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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie November 2006

New faces, and lots of them, were in evidence at the November 7th meeting of the Highlands Astronomical Society. The seats were filled by people who had come along to hear a talk about space flight for the home enthusiast, or who wanted to see how to set up an equatorial mount, or to find out about neutron stars. As well as all those draws, there were also some fantastic prizes in the monthly prize draw, and the usual chat and refreshments at the half-time break. There was lots to hear about in the notices too, which were read by Chairwoman Pauline Macrae:

  • Going Nova Delayed. The Science Festival which takes place at Horizon Scotland in Forres has had to be postponed for two or three months. It had been planned to hold the event in November, but it looks like it will now be in early 2007. Further details as they become available.
  • Offers of Help. Prof. John Brown, who spoke to us last month, has offered to help in any way he can with our new observatory project. He has sent us his coat of arms to display in the observatory, but at the moment it will be placed on the entrance desk downstairs. Thanks then to Prof. Brown, and also to John Gilmour who set up a web-cam for the professor’s talk last month.
  • Observing sessions. November is a great month for observing, with many of our favourite autumn and winter objects coming into the skies, while the splendours of the summer constellations are still visible too, slipping away into the west. Observing sessions this month are as follows, and are all weather-dependant, so contact the session host on their home number before 7.30pm and on their mobile after 8pm if you are unsure whether the event will go ahead.

Friday 10th Nov ....Pauline Macrae
Saturday 11th Nov .....Dave Hughes
Friday 17th Nov.... Antony McEwan
Saturday 18th Nov .... Trina Shaddick

  • Kids Stuff. Ray Owens will be giving a children’s talk at the December meeting, which is on Tuesday 5th. The talk will be on ‘Exploring Our Solar System’, so if you know of any children (your own or any others) who would be interested in coming along, please pass their names on to Arthur Milnes so that we know how many to expect.
  • Are You Practical? The copy of Practical Astronomer magazine that Pauline had asked for as a ‘tester’ for Society members has now arrived. If you’d like to check it out before committing to a subscription at the Practical Astronomer website then get in touch with Pauline for a preview.
  • More Foreign Parts. Yet another email from someone offering astronomical holidays abroad has turned up. This time it’s from a Clive Hawkins, who is thinking of providing holidays with astronomical provisions on the Dacta peninsula in Turkey. It is allegedly an area with zero light pollution and clean, white sandy beaches. He is waiting to see what interest is generated before progressing with the project though, so it may be a while before anything happens. If you’re interested you’ll have to contact him through Pauline, as his email address is Top Secret!
  • Well Met At Astromeet. The Leeds Astromeet, which is recognised as the foremost public astronomy event in the north of England, takes place on Saturday 11th November. Speakers will include Simon Green from the Open University, talking about the cometary research mission ‘Stardust’; Tom Boles, the renowned supernova discoverer; Nik Szymanek, talking about how to take astronomical photographs; Dr. Allan Chapman with a talk about the lady astronomer, Mary Somerville, and Prof. John Brown will be giving the same talk he gave to us last month. The event runs from 9.00am until 6.30pm and admission is £10.00. There will also be stalls selling Astro-wares.
  • Save Time. We have had 13 orders placed with Pat Williams for the 2007 astronomical calendar produced by Liverpool Astronomical Society. Each of these orders saves 10p! Would you also like to save 10p? If so, get in touch with Pat and place your order. Usual price is £2.00 per copy plus postage, but this will come down even more if we generate enough orders.
  • Plot Your Course. There is a weekend astronomy course, taking place at Burton Manor, Neston, Cheshire. It will focus on ‘Amateur Astronomy In The Digital Age’. Speakers will include Ian Morison and Tim O’Brien, both from Jodrell Bank observatory. Price is £164 residential or £120 non-residential, and it runs from Friday 8th to Sunday 10th December.
  • Christmas Shopping. If you want to avoid all the stress and hassle of Christmas shopping in the City, just peruse our catalogue of clothes and gifts. The Society logo can be embroidered / placed on each item, and thus you have a present for your loved one that will remind them not only of Christmas, but also where exactly you go on those cold, frosty nights. Please be quick in contacting Pat Escott with your orders, so that they can be ready for the December meeting.
  • Swanning Around. The transit of Mercury that takes place on the 8th will not be visible from Britain. However, Comet Swan is continuing to give excellent views to astronomers in Britain, especially several in Scotland! See the Image Gallery for a superb photograph of it taken by one of the SIGMA members. A finder chart for the comet can be found in the comet section of the British Astronomical Association website.
  • FASMAG. The Federation of Astronomical Societies invites you to contribute articles to their magazine. It is now being sent out by email in an effort to make it harder to come by and generally more unreliable, which is of course entirely what the invention of the personal home computer was all about. If you don’t have access to the Internet yet would like to read the magazine, please contact Downloader Supremo, Pat Williams.
  • Give a Brochure. We now have brochures and covering letters for distribution to local businesses, to ask if they would like to contribute to the new observatory project. Unfortunately, someone who will remain completely anonymous left them at home (though we forgive him as he gave a great talk later on – oops!) They will be brought along next meeting, together with the letters, and the intention will be for you to take at least one letter and brochure when you leave, and think of either a company or rich person to send them to. We do have a list of companies you can choose to target, available at Before you send them, you are asked to please let Pat Williams know which one you have selected, so that brochures are received by as many different companies as possible. This will now be a nice project to look forward to at the December meeting.
  • Maarten. Maarten has had to resign from the Committee due to pressure of work and other commitments. He will still be able to help us and give advice if (when) we require it, and will continue to help with writing the Seeing Stars articles for the Inverness Courier. (His latest such article is now on the Society website, We would all very much like to thank him for his help and dedication over the last six years, and look forward to observing with him in the future! To help share the workload left by Maarten’s departure Simon Urry will join the Observatory Sub-Committee, and John Gilmour will take Maarten’s place on the Committee and will also help with the funding for the new observatory.

The Main Event

‘Orbital Manoeuvres In The Dark’ by Maarten de Vries

If you have been a member of HAS for more than even a few months, you should already know a little about Maarten. His enthusiasm for science and astronomy has led him to research all sorts of topics, from star clusters to telescope design to adaptive optics. Well, his latest line of enquiry has been how to get into space – from the comfort of your own computer desk! Fasten your seatbelts and read on…

The presentation was subtitled ‘An Introduction To Space Flight And Rocket Science’, and Maarten started off by explaining exactly what he was going to do. For the last several months (or years) Maarten has been learning how to fly a Delta Flyer space vehicle. He has been doing this using a fantastic piece of software called ‘Orbiter’. Orbiter is a flight simulator with a difference, or several differences actually.

First, it is completely free. You can download it from their website, or occasionally it is presented on the cover discs attached to scientific magazines like Sky at Night magazine. Second, it deals with space flight (obviously), which is an incredibly complex subject. The software does this so realistically and accurately, that it is actually referred to by NASA scientists! Third, and quite importantly, it does not require a super-computer to run. It should work quite well on an average specification desktop that you use for word-processing or whatever.

To give us a clear picture of how space flight is managed, Maarten then started off by explaining exactly what orbits are. We are all in orbit already. We personally orbit the centre of gravity of the Earth. Our Earth orbits the Sun once per year. The solar system we reside in orbits the galaxy once every 200 million years. It sounds like everything in space is in an orbit of some kind- or more accurately, is affected by gravity. It is gravity after all that causes things to stay in their orbits.

The mathematics behind orbits go back to Johannes Kepler in the 16th century. By observing planets and their movements around the sky he formulated the three laws of planetary motion, all of which dealt specifically with the orbits of the planets around the Sun. Those laws still stand up today, and they provide the basis for all the ultra-complicated mathematics required to make a space ship go into orbit around a planetary body.

Spaceflight engineers use these formulae and equations to compute exactly how a vehicle would need to be oriented and how much energy to expend in order to achieve or stay in any given orbit. Jet engines are used to propel spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere and out into space, and they have to burn an incredible amount of energy to break through the barrier that holds us to our planet. Once in space and out of the atmosphere, jet thrusters are used to position spacecraft and to orient them so that they can manoeuvre to the path indicated by the on-board computers that have calculated the orbital mathematics.

Now obviously this may all sound a little bit dry, and it does involve some serious maths and equations, but the ultimate aim of all this is to get space ships out into space – and what could be more exciting than that (without involving Jeri Ryan)? Having gone through the dry stuff with us, and made it quite interesting as well, I might add, Maarten then went on to the icing on the cake. He fired up the Orbiter program on the computer, and projected the action onto the large screen at the front of the auditorium!

He chose his craft, a futuristic Delta Flyer type vehicle (5-seater so ideal for scenic tours) and talked us through as he applied full throttle to reach a speed of 100km/s before lifting the nose to an attitude of 70 degrees and turning to heading One-Four-Oh. Ok, now this was exciting! The standard view is from inside the cockpit, and shows all the instrument displays, as well as the target orbit and the manoeuvres and engine burns required to reach it. The software allows you to complete pre-programmed missions or build your own. For example, you can choose to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station, fly the Space Shuttle and deploy a payload, or even head off to one of the outer planets, all done with strict attention to detail and subject to the laws of orbital motion.

Having reached orbit, Maarten performed the necessary burns and reorientations required to put him on an intercept course for the ISS. Such missions can take a long time to complete, often several hours, but there is a speed-up function that allowed Maarten to skip the dull bits and jump to the parts where an action was required. When he finished the presentation, he was indeed on course to meet up with the multinational crew of the space station, showing that you can indeed learn to successfully fly into space using serious simulator software and still have fun while doing it!

If you would like to try it yourself, you can download the Orbiter program from this website. Please read all the installation instructions carefully before proceeding. The program runs silently in its basic form, but you can add a small patch to it that adds a sound pack, so that you can hear the roar of the engines as you take off and the clunk of your landing gear being raised, etc. You can also download and add many extras, including improved scenery textures to make the planets and ground scenery more realistic, and of course a huge number of additional spacecraft both real and fictional (fancy flying a Gemini rocket or a Klingon Bird of Prey?) can be added to your virtual hangar too. It is superb software, but of course will take a while to learn to use, so you might want to consider printing out the manual, just like Maarten did.

Once again, Maarten injected his enthusiasm and delight into this presentation, and as well as giving a great introduction to the basics of orbital flight and planetary motion, showed off his piloting skills as well. I’m sure that many of us have now been inspired to download the software and learn how to break the chains that bind us to this world (virtually, anyway!).

The only disappointment was that he wasn’t wearing his Commander Riker uniform and piloting the NCC-1701D. And yes, they can be downloaded…

Eyes On The Skies

There is a lot to see in the sky this month. The winter constellations of Auriga and Taurus bring a handful of excellent open clusters with them. M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga show clusters at various points in their life spans. M37 is the largest and contains the largest number of red dwarf stars and is therefore the oldest of the three, at about 300 million years old. Next oldest is M38 at about 200 million years, and the youngest and smallest cluster is M36, which is about 25 million years old and contains only about 60 stars of up to magnitude 9 or so.

Another relative youngster is the cluster M45, or the Pleiades in Taurus. M45 is only between 70 and 100 million years old and is situated 380 light years away from us, which is relatively close in stellar terms. The cluster contains about a hundred stars, though unaided eyes can only detect up to 9 or 10 from excellent skies and more usually 6 or so. The area is also swathed in the faint blue glow of reflection nebulosity, which can be detected at the eyepiece of small wide-field telescopes from a dark sky, or much more easily in long exposure Astro photographs. All of these clusters are well worth revisiting with small telescopes or binoculars on dark November nights.

On 17th November the Leonid meteor shower is due to peak. It is predicted that at 2300 UT we should see about 15 meteors per hour, and guess what – that date also coincides with one of our observing sessions at Culloden! This could be an excellent opportunity to catch some falling stars and use the observing facilities to see the aforementioned clusters and some other objects too.

Comet Swan is still enjoying the limelight in the western skies, and is progressing from Hercules towards Aquila through November. It should be far enough above the horizon mid evening to provide good views, and this particular comet has already brightened unexpectedly once: it may do so again! Astronomical imagers over the world have delighted in capturing shots of Swan, but you don’t have to go that far to see a really great picture. Just visit the image gallery on this website to see a superb picture of the comet and globular cluster M13, taken by local amateur astronomer and SIGMA member, Alan Tough.

With so much to look at and enjoy in November, we can only hope for an extended run of clear skies this month. Good luck!

Next Time. December’s meeting will take place on Tuesday 5th at the Green House at 7.30pm. There will be two presentations; Eric Walker will talk to us about building his new observatory, and Ray Owens will give a talk especially for the children, all about ‘Exploring Our Solar System’. It is sure to be a busy night! There will be more prizes galore in the monthly raffle, and the usual breakout groups will inform and entertain us after the tea break.

Before then, enjoy the November skies, and maybe try to come along to our observing sessions at Culloden. If you see anything interesting or have a question or comment, please drop in to the Spacegazer Message Board and leave a message.

Dark Skies!

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