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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie December 2007

The December meeting of the Highlands Astronomical Society usually exudes excitement, joy, and a holiday atmosphere. This December’s was no exception, what with the huge raffle and Christmas quiz thrown into the usual mixture of news, updates and debate. There was a presentation about the “Christmas Star” and some great news about the New Observatory project, but not until after Secretary Eric Walker read out the Society notices:

  • Immortality Knocks. This is your last chance to attain immortality (or at least celebrity status) by being named on the HAS plaque in the new observatory! There is already quite a large list of people who have contributed just £25 each to the funding appeal in order to be mentioned on this plaque, and if you are still interested but not on the list, please contact Pat Escott ASAP!
  • Observing. Several observing events are lined up over the next few weeks. Details and contacts are as below, but please note they will be weather-dependant. If in doubt, please contact the session host on the night for the latest “yay or nay” report. Sessions will start at 8pm and nominally end at 11pm.

Fri 4th Jan ...... Antony McEwan
Sat 5th Jan ...... Pauline Macrae

  • Mars Occultation. In the early hours of Christmas Eve morning, from about 3.30am until just after 4.10am, the Moon will occult Mars. Some of us are lucky enough to be situated on a terrestrial line where the occultation will be a grazing one; where the edge of the Moon will pass over the disc of Mars, allowing the red planet to be seen between the silhouetted peaks and valleys along the Moon’s limb. If the weather is suitable I will be organising an observation of this event – location to be confirmed later. The Society website will be the first point of contact for this, and will show whether the observation will be going ahead or not. If it is going ahead, I will be contactable by mobile phone (including SMS). Further details will be published well before the 24th though, so please keep an eye on the website or get in touch with me to find out more. An information sheet is available and can be obtained from myself by email.
  • HAS Calendars. The total raised by members contributing £2.50 for a copy of Eric Walker’s excellent astrophotographic HAS calendar is an amazing £167.50! Thank you to Eric for producing these wonderful calendars, and to all those who have invested in them. If you are still waiting to receive one, please contact Eric directly.
  • The Specialists. (Cue dramatic music – something along the lines of The Professionals theme perhaps?) The Society is seeking members who have particular interests in different aspects of our hobby to be Society Specialists, available as a first point of contact for enquiries specific to their field. So far we have Eric Walker – Astrophotography; John Gilmour – Aurorae Borealis; Maarten de Vries – Blue Stragglers; Pauline Macrae – Planets, and myself (Antony McEwan) – Equipment and Observing Technique. At the meeting, Lynn Robinson volunteered her expertise in computers and Bill "Asbestos Eyes" Leslie his considerable experience in solar observing. If you would like to become one of The Specialists (and get a cool imaginary theme tune but no Ford Capri) please contact Eric.
  • Speak Up! We are seeking two willing novice volunteers to have their presentation skills honed by Bob Clark of Inverness Speakers Club. He will be present at the January meeting (which takes place on the second Tuesday in January, not the first). The volunteers will be required to give a short (20 minute) presentation each, with help and assessment from Bob. Please contact Eric if you would like to step up.
  • Local Events. The Society would like to extend thanks to everyone who helped to make the Dark Skies Scotland and Highland Science Festival events such a great success! Both sets of events were well attended and proved very popular with members and non-members in the Highlands area.
  • FAS Timetable. The timetable of events in December and 2008 is now available here. Also….
  • International Camp. The 44th International Astronomical Youth camp takes place at Sayda, Germany, from July 20th to August 9th, 2008. Anyone aged from 16 to 24 years old and able to communicate in English may participate in the IAYC 2008. The fee for accommodation, full board and the whole program, including the excursion, will be 550 Euro (approx. £400 at time of writing). For interested persons who are in the situation of not being able to pay the camp fee themselves, a limited number of grants are available. See the website for details.
  • SPA Conference. The Society for Popular Astronomy’s conference takes place Friday 22nd to Sunday 24th Feb 2008, in association with Stirling Astronomical Society. Further information can be found on the website for the SPA, at the other end of this link.
  • The Dark Side. Copies of Ian Nicholson’s book, the “Dark Side of The Universe”, have arrived for those members who ordered them. Please contact Pauline to be turned to the Dark Side…
  • S.T.A.R. Distribution. One of our members, Simon Rundle, has set up S.T.A.R. Distribution and is selling some very interesting pieces of Patrick Moore memorabilia. These include reprinted copies of his original Moon Maps; - available signed for £35, with a printed signature for £20, and unsigned for £9.99. Sir Patrick’s latest music CD is also available for £6.99 (though it is not known if the classic track “Patrick Moore Plays The Xylophone” is on it). If you are interested in any of these items, please visit the S.T.A.R. Distribution website, or contact Simon at Celestine, Trendle Lane, Bere Alston, Devon PL20 7HT, or phone 01822 841567. Cheques should be made payable to S.T.A.R. Distribution.
  • Ancient Constellations. Heather Connie Martin has recently written a book about ancient Pictish carved symbols and their relationship to a now-forgotten system of constellations. It is priced £10.50, and available from (email address:) "heatherconnie at" or phone 00 33 46660 1958 (France). The ISBN number is 978-2-9530732-0-1. Dare I say this sounds like quite a Pict-up-able book?

Observatory Update

After the notices, John Gilmour gave us the latest information update on the progress for the New Observatory project. First off, the result of the ballot that was handed out last month. 64 members voted in favour of going ahead with the observatory, and none voted against – so we are proceeding! 17 members did not vote, so that gave a ‘turnout’ of 79% - not bad!

As the Society has indicated its approval, we have agreed a contract with Fraser & Grant Ltd (builders) of Inverness. They will start work on 7th Jan 2008 or thereabouts. We have had news from Pulsar, the company that will be supplying and fitting the telescope, dome and other equipment, too. Our dome is now ready and a Meade 14” LX200R telescope has been purchased by us and is currently being stored at Pulsar’s premises until being delivered and fitted in early 2008.

Financially, we are doing well too. The total cost of the project is £70,200 and the minimum amount of money we need to be in a position to open the observatory is £67,500. We currently have guaranteed funds of £65,800 and a further £4,000 promised in the form of interest-free loans from members of the Society. This leaves only a very small shortfall, which we hope to make up in the coming few months.

Once the building is nearing completion we will be assessed for rates. In case our financial status has a bearing on this, it was agreed by the members present at the meeting that we transfer £1,000 of the Society’s normal funds to the New Observatory fund. This decreases the amount of shortfall for the project, while leaving us with more than a year’s estimated running costs for the Society.

We have set a provisional opening date of Saturday 26th April, and hope to have the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Prof. John Brown present to perform the official opening ceremony. It is hoped that the observatory and telescope equipment will have been ‘run in’ for a little while before then though!

John also paused to thank Rob Nuttall, who was not present at the meeting, for all the time and work he has put into the project. It is Rob who has drawn up all the technical drawings of the observatory and has been instrumental in the design process from the very start. He has also been a guiding light when it came to planning and bureaucratic matters! To thank Rob, the Committee has awarded him Lifetime Membership of the Society in recognition of his services in the construction of the new observatory.

Since the meeting, Rob has contacted the Society, with the following message: “Please pass on my sincere thanks to all. It is a wonderful gesture. You really shouldn’t have! Whilst I admit it was hard going at times, there was no way I would not assist where I am able. I’m just glad that we as a team were able to overcome all the setbacks. I’m very excited about the observatory and can’t wait to see it complete. Merry Christmas to all.”

Finally, John remarked that he is aware that recently a lot of his attention has been taken up by the New Observatory project. He is hoping to be able to dedicate some more time and thought to non-observatory matters within the Society, and to that end is preparing a report that will suggest some new ideas for the members in the coming year. Hints included Christmas meals and visits to sites of astronomical importance, such as Mills Observatory, Greenwich, or even the Kennedy Space Centre! He hopes to have more information on this in January.

Colin’s Progress

Pauline recently received an email from Society member Colin Donaldson. Colin was chosen to attend Space School a couple of years ago, and gave us a talk on his experiences in the heart of NASA’s organisation when he returned. Colin says he is enjoying his second year studying Science and Astronomy at Glasgow University, and one of his supervisors is none other than Lyndsey Fletcher. Lyndsey works with the SOHO spacecraft that monitor’s the Sun, and has given us a talk on this subject a few years ago. Colin hopes to be back to see us in January, and says “Hi” to the Society.

The Main Event
‘The Christmas Star’ by Pauline Macrae

Pauline is well known to us as a longstanding and enthusiastic member of the Society, having spent seven years as Chairwoman, and now occupying a place on the Committee. She has given several talks on the solar system, and is now the Society’s Planetary Specialist (see notices). This presentation was all about the astronomical data behind the mysterious “Christmas Star” that marked the birth of Jesus.

The first point that Pauline made was that as the event took place over two thousand years ago, the arts of astronomy and astrology were very closely linked. At that time, to be an astronomer was to be an astrologer too, so closely were the two interwoven. She warned us that she would not be able to steer clear of astrology in this talk, and that there would be a lot of symbolism associated with the possible astronomical events that she would mention.

Most people at that time had at least some faith in astrology as a way to predict the future or to interpret current events. Perhaps ironically though, Pauline told us that the Jewish people, for whom Jesus was born to be the messiah, did not believe in astrology as such and thought that predicting the future was blasphemous. They did believe however that the stars, planets and celestial events were signs of God’s works.

The story of Jesus’ birth comes from the Gospels according to Saints Matthew and Luke. The star is only found in St Matthew’s Gospel, and the story of the nativity is really a combination of the two versions.

To find out what sort of astronomical event the Christmas Star may have been, it was necessary to find out in what year Jesus was born. But this is not so easy, as records are very unreliable at that time, and so it is necessary to link that event to others that are recorded historically. The obvious one is the death of King Herod the Great. As Jesus’ birth took place in the last years of Herod’s reign, that pins it down somewhat chronologically, but not precisely. There is some doubt as to when Herod actually died, with debate as to whether that happened in 4BC or 1BC. Most of the evidence points to it being after the lunar eclipse of that year, which allows enough time between his death and Passover of that year.

Given that Jesus was born at the time when a census was taking place, and the fact that an official census was ordered by Augustus Caesar in the year 3BC, that would seem to place Jesus’ birth in the year 3BC or 2BC. (Yes, it is confusing having His birth taking place in 3/2BC, meaning ‘Before Christ’ when clearly his birth should actually have taken place in the year 0BC. But calendars and historical recordings were not as accurate then as they are today, and there has always been dispute about this matter!)

Moving on to what sort of astronomical event could have been interpreted as the Christmas Star at that time, Pauline suggested it could have been either a nova, a supernova, a comet or a planetary conjunction. Two events that might have been interpreted thus were planetary conjunctions; a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces (associated with the Hebrew nation) in 7BC, and a grouping of Jupiter Saturn and Mars, all within 8 degrees of each other in February 6BC, also in Pisces.

In 5BC, Chinese astronomers recorded a nova in Capricorn that was visible for seventy days, but that would not have moved across the sky and come to rest over Bethlehem – it would have remained stationary. Two comets were visible in 5BC, but at that time, and for centuries after, comets were thought of as harbingers of doom, so it’s unlikely that a comet would have inspired the magi to predict the birth of a saviour based on the appearance of a comet.
These events are also slightly early if we are assuming a birthday occurring in 3BC or 2BC. However, in the years 3BC and 2BC some of the most amazing astronomical events of about 3000 years took place! Pauline showed a list of these, and then concentrated on looking at some of those in detail. The list included many close planetary conjunctions of bright planets that would have been quite spectacular in the morning or evening sky.

Pauline had used planetarium software Starry Night to travel back in time and view the sky as it would have appeared on those dates. She had taken screenshots from the programme that showed how these conjunctions would have appeared to the magi, who were all very well-respected and dedicated astronomer astrologers.

One of the events Pauline focused on was in early August 3BC, when Jupiter rose helically in the rays of the dawn Sun. She noted that it was also important to consider just how the original Gospel texts had been translated, as in Matthew’s text the phrase “En te anatole” is used, meaning literally in the rays of the dawn, whereas the Greek “anatolai” simply means east. So as well as confusion as to the historical dates we also have to consider that there may have been translation errors involved as well!

Next on Pauline’s list was an early morning conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in mid-August. If the Magi took this to be an indicator of a momentous event, they may have looked for confirmation somewhere else in the sky and been drawn to a triple conjunction of Jupiter with the star Regulus in Leo. The triple conjunction involved Jupiter’s retrograde motion causing it to appear as if it was circling the star Regulus, and this was repeated in February and May of 2BC. Now the constellation of Leo was associated with the Jewish people, and was known as the Lion of Judah. Add to this the fact that Regulus was always associated with royalty and kinghood (the word ‘regal’ comes from Regulus), and that Jupiter was considered the King planet and it’s quite possible that they may have taken this as a definite portent of a royal birth for the Jewish people.

These celestial signs may have been linked by the Magi, who dwelt in the East (Persia – now Iraq), with a messianic prophecy by Daniel, who himself had been a Magi. To them at that time, the evidence could have been overwhelming, and would have explained why they set off for the western land of Judea to look for the infant king of the Jews. Eventually, the ‘star’ (or Jupiter) must have appeared to come to a standstill over Bethlehem – the only way this could have happened is if Jupiter went retrograde and appeared to stop its eastward journey relative to the stars. However, this does stretch the imagination somewhat.

So it’s all clear then? Well, not really…. Pauline did point out that although this version of the astronomical data seems to make it all fit together nicely, we have to take into consideration the inaccuracies of historical recording in times gone by, and the fact that the calendar itself may have been misinterpreted by historians. Add to that the possibility of translation errors and we have to assume that although this could be a reasonable explanation, from an astronomical standpoint, we also have to understand that it may be completely wrong, especially if Jesus was not born in 3BC!

Unfortunately, as Pauline pointed out, it all took place too long ago for us ever to be confident about finding a truly objective answer. However, the techniques and resources Pauline used in her research do show that there were some very interesting astronomical events that took place during the years of 3BC and 2BC that could have been what we today call the Christmas Star!

Thank you Pauline for spreading at least a little light on this seasonal question.

Highland Skies

We have obviously all been very good this year (or very careful), as Santa and his operatives in the CIA (Christmas Intelligence Agency) have deemed us worthy of some spectacular celestial events to observe this December!

Have you all seen Comet 17/P Holmes yet? If you haven’t then you’ve probably missed it at its best, but it is still easily observable this month. It is circling around the constellation of Perseus but is fainter than it was several weeks ago. It should still be easily visible in binoculars or small telescopes. I’m hoping that it will remain visible to the unaided eye for a while yet, but with comets you never know. (Isn’t one of Santa’s reindeer called Comet?)

The grandest winter constellation of them all is now getting high in the sky, that being Orion. It’s been said time after time before, but I’ll say it again: The Orion Nebula (Messier 42) in Orion’s Sword is one of the most stunning views in the night sky, and reveals its beauty and wonder to all observers, regardless of the aperture of telescope or binocular used. If you get a chance, have a look. See the four main hot young stars in the Trapezium at the centre of the nebula! See the wings of nebulosity spreading out across the field of view of even wide-angle eyepieces! See the mysterious dark nebula known as the Fish Mouth that divides the main portion of M42 from neighbouring M43.

Having devoured the visual treats that the Great Orion Nebula presents us with, you may want to nudge your telescope southwards to the brightest star at the tip of the ‘sword’. That is Iota Orionis, known as Hatsya, and is a very attractive multiple star system. The main star is a magnitude 2.77 blue giant. There is a 7th magnitude companion only 7 arc-seconds away and another about 40 arc-seconds distant, which shines at 11th magnitude. Most people detect an orange tint to the 11th magnitude star and varying degrees of blueness in the other two components. Beware though: observing this object may well get you addicted to multiple star viewing!

In the middle of the month we get a meteor shower that can produce very rewarding results. The Geminids rain down through our atmosphere from 7th to 16th December, with maximum rates being expected around midday on the 14th. Although that will be during daylight, the hours before dawn should also yield good results as should the evening of the 14th and morning of the 15th. In 2003 this shower produced several bright blue-green fireballs, and the meteors tend to move slightly more slowly than those from other showers.

Our next Christmas treat is Mars. Not only is Mars getting much higher in the sky now, shining from the constellation of Gemini, but it is also getting closer. This approach means the apparent size of the planet becomes larger. Opposition, the point at which the planet is at its closest to us, occurs on the night of Christmas Eve, December 24th. Depending on what you are doing that night, maybe you’ll get a chance to leave a ‘scope out cooling in the garden, ready for a quick peek at Mars before bed? The apparent size of the disc will be only 15 arc-seconds, but its height in the sky means it will be away from the most turbulent air near the horizon, so prospects for seeing good surface detail should be excellent, provided the weather co-operates.

Earlier on Christmas Eve we get another Martian bonus. At about 03:30 on the morning of the 24th Mars will be occulted by the full Moon. Depending on where you are when observing, the occultation may be full, in which case the full disc of Mars will disappear behind the Moon for about 40 minutes, or may be grazing. If you are lucky enough to be positioned so that it is a grazing occultation, you should see the limb of the Moon passing across the face of Mars, with the mountain peaks and valleys of Luna standing out in relief against the Martian disc. A fact-sheet is available with more details – just contact me and I can email one to you.

So wrap up warm, have a telescope or binoculars handy through the month, and try to enjoy the night sky in the run up to Christmas 2007. To paraphrase the red-suited white-bearded man himself, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night of observing!”

The Christmas Quiz

After the tea break, it was time for what has become a seasonal highlight of the Society’s year: the Christmas Quiz! The members who had remained sorted themselves into teams of three or four, while Chairman John “Grinch” Gilmour set about asking the questions that he had spent the last year deliberating over. The questions were all on solar system and space mission matters, and there were a total of a possible fifty points to be acquired by answering the twenty questions.

After about the second question, we realised what we had got ourselves into. All thought that this would be a stroll along the Milky Way quickly evaporated and instead we were reduced to head-scratching, muttering, nail-biting wrecks. Throughout the interrogation, Pauline meandered around the room, noting which teams were in most distress and reporting back to the cackling quiz-master. At times we heard laughter from the pair, though by the end even Pauline was beginning to show some sympathy to the sufferers.

At the end of the ordeal the scores were totalled up and the humiliation dished out. The winning team of Bill Leslie, Tim Schroder and Steven White had a staggering score of 29 out of 50, and I was amazed to find that my own team actually came in third place with the normally rather embarrassing total of 23. Still, there were prizes to be handed out to the top three teams, and they were well earned with blood, sweat and tears.

I have been told to say that it was “great fun” and “very enjoyable” and that we are “all looking forward to next year’s quiz”. Hmm. I wonder if we could get a slightly more easy-going quiz-master for the next one. Jeremy Paxman perhaps?

Next Time

The first meeting of the New Year takes place on Tuesday 8th January at the Green House. We will have Bob Clark from Inverness Speakers Club who will be helping two intrepid volunteers brush up their presentation skills. Add to this the usual delights of the raffle, latest astronomical news and updates, tea and biscuits, and perhaps some reports of interesting observations made over the holiday period. Start time is 7.30pm.

Until then, have a great Christmas and if you get a chance to enjoy any clear skies make the most of them! Remember to drop by the message board if you have any interesting observations to mention or questions to ask, and check the website regularly for the latest updates.

See you in 2008!


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