greene was on the faculty of the University of Hawaii where he was a support astronomer and later Director of the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF). He received his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Arizona. Dr. Greene currently co-chairs the US National Academies of Sciences’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) and is a NASA representative on the W .M. Keck Observatory Science Steering Committee.

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. 

Dr. Thomas J. Immel received his Ph.D. from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1998 followed by post doctoral physics research at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX. Today Dr. Immel serves as Principal Investigator for ICON at the Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley. In that role, he is ultimately responsible for the scientific success of the mission. He is a research physicist and Senior Fellow at the Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley where he has worked since the year 2000. He has 2 boys and has a lot of fun with them doing computer and music projects.

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.

Rick Luttmann is now Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Sonoma State University, where he has been on the faculty since 1970. He has degrees in mathematics from Amherst College, Stanford University, and the University of Arizona. He represents retired faculty on the Academic Senate, and previously served on the Senate for 15 years, including a term as Faculty Chair 2000-2003. He has eclectic academic interests — he has taught general-education courses on Symmetry in Art and Science, Mathematics of Growth and Form, Math and Politics, and Ethno-mathematics. He helped create the public lecture series on War and Peace issues and directed it for 25 years. He has written two books on Symmetry and two on raising backyard fowl, as well as papers on Eskimo dancing based on his field research in Alaska. He is a Certified Financial Planner and had a mini-career in Financial Planning. He has had an abiding interest in astronomy since he was 7 years old, and was allowed by his general science instructor in 7th grade to teach the unit on astronomy.

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.

Lynn Cominsky is a Professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at Sonoma State University (SSU), where she has been on the faculty for almost 35 years. She is an author on over 200 research papers in refereed journals, and the Principal or Co-Investigator on over $33 million of grants to SSU. Prof. Cominsky is the founder and director of SSU’s Education and Public Outreach Group (now renamed EdEon STEM Learning), which develops educational materials for NASA, NSF and the US Department of Education. The group excels at K-12 teacher training, curriculum development, and the development of interactive web activities for students that teach math and science. In 1993, Prof. Cominsky was named SSU’s Outstanding Professor, and the California Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. In 2007, she was named a Fellow of the California Council on Science and Technology, in 2009, a Fellow of the American Physical Society and in 2013, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Recent awards include the 2016 Education Prize from the American Astronomical Society, the 2016 Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University and the 2017 Frank J. Malina Education Medal from the International Astronautical Federation. In 2019, she was selected as one of the first 200 Legacy Fellows named by the American Astronomical Society. Her newest NASA project is NASA’s Neurodiversity Network, which aims to develop resources and internships for teens on the autism spectrum.

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.

David Kensiski joined the Robert Ferguson Observatory board in 2014, served as President, and heads the RFO IT team, responsible for the computer and network systems and telescope upgrades. He holds a BS in Computer Science, is active with the Boy Scouts, and holds a ham radio license (W6DLK). He can often be found running the 40″ or 20” CCD telescope for RFO’s public and private events. He works for Google and enjoys sharing his love of astronomy with the public.

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?” 

Laura got her PhD in Physics from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her PhD work resulted in a time-dependent electron transport model to better understand rapidly changing forms in the Aurora Borealis. Her work is still being used in new applications today, such as understanding electrons through Titan’s atmosphere. Dr. Peticolas did her post doctoral work at the Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley, where she analyzed NASA’s FAST satellite data over the aurora and later spent 17 years there as a Senior Fellow. Over the years, Dr. Peticolas’ work transitioned to primarily science education efforts with diverse audiences and science teachers in middle and high schools. Dr. Peticolas now serves as Associate Director of the EdEon Stem Learning at Sonoma State University, where she manages several large grants from NASA, the US Dept. of Education, etc. She is working on designing and building Cube Satellites with students from Sonoma State University as well as leading a year-long STEM curricula research and implementation study with teachers in Northern California.

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. 

Rachel has been an educator and amateur astronomer for over 20 years. She is a co-founder and the president of the Institute for Student Astronomical Research (InStAR), working with students and educators around the world to help bring research opportunities to students. She is also the editor of the Journal of Double Star Observations, a faculty member in the the School of Education at Sonoma State University, and is currently getting a PhD in Astronomy Education at Edith Cowan University in Australia. With a B.S. in Biology, an M.S. in Neuroscience, and her current work in astronomy, she has over 20 published scientific papers and is regularly invited to speak about astronomy education at national and international conferences. 

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