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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie July 2006

Equipment Night at the Green House was the theme of the July 2006 Highlands Astronomical Society meeting. As usual the meeting was very well attended (despite the best game of the World Cup being shown at the same time) and many members and prospective members brought along their telescopes and observing equipment to show off and ask questions about. The Equipment Nights are usually fairly informal events, but even so we had the notices to start us off before we could start running around playing with everybody’s equipment…

  • Pay Up! Membership fees need to be paid before the August meeting otherwise you cannot be included on the telephone contact list, which will be ready in August. The contact list is a way of contacting people whenever an interesting celestial phenomenon occurs, for example aurorae, noctilucent clouds, raining frogs, incoming meteorites etc, and so if you want to have forewarning about such events, you’ll need to make payment before the next meeting. Contact Pat Escott or Pauline for details on how to settle up.
  • Reality Check. Roger Penrose will be talking at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 21st August about his new book, “The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide To The Laws Of The Universe”. The book is described as the most ambitious work for a generation on everything we currently understand (or think we do) about our universe, its beauty, and its philosophical implications. The talk will take place in the RBS Main Theatre at Charlotte Square Gardens in Edinburgh, from 4.30 – 5.30pm. More information can be gleaned from the Book Festival Website, where you can also buy tickets.
  • Should Humans Go Into Deep Space? BBC Radio 4 asks this question in two programmes, on Wednesday 26th July and 3rd August at 9pm. The programme looks at the tremendous physical and mental challenges that such an endeavour will present to the human frame. Personally, I can think of a few I’d send out into deep space with no hesitation…
  • FAS Convention. The Federation of Astronomical Societies will be holding their convention on 30th September at the Birmingham and Midland Institute in Birmingham. Speakers will include Scotland’s Astronomer Royal, Professor John Brown, Dr Allan Chapman, Dr Somak Raychaudhury and Dr David Whitehouse. There will also be other exhibitors, and entrance fee will be £12 on the door or £10 if pre-booked. Email or enquire via the Committee for more details.
  • Are You a Noctilucent Nut? The Scottish Astronomers Group, in association with the Mills Observatory and the Noctilucent Cloud Observers Webpage, will be holding a meeting of NLC observers on Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th August at the Mills Observatory in Dundee. There will be an exhibition of photographs and observations from the 2006 season, and all observers are invited to attend the meeting and contribute material. This is an informal meeting so there will be no entrance fee, but you will need to notify Bill Ward if you intend to attend. You can email him here, or if you’d prefer to actually write to him, Pauline has his postal address.
  • Venus Express. Would you like to contribute scientifically to ESA’s Venus Express mission? Simply by taking photos of Venus? Well you can! There will be times during the mission when the Express probe will not be able to directly observe the planet because of its position. At these times amateurs will be able to fill that observational gap by taking images of Venus through telescopes with apertures of 20cm (8 inch) or larger. You will also need a high quality monochrome CCD or video camera, three filters, and probably a bit of imaging know-how. Further information can be found at the ESA Venus Amateur Observing Project webpage.
  • Observing Evenings. There will be two planned Jupiter observing sessions this month, taking place at the Culloden Observatory. They will need to start a little later than usual due to the very light sky, so kick-off will be at 10pm, assuming that the weather is good. Jupiter is not only the intended target, but also the only target available, thanks to our location on a world that is inclined to its orbital plane around the Sun, and the lack of darkness this causes during ‘summer’. Check out the Jupiter Observing Guide on the HAS website before coming along. Contact details are as follows:

Friday 14th July.....Antony McEwan
Saturday 15th July....David Hughes

  • An Observatory Update. We have transferred £800 from the Society’s main account into the New Observatory Fund account. This is so the Lottery will consider our application for funding more favourably. We intend to use the Lottery funding to buy the telescope itself, but as it costs more than the maximum £5000 obtainable, we have to appear to put our own money towards it in order for them to give us money too. Once the funding has been obtained, the £800 will be transferred back to the main account. The Committee would like to apologise for not having the time to advise you all of this in advance, but at this stage things are moving fast- it will not be long now! Also, keep your eyes and ears open for some exciting plans to be announced at the next meeting that will let you help with fundraising…
  • Your Inverness. On Saturday 9th September there will be an event called 'Your Inverness', at which all societies in Inverness have the chance to promote themselves. It will take place at the Ice Rink during the day and we would welcome help to look after our Society display and talk to people. Please contact Pat Williams for details or to volunteer.

The Main Event
‘Come and See My Telescope’ By the Members

How many equipment Nights have we held now? I’ve lost count. I think it’s three or four, and they just keep on getting better and better. We are lucky to have such a large space in the Green House to set up all the equipment, as they take up quite a lot of room.

There were some quite large telescopes on show this year. Both Pauline and Eric took along their 8” Meade Schmidt Cassegrains, and they are really quite an impressive sight. Eric’s is set up primarily for astrophotography, being equipped with a Meade DSI (Deep Sky Imager) Pro CCD imager and f3.3 focal reducer. This is all linked up directly to a portable laptop computer to download the images as they are captured by the ‘scope and CCD.

Pauline’s is used primarily for visual observing, and has been fitted with a nice right-angled 9x50 finder-scope that will save wear and tear on the back and neck considerably. The straight-through finders can involve crouching into uncomfortable positions to see through them.

Another right-angled finder was evident on my own 6” f8 Orion Optics Newtonian. I have had the 6” f8 for over a year now and find it to be excellent as a planetary ‘scope, due to the very small secondary obstruction, curved spider support, Hi-Lux™ high reflectivity coatings, and the fact that it can be easily fitted to my motorised Vixen equatorial mount. This allows the telescope to track objects at the same rate as the Earth rotates, so that they always stay in the eyepiece’s field of view.
Several equatorial mounts were there, as well as a few alt-azimuth mounts. Alt-az are simpler, in that the motions of left, right, up and down are exactly as described, rather than being in relation to the polar axis as on an equatorial mount.

Alt-az mounts are great for quick looks and using in observing setups that are quick to deploy and easy to use. Ideal for those brief breaks in the cloud when it’s too much of a chore to set up a heavy equatorial mount. I use an alt-az under my TeleVue 85mm apochromatic refractor, and Christine Clifford uses a simple photo tripod as the mount for her 80mm f5 short tube refractor, for great wide field low power views of clusters and star-fields.

A modified version of the alt-az principle is the Dobsonian mount, designed by groundbreaking astronomer and cosmologist John Dobson. It allows large telescopes to be mounted in a simple alt-az way, and means that you can have a very large Newtonian telescope mounted easily and simply at very low cost. This is exactly what members of the Society did when we built the HASDobs telescope, which was also on show at the meeting. The HASDobs is a star performer, and regularly reduces people to gibbering, disbelieving heaps after they have been subjected to the views delivered by its 12” f7 optics! The planets especially are sublime when seen through large telescopes such as our HASDobs.

From right-angled finders to motorised focusers, add-on accessories were plentiful on many of the ‘scopes on display. This is a market that has boomed since companies like Meade, Celestron, Orion and others started producing mass-market telescopes of reasonable quality at affordable prices. Your average ‘out-of-the-box’ telescope will do exactly what it is described to do, but if you want to modify that telescope in some way, perhaps to be a wide-field imager, remove diffraction spikes, add increased functionality to the focuser or some such, then likely as not there is a product available for you. Third party accessory companies have flourished, providing things like right-angled finders, improved visual backs (for firmer attachment of eyepieces, diagonals, etc), motorised focusers, enhanced reflectivity diagonals, CCD imagers, optional wedge-mounts for better polar alignment and tracking during photography, adjustable counterweight systems for precise balancing, even just aesthetic features like nicely machined aluminium focus wheels or objective caps. The telescope market is awash with items to customise your telescope. Your telescope, just like you, can now be unique- just like everyone else’s!

There were a couple of new appearances too, brought along by prospective members who wanted to see what the members thought about their telescope acquisitions. One was a Tasco 114mm f8 Newtonian reflector on equatorial mount, which in itself is a fine beginner telescope. It served as a perfect example of a common problem with retail telescope packages though. It came provided with several 0.96” diameter plastic-lensed eyepieces of very low quality. This happens all too often, with the manufacturers producing a rather nice telescope, and then adding useless accessories to the pack to save costs. The telescope in question will work very well once the owner has purchased a couple of reasonable 1.25” diameter Plossl eyepieces, at very little extra expense. Good quality optics are now so plentiful and reasonably priced that there is no excuse for manufacturers to carry on with this disappointing practice. Some responsibility falls on telescope owners too, to make sure that their pride and joy is equipped with suitable eyepieces to observe the objects they want to see. More information on different types of eyepieces and their merits and disadvantages can be found all over the internet, including articles on our own website under the Equipment section.

It is amazing how many decent quality telescopes of different designs are now available to amateur astronomers, at prices so reasonable that they couldn’t have been dreamed of ten years ago. It is very easy to get caught up in a spending spree and find yourself with the very latest and best equipment, yet not use it either due to impracticality or lack of ability.

Ultimately it is best to enjoy what you have rather than aiming for the impossible, but it is really very easy to find very serviceable telescopes these days too, providing you know what you are looking for. It is that aim that the equipment nights set out to achieve; to help people make purchasing decisions about telescopes and optics, and to advise about their use and practicality. Members (including myself) are always willing to talk about their equipment, so if you have any further telescope questions you can always post them on the website Message Board- you’ll be sure to get a response.

Thank you to everyone else who brought along their equipment and allowed people to crowd around and ask questions. The effort is very much appreciated.

Eyes on the Skies.

Let’s be honest- July just isn’t a great time for nocturnal astronomy, at least not from our location at around 57’ north. The sky is light through the night and only the very brightest objects are visible at all. At this time the only celestial bodies we can really only expect to see are Jupiter, the Moon and the Sun.

Jupiter will be the subject of two evenings of observations at the Culloden observatory on Friday 14th and Saturday 15th July. It is hoped to use a variety of telescopes to try and detect some of the remarkable features of this gas giant. Members are welcome to bring their own telescopes if they come along, or use the Society 10” reflector or the telescopes that the observing session hosts may bring with them.

Not even the Moon is easy to observe through July. When it is full, on the 10th, it will be extremely close to the horizon, and when waxing to full it will be best viewed in the afternoons when it will be higher in the sky. Increasing magnification will darken the sky background and enhance the views of the Moon at this time, but the warm afternoon air will perhaps limit the amount of magnification you can use before the image starts to degrade. Still, even moderate powers show the Moon pleasingly, so it’s always worth a look if you can manage it.

The only truly easy to observe object this month will be the Sun, assuming it continues to make regular appearances. The Sun has been relatively active over the last couple of weeks, considering that we are at sunspot minimum at the moment. There have been small groups of multiple spots, which could easily be revealed in a small telescope and even spotted in binoculars. Note that any optical device used to observe the Sun MUST have a suitable solar filter attached or the observer will risk permanently damaging their eyesight. Full aperture solar filters are available from astronomy retailers, as is the Baader Astrosolar material that can be used to make your own. Projection of the Sun is another safe way of observing, and allows groups of people to see the image at the same time.

Projection is done by using an eyepiece in a telescope, pointing the telescope at the Sun WITHOUT LOOKING THROUGH THE ‘SCOPE AT ALL , and holding or placing a white card at a distance away from the eyepiece for the image of the Sun’s disc to be projected onto. It is important that nobody looks THROUGH the telescope when it’s pointing anywhere near the Sun, and it is safest to make sure that any finder-scope usually on the telescope is either capped or removed to avoid risk of anyone glancing through it, or even for sunlight to be focused through it onto something flammable.

So, the ultimate viewing session in July could consist of some early afternoon solar viewing followed by some late afternoon views of the waxing Moon. After that some late evening views of Jupiter could be enjoyed, perhaps with some barbecue provisions and moderate amounts of cold beer for refreshment. Finally, one could hope for a display of Noctilucent Clouds to finish the night. What more could a dedicated Highland astronomer wish for? Apart from a sunny day off work, that is…

Next Time. The next meeting takes place on Tuesday 1st August at the Green House, 7.30pm. Ken Kennedy will be talking about Noctilucent Clouds, as they seem to be a hot topic at the moment. Remember too to check out Pauline Macrae’s article on this phenomenon in Friday 7th edition of the Inverness Courier, so that you can come armed with many questions for Mr Kennedy!

Until the next meeting, enjoy Sunny Days and Dark(ish) Skies!

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