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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie June 2007

(With special thanks to Pauline Macrae, who wrote this months Main Event section - Antony)

Some Highlands Astronomical Society meetings can be a bit of a surprise. June is always a bit unpredictable, with people venturing off on holiday or drawn to the warm evenings outdoors with barbecues and beer, but a very large number still managed to turn up for the meeting! Maybe it was the draw of the Moon that pulled them in, with Ken MacTaggart giving a talk on its exploration since the dawn of the Space Age. Or maybe it was the chance to catch up with the latest happenings on the New Observatory front, or merely wanting to find out what events we are organising for the summer! Plenty of good reasons to be there anyway, and it all started with Secretary Pat Williams reading out the Notices:

  • Pay Up! Subscriptions for 2007-08 are due from 1st May. 44 Members have rejoined plus one new member making 45 in total. Eight previous members have left the area and one member is not rejoining. If you are one of the 35 who have not already renewed your membership please send a cheque together with your completed membership form to Mrs. Pat Escott, 2, Muirfield Road, Inverness IV2 4AY. Fees are unchanged from last session:

Full membership £20.00
Family membership £33.00
Junior Membership (16 & under) £2.00
Unemployed/Student (age 17 to 22) £6.00
Non members (per meeting) £2.00

All 2006-07 members should now have programmes. If you need a programme or if you do not wish to rejoin please let Pat Williams know.

  • Have Your Say. A Comments, Suggestions and Complaints Box will be at the downstairs front desk. Please use it to give your Committee some feedback. Pat described this as a very ‘functional’ box, which means that she’d like someone to decorate it for her if they are of the creative type!
  • Observatory update for May: The building warrant application was submitted 21st May. Planning permission had previously been sought. Funding update:

Brass plaque for contributing members’ names: £575
Raffles: £469
Other donations: £625
Sale of old observatory: £TBA
Contribution from Lifescan: £750

  • Children’s Evening 3rd July: This will take place downstairs during the Equipment Evening. Please bring along your own youngsters and neighbours’ children with an interest in astronomy. The evening will be run by the members so all suggestions considered. It would help if we had a rough idea of numbers so please e-mail Pat Williams if you intend bringing children along.
  • Car Boot Sale: Pauline has taken on the running of this. Date to be announced. She would welcome anyone who has experience in running such an event contacting her by e-mail or phone.
  • Sky at Night Savings. The BBC magazine that accompanies the series is offering us a discount when taking out a subscription. The normal price is £51 annually, but by quoting the special password available from Pat Williams it will only cost you £35.70 (or £35 if paying by direct debit). Call 0870 066 7663 to subscribe.
  • Oh No, It’s The Feds! The Federation of Astronomical Societies magazine, Spring 2007 edition, was available at the front desk, but it’s only available on a first come first served basis. If you’ve missed out, what are you gonna do? Call your lawyer? No - just speak nicely to Pat Williams and she may cut you a deal.
  • Torrin Outdoor Centre, Skye: John Muir award. Four groups of 12 youngsters are taking part. Paul Burden has asked if we could supply a speaker for one evening for each group from 9pm – 11pm during July. Contact Pat Williams for details.
  • Dates for your Diary: Fri. 31st August to Sun. 2nd September 2007 BAA Out of London Weekend at Strathclyde University, Glasgow. Details on page 2 of FAS Newsletter 84. Later in the year there is the Federation of Astronomical Societies convention in Birmingham: Sat. 13th October 2007. And something to look forward to in a couple of years time: 2009 is the International Year Of Astronomy.
  • In House Time Keeping. After the severe disappointment in trying to obtain copies of Liverpool Astronomical Society’s astronomical calendars this year, our very own Eric Walker will be producing the first Highlands Astronomical Society calendar for 2008! If you have an image to submit, or for more information, please contact him directly. I’m looking forward to it already. We just have to avoid incoming asteroids and comets for six more months….

Daytime Occultation Of Venus

Bill Leslie described how he had recently observed the occultation of Saturn by the Moon, which took place on the evening of 22nd May. He used a Made ETX-90 Maksutov to watch Saturn slowly slip behind the leading dark limb of Luna, and noted that even when the planet’s globe had disappeared he could still see the rings as they followed it into obscurity. Reappearance was sadly obscured by cloud, but he went on to tell us about an observation he made of an occultation of the bright star Regulus in Leo. This also took place in daytime, and he was surprised that the star was so easily visible once you had the Moon in your field of view.

Another daytime occultation is looming, that being of Venus which will take place on Monday 18th June at about 1:53pm. Bill has kindly drawn up a page with all the details of this event, and you can see it here. The Moon will be 15% illuminated, so Venus will disappear behind the dark limb and reappear from the sunlit limb. This should be quite an easy event to observe, as Venus is shining very brightly (brighter than magnitude 4) just now, so it may actually be visible with the naked eye. Certainly binoculars or a small telescope will show these few steps of the cosmic dance exceedingly well. We can only hope for a clear sky that day!

The Main Event
‘Discovery And Exploration Of The Moon’ by Ken MacTaggart

Ken MacTaggart has had a lifelong interest in astronomy and in particular the Moon and the planets. He met Patrick Moore in 1965 and discussed with him the origins of lunar craters, and also enjoys following the progress of the unmanned lunar probes, starting with the first soft landing by Luna 9. He was particularly interested in the surface explorations, the geology and the places the astronauts of the Apollo missions visited during their time on the Moon.

He is a contributor to the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, hosted on the web by the NASA History Office, which is a record of the Moon landings and the science that was undertaken. Incidentally, he was Maarten de Vries’ boss at Highlands & Islands Enterprise for some years. His remark was “no comment on whether this was a ‘management challenge’!”

Ken began by asking who remembered the start of the space age. It was something he found very exciting as a small boy at the time.

Since our Moon always shows the same face to the Earth we cannot see the far side so no one knew what it looked like until 1959 when the first space probe photographed this new territory. Up until that point it was thought by some that this was where flying saucers were coming from.

Ken showed some superb images of the Moon, the most impressive being those taken by Dave Woods whose website can be seen here. The picture shown of the Moon’s disc was constructed from 74 image squares, each square being made up of 300 colour photographs stacked together. The software Dave used selected and combined the best pictures from each set of 300 for every one of the 74 squares so that the image produced is of very high quality. It was pointed out that Dave works for the BBC and is able to spend a good part of the day learning how to produce the best possible image.

Next up was another full Moon image, this time with the colour levels drastically boosted so that different areas of the image showed up in different colours, revealing the different chemical compositions of the terrain features. This was compared with a similar image taken by the Galileo probe; the results were very similar, with a slight edge actually going to Dave’s picture. This was a great example of how amateur photographers can produce pictures that are as good as those taken by a professional spacecraft.

Russia was the first nation to launch a spacecraft to the Moon:

January 1959 - Luna 1 - Spacecraft missed the Moon by one lunar diameter
September 1959 - Luna 2 - Hit the Moon
October 1959- Luna 3 - Flyby of far side of the Moon
February 1966 - Luna 9 - Soft landing on the Moon & first craft to touch down on another planetary body

Luna 3 took the first pictures of the far side and many of the features there were identified and named by the Russians. These early pictures were not very clear, but recently Ricardo Nunes of Portugal reprocessed one of the images and has been able to produce a subtler photograph, yielding much more information than the original.

The Ranger missions sent by the US were largely unsuccessful until the mission strategy was changed. Instead of trying to land on the Moon, the spacecraft was redesigned to take thousands of photographs just before deliberately crashing into the Moon. The information provided by this method proved very useful for future missions.

The last three Ranger missions advanced scientific knowledge of the surface greatly. Ranger 9 dived into the crater Alphonsus where many transient lunar phenomena have been seen. It is still not understood what causes these but it may have something to do with a number of cracks found by this probe in the floor of the crater, from which some observers think gases have escaped. It was also discovered that the central peak, thought to be a volcano, was not one at all.

Ranger 8 crashed into Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquillity) and provided the first evidence that the lunar surface was solid. Until then there had been a real concern that the surface was covered with a deep layer of fine dust, which would have caused problems for the proposed Apollo landing missions. Although the Rangers were able to provide a great deal of information, they couldn’t show the nature of the surface. Therefore, perhaps the most important aspect of the Luna 9 mission was determining that a lander would not sink into the lunar dust.

In the 1960s the Cold War was at its height and Russia maintained a high level of secrecy around its space programme so the pictures from Luna 9 were not released immediately. However, Astronomers at Jodrell Bank Observatory who were monitoring the probe, noticed that the signals received were probably photographs because the format used was the same as that used by newspapers when sending photographs to each other. The Daily Express had a device that could convert the signals into pictures and so the first ever photograph of the Moon’s surface was published worldwide, stealing the thunder from one of the greatest achievements of the Russian space programme.

The American Surveyor spacecraft were sent to the Moon between 1966 and 1968 and were primarily used to find good landing sites for future manned missions. Surveyor 1 landed on the Ocean of Storms (Oceanus Procellarum). It sent back good quality pictures including a few of where its feet had bounced, leaving impressions in the very fine lunar soil. There were only two Surveyor spacecraft that didn’t land successfully.

NASA also sent a series of Lunar Orbiters to take detailed aerial photographs to help assess the suitability of various places as landing sites for the Surveyor and Apollo missions. Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first picture of ‘Earthrise’ some years before the now famous and familiar Apollo 8 picture. Lunar Orbiter 2 took the first photograph to show the landscape obliquely so that it was possible to see mountain heights and crater depths. What does seem amazing is that all of the photos were taken using film that was actually developed on board the spacecraft before being scanned and transmitted back to Earth. No digital cameras in those days!

Project Apollo took place between 1968 and 1972. The transcripts and pictures of all the Apollo missions provide an immense amount of information. Eric Jones of Los Alamos decided that it would be a shame to allow these recordings to simply gather dust. In 1995, he set out to transcribe the tapes and interview as many of the astronauts as possible to find out what they remembered of the events that took place during the Moon landings.

It transpires that almost all of the photos taken by the astronauts during the Apollo 11 mission show only Buzz Aldrin; it seems that Neil Armstrong was the photographer virtually all of the time. There are only two pictures of Armstrong on the lunar surface: one where he is seen reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s visor, and the other that was taken when Aldrin took a series of panoramic photographs capturing Armstrong by the lander quite by chance. The only other images of Armstrong were those taken by the television camera, showing him as he took that one small step (or was it a giant leap?) down to the surface.

The missions were initially very short but the time spent on the Moon gradually lengthened with the later missions.

Apollo 11 Oneshort excursion on foot
Apollo 12 Two walks and an investigation of Surveyor 3 and surrounding area. The astronauts dismantled the camera to take it back to Earth where Scientists discovered bacteria still alive after three years in the vacuum of space!
Apollo 14 Fra Mauro geology investigated
Apollo 15 Three excursions in the lunar rover and a survey of Hadley Rille
Apollo 16 A brief exploration of the Descartes Highlands
Apollo 17 Exploration of Taurus-Littrow

It was interesting to learn that a few of the astronauts had Scottish connections. These were Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11, Alan Bean of Apollo 12 and David Scott of Apollo 15. A nice little story was told about Alan Bean. Apparently a publication about Scottish tartans claims that Bean laid a sample of the MacBean tartan on the surface of the Moon as soon as he exited Apollo 12. In fact this is not true! Bean only discovered he was a member of the MacBean clan after he returned from the Moon and he certainly didn’t take any tartan with him. The chap who wrote the story had been told by his editor to “write something interesting” about Bean taking his first steps on the Lunar surface. Alan Bean is now an artist who paints pictures of the astronauts on the Moon, using oils. Neil Armstrong has Scottish ancestors and although John Young of Apollo 16 doesn’t actually have any real Scottish connections, he does visit Inverness quite often.

Ken then showed a short video of the landing of Apollo 14 that took place in 1971 and told the story of how the astronauts got lost climbing to Cone Crater and turned back to the lunar module apparently just 30m away from the crater edge. As there is no proper perspective on the Moon it was easy to miss features that were easily discernable from space and get lost in this way.

Ken finished with an update on future missions to the Moon and the challenges that will be imposed upon the men and women returning to a place first visited by mankind in the late 1960s. His great interest in the Apollo journals meant he was able to give snippets of information not widely known thus presenting us with a slightly different perspective on our exploration of the Moon.

By Pauline Macrae.

Next Time.
Next meeting takes place on Tuesday 3rd July at the Green House, starting at 7.30pm. It will be Equipment Night, so please bring along any telescopes, eyepieces, binoculars, mounts, software or whatever that you’d like to share with the membership, or ask questions about! There is bound to be plenty on display! If you want to bring along equipment it may be worthwhile coming a little early to set it up. There will also be Children’s Talks downstairs, as mentioned in the notices.
In the meantime please remember to check up on the latest news on the Society’s website, and post a message on the message board if you have anything to report or ask.

Until July 3rd, Clear Skies!


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