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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie July 2007

Telescopes, binoculars, eyepieces, solar ‘scopes, skycharts, cases, tripods; all different types of astronomical equipment were represented upstairs at the July 2007 Highlands Astronomical Society Equipment Night. And not only that, but there were lots of small future-astronomers being entertained with a series of scientific experiments and featurettes in the downstairs Children’s Evening section. And yes, the two sections did combine well, and no: no telescopes or children were damaged in the production of this meeting! Before the laid-back casual evening began, Chairman John Gilmour read out the notices:

  • Tossing The Telescope. The Highlands Astronomical Society has been invited to the Highland Games, at Bught Park in Inverness, on Saturday 21st July, 11am to 6pm. The intention is for our club (and others) to be publicised, so it would be a great opportunity to tell people a bit about ourselves and to let them know about our great aims. If you would be able to help out, even if only for an hour or two, please contact John Gilmour. It is hoped that the caber tossing will be facing away from our stand…
  • Car Boot Sale. Pauline has started to organise the fundraising car boot sale, which will take place at the Inverness Royal Academy on Saturday 18th August. She would like to invite all of the members to come along and support this event, from which all profits will go towards the new observatory. Cars selling goods will be charged £8, but members can do so for only £5. If you want to just come and buy, you will get in free, but members of the public will be charged 50p each. So if you have a car boot taking up space and want to sell it, then now you can!
  • Open Day. It’s that time of year again – nearly! Last year’s open day in the Eastgate Centre was a phenomenal success, drawing envious gazes from such institutions as Gucci and Saatchi & Saatchi (maybe) for its organisational smoothness and design flair. This year it will take place on Saturday 8th September from 9am to 6pm Volunteers are being sought to help man the stand, and like last year we hope to hold a public observing session at the Culloden Visitor Centre car park in the evening. Will it be as good as last year’s, with clear skies and an aurora? Only one way to find out - sign up now!
  • Trina Makes an Exhibition. Yes, Trina Shaddick is designing an exhibition for Inverness Museum, in the form of an inspirational poster depicting astronomy and a new observatory in the Highlands! She hopes to have it ready very soon, and it will hang on the wall opposite the lift. An ideal position for it, as it’s sure to be up-lift-ing!
  • John Zarnecki via cyberspace. The Open University annual broadband lecture, on 50 years of space exploration, is now available for download from the Open University website. Click here to go to it. It is presented by Professor John Zarnecki, and reviews some “nail-biting moments from the first 50 years of mankind’s journey into space.”
  • Stoned at Sigma. Sigma has a meeting coming up that could be described as a bolt from the blue. Talk about getting heavenly stoned – the lecture is called “From the Heavens to Sigma” and is all about Jamie and Deirdre Shepherd’s collection of meteorites. They have quite a bundle of them apparently, and they’re going to let you check them out at the Birnie Village Hall, Friday 7th September, 7.30pm. Rumours persist there may be Rock Music. Cosmic. Who said we never get to meet visitors from outer space…
  • Fame! We are about to get a double whammy of exposure in the astronomical press. In July 17th’s edition of Sky at Night magazine we will be featured in the Society News page, where mention will be made of our new observatory project. Also, in September’s Astronomy Now, we will be featured in their new ‘How To’ series. The topic will be how to use the local press to promote astronomy clubs.
  • Seeing Stars. By the time you read this, Friday 6th’s edition of the Inverness Courier will be up for grabs, and in it will be the latest Seeing Stars article. This one is written by Pauline Macrae, and is all about our closest stellar neighbour, the Sun.
  • Observing Dates. Dave Hughes has been looking at organising dates for the upcoming season’s stargazing events, and has made a list of them. They will be announced formally soon, but if you just can’t wait, please get in touch with David to find out more. This year’s events will be conducted with member’s telescopes and the HASDobs 12” Dobsonian telescope, while we wait for the grand opening of the new observatory. More details to be announced.

Observatory Update

There was quite a lot to report on the progress of our new observatory, so John gave us a run through of the last month’s ups and downs. It started with some bad news; the MFR funding application had been unsuccessful, building has been delayed until September because the NTS are 12 weeks behind schedule, and the Meade RCX-400 telescope we were planning to buy is unavailable for the foreseeable future.

To counteract those minor negative points, the good news is that there is an alternative telescope available, the Meade LX-200R, which is identical in optical performance and only differs in that it has slightly fewer ‘luxury’ bells and whistles. It is also a few thousand pounds cheaper and available now! The amount of money we still need to raise continues to decrease as our funds grow, so that now we only need to raise a further £4415, which includes a £2500 contingency fund. The members wall plaque scheme has raised £600, the raffles a further £490, and other donations £240. We are doing very well indeed!

To add to that, we have submitted further funding applications to The Robertson Trust, Highland Council Common Good Fund (again, as we are entitled to apply for funds for this financial year since our previous grant came out of LAST year’s budget! Chances of a second bite at the same cherry might not be very high though), Highland Council Ward Fund, and the Co-Operative Community Dividend Fund.

There is still time to add your name to the wall plaque for contributing members (only £25 – a bargain price for immortal fame, and you will also receive a smart certificate for that). Other fundraising plans include the car boot sale mentioned above and a summer treasure hunt, and we are open to other ideas too.

We now have a provisional opening date – Saturday 3rd November – and a confirmed guest celebrity to open the observatory! Yes, it’s Elvis himself! Oh, I misread that; it’s actually Professor John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland and long-term supporter of the new observatory project! Make a date in your diary for that weekend, and the whole week, as there will be a series of special events marking the opening of the new Highlands observatory!

The Main Event

‘Equipment Night’ by the members

The number of telescopes on display this year was down a little bit on previous years, but the differences between them all were just as obvious. We had different extremes of sophistication and simplicity on display, and this is one of the great things about amateur astronomy; they all have their place in the arsenal of tools used by astronomers to view the sky.

At the very simplest level were Christine’s 80mm f5 achromatic refractor on photographic tripod and my own 8” Dobsonian reflector. Both are steered by hand, with targets being found using a low magnification finderscope, and both tour the sky on alt-azimuth mounts with no need for polar alignment before starting an observing session. Neither of these telescopes have any onboard electronics either – they are examples of low-tech simplicity (with the possible exception of a battery-operated electric focuser motor on my Dob). Remarkably, or perhaps not so remarkably, both of these ever-so-simple telescopes have been owned by their current users for several years, and neither has any intention of parting with them…

At the other end of the scale were Pauline’s 5” Meade ETX-125 Maksutov and Eric’s 8” Meade LX-50 Schmidt Cassegrain. Both of these telescopes have built-in GoTo computers, which allow the user to tell the telescope what to view using an attached keypad. Having told the computer what to look at, the onboard computer works out what direction to move the telescope in, and how far, by extrapolating data from its current position. The reliability of this depends on how accurately the telescope is set up at the beginning of the session, and the quality of the components in the telescope drive system. Fortunately, Meade is one of the biggest and most reliable producers of such systems (though no-one is perfect).

The drive and control system of these ‘scopes are only half of the equation though, and fortunately the other half, the optics, are very good too. Maksutovs deliver sharp, high contrast images, due to their long native focal length and small secondary obstruction in the light path. They therefore make ideal planetary telescopes, but the advantages that make them good for planets (contrast and comfortable viewing at moderate to high magnification) also help them to bring out the best in deep sky objects. They are good all-rounders then, with the only possible downside being a slightly narrow field of view compared with other optical designs.

The Schmidt Cassegrain design, of which Eric’s LX-50 is one example, is similar to the Maksutov but is generally produced with larger aperture and shorter relative focal length. The secondary obstruction on a SCT is generally slightly larger relative to a Maksutov’s, but they are cheaper to produce and the advantage of the extra light-gathering ability given by a larger aperture is thought by many users to outweigh any potential decrease in contrast in the views. An 8” SCT is quite a versatile telescope, and will typically have 2000mm focal length, making it easy to achieve high magnifications in comfort with easy to use medium focal length eyepieces, but it will also yield wide-field views when paired with a focal reducer accessory that reduces the effective focal length of the ‘scope and therefore gives lower magnification and wider true field of view when used with any given eyepiece. Accessorisation is where the SCT’s really score – they can be adapted for anything, with a huge range of add-on gadgets; from screw on visual backs that allow larger diameter eyepieces for wider fields of view, to improved electronic micro-focusing systems and ultra-accurate GPS systems for improved alignment accuracy and tracking.

One telescope that serves a particular one-off purpose, and can only be used for that single job, was Bill Leslie’s Personal Solar Telescope, or PST. You will no doubt have seen Bill’s fantastic pictures of the Sun, taken through this instrument, on our image gallery. Sadly, the evening sky had large swathes of cloud that stopped us from viewing the Sun in the Hydrogen Alpha wavelength, but it was great to see how portable and easy to set up this stunning piece of kit is. I’m sure if the sky had co-operated more than one observer would have been convinced to go home and buy one straightaway!

There was a selection of binoculars on display too, courtesy of Fred Millwood and Eric, including some nice large ones - 20x80 I think. (That’s 20x magnification and 80mm diameter objective lenses). These are great for sweeping the open star clusters of autumn skies, or watching the changing features on the Moon – and ideal for comet-watching! Smaller bino’s, like 7x50 or 10x50 models, make ideal starter instruments, as they are easy to carry and use, and are a very low cost piece of equipment to start finding your way around the night sky with.

Finally, John Rosenfield was kind enough to offer a small refractor on mount and tripod free to a good home, as long as the new owner made a contribution to the Society’s new observatory funds! The telescope was a 1970’s Japanese Tasco 60mm refractor, made at a time when the brand was much more highly respected than now. It almost qualified as a classic telescope, and was in great condition. Happily, at the end of the meeting there did seem to be some interest being shown in this offer, so we look forward to next meeting to hear if anything came of it, and to hear if the new owners are making good use of it.

Thank you to everyone that brought equipment along, answered questions and gave advice. It is much appreciated by those looking to invest in a new telescope or other item, and there were indeed several people at the meeting asking just that very question: what telescope should I get? As always, the answer is never a completely simple one to find, but half the fun is in looking for it!

The Small Astronomers

A report on the goings-on downstairs, with the little people, by Pauline

We were delighted to welcome a number of children who came to have fun and hopefully learn something too. Five came with their Head Teacher, Mrs. Morrison, and two other teachers from Merkinch School so we all had to behave ourselves!

The programme for the evening consisted of rocket launches with Arthur, 3D pictures and finding constellations with Pat Escott, making a space shuttle or sundial with Lorna (Arthur’s wife) and exploring the solar system with me.

The rockets were very effective and most hit the ceiling once launched. All that was needed was an empty film canister to which the rocket’s paper body had been strapped. Turn the canister upside, add a little water and a vitamin C tablet, replace lid, set down and stand well back for the gas to build up and hey presto we have lift off. Concrete evidence at last that vitamin C does indeed give you a lift!

Viewing planetary surfaces or some deep sky objects in 3D can provide a greater wow factor than can be achieved by looking at them in a magazine. The children appeared suitably impressed when they viewed 3D pictures of planet surface details and some deep sky objects, using special glasses with red and blue lenses to give the 3D effect. The monthly ‘Skymaps’ sky chart was used to find various constellations so the children would have a better idea of what they were looking for once they ventured out under the clear, starry skies that occasionally grace us with their presence.

Space shuttles galore were cut out and stuck together, and then flown through the atmosphere until they crash dived into the floor. Eric had brought in a set of sundials to put together but there wasn’t the time for many to be made – a project for another day.

Size and distance were the themes of the solar system exploration plus the answering (as well as asking) of questions about the planets. It was interesting to discover that the majority of children had learned that there are now only eight planets and that Pluto is now classed as a dwarf planet.

Once our discussions were over, we went up to look at the equipment on display upstairs. Many of the children had not encountered a telescope before so this was a treat for them.
The teachers also enjoyed themselves and may decide to donate some money to the observatory in exchange for the telescope that John Rosenfield brought in.

Our thanks go to Arthur, Lorna and Pat Escott who helped with the Children’s Evening and brought the provisions – Lorna even made the chocolate crispy cakes!


If you have not paid your membership fees but intend rejoining, please can you send payment to Pat Escott as soon as possible. You will only receive the newsletter in your inbox or be on the telephone contact list if you are a fully paid up member, so don’t lose out by putting it off! Thank you.

Next Time. Next meeting features a talk by Douglas Scott, entitled ‘Watchers Of The Dawn’, and it is planned to follow this with a visit to the Clava Cairns. The meeting will start at 7.30pm on Tuesday 7th August at the Green House as usual, and may finish somewhere else some time later. Apparently the visit to Clava Cairns will depend on the weather, and if it is not dry the meeting will proceed with the usual Breakout groups and tea break. Transport to the cairns will be via member’s own vehicles, hopefully with lifts being offered to those that are car-less.

Until August 7th, Clear Skies!


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