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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie December 2005

December is an exciting time! The weather gets cold, the skies get clear (hopefully) and astronomers listen eagerly for the sound of sleigh-bells that may herald the arrival of a new eyepiece, filter or set of star-charts! There was a definite air of expectation at the December meeting; expectation of an intriguing talk by Gordon Gallacher, and anticipation of the long-awaited Society quiz and raffle, complete with prizes! And what a turn out there was- the auditorium was full! I suspect that some were lured there by the promise of mini Mars bars, which tend to magically appear at these events. Santa’s little helper, Pauline Macrae (moonlighting as our Chairwoman) opened the meeting with the following notices:

  • Feeling Charitable? The Highlands Astronomical Society now has charitable status! This means we can now apply for funding for our new observatory.
  • University Courses. Aberdeen University is running an Astronomy and Meteorology course, which can be studied online. The two subjects covered are the view of the universe at large, and the behaviour of our atmosphere and the weather it creates. If you decide to take it on you will not be able to just sit in front of your PC drinking beer/wine and partying all the time like ‘real students’- there will be an exam at the end of the course! Shock, horror! It will cost you £196 and starts on January 29th 2006. Contact Pauline for details.
  • Local Course. Maarten de Vries has been asked to run an Astronomy course, over four Thursday evenings, from 7pm to 9pm in the Victoria Hall in Cromarty, starting on 16th February. It will use ‘Philip’s Guide to the Stars and Planets’ as the course book, and will cover all major subjects (but not in too much depth). It is hoped that the course will include live observing with telescopes, and end with a live session on the Faulkes Telescope on Saturday 11th March. Signing-up day will be Saturday 21st January 2006, in Cromarty, between 11.00am and 1.00pm, at either the Victoria Hall or the Cromarty Learning Centre. Location to be confirmed. After the excesses of Christmas, it will be good to have something ‘lo-cal’!
  • Q&A on R4. Radio 4’s programme ‘Material World’ on 5th January 2006, will feature a question and answer session on Near Earth Objects. The programme starts at 4.30pm, and guests on the panel will include Simon Kelly and John Zarnecki, both professors with the Open University, and Dr Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University. You may recognise John Zarnecki from his appearances on programmes about the Huygens lander that touched down on Titan in January of this year. It is also hoped that we will get the chance to hear him speak locally, if a plan to get him to speak to HAS and SIGMA at a combined event is successful. Watch this space.
  • Aw, I wanted a Book… But it looks like I won’t be getting one. The beautiful books (useful for so many things) that were offered by the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh will not be materialising after all. So all those people that put their name down on the list in October will be disappointed. Or maybe not, as we do have a very small number (larger than 1) of them, and they will be offered as raffle prizes throughout the next year. Who’s to blame? Well, it seems it had something to do with supply and demand, and the fact that students were to be given priority. Unfortunately we have not quite reached University status, but the century is young…
  • Lunar Postcards. These are still for sale, and…No, wait, I’m getting a late report here…what’s that? They’re all gone? Oh. Well, in that case they are not still for sale, and if you missed the meeting and didn’t get one at the last one, there are no longer any of the Moon-phase 2006 postcards available. If you missed out you will not be able to tell the moon phase simply by looking at this discrete postcard that shows the phases of the moon in diagram format for the whole of next year. Nope, you missed out on that one. And you could have had one for just 80p. Maybe next year you’ll act more quickly.
  • Next Meeting. Now this is important. The next meeting will not take place on the first Tuesday of January 2006. It will take place on Tuesday 10th January instead, as the Green House will be closed on the 3rd, and it would be too dark and cold to have the meeting in the car park. We wouldn’t be able to get the seats out of the building anyway.
  • Donald Iliffe 1922 – 2005. The notices ended with the sad news that Donald Iliffe died on the 17th November, aged 83. Donald was one of the eight people who attended the inaugural meeting of the Astronomy Club, which took place at Jim Savage-Lowden’s house in 1993. You may remember Donald cutting the cake at our 10th Birthday celebration, and he has given us quite a few talks. More information can be found on this page at our website.

Going Nova Science Festival.
Maarten then took the floor and talked about the recent science festival that took place at Horizon Scotland in Forres. The event attracted a lot of interest, and was open to groups of school children, local businesses and the general public over several days. The highlight of the event from an astronomical point of view was the chance to capture images using the remotely controlled Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii. It is a 2m reflector that can be controlled by computers over the Internet from anywhere in the world, and allows the user to capture very impressive images. An imaging team was set up, comprising members of HAS, SIGMA and the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh. Every image needed to be processed, because each one consisted of three raw colour photos. HAS member, Eric Walker, has been heavily involved with this, using an array of image-enhancing software, as has Bill Leslie of SIGMA, who was the team leader at the event.

The team had a busy time of it showing members of the public, and groups of schoolchildren, how to use the huge telescope on the other side of the world to capture images of their favourite deep-sky objects, many of which can now be seen in the image gallery on our website. Other members of the team were Pauline Macrae and Rob Nuttall from HAS, Alan Tough from SIGMA, and Matt Hollister from the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.

Several of the images were shown on the big screen in the Green House, including some that captured the movement of Near Earth Objects that had only recently been discovered. Indeed, one of these series of images was voted image of the day by the British Astronomical Association, and another (processed by Eric) will be featured in a forthcoming edition of Astronomy Now magazine. Great stuff indeed!

Maarten also expressed his sincere thanks to everyone who helped at the event, and everyone who came to see it. It was such a success that it will be repeated next year, and the planning meetings have already started! Maarten has received many emails and letters from people who were very impressed, including some of the professional lecturers who gave talks at various times over the three-day long event.

Eyes on the Skies.
Call me old-fashioned, or masochistic, but I think of December as the Ultimate stargazing month of the year. Yes, I’ll admit it gets a little bit chilly, and time is of the essence in the run up to Christmas and the holidays, but I find that’s what makes the sky so valuable in December. After dashing about all over the place looking for Christmas presents, and sticking pins all over the house in an attempt to keep up with the frantically decorating neighbours, a little time at the eyepiece (or even just under the sky) can be very soothing.

If you brave the cold, and the weather is in a friendly state of mind, the December sky contains a little bit of everything all spread out for you to enjoy. The Milky Way is still easy to see as it sweeps overhead from east to west, and panning through that with binoculars or a wide-field ‘scope will please for hours, and if you prefer some more solar-system oriented viewing Mars is still around, though diminishing in size and brightness. Saturn is arriving on the scene as well, but does not rise high enough to give sharp views until after midnight. In the New Year, that time will come earlier and earlier.

The constellation of Gemini is rising now in the northeast and contains many interesting objects. M35, a rich open cluster, is one of the winter highlights, and on a good night you may be able to spot another fainter open cluster -NGC 2158- in the same field of view. NGC 2392 is known as the Eskimo nebula, and is a 9th magnitude planetary nebula that can appear like the snug zipped up hood of a parka-jacket-wearing Eskimo! (Very sensible) Of course aperture is required to make this out, but even a small telescope will reveal the nebula.

The brightest star in Gemini, Castor, is worthy of observation itself. It is a multiple star, and when viewed at medium or high magnification, will split into two stars- Castor A and Castor B. These two members of a binary system revolve around each other once in every 400 or so years. There is also a third star, a 9th magnitude red dwarf (Castor C) that may also be detectable on a good night. Each of these individual stars is also a double star, but you are not likely to split them…

For a seasonal finish, have a look below Gemini in Monoceros, for the open cluster NGC 2264. It is embedded within an area of nebulosity that can be difficult to pick up unless you are away from streetlights and have a good clear sky. The stars in the cluster itself are arranged like a Christmas tree, albeit an upside-down one! I keep looking every year, but I still haven’t seen any presents beneath it though. Maybe this year…

The Main Event.

'Chimneys, Fountains and the ISM' by Gordon Gallacher

Gordon Gallacher works as an IT manager, has degrees in Computing, Mathematics and Classics, and has interests in astrophysics, quantum mechanics and philosophy. He seems to like to know how stuff works. His talk was on the complex subject of the interstellar medium (ISM) and the structures known as Chimneys and Fountains.

Where to start? The interstellar medium is the name for the material that exists between the stars. For a long time it was thought that this was simply ‘empty space’, but as science has progressed and the latest generations of space observatories and detectors have evolved, astronomers and cosmologists have discovered that there is a lot going on in this ‘empty space’. It all starts with hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, as it has been since about three minutes after the Big Bang, if current models are correct.

A side-on image of a spiral arm of our galaxy showed that there are many large H1 regions (containing neutral hydrogen) that obscure the view in the visual wavelengths. However, by looking through the centre of our galaxy using near-infrared detectors, we can see the structure of the galaxy beyond those obscuring clouds. It filters out the hot, white stars, and reveals a large number of the older, and cooler, red dwarf and red giant stars.

Through the use of further images and equations, Gordon explained how clouds of ionised hydrogen could be illuminated in different ways, showing that amazing processes are at work within the ISM. For example, the group of bright, hot, young stars known as the trapezium in the Great Orion Nebula (M42) are heating the huge clouds of hydrogen around them until they become ionised. These are then known as HII regions, and it is these that give the fantastic nebula its incredible glowing nebulosity. Shockwaves from the young stars are actually colliding with the clouds, sculpting them into the shapes we see when viewing them through our telescopes, and by compressing the material there, triggering the birth of new stars.
The Hubble Space Telescope’s famous image of the ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle nebula shows the same processes in action, and the Tarantula nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud is another example.

The ‘Chimneys’ in the title of the talk are a product of supernova events that take place within the more densely packed disc areas of a spiral galaxy like our own. The area ‘above’ the disc, or halo, is much more sparsely populated by material, so when a supernova event occurs there is less resistance vertically than from the denser material that surrounds it horizontally. The explosion therefore blasts ‘upward’ into the less dense area of the Halo, and forms a conduit, through which the hot gas and supernova material is ejected. These conduits are known as Chimneys.

Once the ejected material has found its way through the chimney and into the sparse space of the galactic halo, it begins to fall towards the denser disc area, forming a ‘fountain’ of material as it cascades back to its area of origin. Chimneys and fountains then are highly descriptive terms that describe these incredibly powerful processes in space very well, if slightly poetically.

Gordon had obviously researched his subject intensively, and he listed the basic chemical reactions that were occurring to cause these events, and showed several images of examples of them in his presentation. It was a complex subject, but a fascinating talk that I will remember the next time I look at any emission nebula through my telescope. The subject may have been interstellar medium, but Gordon’s talk was definitely interesting large!

Part Two.
The tea break followed, with festive fare galore- thanks to the ladies who organised this for everyone, and to Tom Hunt who provided the enormous tin of Quality Street! Then we were called back for two of the highlights of the astronomical year- Raffle and Quiz! After being warned by Arthur that this was ‘only a little bit of fun’, we sorted ourselves into teams and got started on the questions he had prepared so many months before. Fortunately, some of the answers had cropped up in Gordon Gallacher’s talk, so there was no chance of any team getting ‘nil points’. As the scores were added up and compared, much embarrassment, hilarity and discussion ensued. Congratulations go to John Gilmour and Les Gamble, and a hearty ‘Do better next time or be kicked out’ to everyone else.

Actually, as the mini Mars bars inevitably showered down upon us like the first little chocolate and nougat snow-flakes of Christmas, I realised Arthur had been wrong: it had been a lot more than just a ‘little’ bit of fun! I can’t wait for the next one…

Next Time.
January 10th! January 10th! January 10th! Note, the next meeting will take place on Tuesday 10th January. If you turn up on the 3rd there will be nobody at the Green House! Believe it or not, Arthur Milnes will be giving us a talk entitled…er…’Believe it or Not’. Can you believe it? Come along and find out. More information on the meeting will be released closer to the time, so check out the website regularly, and keep an eye on the Events page as well to find out what will be happening between now and the next meeting. If you have any comments, announcements, questions etc, you could always drop by the message board as well.

That’s nearly the end of Stargazey Pie for 2005. All that’s left is to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you again in 2006.

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