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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie Novmber 2008


The November meeting was quite different from any meeting that has ever taken place before. For one thing, it was the first with Maarten de Vries acting as Chairman, and for another it had quite a lot to get through between the start and finish times! Comets were made, books were sold, red dots were projected, video clips were played, tea was drunk, biscuits consumed, hubbub was aired – how did we fit it all in? Can December’s meeting possibly top this one? Will things ever be the same again? Find out by coming along next month, but in the meantime here’s a summary of the goings-on.


  • All Change!  John Gilmour has relocated to Glasgow, and so has stepped down as Chairman for the Society. Maarten de Vries is now acting as interim Chairman until the next AGM in April 2009. (See below…)


  • Be a Lert.  The latest version of the Telephone Alert List is now available. Please contact Secretary Eric Walker to be supplied with one, or pick it up at the next meeting.


  • ROE Trip.  The Society trip to the Royal Observatory Edinburgh will take place on Saturday 15th November. The bus will leave promptly at 8.30am from the Green House car park, and will return for about 8.30pm. Cars can be left at the car park. You will need to bring a packed lunch and something (non-alcoholic) to drink. Cost is only £15.00, and will even include a visit to the rarely opened Crawford Library! A stop at a well-known chippie is promised on the way home. For further information or to book a place, please contact Pat Williams: (01463 711205).


  • HSF.  By the time you read this, Highland Science Festival should be well under way, or possibly finished! The website is still worth a visit, as some events will continue to take place after the main week-long activity period has finished:  


  • Festive Frolics.  The Society’s first Christmas Dinner will take place on Friday 12th December at The Anderson in Fortrose, 7:30pm. Apparently The Anderson has a very large range of Malt Whiskies, as well as several real ales, which should add to the festive spirit, and was voted one of the top ten restaurants in Scotland! Transport will be arranged for the Inverness townies who wish to attend. Cost is estimated to be between £30 and £35 for three courses inclusive of wine but will depend on the meals chosen as pricing will be individual. £10 deposit is due now, so please pass it on to Pat Escott if you still have to pay it.


  • Bagging Up.  The Tesco bag-packing day will take place on Sat 22nd Nov at the Tesco Extra branch at Inverness Retail Park. The Society urgently requires 20 – 22 volunteers to help at this event, which will raise funds for the running of the observatory. If you are interested in this please contact Pauline.


  • Observing. The observatory will be open for viewing on the following nights. Please note that events will be dependent on the weather, and you can contact the session hosts to find out if they will be going ahead. Further information on the sessions will be available on the Society website.

        Type of event             Date         Session Host        Contact number
        Public + Members       Fri 21st        Rhona Fraser        07879 853478
         Members only            Sat 22nd      Lynn Robinson      07810 791746
        Public + Members       Fri 28th       Rhona Fraser         07879 853478
        Members only            Sat 29th       Lynn Robinson      07810 791746

  • Seeing Stars.  “The Ram, The Triangle and The Pleiades” is written by Rhona Fraser and was published in the Friday 7th November edition of The Inverness Courier. It is also available on the website here.


  • HAS Star Party.  Vague mutterings have been heard, on the subject of a Society Star-Party. The date has been set as Saturday 20th December, but little else is known at this time, except that it will probably be cloudy. Further information closer to the time… 


  • Recycle.  Old mobile phones and printer cartridges can be recycled, and in the process we can receive some funds to go towards the Society. If you have any of these lying around please bring them along to Eric Walker.


  • Solar Eclipse Cruise.  Forget about the Credit-Crunch: next year’s total eclipse will be the longest this century, with 6.5 minutes of totality. If there is sufficient interest the Society may organise a cruise trip. If you are interested you can find out more at and put your name down on the information list at the next meeting. Prices start at just £1,395 per person (six bags of potatoes in today’s money), which works out to just £3.57 per second of totality! But don’t think about the money – after all, the banks will all be gone by then anyway.


  • JSL Opening Day CD.  The Society is offering a CD with about 200 photographs showing the building phase and opening day of the new JSL observatory. It also includes John Gilmour’s interview on the Highland Café radio programme, and copies of press and website articles. Cost is £5 each, funds to go to the running of the observatory.


  • 4000 Years of Astronomy in The Highlands.  This is the title of a mini-festival that we propose to run in March 2009 in conjunction with NTS at Culloden. We have received funding from the Highland 2007 Legacy Fund, which will allow us to stage this event and provide the club with some new supplies, including a new laptop computer!


  • Refractor Available.  John Gilmour has kindly donated a 60mm refractor to the Society, to be loaned out to members who would like to try using a telescope. Accessories and eyepieces are included, as are instructions and a case. It is stored at the JSL observatory between uses. Enquiries to any member of the Observatory Team.

New Chairman 

This man is now our leader...You should all by now have received an email or letter from the outgoing Chairman, John Gilmour. John has had to relocate to Glasgow so has stepped down so that a more suitably placed person can run the Society. That person is Maarten de Vries, who has taken up the mantle of Interim Chairman. He will hold that title until the next AGM, in April 2009, when either he or someone else will be elected to Chair the club. Maarten has asked that we start to think about possible candidates that we would like to take over the leadership, as he suggested that he would certainly not mind some competition!

John Gilmour will always be remembered as the Chairman who was in office when the Society’s new JSL Observatory finally opened, and contributed greatly to that project. He also launched a series of ideas that will hopefully be long continued, including field trips and social events for the members. So a big thank you goes out to John for the things that he did, and a crossing of fingers for the things that Maarten will do in the future. (I’m really looking forward to the proposed Lunar Field Trip in 2010... ?)

Sit back and enjoy the ride from now until April, and then – who knows what the future will hold?


Highland Skies – November 2008

One night last month I saw something for the first time. It was NGC 7000, the North America Nebula. Impressive title, isn’t it? And it is very reflective of the object itself too. It’s one of those rare things in astronomy that really does look like what its name suggests!

The nebula is big, very big. It measures a good two degrees by about one and a half. It is situated about three degrees east from Deneb and one degree south, near the star 6 Cygni. It is an emission nebula, with a huge field of gas being ionised by a bright, young star. As yet it has not been definitely proven which star is doing the ionising, but Deneb is a possibility.

Ok, so it’s big; so why had I never seen it before? I mean, it’s right beside Deneb in Cygnus, a part of the sky I’m always passing through when star hopping around the summer and autumn deep sky objects. Well, it’s because the brightness of all that ionised gas is spread out over such a large area that makes it hard to spot. Depending on what you read or who you talk to, you may hear that it can be seen the naked eye from a dark sky site. Or you may hear that binoculars are essential. Or an Ultra High Contrast filter. For myself, I simply cannot see it without optical aid.

How did I happen on it this time? I had a new eyepiece with a large field of view to try out. In the 80mm refractor I was using it gave 20x magnification and a field of view of three and a half degrees. Also, I was under a pristine sky. It all seemed too good a chance to pass up so I gave it a shot. I checked the star chart, lined up my scope on its position using my red dot finder, and looked in the eyepiece….

Aha! There was a very large, slightly elongated smudge of ethereal dust-glow that ‘nearly’ filled the field. I had found it at last! But, I thought, it didn’t look exactly like North America, and it wasn’t very obvious. I decided to put my Ultra High Contrast filter in the eyepiece and have another look. Eureka! So that’s what it’s supposed to look like! The filter rejects some of the ambient star-light from the view, but allows the light from various gases to pass through, so the view I was presented with was of the entire area of nebulosity, looking exactly like it is described in all the books and charts!

Now, I’m not just saying all this to show off my equipment collection: I’m saying it to show that without an idea of what to expect in the eyepiece I would never have seen what I was looking for. Expectation is sometimes essential to actually see something if you’ve never seen it before. I had read the various descriptions, knew where to point the ‘scope, knew how large an area it occupied, knew what eyepiece to use to frame that area, knew that I may need a filter to see the detail, and knew I’d need the sky to be good too.

On one hand I was thankful for all the information I had acquired before seeking the nebula out, but on the other I had a brief, fleeting feeling of what it was like to be a beginner again. To see something never before seen that was an outstanding object, under optimum conditions. It was definitely a “Wow!” moment!
There is something to be said, then, for knowing what to look for. There are many books on the market that contain star-charts and descriptions of suitable objects for beginners, including “Celestial Sampler” by Sue French and “Turn Left at Orion” by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis. Both these works provide realistic (not over-hyped) depictions of what can be seen through a small telescope: essential when looking for a strange object in the sky. The Society library has a copy of the Turn Left at Orion book, by the way.

NGC 7000 will be getting lower in the sky over the following months, and this will actually make it easier to observe than when I saw it at zenith. I look forward to examining it in detail – now that I know what I’m looking for! This could be a good month to set yourself an observational goal – something you’ve never seen before, but know that you really want to…

Antony McEwan


The Main Event (part 1)
‘Video Astronomy’ by Andrew Elliott

Andrew Elliott is one of those people with a burning passion for astronomy. He is a vet by profession, and has worked in Wales and Blackpool before becoming a ministry vet and working in Leeds then Reading. He was a leading member of the Leeds and Reading Astronomical Societies, and is now in the Blackpool And District Astronomical Society: BADAS for short! Andrew began to specialise in video astronomy when lightweight video cameras and image intensifiers became available and suitable for use in astronomy, and he has been very successful. His work has been featured on TV, as we were to find out.

The sight of comet Arend-Roland inspired Andrew’s interest in astronomy in 1957. He quickly realised that the universe around us is dynamic, not static. Things are always in motion, some more so than others. Of those moving objects, many make good targets for video cameras. These include lunar occultations, solar eclipses, meteor showers, satellites and spacecraft, transits and occultations of asteroids or stars by other objects.

In 1988, Andrew purchased a CCTV camera with a Philips module and began his journey into the fascinating and rewarding niche of astronomy that he is such an expert in today. He started off the presentation by explaining some of the things that can be achieved by filming astronomical events, and how they can reveal data that ‘normal’ observations can omit.
Modern video cameras are very advanced and are compatible with all the latest innovations of computer technology, including firewire and USB2. This makes it very easy to transfer movies onto computer, edit them and tweak them to show the maximum possible amount of detail and/or information, and save them for viewing later on. Once edited, they can be distributed across the Internet or placed on websites such as Youtube or specialised astronomical ones for people all over the world to watch. In addition to simply being able to share the recordings, it is possible to time-mark them very accurately using GPS technology. Simple GPS modules can be bought which connect to the video camera and imprint the exact time, date and location on every single frame being recorded. The advantage of this is that if you wanted to see the exact point at which a star was completely occulted by the Moon (for example) each frame in the recording could be viewed, and the time would be displayed on the screen.

That’s rewarding in itself, but then imagine if many observers were spread out over a large area all doing the same thing. Observers in different locations would record the event happening at slightly different times, and these different time markers could be collated and used to draw up, for example, a detailed map of the area of the Moon’s limb behind which the star disappeared. Or, if it was a star being occulted by an asteroid, the asteroid’s shape could be mathematically derived. Orbits could be calculated too. It is amazing what can be achieved using such techniques.
Naturally, Andrew shared some of his work with us through the presentation, and his many samples were amazing! He had several videos of meteor showers, including ones of the Leonids in 1998 – a shower that produced numerous bright fireballs, many of which were captured on Andrew’s camera! In fact, Andrew’s meteor recording work became so famous that he was invited to take part in a Sky at Night ‘Meteors Special’ broadcast. Audio was recorded in the background of some of the clips that Andrew showed, and we could hear the gasps of delight from onlookers as bright fireballs flashed across the sky, including Sir Patrick Moore’s comments too. Another fine example was his film of the Perseids on 11/12 Aug 2007.

I’m sure we all had personal favourites from Andrew’s clips, but two of mine were his recording of the third contact of the Venus transit in 2004, and the grazing occultation of Saturn from 1st/2nd March 2007. This was just amazing to watch, seeing the rings of Saturn slip behind the Moon’s limb, but not completely disappearing, so that the planet was only half occulted or so by the Moon, before finally clearing the limb and becoming completely distinct again.

From a purely scientific standpoint, work like this can contribute greatly to our understanding of the universe. By monitoring Near Earth Objects, their masses and orbits can be calculated. Light curves for stars that are occulted by other solar system bodies can be plotted, as was shown by the occultation of star 28 Sagittarii by Titan on 3rd July 1989. Careful analysis of recordings of the Baily’s Beads phenomenon at solar eclipses can even show if the Sun is expanding. It seems as if the ways in which this aspect of astronomy can contribute to scientific knowledge are almost unlimited!
On the topic of getting started in the hobby, Andrew said that the equipment is readily available, but could be considered to be slightly expensive. A beginner’s camera could cost between £190 to £400. An image intensifier might become necessary as one progressed deeper into the hobby, and a telescope or camera lens will be required.

Andrew did indeed demonstrate that the universe around us is ‘dynamic’ and he looks forward to the future of video astronomy, with the promise of higher resolution of detail and the ability to detect even fainter objects with new cameras. If you would like to contact him directly, he can be emailed at We would like to wish Andrew every success in his video astronomy ventures and we look forward to an update from him in the not too distant future.

The Main Event (part 2)
‘Comet Creation’ with Bill Leslie

Bill Leslie practices the ancient art of Tai Chi (Comet Form)The evening’s second attraction was Bill Leslie’s creation of a real live comet in front of our very eyes! Amazingly, this was not the first time that Bill has made a comet. In fact, he had made one earlier that evening for the Youngstars group, and he makes them regularly, particularly when he attends Dark Sky Scotland events around the Highlands or when he is feeling suitably energetic/creative/angry.

It’s a messy job, and required protective sheets to be placed on the floor (which he expertly missed when he eventually did spill some comet-matter), thick protective gloves, and a big plastic bag in which to make the comet.

Some of the ingredients were everyday household things, including Ajax cleaner (containing ammonia), vinegar and Worcestershire sauce (organic molecules), some sand (for rock and dust particles) and a very special ingredient from Daisy the cow. Yes, Daisy belches out methane, which is a vital ingredient in comet manufacturing, and luckily, Bill had a little mini Daisy with him to provide the necessary.

These ingredients represent the elements that were in existence when the very first comets were created, back when the Sun first formed. The leftover material may have formed into these clumps of ice, dust and rock, which we now think of as ‘dirty snowballs’ – a phrase first coined by Fred Whipple in 1950.

Comets orbit the Sun, some with very long orbital periods of thousands of years, others with much shorter ones. The famous Halley’s Comet makes its presence known in our skies every 75 to 76 years, but the spectacular comet Hale-Bopp that was a stunning naked-eye object in 1995 will not be back until the year 4532 – an orbital period of 2537 years! Comets with long orbital periods like this are thought to originate from the Oort Cloud: a halo of leftover material from the Sun’s formation surrounding our solar system. It resides well outside the orbit of any of our planets, being nearly one light year distant. Short period comets come from the Kuiper Belt, which is just outside the orbit of Neptune and relatively nearby.

Bill’s comet was produced in a matter of minutes, with its creator delivering a detailed and The finished comet, fizzing in its creator's handshumorous explanation of the processes involved along the way. One revelation that he shared with us was that ‘space’ is not empty and dead – it contains all the elements required for life, just not all in one place at the same time! He suggested that when the Earth first formed, it would have been subject to a bombardment by billions of comets, each of which contained as one of its prime ingredients water. Could this be where the Earth’s oceans originated? And after all, every single one of us is 60% to 65% water, so that could mean that some of the material necessary to build a human being was derived from cometary impacts! Thought provoking, isn’t it?

Anyway, Bill’s comet was magnificent as expected, and he toured around the audience displaying it. We could hear the gases inside escaping, with a faint but continuous popping fizzing noise.


This was a truly entertaining and informative demonstration of the processes involved in comet formation, brilliantly delivered by somebody who obviously enjoys doing such strange things! I can’t wait until Bill moves onto supernova demonstrations...




Next Time:  December’s meeting will take place on Tuesday 2nd at 7.30pm in the Green House. The main talk will be ‘Traipsing Across The Universe’ by Maarten de Vries, and there are bound to be other special features to draw you in to the last meeting of 2008! The ‘Youngstars’ section will run from 7.00 to 7.30pm, and I’d be very surprised if the tea-team didn’t make a special effort to instil a party atmosphere.

In the meantime, clear dark skies to you all, and remember to drop by the message board if you see something or have a question to ask!

Antony McEwan


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