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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie April 2007

The 2007 AGM was an event of mixed emotions. It marked the end of Pauline Macrae’s service as Chairperson, and introduced a new figure to that position. As well as that, we had an encouraging update on the funding process for the new observatory project, and some remarkable entertainment after the tea-break. A report on the recent Going Nova 2 event went down well, and for an AGM all went peaceably enough, with remarkably little bloodshed. Of course, the tea and biscuits provided at half-time always help to keep discord and violence at bay. To start the meeting off, we had Pauline read out the notices for the last time (that we know of so far….)

  • Lights, Camera…Cloud! Many thanks to everyone who came along to the televised star party at Culloden. The event was being filmed by the makers of a Gaelic TV programme, who hope to go on to make programmes about astronomy past, present and future. Despite the cold and standing around, everyone seemed to enjoy it, and we hope that it ends up being broadcast soon. Pauline and Rob took centre stage, promoting the Society and showing our aims with aplomb, and Pauline has expressed thanks for those who guarded the telescopes while she and Rob were being filmed.
  • Stargazing Events. This month these will start at 9pm, so if you are phoning the host’s home phone number please do so before 8.30. After that, please use the mobile number listed. These events are weather-dependant, so please get in touch if there’s any doubt that it will go ahead.

Friday 13th April....... Antony McEwan
Saturday 14th April...... Trina Shaddick

  • BAA VAR STAR. The British Astronomical Association Variable Star Section is having its annual meeting at the Royal Observatory, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh, on Saturday 5th May from 10.00am to 5.30pm. All members of Scottish astronomical societies are invited to attend. There is a £10 charge for refreshments and lunch, and if you are interested in going they would like to hear from you in advance so that catering can be arranged. Please contact Des Loughney, Eclipsing Binary Secretary (BAA VSS) at "desloughney at".
  • Farewell to Sandy Gillies. A former treasurer of ours, Sandy Gillies, sadly dies recently on 24th March. He was Treasurer from before Pauline became Chairwoman up until 2003. His funeral was last Wednesday, and Pat Escott represented the Society. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.
  • Starry Nights Ahead… We have been contacted by Avanquest about Starry Night software products. It seems they are going to offer us discounts on their products, and may even offer us a free copy of one of their software titles as a raffle prize! Please contact Pat Williams if you are interested in this stellar offer.
  • Observatory Update. Latest news from the journals of the new observatory is that SIGMA has donated £50 to us! We are very grateful for this generous gesture, and we offer deepest thanks. We are also delighted that Eric has received £1970 from Diageo for the electronic equipment that will transmit images from the telescope to computer screens in the Observing Station. We have had a problem with the Soakaway tests though, in that we will not be able to have a septic tank without a special mounded filtration system. This will cost extra, and we may have to build the observatory with the toilet, but not connected until more money has been raised to get it working. Regardless, thanks go out to those who attended and did the work for the tests, including John Gilmour, Rob Nuttall, Arthur Milnes, Bill Jappy, Ian Grant and another Ian, and yet more thanks were offered to the National Trust for Scotland for their continued help with the observatory project. Pauline also reminded us about the option of having your name placed on a plaque in the observatory, in return for a £25 donation towards the funds. You will also receive a certificate to take home and frame too if you take advantage of this momentous offer! The image below, shown as part of a small funding update PowerPoint presentation by John Gilmour, shows where we are in reaching our funding goal:



  • Where’s Pat? Pat Escott, that is. Well, she wasn’t at the meeting as she was celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary and had decided that took priority over a boring old HAS AGM. Well, she can be like that if she wants. See if we care… Anyway, congratulations to Pat and Trevor, and thanks to Pat for keeping on top of all the numbers and figures through the last year!
  • “Tea for two, two for tea…” Or more accurately, tea for eighty-eight. Our current tea ladies, Linda, Jean, Rita and Rhona, ably assisted by tea-gentleman Fred, have been looking after our mid-meeting refreshments for the last three years, and are now looking for volunteers to take over. Pauline immediately volunteered her services to this fine cause, but there’s plenty more room for anyone interested in helping out! Please speak to Linda or one of the other team members if you can help.
  • That was the year that was. John Fraser has a complete run of Patrick Moore’s ‘Yearbook of Astronomy’ 1987 to 1996 plus three more from the 70’s. He is clearing his shelves and would like to give them to a good home, and he’s even willing to deliver in Inverness! One of our members helped him set up his new telescope a year or two back. If you are interested, please speak to Pat Williams to get contact details.
  • Book-search. Does anyone have a spare or unwanted copy of Astronomy course book S194 from the Open University? If so, would you consider lending it to Linda and her team, who are going to be helping Craig Ferguson with a series of astronomy lessons. Please contact Linda or Pauline if you can help out. Thanks.
  • And it’s goodbye from me. Pauline pointed out at this point that this would be her last meeting as Chairwoman (though she evidently has now become ‘Charwoman’; a situation just as important and very nearly identical in spelling) and expressed her thanks to all those who have helped and supported her over the last seven (yes – seven!) years. More about this further on….

Going Nova 2

Maarten was next on the floor, with a detailed report about the happenings at Going Nova 2, which took place at Horizon Scotland on 22nd to 24th March. As expected it was another fantastic success. The Thursday events were centred around ‘Thinking Big’, and focused on ways that science could change our lives. Mentioned were ideas about new types of fuel for vehicles, and the possibility (growing ever stronger) of Virgin Galactic having their Spaceport situated at Lossiemouth. Apparently, signs from VG are good, as the area has a lot of the things they are looking for, including low air traffic, long runway space, good weather and relatively easy access. If that goes ahead, it will also boost the tourism trade in our area massively, and the HAS are bound to benefit too, being right on the doorstep of the best daytrip departure point in history! A new science-focused group has emerged from the events of Going Nova 2, one that will hopefully see contact with scientists from Kazakhstan who have experience of operating a spaceport, and with Will Whitehorn, the president of VG himself.

Friday was attended by 150 schoolchildren, who all had a great time with various hands-on experiments and presentations. The Faulkes Telescope was used, and is a major draw now at the Going Nova events, but unfortunately the server failed on the Friday night. Thankfully, it was only a temporary setback, and there was plenty more to keep the attendees entertained.

Saturday was the general open day, and more Faulkes images were created. These aare even now being processed and tweaked by the team of imagers, and their results will be placed on the Society’s image gallery on our website and on the website of SIGMA, Moray’s astronomical society. Other hits of the event included the world’s smallest remote-controlled helicopters (keep reading for more on them) and lots of discussion about robots and technology.

Maarten thanked all those who attended, and promised that even now it looks likely that there will be a Going Nova 3 event sometime in the future. Something we can all look forward to…


At some point of course, we had to actually do the AGM stuff that was required, and after Maarten finished seemed like a good time. The various documents prepared by the office-bearers should all have reached you by email, but if not the Secretary’s Report and Chairwoman’s Report are available for viewing or download in pdf format from the following page.

There were no changes proposed to the constitution, no disagreements with anything said in any of the reports, no charges of corruption levelled at anyone, and only a few questions relating to the funds in the various accounts held by the Society. These were fielded by Trina, who was standing in for Pat Escott, who as previously mentioned was away somewhere having fun.

Other questions included one about tax relief and how it would apply to the funding from Diageo acquired by Eric. Simon Urry responded to that, saying that it was unclear at the moment, and was open to interpretation so no definite answer was given. He did invite any interested parties to visit the Government website on the subject.

Pat Escott has been re-elected for another year as Treasurer, and there has been a slight change made to the tax year. It will now end on 1st March instead of the 15th March each year. This change was made to bring us in line with some of the regulations of OSCR, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. The way in which the accounts are formatted has changed slightly too, as can be seen in the Accounts sheet that you will already have received, but that also can’t be avoided, although that will increase the Treasurer’s workload a bit.

With all the AGM business out of the way, there was something else very important to attend to…

‘The Pauline Years’
Pauline Macrae, Chairwoman 2000 – 2007

Pat Williams, acting as Secretary, reminded us that this was the final meeting with Pauline as Chairwoman. It has been 7 years since Pauline took over from the late Jim Savage-Lowden, and those 7 years have been jam-packed with exciting events, achievements, and projects that have burst out of the creative minds of Pauline and her various dynamic Committee members.

The regular observing sessions (or Stargazing Events) started under her leadership, as did the building of the HASDobs telescope and the current observatory that so many members now use. She has attended all sorts of astronomical events all over the country, including Astrofest, astronomical lectures on various subjects, visits to other astronomical societies whilst on holiday, the Scottish Astronomer Group weekends, right up to the Dark Skies project launch in February at Grantown on Spey. Of course it was always a pleasure when Pauline told us about these events that she had attended, and she has obviously applied many of the best ideas of other societies, so that under her leadership the Highlands Astronomical Society has grown and improved in every way, and become much more active in so many different areas.

Open days for the public, the growth of the media sub-committee (with monthly articles in the Inverness Courier and regular comments on Moray FirthRadio) and public observing sessions at the observatory, are just some of the ways in which the Society has expanded in the last 7 years, to the point where we now have 88 fully paid up members and a growing reputation as a voice for Astronomy in the Highlands.

Pat then deliberately and premeditatedly broke one of the Society’s rules. As a charity we are not allowed to present office-bearers with gifts, but on this occasion Pat was sure that nobody present would argue the point, and so she presented Pauline, on behalf of all the members, some gifts as a mark of respect, admiration, affection and thanks for her 7 years of hard work as Chairwoman. These gifts included a copy of ‘Bang! The Complete History Of The Universe’, signed by Patrick Moore, Brian May and Chris Lintott; a photograph of the book being signed, taken by Linda Moncur, and a very special presentation of Lifetime Membership of the Highlands Astronomical Society! Yes, even though Pauline is no longer Chairwoman, there will indeed now be no getting rid of her at all! There was a ‘retirement’ card as well, with many of our signatures and messages of good wishes.

Naturally, Pauline was self-deprecating as always, and thanked all the various members who had served with her as Committee members for their help, and all the ‘normal’ members for their support, help and encouragement. At least we don’t have to worry about Pauline running off and leaving us now, as she is a lifetime member, and very soon we may well have our mid-meeting cups of tea served by her, which just goes to show that she still intends to keep on contributing to the Society in very important ways!

Thanks, Pauline, for 7 years of excellence!

In with the new…

The next task to be undertaken was the electing of a new Chairperson. Maarten proposed John Gilmour as a candidate, and read out a short resume of John’s life so that we could consider whether to vote for him or against.

John was born and raised in Kilmarnock, and still follows the local football team. He works in research and design and project management, in the field of immunology and biotechnology, particularly involved in researching and developing medical diagnostic equipment. He recently moved to Beauly, and joined the Society in 2005. Since then he has joined the Observatory sub-committee, and has taken on the role of Project Manager for that project, and has been involved in researching fundraising options. You may recall seeing some of his aurora photographs on our image gallery, and one of them still graces the homepage of the aurorawatch website.

There were no other candidates proposed, and so a vote was taken as to whether John should become the new Chairman. The vote was unanimous, and he was elected to the office.

Having so quickly filled the void left by Pauline’s departure (a whole 5 minutes or so) somehow we found ourselves starting a sort of tradition. The ceremony of the Tea-Mugs was introduced, whereby the outgoing and incoming Chairpersons both received special Highlands Astronomical Society mugs as marks of their office. Despite a moderate amount of confusion on the parts of the Mug-Presenter (Linda) the tradition was introduced successfully, and we can only wait and see if it still exists at the next changeover of Chairperson!

So, welcome aboard John Gilmour!

The Mini-Main Event
‘Some Bits and Pieces’ by Maarten de Vries

The post-tea-break slot was supposed to be occupied by a special autobiographical DVD being shown by Tim Schroder. Unfortunately, Sir Patrick outwitted the technology present at the Green House on this occasion, as a sound cable was missing. Privately I feel sure that the great man would feel a perverse sense of satisfaction in outwitting technology, even if it did mean we missed the DVD…for now! There’s always the next time a speaker has to cancel, after all.

But all was not lost, as Maarten stepped into the breach, and delivered some thoughts and ruminations on a variety of subjects over about 30 minutes, which had us enthralled, excited and baffled by turns!

Space flight was discussed, in particular the ways in which the space-flight boffins have to think on their feet to correct problems or issues that occur with hardware or software once a space vehicle has launched. Maarten focused on the infamous episode that occurred during the Apollo 13 mission, when an oxygen tank’s stirring mechanism failed, causing an explosion and the venting of precious oxygen into space. The inventiveness of the flight controllers, system scientists and the crew themselves were what saved the three men in the module. At the Kennedy Space Centre there was an exact copy of the service module the astronauts were in, and the ground crew were given the task of creating a ‘fix’ for the problem using only the materials that the astronauts had to hand, right down to their copy of the service manual!

Grace under pressure, ingenuity – call it what you will, but it worked and it saved the Apollo 13 crew. The same discipline and will to succeed has been applied to other space exploration mishaps, including the recent Cassini Huygens probe sent to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The lander (Huygens) was supposed to transmit its data to the Cassini orbiter, from whence it would be transmitted back to Earth. However, if that plan had been implemented without any further intervention from the European Space Agency all the data would have been lost! There was a flaw in the way the orbiter and lander were set up to communicate with each other: the data transmitted from Huygens to Cassini would have been Doppler-shifted, which was expected. Unfortunately the firmware on Cassini was not set up for this and the mission would have been an expensive and dramatic failure. The solution was to change the trajectory of the Huygens probe relative to Cassini, so that its data would be transmitted perpendicular to its motion relative to Cassini. Sounds simple, but to apply the solution required Huygens to detach a month later than planned, and although grounded in sound theory it had not been tested. It worked, and the mission was a huge success, giving humanity its first sights (and sounds) of Titan!

Linked to this discussion was reference to the film ‘The Right Stuff’, which chronicled the training and selection of the crews for the Gemini missions in the 1950’s. Once again a certain refusal to give in was one of the most essential characteristics of the applicants, and they applied it all through their repetitive and gruelling training missions and during the actual space-flights themselves. These men were real pioneers breaking through mankind’s greatest barrier of the time, and their names are justifiably renowned: names such as Conrad, Lovell, Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, Grissom, and so many others. (Three of these names were snuffed out in the tragic Apollo 1 fire: Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee all died when a fire caught in the command module in 1967.)

Maarten then got out his little chopper and demonstrated it in front of us. This was apparently quite a highlight at Going Nova 2 as well! The Picoo Z ‘smallest remote-controlled helicopter in the world’ proved to be a great little gizmo, with real-time control possible by means of an infrared transmitter, which transmits instructions to the two tiny motors within the helicopter’s body. When I say tiny I really mean tiny, as the chopper itself is only about 17cm long and weighs just 10g! This particular item was also demonstrated at Going Nova 2, and it’s easy to see why it appeals to people with enquiring minds, as the technology required to create something so small that works so well in this way is incredible – and yet you can buy them for £25 or less!

The motors in the helicopter body are powered by lithium polymer batteries, similar to those used in mobile phones, which are lightweight and flexible, making them ideal for fitting into confined spaces. They are also highly volatile though, so care has to be taken not to overheat or stress them. Maarten demonstrated the chopper taking off from the table, hovering, slewing left to right and manoeuvring around the room under perfect control, before landing again at exactly the right spot!

This was great fun, and several of us got the chance to try it out for ourselves. Interestingly enough, of the four who tried it out after Maarten finished, two (myself included) have placed orders for them!

The experience with the choppers is quite the metaphor for the whole of Maarten’s little stint actually: educational, entertaining, and most of all fun! Thanks for filling in, Maarten!

Highland Skies – April 2007

You may have noticed it is staying light in the evenings longer now. I know this can instil feelings of misery, doubt, and indeed, panic, but it can’t be avoided – we’re simply in BST now. (S for Summer, T for Time, and you can insert your favourite B word as you see fit, though traditionally it’s ‘British’). Sunset is getting later and later as we move into Spring, so if you want to look for objects only visible in truly dark skies, such as galaxies and faint nebulae, you’ll have to start observing later on in the evening. For this reason, April’s Stargazing Events at the Culloden Observatory have been scheduled to start at 9pm instead of 8pm.

All is not lost though, and springtime observing has a lot of advantages. For starters it’s generally warmer, as the Sun climbs higher in the sky, spending more time above the horizon, and so transfers more heat into our atmosphere, which in turn takes longer to dissipate. This can mean you don’t have to worry so much about you (or your equipment) freezing up!

For those willing to wait until proper nightfall, the constellations of Leo, Virgo and Ursa Major make excellent galactic hunting grounds, especially Leo and Virgo. They contain the largest number of Messier objects (most galaxies) of the various constellations, and many of them will be quite obvious in small telescopes, such as M61, M67, M68, M104 and others. However, they will all appear at their best when viewed through larger telescopes, such as 8” aperture and larger. This is the case with all galaxies – you can detect a lot of them with small telescopes but if you want to see detail within them, such as the spiral structure of M33 or the bridge of material being sucked into M51, you will need a larger instrument. Good job the Society is intending to equip the new observatory with a 14” Meade Richey Chretien then! And have you sampled the 12” HASDobs yet? If not, perhaps you’ll get a chance at the upcoming Stargazing Events in April.

You don’t have to stay up late to observe in April: there are some great objects to see in the evening skies, and they’re all quite easy to find. The Moon is known to play hard to get, slipping behind clouds every now and then, but on clear evenings it can be a very rewarding target for small ‘scopes under not-quite-dark skies. There’s always so much to see on the Moon, and features will change in appearance as the phase changes from evening to evening. If you can’t quite decide what to look for, have a look at the ‘Lunar 100’ information on the document library page of our website.

Saturn is situated ahead of the Sickle asterism in Leo, and shines brightly at about magnitude 0.7 at the moment, meaning you should be able to spot it against the dusk sky relatively easily. The rings are closing up now, but it’s still a beautiful planet to observe, and worth trying to view at different magnifications to try and see more detail.

Venus shines incredibly brightly (magnitude –3.8) now in the northwest after Sunset, and is relatively high. Any telescope should show the phase of Venus (gibbous at the moment) and it can be interesting comparing view from week to week to see how that changes, though the cloud-covered planet reveals little else to the occasional observer.

So stay positive; there’s plenty to keep you occupied through the evening while you wait for true darkness to arrive, when you will be able to enjoy a large selection of galaxies high in the sky!

Next Time: Next meeting is at the Green House on Tuesday 1st May at 7.30pm. The speaker will be Douglas Cooper, and he will be telling us about ‘Imaging With The Canon 20DA’ camera. There will also be the usual breakout groups, chat and tea-drinking, as well as updates on the Society’s projects, including the New Observatory fundraising.


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