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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie November 2007

November’s meeting of the Highlands Astronomical Society attracted a huge turnout, with many faces belonging to non-members who had come along to sample a HAS meeting as part of Highland Science Festival. With the main talk being about Space Missions and mentioning the up and coming space tourism business that may have an impact on our local area, it was certainly appropriate for this month. Before Robert Law’s presentation and the other highlights the notices were read out by HAS Secretary, Eric Walker:

  • Ballot. As you are receiving this newsletter by email/snail mail, and so were not present at the meeting, I hope you have kept an eye on your doormat over the last few days! You should have received a letter from the Chairman, John Gilmour, about the new observatory project, along with a ballot paper with two options: ‘Yes’ (I would like the Society to continue with building a new observatory at Culloden) or ‘No’ (I would not…etc…). We need to have the ballots returned to John by Monday 12th November so that the Society can act on the opinion of the majority.
  • Tempus Fugit. And you can tell it’s passing by looking at the calendar. Speaking of which, if you ordered the HAS Astrophotographic Calendar payment is now due, so please arrange to pay Eric ASAP. Further orders will be taken at the December meeting, for a charitable donation towards observatory funds of only £2.50, but this will be your last chance to order!
  • Save The Planet (it’s the only one with chocolate!) Further to our involvement with the printer cartridge and mobile phone recycling programme, rather than try to work out if your printer cartridge or handset is one of the ones on the recyclable list, just please bring them in regardless. We’ll sort out the good ones from bad for you. It’s just another public service offered by the Highlands Astronomical Society.
  • Juniors. The Society for Popular Astronomy has just launched a Junior Section, and HAS are keen to do the same. We will be making enquiries as to how to set one up and run it.
  • Specialist Support Section seeks… It has been proposed that members who are particularly interested or well informed about certain topics could be considered 'first port of call' for questions relating to their area of interest. So far the list consists of myself (Antony McEwan) for Equipment and Observing Techniques, and Eric Walker for Astrophotography. If you have a particular area of interest and would like to be considered one of these 'first contacts', please contact Eric Walker. The latest volunteer is Pauline, who will be ‘Planetary Specialist’. Others are Eric for astrophotography and myself (Antony) for Equipment and Observing Techniques.
  • Galaxies (and other chocolates). The latest Seeing Stars article was published in Friday 2nd’s edition of the Inverness Courier, and is now on the Society website. It is entitled “Galaxy Clusters and the Large Scale Structure of the Universe” and was written by Pauline Macrae. Click here to read it.
  • Up and coming meetings. December’s meeting will take place on Tuesday 4th Dec, and will feature a talk by someone (it’s a secret) about “The Christmas Star”. There will also be an “extraordinary quiz” with “astronomical prizes” arranged by John Gilmour. For January we are looking for two volunteer novice speakers who would like to have their presentation skills honed by Bob Clark of Inverness Speakers Club. If you’d like to have a go, please contact Eric Walker. The January meeting will take place on Tuesday 8th Jan at 7.30pm.
  • Great World Wide Star Count. HAS members who participated in October will be interested to view the results of the survey online here. Seems we still have quite good skies (if you know where to look).
  • FAS Events. The November diary of events being run or organised by the Federation of Astronomical Societies can be seen here. Maybe one will be handy for you to drop into while doing your Christmas shopping?
  • Dark Skies (under a full moon). HAS volunteers are required to attend the Dark Sky Scotland project event in Cromarty on Fri 23rd & Sat 24th November. Contact Pauline to register your interest.
  • 50 Years and Counting. No, this isn’t a reference to any particular members’ recent birthdays, but it does refer to a new one-off publication by Sky and Telescope magazine that celebrates 50 years of mankind reaching for the stars. It is available from WH Smiths or Borders (if any are left) for £5.99, or one was intended to be available as raffle prize at the meeting but it got overlooked so will be available as a prize next month!
  • Space Is A Funny Place. Prof. Colin Pillinger (of Beagle 2 fame) has produced a new book, "Space is a Funny Place", published jointly with the Cartoon Museum. It is only available direct, not through bookshops. Copies cost £13.95 but minimum order is 14 and Society orders must be in multiples of 14. Please contact Eric Walker if you are interested.
  • Patrick Moore Memorabilia. Patrick Moore had just released a NEW music CD called (imaginatively) “Music by Sir Patrick Moore”. The CDs are available to order direct at a cost of £9.99 plus £1.50 post and packing. Patrick’s original Moon Map, which was drawn in 1969, is to be re-issued as a special commemorative issue. Orders are now being taken for this. Patrick is going to personally autograph a limited number of 200, which will be supplied with a certificate for this issue, along with a photograph of him signing the map. They will have the original Black with Green shading for the “seas” and be printed on 230gsm satin paper/card, ready for framing and supplied in a postal tube. They are £47.50 including postage by registered post. If you are interested in any of these items then please visit or contact Simon Rundle on 01822 841 567, or write to him at Celestine, Trendle Lane, Bere Alston, Devon, PL20 7HT. Cheques to be made payable to:- S.T.A.R Distribution.
  • Beacon Hill “Retirement”. One of the UK’s most popular telescope salesmen and makers is retiring. Mr Barry Watts of Beacon Hill Telescopes is winding down his business of dealing with imported Skywatcher and Synta hardware in order to concentrate on his family farm and produce larger homebuilt telescopes again. He has been “50 years in astronomy and telescopes” and for the last few has handled all Skywatcher returns and spare & repair duties, so he has a barn full of “bits & pieces” that he would like to sell off to the astronomical community at rock-bottom prices. Several complete tube assemblies, including 8” and 4.5” reflectors, 90mm and 80mm Maksutovs, are available, as well as several mounts and accessories. I have personally dealt with Mr Watts many times and find his honesty, knowledge and willingness to help absolutely first class, a view which Bill Leslie (and I’m sure anyone who has done business with him) shares. If you are interested in getting yourself one of his bargain items, don’t think twice, just give him a call! He can be reached on 01507 363381. I wish him the very best of luck with his retirement (which he has described to me as being busier than ever before, so far…)

Dark Skies Scotland Events

Bill Leslie gave us a brief report on how the Dark Skies Scotland events have been going at various venues in the Highlands. It was pleasing to see that technology only managed to delay Bill’s presentation by about an hour, showing that the accumulated mass of scientific knowledge in the building on Tuesday night really did make a practical difference!

Bill had been to an event at Dunnet Head, Scotland’s most northerly point, where there was a small but very enthusiastic turnout. Telescopes were taken along and used to observe the Sun in hydrogen alpha wavelength and other activities were organised by the Dark Sky organisers, including ‘comet-making’ and launching home-made rockets. Please note Comet Holmes is not one of theirs.

Another event took place at Grantown Primary School, and Bill and Pauline attended this one, with Tim Schroder turning up in time to see the rockets going off and dinner being served! In addition to making comets, producing high-flying rockets, and informing the locals about astronomy and dark skies, there was also an inflatable planetarium set up to show what can be seen in the sky! This was very popular and was a big attraction! Bill showed some pictures of himself in the process of making a comet, and it has to be said they reveal a side of Bill’s nature we perhaps haven’t seen before. The image of him smashing the dry ice that was one of the comet ingredients was particularly frightening. The sky was clear on the Friday night, allowing for some sky-viewing, though cloud on the Saturday evening prevented any serious stargazing (unusual, as full moon nights are usually cloud-free) but didn’t prevent the lantern walk through the neighbouring forestry area. This was very much enjoyed by all who took part, many of whom carried their own home-made paper lanterns to light the way.

The planetarium will also feature at the next (and final) Dark Skies Scotland event of the year, in Cromarty on the 23rd and 24th November. More details of what else to expect can be found at the SeaCromartySparkle website here. Bill was very keen to point out how enjoyable the sessions were for both the participants and organisers, and advised us to visit one if we get the chance!

Highlands Science Festival

Maarten de Vries was invited to say a few words about the goings-on in the Highlands this week and next, as part of the Highland Science Festival. Several of the meeting’s attendees had come along specially because it was scheduled as part of this festival, and it was great to see them there sampling our Society. The festival is going very well, and many of our Society’s members have made the effort to attend some of the talks and events that have so far taken place. Some of our members are even taking part in these events, including Pauline Macrae, who has spoken about the winter sky in Achiltibuie, and Maarten himself, who has talked about the impact of space tourism on the local area, and particularly Lossiemouth.

Though most of the astronomy-themed events are passed,, the closing lecture being given by Prof. John Zarnecki on the 17th at Nairn, on ‘Touchdown On Titan’ is sure to be a highlight of the second week. Prof. Zarnecki will be speaking at the New Community Centre in Nairn at 7.30pm on Saturday 17th November. He will tell the story of the journey of the Huygens probe, and its final dramatic plunge to the surface of Titan – the only solar system satellite to have a significant atmosphere. The full programme of events can be found at the Highland Science Festival website. As mentioned above, the HAS public observing events have been somewhat washed out this year, which is a great shame and rather unusual, as we often have great weather and skies organised for public sessions!

We hope that the meeting caught the imagination of some of the minds behind the new faces at the meeting and has inspired them to come along again.

The Main Event
‘Space Missions’ by Robert Law

Robert Law has been interested in space exploration since 1968. He has a history of working in observatories, including the Coats Observatory in Paisley, and currently the Mills Observatory in Dundee. He has also been one of the Curators for Airdrie Observatory and handled the public astronomy events at Muisheil Country Park from 1989-2002. Currently a member of Dundee Astronomical Society and ASTRA, Robert also has his own Discovery Space Club, and has met most of the Apollo astronauts, as well as Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space!

Robert began his talk by telling us a little about what is going on in the world of space missions right now. For example, he said that on Wednesday 7th the space shuttle Discovery would be touching down after completing mission number 120, a fifteen day mission delivering a ‘Harmony’ linking module to the International Space Station. The module would allow an additional section, the Columbus space laboratory, to be linked to the station in December. The mission was not without mishap though, as, early in the mission, the astronauts had tried to deploy one of the solar panels on the station (one of the oldest) and it had been damaged. An extensive and risky spacewalk had to be incorporated into the mission timetable to allow the panel to be repaired!

Also in the news, the ISS has its first ever female Commander this week. Peggy Whitson, an American astronaut, commands the 16th mission for the ISS, and has previously spent a total of 184 days on board the station.

Robert gave his thoughts on the International Space Station and the way in which the space shuttles are still being used to supply and maintain it. He considered it to be a very expensive project, and pondered what the station will achieve, as it will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2008. Each shuttle launch to supply the station costs about 300 million dollars, and so far the total cost of the space station is thought to be around 250 billion dollars!

Obviously money has to be spent when carrying out scientific exploration and experiment on this scale, but Robert was keen to point out the contrast between the costs incurred by the United States and those of the latest nation to join the space-race: China. As an example, the cost of the manned Shenzhou 5 launched in 2003, cost only 120 million dollars – almost a third of a shuttle launch.

Amazingly, given the fact that the ‘space-race’ has been running for 50+ years, China is only the third country to put a human being in space. Having achieved that, they are now heading for the Moon, which is also the main target of NASA’s interest at the moment. Plans for an international Moonbase are under way, and it is thought that it would most likely be located at or near Shackleton crater near the Moon’s South Pole. Polar regions may be the best base sites as they will have more moderate temperatures, and they harbour areas that are in constant shadow, meaning that it’s theoretically possible for frozen water to exist there.

A sense of adventure is not the only reason for heading Moon-wards though. A rare and valuable Helium isotope, Helium 3 (He-3), is known to exist in the Moon’s regolith. This isotope is very rare on Earth, as it is produced by the solar wind but is blocked by Earth’s atmosphere. Some small quantity exists in the Earth’s mantle, from when the planet was still being formed. The He-3 trapped in the Moon’s crust could be collected and used as an extremely efficient (and non-radioactive) fuel source, both on Earth and to maintain a permanent Moonbase. Robert quoted as an example, that a single bus-full of He-3 could power the entire United States for a whole year!

Perhaps this is one reason why China are now so keen to get their people on the Moon as well. It has to be considered and their lunar programme is progressing well so far. Their first lunar probe, Chang’e 1, reached the Moon on Wednesday 7th, and has entered its working circular polar orbit, 200 km above the surface. It will pass over the poles continually and has already started its exploration work.

Inspired (or worried) by China’s recent successes, Russia is now increasing its space research budget again! Russia has long been a main contender in the space race, and before the American Apollo 8 mission it actually looked like they would beat the United States to putting the first man on the Moon. Robert stated that NASA could now be running well behind other countries in the race. They have depended on the space shuttle for perhaps too long, and when Bill Clinton became president in 1993 the space programme was downsized and became a much lower priority. Thankfully some of the scientists at NASA carried on with research despite the reprioritisation, so that when America’s aim to put people back on the Moon was declared a few years ago, there was at least some groundwork already done! Admittedly, a lot of the science is based on the old Apollo programme, which while being fairly successful at the time is not perhaps as efficient as the competition’s technologies.

Throughout the talk, Robert quoted example after example to back up his opinions and to illustrate the points he was making regarding the progress of space missions at the present time. His knowledge of space exploration must be truly encyclopaedic! Many images were shown of historic probes and modules, such as the Ranger probes and Apollo landing modules, as well as designs for the next generation of landers. Interestingly, future designs for the Moonbase may well include inflatable structures, which was already being discussed decades ago! Fuel supplies could be nuclear, solar, or perhaps based on the new He-3 isotope. Add to that the fact that India is the next nation that intends to get involved in space and Moon exploration, and you can see that the subject is really high again on the international agenda.

This can only be a good thing, as, expensive as it is, Robert pointed out that space programmes have brought about so many advances in the worlds of medicine, technology and design, created jobs all over the world and boosted economies vastly. An increased interest in space in general, and the region of space that we live in particularly, may well save us. Asteroid impact is a threat that has been proven, and is guaranteed to happen again. Part of the research into space is centred on finding ways to divert incoming asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth – a very good investment I think!

With so many missions under way at the moment and planned for the near future, it is a very exciting time to follow the space programmes of many of our countries. Pluto is soon to be visited by the New Horizons probe, and that will make it the final ‘planet’ (Robert’s term, but I agree with him) in our solar system to be visited, albeit remotely, by humankind. If machines produced by us here on Earth can cover such distances in so complicated trajectories, it can only inspire us even more towards our countries uniting in dedicated exploration of space.

We thank Robert for his inspiring talk, packed full of information about the missions already completed, and hope for future ones. We look forward to any future updates!

Highland Skies – November 2007

We’ve got it good this month. Not only do we have the wonderful winter constellations getting higher in the sky, boosted by an extra hour of darkness at the beginning of the night to tempt us out to observe, but we also have a bright planet and a double helping of comet-mania!

If you look towards the constellation of Perseus, high in the eastern sky at the beginning of the night, you may notice a star where there wasn’t one before: it’s to the left of delta Persei, making a triangle with that star and with Mirfak. That ‘star’ is comet 17/P (Holmes). Holmes is a periodic comet, orbiting the Sun every 6.9 years, with its orbit lying between that of Mars and Jupiter. It is usually quite faint, but every now and then has undergone strange outbursts that dramatically increased its brightness.

On 24th October the comet underwent one such outburst, and in less than 24 hours increased in brightness from magnitude 14 to magnitude 3! Magnitude 3 of course makes it visible to the naked eye, and such a bright object close to an easily recognisable constellation is a dream come true for us comet-starved observers! It has increased in brightness since then, to about magnitude 2.5, and binoculars show the comet to be almost circular, with a bright core and soft glowing halo. It appears much like a bight planetary nebula.

Increasing magnification using a small or medium sized telescope shows considerable structure, and the internet astronomy websites (including our own) are beginning to be flooded by images of this unusual visitor to our skies.

But there is another comet to keep an eye open for too. Comet 8P/Tuttle is back, and can be seen close to Polaris in November. That will make it quite easy to find, except that it will be fairly faint with its visual magnitude being between 10 and 12. It may be out of reach of small telescopes, but if it approaches magnitude 10-11 it should be possible to see in a 3-inch scope. That’s the trouble with comets – they’re unpredictable, but then in the case of comet Holmes it’s also what makes them so great!

More predictable are the winter constellations that we’re treated to this month. Taurus will be getting higher in the sky, bringing with it the wonderful open cluster M45 (the Pleiades). Gemini follows Taurus into the sky, and is currently home to the planet Mars. Although Mars will still be quite small (apparent diameter increasing from 12 to 14 arc-seconds) it will be high enough above the horizon to be in steady air, and that can make the all difference for meaningful observations. On a good night you should be able to make out different dark land features in a small telescope, and the famous polar icecaps, though increasing telescope aperture will probably help.

If Mars and the stunning Pleiades are too easy for you, have a look for M1, the Crab Nebula. This is the remnant from a supernova that occurred, and was famously observed by the Chinese, in 1054. At that time, the progenitor star increased in brightness to magnitude –7, making it easily visible even during the daytime. In the 953 years since then the remnant has been continually expanding, so that its expanse is now about 11 light-years, though it appears to be only 6x4 arc-minutes in the eyepiece. It is a challenge to see and requires dark skies. Once found, use averted vision to try and tease detail and shape from the view, or for a real treat, use a very big telescope!

Useful links:
Finder chart for Comet 17P/Holmes
For Comet 8P/Tuttle
Finder chart for Crab Nebula

'Stellarium' by Eric Walker

Stellarium this month was held in a separate room as a Breakout Group, as the main hall was used by speaker Robert Law for a discussion group about his talk on Space Missions. This month Eric concentrated on getting everyone able to find comet Holmes and the galaxies mentioned in Pauline’s Seeing Stars article, as well as mentioning Mars and Venus, the two most obvious planets in the sky at the moment.

Next Time.

The next meeting is on Tuesday 4th December at the Green House, 7.30pm start. There will be a fiendishly difficult quiz presented by John Gilmour, with “astronomical prizes” (I wonder who’ll win the 14” LX-200R telescope?) and somebody will be talking about “The Christmas Star”. As it will be the last meeting before Christmas it should be an ideal opportunity to wish all our fellow members a Happy Christmas, and I wouldn’t mind betting there’ll be some mince pies on show too, though I’m not so sure about the mulled wine…
Until then, Clear Skies, and good luck with your observing. If you have any questions or comments please pass them on to one of the contacts below, or post a message on the message board!


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