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Stargazey Pie, February 2005

Antony McEwan's monthly digest of HAS happenings

February 2005 meeting

The auditorium was nearly full on Tuesday 1st. Obviously the long depression of January had not affected our members, as they turned out in droves (and cars) full of enthusiasm and chatter for this exciting meeting. There was a lot on the agenda, but of course the first item was the meeting's notices, announced by Chairwoman Pauline Macrae.

Star Party and Talk On Saturday 8th April, SIGMA, the Moray Astronomical Club, will be holding a star party at their Elgin observing site. Further information about the time, location and other details, will be forthcoming from Pauline. On Friday 7th, the night before the star party, there will be a talk given by Douglas Cooper at the SIGMA meeting venue. The subject of the talk will be observations of the recent Venus Transit from Egypt.

Happy Birthday, Pluto On Thursday 24th February, Radio 4’s regular “Material World” programme will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the announcement of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930. This is sure to be a very interesting programme, so if you’re going to be out make sure you’ve got a blank tape or other means of recording it.

Mission DVDs and Info Jeremy Rundle offered some DVDs on the Cassini Huygens mission and others, plus information on the Cassini-Huygens mission. He also has two basic astronomy courses for people to borrow. One focuses on the planets and the other is a more general course. Please contact Pauline, if interested, and she will pass your request on.

Pens The replacements for the red-light pens which were supplied recently have not arrived yet. Alan Mumford has been in touch with the company supplying them and it seems that they must be testing each one individually to prevent any duff ones slipping through. We hope to see them soon.

AGM Looms… April’s meeting will be the AGM, and the Committee is therefore obliged to give notice that all office bearers will be standing down, except for Pat Williams, our Secretary. Most will be happy to stand for re-election, but Trina, our current Treasurer, is unable to do so due to other commitments.

Where’s the Moon? All the Moon-phase postcards have now sold. If you haven’t got one, you’ll just have to stand out under the sky to see what the Moon looks like each night. Or I could keep an eye open to see if I can find some more…

Observing Nights February can be a great month for observing (according to ancient legend), so we are hoping especially hard for clear skies and clement weather for the following observing sessions at the JSL observatory at Culloden. They start at about 8pm and usually continue until 11pm, or thereabouts. If you want to look through a big telescope, that’s the place to be, or if you have queries about celestial objects or your own astronomical equipment these evenings could be good opportunities to seek answers.

Friday 4th February Maarten

Saturday 5th February Pauline

Friday 11th February Pauline

Saturday 12th February Bill

The new website is LIVE New members, and old, will no doubt be happy to hear that our newly redesigned website, www.spacegazer.com, is up and running. Maarten delivered a potted history of the Spacegazer website, showing its old and new incarnations, and impressed on the members the importance of the website to the Highlands Astronomical Society. It is a repository of articles about telescopes and observing, reviews of equipment by members, observation reports, records of major events in the history of the Highlands Astronomical Society, links to other sites of interest and a whole lot more.

The message board has long been considered a focal point of discussion and information in the society, and actually gathers readers from all around the world. It can also be a link back to the society for members who are abroad on holiday or who have left the area. The new website has been put together by Plexus, a company based in Cromarty. We would very much like to express our thanks for all their time and hard work in preparing such a flexible and useable website. This was done at Plexus’s own expense - we have not had to pay for their services at all and we are deeply grateful for their contribution. This local connection has also enabled the society to be quite specific about what we wanted on the website, and Plexus have built a site which will be easy for the web team to maintain on a regular basis. The web team currently consists of Maarten, Andy and myself, and so far the new system is proving to be very adaptable and allows us to add or remove new features quite quickly.

We hope that the picture gallery will be of particular interest to our members, as it allows you to display your best astro-pics and let other interested parties view them. This is quite a hi-tech part of the site and allows you to post a note of what photographic equipment you used to take the picture and when it was taken. You are also able to create your own personal gallery on these pages, saving your favourite pictures so that you can revisit them quickly or share them with other members. If you do wish to place a picture on the gallery, just follow the instructions on the gallery page and please be sure to include a little information about yourself and your interest in astronomy. The picture will not go online immediately, but will have to be passed as suitable for publishing by one of the administrators. This is a particularly useful feature as it should allow us to stop anything unsavoury or unsuitable from reaching the website viewers.

The website is there primarily for the members to make use of and contribute to. If you wish to add an article to the website, or have any questions about it at all, please contact Maarten, Andy or myself and we will be happy to advise you. In the meantime, take a look around and explore the Highlands Astronomical Society’s own little bit of online space.


Eyes On The Skies Comet Machholz is still around, and starts the month at magnitude 4.3. It fades a bit as the month progresses, but should still be easily findable high in the sky as it passes between Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis. Being so high, the comet will become circumpolar and so will not set when night ends.

The huge constellation of Leo comes to prominence this month, and with a small telescope you should be able to spot the famous pair of spiral galaxies, M65 and M66, as well as their nearby (visual) companion NGC 3628. They are all of ninth magnitude so should be visible in 3” to 4” refractors too. I haven’t seen them in my 85mm yet as I haven’t had a look this season, but I hope to spot them soon.

As well as magnificent Saturn giving a great show at the moment, dynamic Jupiter is rising after 11pm and should be available for decent observation bookings by about 4am. This will get earlier as the month progresses and will be at about 3am by the end of the month. As the successful Huygens probe has sent back a ton of useful and impressive data from the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, you may want to have a look for Titan yourself. It is very easy to spot, being quite noticeable and close to Saturn in even a low power eyepiece view. You won’t be able to make out any detail, but you will at least be able to tell yourself “We’ve landed there”.

February is an ideal time to keep an eye out for the mysterious Zodiacal Light. This is a subtle silvery glow caused by meteoric dust in the plane of the solar system reflecting sunlight from below the horizon. It is best to search for it on a clear moonless night, looking west about 1 to 2 hours after sunset, or east the same amount of time before sunset. If you are lucky you should see the faint triangular shaped glow extending away from the Sun’s position below the horizon. If you spot that and are feeling really lucky you could go for the Gegenschein too, which is a faint spot of light in the night-time sky situated diametrically opposite the position of the Sun. Again, it is caused by a reflection of the Sun’s light off dust particles in space.


The Main Event

February’s main event was a talk entitled “What Has The Space Industry Done For Us?” given by Chairwoman Pauline Macrae. The question was quite straightforward - have our lives been made any better by spending millions of Dollars, Pounds and Roubles on space research? Has it been worthwhile to ordinary people in the street?

Pauline started off by giving a brief history of the first tentative steps into space, showing how that dream really started with the advent of aircraft being used in war. The launch of Sputnik by the Russians in 1957 attracted a lot of attention and competition from the Americans, and so the ‘space race’ was born. Suddenly, a lot of money began to pour into the development of new technologies to keep one or other of the two nations ahead. In 1962 the Technology Utilisation Program was started as a result of NASA recognising that many of its technologies were transferable to industry for the development of commercial products, and this led to thousands of new technologies filtering through to normal everyday life as ‘spin-off technologies’. The Technology Utilisation Program has now evolved into the Technology Transfer Program, which has encouraged private investment in new research with the aim of making it easier and more cost-effective to develop technologies which may have a ‘space use’ and an ‘Earth use’ in tandem. A similar program has been run by the European Space Agency since 1990, and has resulted in 400 space technologies being marketed, and 800 jobs being saved or created in Europe.

After this introduction we were treated to a huge array of slides that showing various cases of technologies which are used by everyday people, but which were originally developed for use in the space programme. Weather forecasting wouldn’t be as accurate today without the meteorological satellites which allow scientists to track weather fronts and building storms. Satellites detect gaps in the ozone layer and areas of toxic algae too, and we wouldn’t know about these hazards unless someone had launched those satellites into orbit. Communications are another obvious example, but these are only the tip of the iceberg.

Medicine has benefitted greatly from space technologies, including breakthroughs in breast cancer detection, the development of a test to measure the flexibility of bones which can then be used to test for osteoporosis in the general population, as well as post mission astronauts, and many other areas. Programmable pacemakers were developed from the technology used by NASA to communicate with satellites. Insulin pumps for diabetics were developed from the same systems which allowed fine control of fuel pumps in the Viking landers. CT scans benefit from the use of Image Enhancement software developed by NASA, as do various security and Police forces who use it to clean up grainy surveillance images in their quest to catch criminals. There are even special pyjama suits which were developed to help prevent cot deaths. They make use of astronaut monitoring technologies developed by the European Space Agency and associated organisations. There were many more examples of cases where research and development used in the space programme have actually led to lives being saved, or quality of life being improved for us down on the ground.

The leisure and sports industries have also benefitted from space industry research. You may have a joystick for playing games on your computer - did you know they were developed from control systems for the lunar rovers? If you watch the Formula One races, did you realise that the mechanics’ uniforms contain a micro air-conditioning system similar to those used in spacesuits? If you’ve ever watched the Paralympics, did you know that some specialist prosthetic limbs, designed to take the wear and tear that sportspeople throw at them, use the strong but lightweight materials developed by the space industry for use in spacecraft? Scratch resistant plastic spectacle lenses came from finding a way to protect aerospace equipment from the harsh environment of space. The actual plastic material used owes its development to the shatter-resistant visors astronauts' helmets are fitted with. The list goes on…

Pauline’s talk showed us that there are an incredibly large number of things we take for granted every day which have only come about because some very clever people somewhere found space industry research problems that needed to be solved, and then allowed the technology that they used to solve those problems to trickle down to normal society and be available to people like you and me. It was a fascinating presentation with more than a few surprises - for example: NASA didn’t invent Teflon, though they did adopt it later. Velcro, the favourite material of astronomers worldwide, also didn’t come from space industry research, although it is used comprehensively in the Space Shuttles and International Space Station to keep things from drifting off in the zero gravity environment.

So, what has the space industry done for us? A whole heap of plenty, thank you very much! And what did Pauline give us? An excellent, entertaining and thought provoking talk with plenty of surprises - and she even got the computer to work properly…

Colin’s Space Adventure
After the tea-break, Colin Donaldson very kindly showed us his collection of photographs which he took while at ‘Space Camp’ in Houston, Texas. Colin was part of a group of young people who had been flown out to Johnson Space Centre as part of the Space School programme. His pictures included a large number of the mock-up space rockets and landers which adorn the area, as well as the inside of the Mission Command centre. His group were shown around much of the facility, including the vast underwater training area used to prepare astronauts for the rigours of zero-gee operations. No swimming was allowed! One of the highlights of the trip was being in direct communication with Leroy Chiao aboard the International Space Station. Colin asked Leroy what the views of the Moon and stars were like from their orbit. Leroy explained that the windows were usually locked in view towards Earth, but when they got a chance to look out into space there were so many stars visible that it was hard to make out the constellations. Yes, I’m jealous. That’s even better than the Cromarty Vortex! Many thanks to Colin for bringing those great pictures along and sharing them with us - it was a great opportunity to see the astronauts and workers at NASA in training and at play.

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