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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie, January 2005

Antony McEwans monthly digest of HAS happenings.

January 2005 meeting

The start of a new year is always an exciting time, and the first meeting of 2005 was suitably upbeat and full of Northern promise. Despite the extremely wild weather we had a room-full of attendees from all around the local area - a very promising start to the year’s meetings. Naturally, as Pauline took the stage with the first announcements of 2005, she had our rapt attention:

Happy New Year

First of all, best wishes for the coming year were offered by Pauline to all the Society’s members.

Ursa Minimus The Highlands Astronomical Society has a new member; a very special new member, and possibly our smallest yet. Callisto is a bear - a small brown bear standing only about a foot high. Callisto was placed in the care of the Society by the proprietor of Dallas Embroidery, the company responsible for providing us with the excellent goods with our logo on them, as a thank you for the orders placed with his company. Naturally Callisto has a nice warm red jumper to keep him warm whilst observing, and the jumper even has our logo so that he can be returned to us if he goes wandering off in the dark. Callisto (or calli, Caley, Kali to friends) is currently residing with Chairwoman Pauline Macrae and seems happy in the role of HAS Mascot. Welcome Callisto.

Logo Product Update We hope that everyone who ordered goods with the HAS logo on is happy with their items. If not, it may be possible to sell them on within the Society. If you wish to do this or have any other comments to make about the items, please contact Pauline.

Pens Alan Mumford has been in touch with the company that supplied the special red-light pens and it seems they are happy to replace all the ones which aren’t working. They suspect we received a bad batch, so if you have a pen that isn’t working properly, please let Pauline know and she will arrange with Alan to have it replaced.

Observing Nights Despite the adverse weather conditions we still intend to hold observing sessions at the Culloden observatory. We will NOT give in to wind, cloud, sleet, snow, hailstones, hurricanes, biting cold… but enough about the summer - for now there are a couple of sessions planned for Friday 14th and Saturday 15th January. Sessions start at about 8pm and last until about 11pm, depending on attendance, temperature, supply of chocolate edibles and, of course, sky conditions. Contacts are:

- Friday 14th January, Maarten
- Saturday 15th January, Trina

It’s hoped that we’ll see…

Comet Machholz This comet is proving to be a very rewarding object for visual and photographic observation, especially as it is so conveniently placed high in the South and close to some easily found markers. The comet has developed faint dust and ion tails, but they seem to be much more easily captured by long exposure photography than by visual observation. The comet will be very nicely placed near the famous Double Cluster, between Perseus and Cassiopeia, at the end of the month. The comet is actually visible to the naked eye from a dark sky site but binoculars or telescopes will show it better. Rob Nuttall brought along a photo he had recently taken of the comet. Go have a look at it when the wind dies down.

Titanic Landing On Friday 14th January, history will be made as the Huygens probe finally lands, or splashes down, on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. It separated from the Cassini probe on Christmas Day 2004 and after landing will transmit data back to the Cassini probe by radio, to be relayed back to waiting scientists on Earth later. It is hoped that after the descent Huygens will have about thirty minutes of battery life to obtain groundbreaking information on the surfacecomposition of Titan. ‘Stardate: Mission To Titan’ on BBC2 at 11.30pm on Friday 14th will come direct from mission control in Germany and will inform us of the events that have taken place in Saturn’s neighbourhood.

Is there a Solicitor in the house? ‘Legal Stuff’ is looming as the plans for the new improved permanent observatory at Culloden draw closer to being finalised. Negotiations with the National Trust for Scotland will be taking place and a Solicitor will be required to help with the inevitable legal minutiae. If you are, or know, a Solicitor who could help us with this, please contact Pauline with the good news.

Postcards from Space Thanks to Allan Thorne for bringing along his terrific pictures of last October’s aurora. They looked great blown up to A4 size, and the colours were vivid and just how we remembered them. Also there are still some Moon-phase postcards available. These are handy little items which show the moon phase for each and every night of 2005 on a cleverly designed postcard image. Only 75p each from Pauline.

Eyes On The Skies We are now in the cold grip of winter, and should the skies ever reveal themselves to us again, without being accompanied by a force nine gale, we should be able to enjoy some of the best potential observing opportunities of the year. Wrapping up warm is essential at this time of year but the viewing results can be worth the effort. The constellations of the month for the January meeting were Orion and his two hunting dog companions, Canis Minor and Canis Major. Orion is a huge constellation, one of the largest in the Northern skies, and contains astronomical objects of all types. The area of Orion’s Sword is perhaps the most famous nebula hunting ground as it is home to the fabulous Orion Nebula M42, and M43. The latter is another glowing emission nebula that is separated from M42 by the dark lane known as the Fish Mouth. Areas of nebulosity and multiple star systems abound in Orion but his hunting dog companion constellations are also interesting.

Canis Major follows Orion’s heel and the constellation contains the brightest star in the Northern skies, Sirius - also known as the ‘Dog-Star’. There are some nice star clusters around Canis Major including M41, NGC 2360 and NGC 2362. M41 and NGC 2362 are very low down so are best viewed over a low flat horizon and when Sirius has risen quite high.

Canis Minor is a tiny constellation consisting of just two stars and is rather sparse, but it is very close to some nice objects for small telescopes, being situated midway between the Rosette Nebula (NGC 2244) and the Beehive Cluster (M44). Near the Rosette Nebula in Monoceros is the Cone Nebula, NGC 2264. This is a great object for viewing as it is literally two objects in one. The first thing you should see is a cluster of about twenty stars making the shape of a Christmas Tree (hence its sometime name of the ‘Christmas Tree Cluster’) but sharp-eyed observers may make out the second aspect of the object - a subtle glow of nebulosity around the area of the cluster’s stars. Good seeing and good optics help to reveal the nebulosity and larger aperture will make it easier if the night is good, but it is visible in scopes down to 85mm as well.

Saturn is getting higher and higher and is showing some great detail on nights of good seeing. I seem to get the best view later at night, once it is very high and the sky has settled (and it’s reaching the coldest part of the night! Brrr…). Jupiter is rising just before 2am at the moment and is a wonderful planet to observe, with it’s many coloured bands and zones and the four Galilean moons. So there are many things to look out for at the moment - it’s just a matter of wrapping up warm, topping up the flask and trusting the weather to be kind.


The Main Event
Andy Ferguson was the host for Tuesday’s main event, a DVD entitled ‘A Space Story’. Andy is a very active and supportive member of the Highlands Astronomical Society and currently sits on several sub-committees, as well as writing (along with Maarten de Vries) the monthly ‘Seeing Stars’ articles which are printed in the Inverness Courier and on the HAS website.

The narrator of ‘A Space Story’ is veteran astronaut Story Musgrave. Story is a remarkable man, even for an astronaut! He worked for NASA for 30 years, 17 of which were spent on the Hubble Space Telescope project. He holds degrees in Medicine, Physics and Literature, is a qualified pilot, and has jumped out of an aircraft over 500 times and survived. Albeit wearing a parachute, but even so…

The DVD showed Story giving a lecture to an audience in Austin, Texas, about one of the six shuttle missions he flew. The mission in question is particularly relevant to us as astronomers - it was mission STS-61, flown in the Space Shuttle Endeavour: the famous Hubble Space Telescope repair mission.

Story gave his lecture from a small square stage with a large display panel behind him, and constantly roved around the stage addressing his audience in a smooth, quiet tone. The goal of the mission was to replace misaligned parts within the HST so that it would be able to give us our best views of space so far. In order to do that the mission team would have to perform a large number of ‘space-walks’ or EVAs in order to replace the parts manually. The training for this was intense, and it seems Story and the whole team demanded, and delivered, the very highest levels of focus and dedication. Every aspect of the mission had to be prepared for, from simulating the amount of space that a space-suit clad astronaut would have to work in, to how much torque would be required when tightening up some bolt using one of the 130 required tools. Story paid particular attention to the absolute dedication of the team behind the mission preparations, and illustrated the intense team spirit of them all when he said of the experience: “You don’t DO a mission, you believe in it”.

After talking through the preparation and the actual mission, Story then went on to describe some experiments he performed with a can of Coca Cola in the weightless environment of the Space Shuttle. I’d never seen a sphere of Coke being compared to the Earth before. The talk concluded with an astounding array of photographs of the Earth taken from the Shuttle. These pictures were amazing, and showed such landmarks and natural wonders as the pyramids at Giza, Mount Fuji, Mount Kilimanjaro, dust storms sweeping down the Andes, the Straits of Gibraltar, beautiful patterns traced on sands by desert winds, Manhattan by night, and many more. A series of pictures of Aurorae followed, as well as some that showed Endeavour’s engine glow against the backdrop of Space.

It was a really inspiring and motivating performance, given by a passionate speaker who has been out there, seen it with his own eyes, and is now sharing that experience with us! At times it was almost like we had Story in the room with us, partly due to the great presentation equipment at the Green House. It was a remarkable journey that Story took us on, and even now we are still enjoying the benefits of that repair mission, as Hubble has revealed many thousands more galaxies than we ever knew existed. Many thanks indeed to Andy for showing this film which let us sit in on Story Musgrave’s ‘Space Story’.


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