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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie January 2007

Welcome to 2007! For a January meeting there was a huge turnout, and surprisingly little evidence of hangover symptoms. Not even the recent rash of infections and viruses kept the members away from the action. They had all turned out to hear Arthur Milnes' talk about Cosmic Building Blocks, and to find out what the Highlands Astronomical Society had been up to over the last few weeks. There was a lot to hear, starting with the notices read by Chairwoman Pauline Macrae:

  • French Getaway. Breakaway to Bearn is a holiday with a difference apparently. Held in a large house in France, just 40 minutes from the Pyrenees, there are various courses including painting, photography and astronomy! This latter course takes place between May 27th and June 2nd, and is about the history of astronomy and what the future holds for this science in the 21st Century. There is very little light pollution and a visit to an observatory will be arranged. Cost is £690 per person per week although you get a 10% discount if you share a room with a friend. To find out more go to: Please remember HAS just passes on information – we cannot recommend them.
  • Stargazing Events. We will be having stargazing events at the Culloden Observatory this month on the following dates. As usual, these are weather-dependant, so please call the host if there is any doubt about whether it will be on or not. If calling before 7.30 please use landline number, and after 8pm use the mobile.

Friday 19th Jan .....Antony McEwan
Saturday 20th Jan .....Eric Walker

  • Look out, it’s The Moon! Are you in the habit of going out at night to seek your favourite faint fuzzy objects, only to suddenly and painfully be blasted into a writhing heap on the ground by rays of (cue dramatic music…) Moonlight? Yes, the Moon reflects light, and directs these deadly (not really) rays towards hapless astronomers on planet Earth. Thankfully, the intensity of these rays can be predicted by referring to a device known as a Moonphase Postcard. These can now be bought from the Society for the ridiculously cheap price of just £1 each. Buy one, it could save your life (allegedly).
  • Funding Success! Our Lottery funding application has been successful, and we have been awarded £9893. This will buy us the Meade RCX-400 14” telescope, the pier, wedge and two excellent eyepieces. Unfortunately though Lloyds TSB has turned us down. They could have awarded us £2500, which would have bought the video and computer equipment. This means we have a total of only £5000 to raise by ourselves. If you haven’t sent your funding letter to a local business yet, please make haste now and get it in the post. If you would like a letter and brochure to post, please contact Pauline.
  • Comet McNaught. This naked eye comet has been haunting the pre-dawn and post-dusk skies for the last week or so. Unfortunately, by the time you get this newsletter it will not be visible to us, but it has been successfully observed or photographed by several Society members, including Pauline Macrae and John Gilmour. John even showed a couple of the images he captured of the comet in the evening sky. More information on this comet can be found at the British Astronomical Association website.
  • Lost Time. For some unknown reason the calendars we ordered from the Liverpool Astronomical Society have not appeared. We don’t know where they are just now, but whenever they appear the Committee will let us know.
  • Seeing Stars. The latest Seeing Stars article, ‘An Engagement With The Pole Star’ is now on the Society website for your viewing, along with all our previous Seeing Stars articles. Before you visit the link though, be warned that the Pole Star is ‘Polaris’, and not anybody connected in any way to any form of dance…

First Day Stamp Covers

A set of astronomy stamps will be issued on 13th February commemorating 50 years of the TV programme, The Sky at Night, presented by Sir Patrick Moore. The stamps will depict the following celestial objects:

  • Saturn Nebula...........C55...32p (1st class)
  • Eskimo Nebula.......... C39...32p (1st class)
  • Helix Nebula............. C63...50p
  • Cats Eye Nebula........C6.....50p
  • Flaming Star Nebula...C31...72p
  • The Spindle...............C53...72p

You can get a set of mint condition stamps from the Post Office for £3.08
A First Day Cover will cost £3.08. A Mint presentation pack with notes by Patrick Moore can be bought for £3.60. But the grande piece de resistance in the series is something that will benefit the HAS as well – a Highlands Astronomical Society First Day Cover for £4.00!

We have arranged that the HAS first day covers will be franked in the same way as the ‘normal’ Post Office ones, and at minimum should be worth the same in years to come, but in terms of uniqueness will certainly be worth more. The idea is that interested members should contact Simon Urry and give him details of how many HAS First Day Covers you would like ordered. Special HAS envelopes will be used, and the address of the purchaser will be added to the envelope. In addition, notes about the objects on the stamps can be placed inside the envelope if required!

For more details, or if you are interested in placing an order, please contact Simon Urry. Money for payment will be required at the February 6th meeting, and the items will be handed over to their owners at the March 6th meeting.

The bonus to the Society is that by investing in a HAS First Day Cover, you will also be contributing 92p towards the new observatory fund, which all the members will benefit from.

Transportable Observatory

Distant member, Jeremy Rundle, has sent us details of the latest addition to his garden, a home observatory that he describes as the ‘Transportable Observatory’. It is of simple but very functional design and is easy to build. Pauline has details on paper about the project, which only took a few hours to complete, but the information will also be added to the HAS website in the very near future. Keep your eyes peeled.

Courier Blunder

Tuesday 9th’s edition of the Inverness Courier ran a full page article on the Highlands Astronomical Society, including the photographs that were taken at the December meeting! They mentioned the new observatory project that we are working on, but neglected to mention that Highland 2007 is one of our major funders. They were instead only referred to as having ‘an interest’ in the project, a fact that one of the H2007 managers, Adrian Clark, found to be a bit remiss. He contacted Pauline to pass on his disappointment, and the complaint was then forwarded to the Inverness Courier, who said that they will make an apology in the form of a notice on the letters page.

Message Board Registration Process

Because of a recent and sustained spate of spam messages appearing on the message board, we have had to change the registration process. In the past you were able to sign up for membership of the forum by yourself, online. Now, however, we have had to stop that system and launch a new process. If you wish to post a message on the board or simply become a forum member, you must now use the website Enquiry Form (or other email) and send a message with your intention to us. We will then get back to you and ask for the relevant registration details, including user name, password, etc, and pass on the rules of the forum. Registration may take a little bit longer now, but will be much safer in terms of what content will be displayed on the message board. Unfortunately this was forced upon us by the minority who see public forums as graffiti walls to be adorned with nonsense and advertising. If the situation changes, we will let you know.

For Sale

Maarten de Vries is selling his telescopes! Up for grabs are a 102mm f5 Helios Startravel achromatic refractor on EQ mount, and a Helios Apollo 6” Newtonian.

The 102mm refractor comes with EQ-1 mount, 90-degree star diagonal, 10mm and 25mm Plossl eyepieces. Pictures taken using this ‘scope can be seen here and here. It is an ideal wide-field instrument, and very portable and lightweight.

The Helios Apollo has aperture of 150mm, focal length 1000mm, and is f6.7. The secondary mirror incorporates a field flattener, making it very useful for astrophotography. It comes with a sturdy EQ-3 mount with dual motor drives, a modified Quickcam Express for imaging, and built-in cooling fan for the primary mirror. A sample picture taken through the ‘scope can be seen here.

Maarten is asking £150 for the Startravel 102 package and £250 for the Apollo 150. Contact Maarten himself for more information.

The Main Event

‘Cosmic Building Blocks’ by Arthur Milnes

Arthur Milnes is well known within the Society for his talks on different scientific theories and how they apply to astronomy and cosmology. His obvious enthusiasm for science and voracious appetite for answers means his talks are full of interesting little tidbits that slip in beside the real meat of the presentation. This talk was all about the very smallest things in the universe, how and when they were discovered and by whom, and where they fit into the big picture.

Einstein’s famous theory E=MC2 showed that matter, which everything is apparently made of, can be converted to a truly vast amount of energy. The big question then was, what is this matter? What is everything, including people, actually made of? As Arthur said, the question went unasked for an enormous time (in Human terms), and had to wait until civilisation was beginning to develop before being aired. The Greek philosopher Democritus in the 4th century BC theorised to his students that you could not carry on cutting a material into smaller and smaller pieces, that there had to come a point where you simply could not get any smaller. The Greek word he used was ‘a-tomos’ meaning uncuttable, and so coined the word ‘atom’ for these smallest particles.

His ideas were not really explored until after the middle ages, when science blossomed with giants such as Newton. In the 18th century, a Swiss mathematician, Daniel Bernoulli, made comprehensive studies into fluid flow, and applied his research and Newton’s laws of motion to the very small particles that we now recognise as atoms and molecules. He reasoned that the increased pressure of compressed gases could only be explained by countless collisions of tiny particles against the walls of the vessel holding them. His further research showed that the molecules must be very tiny when compared with the space around them.

Around 1775, Antoine Lavoisier was investigating how chemical substances combine. He recognised that some substances could not be ‘sub-divided’ and were essentially fundamental. He identified about 23 such substances, and the idea of the ‘elements’ was born. He found that these elements could be combined with others, producing substances that could then be split apart, but came to see that the undividable elements could be considered basic building blocks of Chemistry. Unfortunately for Lavoisier, he worked for a tax-collecting company, and during the French revolution he lost his head. A short time later an aggrieved young woman murdered his denouncer, scientist Jean-Paul Marat, in his bath. This is the sort of detail you only get in an Arthur Milnes talk…

In 1803, the work of English amateur scientist John Dalton saw that when elements were combined to make molecules, they did so in fixed proportions. For example, when hydrogen was combined with oxygen to make water, 8 grams of oxygen always required 1 gram of hydrogen. Though some of his work was flawed, he did put forward the theory that the weights of the different atoms could be defined against that of hydrogen.

Others took up the work, including William Prout, Avogardro of Italy, and Dimitri Mendeleev. The latter was a serial bigamist, a circumstance that possibly gave him an advantage in seeing repeated patterns, which he did when viewing the properties of the elements! His work resulted in the ‘periodic table of the elements’; a tool that could predict the properties of as-yet undiscovered elements. (No periodic table for the properties of his wives is known to exist).

Arthur described the ongoing work undertaken by further scientists, right up to fairly modern times. He remarked on the idea that, if we believe the Big Bang theory of cosmological creation, then we have to accept that all matter in the universe was created in a very small space of time - seconds only – and that these molecules and particles make up all that we see, feel and are. It is a gobsmacking thought. After giving a summary of the incredible work done in radiation, Arthur drew to our attention to the fact that the radioactive poison, Polonium 210, used in the recent murder of Alexander Litvinenko is one of the most lethal of all substances, and extremely rare as well. Only a very few grams are produced each year worldwide, and it is generally used as a power supply for satellites and/or space probes. It just goes to show that not all the elements, substances and molecules that we know about work in our favour; quite often they are used against us, either by nature or Mankind itself.

Our thanks to Arthur for another classic talk, where he took a sideways step away from ‘classical’ astronomy and revealed some of the mysteries of a related science that nevertheless is linked with modern research into cosmology and the big questions of the universe, existence and everything!

Highland Skies - December 2006

Happy New Year, and welcome to the first ‘Highland Skies’ of 2007. Last month I wrote about how during the lead up to Christmas you may need to make the most of quick observing sessions, settling for the most obvious objects and making the most of limited observing opportunities. This month the festivities are over and it’s time to get down to some serious observing to keep away the January Blues!

Before you drag the scope and skycharts out though, make sure you’re prepared for the seasonal conditions. January is cold. It’s no fun observing if you’re not ready for it, but it is easy to gear up. Wrap up warm. It may seem obvious, but many people don’t seem to realise that standing around in the cold makes you…cold! Think multiple thin layers, invest in thermal underwear in the sales and make use of it, and don’t forget the extremities. Several thin layers trap air and keep you warmer far more effectively than two or three thick ones. Double up on socks too, and allow room for them when you buy new boots (not trainers please, they let the cold in!). Gloves are essential, even if you only use them from time to time, and a Thinsulatetm -lined hat or similar will keep a whole lot more of your body heat where it’s supposed to be- in your body, not leaking away into space!

Take a flask of hot drink with you (non-alcoholic, as alcohol makes your body temperature drop) and some snacks to keep your energy levels up. The cold saps energy making you feel tired, and you need to be alert and awake to tease out fine detail in faint galaxies. Reusable hand-warmers are available from outdoor shops, and are very ‘handy’ for keeping the fingers toasty. Finally, a stool or folding seat is very handy for comfortable viewing at the telescope or binoculars, but remember to walk around a bit every now and then to keep the circulation flowing.

Having prepared yourself for the cold night skies, you are now ready to enjoy them to the full. January brings some real delights to the sky, with the classic winter constellations climbing high in the sky. Orion is beautifully placed for deep study, being sufficiently high now that you should even be able to make out the whole constellation of Lepus (the rabbit) below his feet, and most of Canis Major trailing at his rear ankle. There’s a rather nice little open cluster just below Sirius that you should be able to spot in small scopes – M41, give it a go. That is, if you’ve not already overdosed on beautiful open clusters, as I’m sure you’ve all been scouring the skies nightly through the autumn for views of M34, M35, M36, M37, M38, M45, M52, etc., etc…

The Moon also rides high in the sky through winter, allowing one to really push the magnification up to examine its sharp crater edges and long, narrow, sharply-defined ravines and rilles at the limits of telescopic power. It’s when the Moon is well away from the murky layers near the horizon that this sort of high-power observing is most enjoyable, as you’re much more likely to achieve sharp views. Combine this with a telescope that has a motor drive, and you’re in Lunie Heaven.

Saturn is returning to the evening sky too, being found just ahead of the sickle of Leo from about 10pm onwards. Its ring system is still sufficiently open to us to reveal some structure, including the famous Cassini Division and other gaps if you are blessed with good seeing and large apertures. If you are able to attend any observing sessions where the 12” aperture HASDobs is present, please ask for a look at Saturn (not that you’ll need to) and you may just get some of your best Saturnine views ever! Even small ‘scopes give splendid views of the ringed planet though, revealing the division and subtle banding features across the planet’s globe, and sometimes the shadow of the globe on the rings and vice versa. So don’t feel intimidated by lack of aperture- just make use of whatever you have and spend as much time at the eyepiece as you can spare, whether you’ve exploring Luna, Saturn or the deep sky wonders of the winter constellations.



Next Time

The next meeting will take place on Tuesday 6th February at the Green House, starting at 7.30pm. The main event will be a talk from Pauline Macrae giving the latest updates on Martian exploration! There’s been a lot of news about Mars recently, so we look forward to hearing all about it. There will also be the latest news of Stargazing Events and other projects and activities organised by the Highlands Astronomical Society, and other astronomical organisations. Plus tea and biscuits of course!

In the meantime, please feel free to drop into the website and have a look at the latest offerings there, including an article on tuning up the venerable Synta AZ-3 alt-azimuth mount, and the soon to be released information page about Jeremy’s backyard observatory.

Want to make a comment? Post it on the Message Board, and then have a look at the Image Gallery.

Dark Skies!

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