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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie, June 2005

Antony McEwan's monthly digest of HAS happenings

We have entered the month of June, are now officially experiencing (enduring?) summer. I know this because I've only been pelted by hailstones twice in the last fortnight, the hills are nearly completely devoid of snow and even the birdbath has thawed. June is probably considered more a time for armchair astronomy but there are still a few highlights to be enjoyed in the coming weeks, so don't pack your thermals away just yet - you're going to need them, although they weren't needed at the June meeting, which is getting to be known as the HAS sauna.

June 2005 meeting I thought people went on holiday in June? Obviously not, as there seemed to be as many people at this meeting as at any recent one. With a compelling talk about Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, several breakout groups, a prize raffle and all the latest Society news to look forward to, the notices announced by Pauline were only the start of a great meeting:

Tut tut Apologies for the late arrival of your membership card and letter, due to the teething problems that always accompany a new year.

Thank you To make up for this, Pauline then said a great big thank you to everybody who has volunteered to help in the Society recently, whether it be donating prizes, assisting and advising with projects, helping at events, or even just asking questions and discussing things at the meetings, particularly the AGM in April. So, thanks to all the members, but no, she did not give us any cakes.

Summer Meteors The Scottish Astronomers Group is organising a summer meteor project to take place on the nights of July 14th/15th and 15th/16th. There are several minor meteor showers in mid July, including the Alpha Lyrids, Alpha Cygnids and the Delphinids. These meteors are expected to be a little too faint for purely visual observing, so binoculars and wide field telescopes are recommended for this project. This should be an interesting twist to the usual type of meteor watch and will be an ideal chance to do some constructive observing under the warm summer sky, and to try out all the new short-tube refractors you bought in the summer sales. For more information, please contact Pauline.

Summer? It's Baltic! Looking ahead to August 12th to 14th, how about a trip to a real Latvian star-party? The Baltic AstroFest takes place in Latvia, 52km from Riga, by the river Daugava, at the summer recreation complex Puduri in the town of Kegums. As a professionally organised AstroFest it will feature organised observing sessions, an astronomical market, lectures and discussion groups, and lots of other outdoor activities in the beautiful Latvian countryside. There will even be a Beer-drinking contest sponsored by the local brewery. (So you can enjoy the brews, then enjoy the views).

SkyWatchers Unite The SkyWatch project aims to raise public awareness of scientific and technological developments by encouraging the general public to become involved in understanding how science and technology can impact on our day-to-day lives. One way of doing this is through a series of challenging activities requiring intelligence, existing knowledge and innovation. There are three age groups: up to 15 years of age, between 15 and 18 years of age, and adults. The deadline for submissions of the first phase of the contest is 30th September 2005. For more information on how to participate go to the SkyWatch website.

Deep Impact On the 4th July, the NASA Deep Impact spacecraft will release a smaller craft to crash into the comet Tempel 1 in order to investigate the structure of the comet. There will be two Open University television programmes, called Stardate: Deep Impact. One on BBC 1, probably at 11.45 a.m. on the 4th July, and the second in the evening, probably at 8 p.m. on BBC2. Please check television listings for further details closer to the date of transmission. More information can be found at the following websites, and indeed all over the Internet: NASA's Deep Impact site, The Spitzer Space Telescope Deep Impact site and Hubble Space Telescope's Deep Impact page. See also Eyes on the Skies below.

Science is coming to the Highlands Maarten de Vries then told us about the forthcoming (and very exciting) Forres Science Festival, which will be held in Forres for three days in November. The organisers are looking for the following: volunteers to help look after visitors to the Festival on Friday 11th (when schools will be visiting) and Saturday 12th November, when the Festival is open to the general public; speakers who could give a half hour presentation on Saturday (the subject is astronomy and/or cosmology and should be pitched at a level understood by the general public and children), and a manned stand from our Club, which must be set up on Wednesday 9th but only needs to be manned on Friday and Saturday and taken down on the Sunday. On the Friday and Saturday there will be access to both of the 2.4m Faulkes robotic telescopes in Hawaii and Australia. A team of capable people is needed to take responsibility for the telescope activities. They will be required to design and implement an observing schedule to take place over the two days. This should be done in such a way that it gives the audience a chance to see astronomy in action. If interested, please contact Maarten for further details, and if you can help with any of the above please contact Pauline by the usual methods.

Child's Play Having looked further into the Child Protection issue and talked with the relevant people, the members of the Committee have all now filled in disclosure forms so that we will be able to continue to have unaccompanied children under the age of 18. This is required by the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003, the last part of which came into force on the 11th April of this year. We now have a form to send home to parents of unaccompanied children and a separate sign-in sheet for parents or guardians of unaccompanied children. We also have an accident book. If you wish to see the folder full of information about the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act (and it's a big folder) please contact Pauline.

Evolution Last month an Extraordinary General Meeting was called and then cancelled the following day. This was because we have been trying to get charitable status for the last couple of years and require a constitution acceptable to the Inland Revenue. However, it was found that updating the constitution and applying for charitable status were more complicated than we had been led to believe. It was felt, therefore, that we should think about becoming a Limited Company with charitable status sooner rather than later. Of course it is only worth becoming a Limited Company if you, the members, are happy that we go ahead with the new observatory, but we cannot proceed with the new observatory unless we become a Limited Company. This is necessary in order to limit liability because of the large sums of money involved. Over the next few months the Committee will find out what is involved, give each of you the information, and ask you to vote on whether or not we should become a Limited Company. This will not change anything we do as a Society, it simply allows us to apply for funding safely, and from more sources. It also means we do not have to change the Constitution, as this will be replaced by something known as the 'Articles of Association and Memorandum'. It is expected (and hoped) that many members will have questions about this process, and those questions are invited by Pauline, either by email or phone. Please do ask, as it is only by addressing these concerns and answering these questions that the Committee are able to feel confident that they are steering the Society in the direction wished by the members.

Sky At Night Magazine Pat Williams announced some exciting news regarding the newly launched BBC Sky at Night magazine. As the Highlands Astronomical Society is the featured society in the society spotlight section of the first issue, a suggestion was made to see if some copies signed by Patrick Moore could be obtained for use as raffle prizes or auction items to raise funds for the new observatory. Unfortunately, Patrick is unwell and is not able to actually sign the magazines at the moment, but we are able to get some copies with the great man's signature stamped onto the magazine. These should certainly be of interest when they arrive. We did have one unsigned copy of the Sky at Night magazine to give away, and a draw was made with the lucky winner being Alex Barton.


Eyes On The Skies June skies are not very forgiving for deep sky enthusiasts. It will not get truly dark enough to make out any of the fainter objects in the sky, so if you have a small telescope it may be better to concentrate on the planets and Moon this month, although there is a comet passing by which may show quite an impact?

Jupiter is still observable in Virgo this month, and is actually high enough to do some serious viewing of its moons and other features. Viewing the planet against a dusky sky can be just as rewarding as viewing against a totally dark sky - the main belts and zones should still show up, and transits and shadow transits should be just as rewarding, especially if higher powers are used, as this will darken the sky background in the eyepiece.

There will be a very interesting grouping of planets in the north-northwest sky after sunset, particularly from the middle of the month onward. From the start of June, Mercury will draw closer and closer to Venus and this pairing of inner planets will draw nearer to Saturn. The high point of this grouping will be on the evening of the 27th at about 9.30pm, when Mercury will appear to just narrowly miss Venus. Mercury is often very hard to find as it is always in the glare of the rising or setting Sun, so this is a great opportunity to see the elusive planet associated with the winged messenger of the gods. Venus will be slightly easier to spot as it travels closer each night to Saturn and can be used as a guide for finding Mercury. If you are using any type of optical aid to try to observe this event, please make sure the Sun has completely set below the horizon before scanning the area!

Comet 9P/Tempel 1 is set to make history next month, as it is the target of NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. An 820lb self-guiding copper projectile will be launched from the Deep Impact vehicle into the comet. The resulting collision will be closely monitored by scientists in the hope of learning more about the nuclei of comets, and is expected to considerably boost the comet's magnitude. It is hoped that this could even be enough to bring Tempel 1 into range of binoculars. At the moment it is about 10th magnitude and somewhat hard to spot against the twilit sky, so a large telescope with higher power may be required to find it. It will pass near Jupiter and the bright star Delta Virginis in the run up to the impact, at which point it will be 3.5 degrees east-northeast of Spica, so we will have a fairly accurate idea of where to look for it in the night sky. It is hoped that astronomers around the world will make observations of the comet both before and after the event, which is set to take place at 0600UT on July 4th.

After 21st June the hours of darkness will slowly start to increase, as the Sun will start once more to sink further and further below our horizon each night. In the meantime, remember to keep an eye open for those beautiful noctilucent clouds we are so lucky to see in the summer nights.



The Main Event 'The Stars Above, The World Below - a fresh look at Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo'. This was presented by Howie Firth, MBE, a mathematical physicist with experience in teaching, broadcasting, publishing and community development. A native of Orkney, Howie will be returning there this September to direct the 15th Orkney International Science Festival, and has been instrumental in organising several other science festivals. He is currently working on two books and setting up a new innovation and communication company, Inquiring Minds, based at Horizon Scotland in Forres.

June speaker Howie Firth (far right) and visiting friends from Vilnius, Lithuania. (L-R) Ruta Mardosaite, Dovile Girdziute and Regimantas (Regis) Urbanas.


Howie gave us a great deal in insight into what type of men Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were, along with a 4th man, Rene Descartes. All of these men were driven to find out exactly just how the heavens above and the earth below were connected. The teaching of the time had come down from ancient Greece and told of two realms: Heaven was above the Earth, and was pure, ordered and constant, unchanging and perfect. Below that was Earth, flawed, base, an imperfect copy of the perfection above.

These men had to contend with this accepted teaching, endorsed and encouraged by the powerful Church of the Holy Roman Empire. Descartes (1596 - 1650) was a Jesuit educated mathematician who became so jaded with philosophy that he joined the army in an effort to discover 'real life' philosophy, where obscure concepts were not as important as the basics of life and death in a Europe torn apart by the Thirty Years War. Descartes had a series of visionary dreams, which left him with the realisation that 'Heaven' and 'Earth' could indeed be connected - by observation and position. The heavenly objects could be observed, and their positions recorded. In that way they were exactly the same as objects on Earth below, so he found that mathematics and observation closed the gap between Heaven and Earth.

Howie then introduced Galileo Galilei. Galileo (1564 - 1642) believed that reading Aristotle was the easy way of learning, but that the harder and more worthwhile way was to go and find out things for oneself. He argued against Aristotle's view of astronomy and natural philosophy, in particular Aristotle's assumption that any changes in the sky had to occur close to the Earth, in the realm of the Moon, as the stars were fixed and permanent. In 1604 he observed the nova (now known as Kepler's star) in Ophiuchus, and used parallax measurements to prove that the new star was, in fact , very distant from the Earth. This strengthened his belief that all was not constant and serene in the heavens above, but that things changed, much as they changed down here on Earth. In 1609 Galileo was in Venice and received a report of a spyglass, an optical device that could make far away objects appear much closer to the human eye. He immediately realised the opportunities such a device could offer to the military and the merchants, and so set about building one himself. By the end of the year he had completed the telescope and had started making observations of the night sky. He discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter, which obviously had orbits around that planet and not the Earth. Further observations consolidated these new beliefs. He found craters and mountains on the Moon, amongst areas of highland and flat plains. He even observed that Venus showed phases like the Moon, and concluded that Venus must therefore orbit the Sun, not the Earth. This was a problem.

It clashed with the Ptolemaic theory that everything orbited the Earth, but it did agree somewhat with the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 - 1543), a Polish Canon who had a side interest in astronomy. Through his study of planetary motions, Copernicus had developed a heliocentric theory of the universe. In this theory everything orbited the Sun and the stars were fixed in position on the sky because of their vast distance from the Earth. Although Copernicus' theory was technically against the commonly held belief of the time, he enjoyed some church backing. This included the support of Pope Clemens VII, to whom he presented his work entitled 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' in 1533, although it wasn't published until a decade later.

Another supporter of Copernicus' theories was the German mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630). Kepler had been a theology student and in 1594 accepted the post of Professor of mathematics at the protestant seminary in Graz. He excelled in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and astrology, produced astrological calendars, and pursued his interests in the sciences in his spare time. His mathematical achievements did not go unnoticed, and Tycho Brahe, the exalted Imperial Mathematician, invited him to become his assistant. In 1601 Kepler inherited the post of Imperial Mathematician from Brahe, along with 21 years worth of planetary observations made by his predecessor. He studied this data scrupulously and developed a theory of planetary motion based on heliocentricity, but with the added twist of having the Sun orbit the Earth. Unfortunately his observations of Mars, based on Tycho Brahe's data, left an error in his calculations of about 1/8th degree of arc. He did not accept that this error could be because of any error on Brahe's part, so he returned to Brahe's data, and worked again at the problem. Eventually he realized that if the orbits of the planets were not circular but elliptical, then the error could be resolved and Brahe's data vindicated. In 1609 he flew in the face of over 2000 years of circular orbit theory and published his first two laws of planetary motion in his work 'Astronomia Nova'.

Howie spent a great deal of time showing the subtle differences between the characters of these great mathematicians and astronomers. He showed us how they worked in very different ways, and over many years, to achieve a common goal - an understanding of the motions of the sky and the heavenly bodies, and a final realisation of the link between the heavens above and the Earth below.

We would like to thank Howie Firth very much for his fascinating and revealing talk, and wish him the very best of luck with his all his current and future endeavours.



July Meeting The next meeting will take place at the Green House on Tuesday 5th July at 7.30p.m. Please arrive early for a sharp start. It will be one of our much anticipated and ever popular equipment nights, so please bring along your telescopes, binoculars, eyepieces, charts, etc., if you are willing to show them off. Also please bring your questions to ask the equipment owners, as this is a great chance to glean the answers to those nagging questions if you are thinking of buying something that somebody in the Society already uses.

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