Cog Icon signifying link to Admin page

Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie December 2006

T’was the last meeting before Christmas, and all through the Green House, all the members were stirring, to hear of Eric’s scope’s new place… And that was not all! We also had reports from Tim Schroder about the various Astro-events he had attended in the last few months, special festive mince-pie rations at tea-break, and a seasonal (if fiendish) astronomy quiz, with questions set by Arthur ‘Scrooge’ Milnes! Before all these gifts though, we first of all heard the month’s notices, presented by festively garbed Chairwoman, Pauline Macrae:

  • Cancellation. Unfortunately, the children’s talk that was to be given by Ray ‘Bah Humbug’ Owens this month has had to be cancelled. However, we do hope to have a children’s evening alongside the Equipment Night in July 2007.
  • Send A Brochure. We now have brochures, covering letters and forms to send to businesses to ask if they would like to contribute to our new observatory. Members were asked to take at least one brochure and letter, and to think of a local business or wealthy individual to send them to. A list of potential targets is available here. So that no company receives more than one brochure, please tell Pat Williams which one you have chosen, or contact her to see which ones are still available to approach. If you would like to take part in this, contact Pauline to be issued with a begging pack.
  • Thanks M! Thanks were extended to Maarten ‘Santa’ de Vries for the brochures, as it was his company that paid for them to be printed.
  • Immortality – only £25! This is your chance to attain immortality (almost) and fame, and support your local astronomical society at the same time! By contributing £25 towards the new observatory you can be named and famed as a contributor on a special plaque that will be placed on the wall when it is finished. If you are interested, please contact Pat Escott. If paying by cheque, please make them out to HAS Observatory Fund.
  • Funding Boost. Just in time for the festive season, Santa’s little helpers at the Highland Council have awarded us £3000 from the Common Good Fund, subject to the new observatory project going ahead! What a nice Christmas gift – “Merry Christmas” and “Thank You” to the HC!
  • Raffles. The monthly raffles, run by Arthur Milnes, have been helping a lot with the fundraising too. Last month £58 was raised by the raffle! Pauline offered her thanks to Arthur for organising these, and to all the members who have contributed prizes, especially Allan Thorne who gave three Astronomy Now magazine subscriptions.
  • Magazines. Pauline brought along a selection of old Astronomy Now magazines donated by Alan Mumford, which were available. I saw several being scooped up, but some may still be available so contact Pauline if you’re interested. Les Gamble also brought along some copies of Sky at Night magazine complete with their cover-discs, some of which may still be around if you want any.
  • Gaelic Speakers? Are there any Gaelic speakers in the Society? If so, we would like you to help us. We are supposed to place some Gaelic text on the Spacegazer website as part of the terms of being associated with the H2007 programme, and so we would like some advice, translation or creativity from anyone who can speak Gaelic and would like to aid us. Please get in touch with Pauline if you can help. Sma-shin.
  • WOTM! We were delighted to learn that our website,, was made Website Of The Month for September by East Antrim Astronomical Society! We only found out about this a couple of weeks ago though, but are very pleased with this honour. Pauline expressed her thanks on behalf of the Society to Plexus, who set up the website for us; Maarten and Andy for transferring all the data over from the old website; to myself for maintaining the site and message board, and to everyone who has contributed to it, whether it be in the form of an article, photograph or even a message on the message board.
  • Observing Sessions. This month’s observing sessions are as below, with the possible addition of Saturday 23rd December if enough people are interested! It might be an ideal time to get away from Christmas preparations, or it may be the night of the best party of the year, so we’re going to leave that one blank until anybody expresses any definite interest. As usual, all sessions are weather-dependant, and will start at 8pm and run to approximately 11pm. If contacting a session host, please use their home number before 7.30pm and their mobile number after 8pm.

Friday 15th Dec.... Pauline Macrae
Saturday 16th Dec.. Trina Shaddick
Friday 22nd Dec....... Dave Hughes

  • For Sale. Telescope for sale: TA900-114 reflector telescope with a 114mm objective diameter and focal length of 900mm. Magnification can be up to 138x. There are two 0.96” diameter eyepieces of 25mm and 6.5mm, a 2x Barlow lens, a 1.5x erecting lens, 6x30 finder scope and tripod. It has a ten-year warranty. It cost £149.99 a year ago and is for sale at £100 o.n.o. Please contact Pauline or Antony for contact details.
  • Seeing Stars. The latest Seeing Stars article, in association with the Inverness Courier, is now available to be read online at our website. Click here to go directly to it. It is called ‘The Unicorn’s Treasure’, features the constellation of Monoceros, and is by your truly, Antony McEwan.
  • Next Time. To allow us all time to recover from the Christmas and Hogmanay excesses, the next meeting will not be on the first Tuesday of January; it will be on the second Tuesday of January, which is the 9th. If you come along on the 2nd you will be waiting for a long time in the cold.
  • Highland Skies. If you are reading this, you will no doubt eventually scroll down and find the Highlands Skies section. This used to be called Eyes On The Skies, but has evolved slightly. It will now be printed out in advance of each meeting and inflicted not only on absent members by means of this newsletter, but also on members who attend the meetings! There will be no getting away from it, in fact, but don’t worry, as you can always use it as a scribble sheet during the main talk or make a paper delta glider from it.

Other News.

In attendance at the meeting was a photographer from the Inverness Courier. They are writing a series of articles on local clubs and societies, and turned up to snap some pictures of us doing our (indoor) thing. Thankfully there was a suitably impressive turnout, and we look forward to seeing ourselves in a Tuesday edition coming soon. We should receive some notice before it is printed, so that we can all rush along and buy copies before it sells out.

Tim’s Travels

At this point, we had an impromptu presentation by Tim Schroder. Tim had been using up his holiday time attending some of the various astronomical events that we are told about in the notices each month, or by email from Pat Williams from time to time.

From 13th to 15th October, Tim attended the Scottish Astronomers Group weekend in Stirling. Headlining was Prof. John Brown, giving one of his talks that combine magic and astronomy, and also reminiscing about his experiences as an observer. There was also an excellent talk on gravitational lensing, and many others that included observation reports made by other attendees. There was also a visit to the Stirling telescope, which is mounted on a high hilltop in the old High School. It was a busy evening apparently, and was a great chance to meet people from other societies and to attend some excellent talks.

On November 11th, Tim was at the Leeds Astromeet. This is a rapidly growing one-day event, which combines talks with stalls from astronomical retailers. Tim liked this arrangement, as he could attend several short one-hour long lectures and still be able to browse the stalls and meet fellow astronomers from other societies. He was also able to meet famous Astro-photographer Nik Szymanek, who expressed an interest in coming ‘up north’ to speak to us in the Highlands Astronomical Society!

On Saturday 25th November, Tim was in the public library at Airdrie to attend the Scottish Astronomers Group AGM. By this time, ‘Travelling Tim’ was being recognised, but despite this he was able to sidestep the security staff and get into the meeting. The SAG meetings are an opportunity for societies to update each other on what they are doing and about a dozen societies were represented. Tim presented a report on the work of the HAS over the past year and said it was clear from this that our Society was going from strength to strength and had done a huge amount of which we should be proud. This is a very encouraging thing to hear, and Tim reminded us that we should perhaps start thinking of the HAS as more than just a small-scale society- it is time to start thinking a little bit bigger and to realise that we have achieved a lot in recent years and are beginning to be recognised for those achievements.

He also managed to visit the Aberdeen College Planetarium. Sadly, this is closed now, and the planetarium equipment is actually going to be scrapped unless a suitable new home can be found for it. The equipment is old school in its technology, and is working perfectly, as Tim can testify as he was given a private showing! The equipment would need to be housed in a 6.5-meter diameter dome though, and not many people or societies are lucky enough to be able to erect such a purpose built building with ease. We hope that someone is able to save this fascinating piece of astronomical educational equipment and give it a new lease of life.

One point that Tim made to close with was that it is only by attending these sorts of events that real personal relationships with other societies and clubs can be forged and maintained. He was able to speak directly to famous speakers such as Mr Szymanek and Allan Chapman, and obtain indications from them that they would like to visit us in the future! They are also good opportunities for letting people know about our Society and what we are doing up here, and for gathering ideas from others who have experiences that we can relate to. His advice was to seriously consider attending these events when possible, and partake of the larger astronomical scene outside our own area.

Thanks Tim, for that roving report! If anyone else would like to give a short talk about your astronomical travels or experiences, please contact any of the Committee members.

The Main Event
‘A Dummy’s Guide To Building A Home Observatory’ By Eric Walker

Eric is well known within our Society for his astronomical photographs, which regularly appear on our website’s image gallery. Eric became interested in astronomy again only a few years ago after a lengthy hiatus, and has made quick progress learning to use the software, cameras and telescopes required for Astro-imaging.

This talk was about how Eric built his own back garden observatory, known affectionately as BeeVOBS. I could tell you here why it’s called BeeVOBS, but I know how he loves to get emails asking that question, so I’ll leave it to you to find out.

Eric started by considering just why anyone would want to build an observatory in the first place. Basically it came down to convenience and the climate. The telescope he uses, an 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain, is portable enough, but does take a little effort to set up and polar align every time it is to be used. An observatory meant that it could be permanently mounted, ready to go at a moments notice – or at least within 30 minutes, ideally. Also, having spent the time and effort setting up a telescope, it is thoroughly disheartening watching the clouds roll in five minutes later, requiring you to put it all away again! Our climate quite often gives us brief windows of good viewing sky, so if possible it would be best to make the most of those opportunities without having to set everything up every time.

It was also hoped that using an observatory would block out the worst of the local light pollution and provide some shelter from the cold and wind while observing or imaging. Finally, when housed in a permanent location, all the accessories and sundries such as laptop with Internet access, sky charts, eyepieces, books etc could be within easy reach and kept in good safe condition.

So that’s the ‘why’, what about the ‘how’?

Apparently it came to Eric while flicking through an astronomical magazine. His wife, Marion, noticed that the regular page-turning motions and sounds had ceased, so she enquired what he was looking at. He was looking pictures of an observatory, and when the following discussion didn’t actually include the words ‘over my dead body’, Eric felt enthused enough to consider forming his plans…

Much research ensued, particularly on the Internet, where home observatory builders worldwide are happy to display their triumphs and methods. Eric decided that he really wanted to build, as it would be a lot cheaper than buying a pre-made one, which can cost £2500 to £3000. He set his budget at £400 to £600, and aimed to use as many recycled or recyclable materials as possible, scavenging and re-using materials whenever possible.

At this point there was some aesthetic input from wife Marion. It was not to be square, Daddy-oh. Round or octagonal were fine, but not square. Not being a trained engineer, but happy to experiment and fiddle with things until they worked, Eric took up the challenge and decided to go for an octagonal design with a geodesic dome. That is, a dome constructed of triangular sections joined together along their edges to make a ‘roughly’ hemispherical shape.

The work started with much digging, sawing, consulting, sweat, blood and tears (or was it beers?). He planned to build it through the summer in order to be able to put enough time into it without spending every waking moment slaving over it, and to have it ready for the autumn/winter observing season. He also decided to document his progress, and took photographs and made notes at every stage along the way. He later put these notes and pictures on his website, as an ongoing progress report. When eventually finished, this was converted to the PowerPoint presentation that Eric used at the meeting to show us exactly how he built BeeVOBS. Essentially, you can actually see the presentation Eric gave last night on his website – they are almost identical, except that at the meeting he was also able to add some asides and comments about things he may have tried or done differently.

One thing Eric was aware of very early on was that it would be a lot of work. He was also aware that there were a lot of things that could go wrong. At one point, when constructing the octagonal floor section, his measurements on some of the lengths were slightly out, but he thought he would just carry on and it would still be okay. Well, it was, but it meant that every section he had to assemble later on had to be individually measured, instead of mass-produced to a set length, so that it would all build up correctly. As he said, if he were to do it again he would stick to the old adage of measure twice, cut once.

But the occasional problems were overcome, and much ingenuity was utilised to produce a remarkable and very effective home observatory, as can be seen in the final images on his web-log. Most of the parts were cheaply sourced (although he did have to buy some rather nice - and therefore pricey - timber to reach Marion’s aesthetic requirements) and many items were simply saved from being thrown away. Wood glue seems to have been the hero of the hour, and Eric now rambles fairly regularly about its uses, properties and benefits.

It was a very large undertaking, considering that Eric had never built anything on this scale before, and the geodesic dome design was quite an intricate and demanding construction that often required considerable input and help from Marion, whom Eric acknowledged at the meeting as being an invaluable helper and very tolerant of the occasional mess and inconvenience that the project caused. The observatory was recently completed, and has been tested though not used extensively yet. Hopefully the weather will allow Eric to get some real test-sessions completed so that we can all find out just how successful a venture it was. It certainly looks the part, and Eric says that it does indeed meet most of the requirements he set himself before starting, including the total cost which was £581!

We would like to wish Eric well, thank him for sharing his adventure with us, and join in Chairwoman Pauline’s succinct wish that it “doesn’t fall down”!

Finally, this is only a very approximate resume of the presentation, and I urge you to visit Eric’s BeeVOBS Construction Pages on his website for the full story.

Highland Skies - December 2006

Being a stargazer in December is either a blessing or a curse. A blessing because the sky holds so many treasures to explore through your binoculars, telescope, or even your unaided eyes; a curse because it’s so cold and there can be much to do in the run up to the Christmas period to deprive you of your valuable observing time. If you are ‘temporally challenged’ in December, it might be best to resist the urge to spend ages hunting down faint fuzzy targets, and instead concentrate on quick observing fixes – easy targets if you like. There are plenty of them about this month, and they are all easy to find and visually rewarding.

With Orion climbing higher in the south, we can start off with one of the ultimate deep sky objects, visible even to the naked eye on a good night: The Orion Nebula, or M42. Most of you will have seen it already, but that’s no reason not to revisit it! Any optical instrument will reveal the huge expanse of ionised gases that make up the greatest of all Messier’s nebulae, and the four stars at the heart of the nebula that make up the Trapezium asterism should be readily resolved at low to moderate magnifications in a telescope. On exceptionally steady nights, and with fine optics, you may well be able to make out more than four stars in the group. If so, pat yourself on the back and compliment the person that made your telescope- many people assume that there are only four there and simply stop looking for any more.

The Double Cluster in Perseus is nearly directly overhead through December, making the hundreds of stars in this pair of massive clusters shine steadily and brightly against stable dark skies near the zenith. Try to detect the subtle (and not so subtle) colour variations in the stars contained therein. A wide field low-magnification view is best for this object, and a pair of binoculars is ideal. It also gives a good excuse to lie down on the job, gazing almost directly upwards with the binoculars braced on steady arms. A short tube refractor is also good, and gives the ability to vary the magnification to zoom into particular areas of the clusters if you wish.

If comfort is your thing, then you’re in luck! Get that old deckchair out of the garage, and have it cleaned up for the middle of the month- the Geminids are coming! This meteor shower is quite an active one, with ‘Zenithal Hourly Rates’ of up to 100 meteors. The Zenithal Hourly Rate is the number of meteors an observer could expect to see if the radiant of the shower were located at the zenith (there’s that word again – it means the point in the sky directly over your head) and the sky conditions were perfectly clear and dark with a visual limiting magnitude of 6.5 – unbelievably perfect conditions in fact. In practice, the radiant is usually somewhere between the horizon and the zenith and sky conditions are average or worse, so if the Geminids have a predicted ZHR of 100 meteors per hour, we could expect to see perhaps 75 in a good hour, sky permitting.

The radiant for the Geminids is just north of the bright star Castor, and will be midway between horizon and zenith, so we could be in luck. The best nights to go looking for them will be the 12th/13th and 13th/14th, and the Moon will be waning near final quarter on those nights, so should not interfere too much.

So take it easy this month and observe some easy targets when time and conditions allow. There will be plenty more to look at in the New Year after the party season is over, after all!

Next Time

The next meeting will take place not on the first Tuesday of January, but on the second Tuesday- that is Tuesday 9th January, at the Green House from 7.30 onwards. Arthur Milnes will be hoping to restore his reputation as a ‘nice chap’ after his burst of sadism with the Christmas Quiz, by presenting a talk called ‘Cosmic Building Blocks’. We look forward to that, especially if he can tell us how to build our own personal universes.

What else will the New Year bring? Hopefully lots of news, chat, breakout groups, leftover mince pies and all the usual wonders of a HAS meeting!

In the meantime, enjoy the dark December skies, and feel free to drop in and leave a message on the Society’s website message board. Keep checking the Programme and Events page too, and remember to keep an eye or two on the Image Gallery for all the latest Astro-snaps!

Dark Skies and Merry Christmas!

Site Search