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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie October 2005

First off, as I was on holiday last month, a big ‘Thank You’ to Pie-producing Pauline for her excellent September issue- very much appreciated (and nice to be unchained and allowed off for a week or two)! Now October is here and soon the trees will be stripped bare, revealing behind them the rich star-fields, heroic constellations and majestic planets that come with winter nights. We are often treated to some of the best views of the year in October, so it was appropriate that the HAS meeting was also rather good! It started, as usual, with a fresh batch of notices:

  • Aurora! No, not the dazzling atmospheric display, but the programme set up by the European Space Agency for the exploration of the Moon and Mars. This programme is supported and funded by the member states of the ESA, with annual payments made over five-yearly periods. In 2004 the UK deferred payment until 2006, although an interim payment was made, but in order to be a part of this venture the UK really has to be financially committed. To this end, a campaign called UK For Aurora has been set up by Jerry Stone (FBIS FRAS) to make the British public aware of the benefits of involvement in the programme, and to encourage them to lobby the government to firmly commit itself to the project. For more information, please read the UK For Aurora page on our website, then visit the official UK For Aurora website and think about what we can do to help. The campaign is looking for the support of societies, so perhaps we could sign a petition and send it to the relevant people?
  • Mars Invades Swindon! The Mars Society UK is delighted to announce that the 5th European Mars Conference will take place in England this year. It will run from Friday 4th November to Sunday 6th at the Alexandra House Conference Centre, Wroughton, near Swindon. A reception and panel discussion on the Friday will be followed by two full days of conference events, which will feature information about the current and future exploration of Mars, given by some of the leading experts in planetary research from the UK and Europe. The event (called EMC5) coincides with this year’s close approach of the planet, which should generate increased interest from the public and media. Visit the Mars Society website for more information.

Science Festival Info. Tickets are now available for the various events of November’s Science Festival! The festival takes place from Thursday 10th through Saturday 12th November, at various venues in Moray. On the Thursday evening at the Universal Hall, Findhorn, there will be two talks by Scottish researchers exploring the nature of light in its quantum state and its applications.

7.30-8.30pm ‘Does God Play Dice?’ - Prof. Miles Padgett of Glasgow University marks the Einstein anniversary year of Physics with an introduction to the mysteries of the quantum world.

9.00-10.00pm ‘Tripping The Light Fantastic’ - From spinning beams to optical tweezers, Prof. Kishan Dholakia of St. Andrews University describes and demonstrates new applications of the quantum properties of light. Price to members £2, non-members £3.

On the evening of Friday 11th at the Community Hall, Burghead:

7.30-8.15pm ‘Burghead And Beyond’ - Prof. Ian Ralston of Edinburgh University fits the great fort on the promontory into the greater world of Pictish culture and beyond.

8.45-9.30pm ‘The Picts And The Planets’ - Howie Firth explores a new astronomical interpretation of the mysteries of the Pictish builders of Burghead, and their symbols with Music by Saut-Herrin. Price £3 to everyone.

Saturday 12th sees the public open day at Horizon Scotland in Forres, open from 10.00am until 4.00pm. There will be talks and images of the night sky from HAS, SIGMA, and the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, plus remote operation of the Faulkes Telescope in Hawaii, and other hands-on activities. Price to members and children in full-time education £2; Primary children and below FREE; non-members £3.
Don’t be put of by the Physics content, as the speakers are used to speaking to the general public. Tickets will be available at the next meeting or from Pauline, so hurry up and get them quickly, and be sure to pass this info on to your friends, relatives, post-delivery-people, sandwich suppliers, etc., etc., etc.

  • Observing Sessions . October’s observing sessions are listed below along with contact details. Please make suitable offerings to the weather-gods in good time, as these events will be weather dependant, and we really want cool clear nights of good seeing to get the best out of this month’s skies!

Friday 7th OctoberPauline
Saturday 8th OctoberRob
Friday 28th OctoberBill
Saturday 29th OctoberTrina

  • Sky at Night Goes Cheap! The subscriptions department for the Sky at Night magazine have been in touch with a very special offer! They will be offering subscriptions at a heavily discounted price in time for Christmas, making this an ideal gift for the astronomer in your life! Rumours of personal delivery down the chimney by Patrick Moore are as yet unverified, but more details will follow and will be included in the November notices and Stargazey Pie. For details of what to spend the money saved on, please see above notice ‘Science Festival Info’!
  • Free Books? Oh Yes! Ever fancied a Free Book? With words, pictures, and everything? The perfect item to hide behind to avoid embarrassing confrontations on the train, or even to use as the perfect conversation-starting piece in your favourite coffeehouse? Well you may be able to get a FREE copy of the wonderful, fascinating, and beautifully illustrated book supplied by the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh (there’s that name again- I think they’ll go far…) The book was on display at the front desk at the meeting, and by providing Pauline with your name you could be placed on a list of people interested in receiving a free copy. Unfortunately, the actual number of free copies that may be available is not definite, as this is all based on Maarten’s distant mutterings, and he was obviously away on holiday so not available for comment!
  • Scope For Sale. And no, it’s not mine this time. Somebody wishing to sell a Celestron C8 Schmidt Cassegrain telescope has contacted Pauline. It is supplied with a field tripod, dew shield, f6.3 focal reducer and three eyepieces, and is described as being in good condition. Asking price is around £700, and enquiries are to be made through Pauline. If anyone else wishes to advertise anything astronomical, please feel free to use the Buying And Selling forum on our website- registration is simple and straightforward, and even now there are bargains to be had!
  • Knowledge is Power. Pauline has some information about distance learning Astronomy courses with the University of Central Lancashire. Further information obtained since the meeting has revealed that the courses are FREE to anybody on benefits, but also sadly that it is now too late to apply for this year’s courses. It is still worth visiting the website ( to find out more about the University’s courses, or if you prefer, further details can be obtained from Pauline.

Eyes on the Skies.

For many people the October Skies of 2005 may be noteworthy for only one reason: Mars! The Red Planet is indeed making a welcome return to our night sky, and will be climbing high out of the turbulent air near our horizons, and shining brightly from the steadier higher skies late in the evening. The planet will appear a little smaller than it did in 2003, but it will be in a better viewing position for Northern hemisphere observers. Details should be more easily seen this time round, as we are viewing it through a much thinner layer of atmosphere. More information about observing Mars will appear on our website in the near future, so stay tuned to Spacegazer.

Personally, I fully intend to see red this month. No, nobody's upset me, I just want to stay up late and literally see red. Times three! Mars will be in the constellation of Taurus, below the Pleiades, and not far from the Hyades open cluster. The brightest object in the Hyades is Aldebaran, a Red Supergiant star that shines with an easily visible red hue. The star is 95 times larger than our own Sun, and shines at over a thousand times brighter! Its position against the backdrop of the Hyades is very pleasing. So that's two noticeable bright red objects close together in the sky.

A third one, revealed in the early hours, is Betelgeuse, the bright Red Supergiant that marks the shoulder of Orion the Hunter. This star is about 425 light years away from us, and is thought to be about 600 times larger, and 60,000 times brighter, than our Sun! There has been much speculation about when Betelgeuse is going to go Supernova, and whether this event would affect us in any way. It would certainly become very bright in our sky and would be visible even in daylight. Not good for deep sky enthusiasts then!

I look forward to seeing these three celestial rubies lined up in the eastern skies through October. Perhaps you too may consider observing them through telescopes and with the naked eye, comparing the shades of red that they show and contemplating the differences between them. There is a third red supergiant, considered to be so like the red planet that the ancient Greeks called it the 'Rival of Mars'. Antares is not visible at night just now, as it just peeps over the horizon in the mid-afternoon in the constellation of Scorpio. What a shame. It would have been great if Antares resided perhaps in Pisces or Aries! I suppose I shall have to content myself with Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Mars as the targets in my own personal Hunt for Red October!

The Main Event. ‘Observing Satellites’, by Alan Pickup.

Alan Pickup is very interested in observing satellites. He must be- he’s done it professionally, working with the Satellite Tracking Section of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh from 1968 through the 70’s. He has also helped run the UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, and as well as satellite observing has a keen interest in all facets of Astronomy. Alan now writes newspaper columns on astronomy and space matters for the Guardian, Sunday Times, and Scotsman newspapers, and helps the Royal Observatory with their PR.

We have probably all witnessed a satellite crossing the field of view of our binoculars, or catching our eye as it soars silently across the sky. I expect most of us have seen quite a lot, as according to a count made on one of the websites mentioned below, there are nearly 29,000 of the things up there! Accidental sightings are one thing, but actually ‘observing’ satellites, or going out looking for them is another entirely, and that is what Alan really spoke to us about.

He has been interested in observing satellites since spotting Sputnik2 in the sky above his Lancashire home in 1957, right at the beginning of the ‘satellite age’. Since that time of course, satellites have contributed to our lives in many ways, from telecommunications, through mapping and weather forecasting, to military observation, astronomy and space-research. What we probably don’t realise, is that many of the devices that affect our lives and whirl around above our heads are actually visible to us, and that their positions and movements can be predicted and observed.

Information about satellites that can be seen from your location can be obtained from websites such as By registering and entering your observing position and the minimum magnitude of object you wish to see, you will be presented with accurate predictions of which satellites will be visible to you, the times they can be seen, and their tracks across the sky. This means you can go out prepared to see the satellites that interest you. Conversely, you can also make notes of satellites you see by chance, and use the website to try and work out what it was you saw! Findsat is another (German) website that can be useful for this purpose.

By making careful observation of how long a satellite takes to pass between two stars, the direction of its movement, brightness, etc, data on its orbit can be gathered and shared amongst enthusiasts by submitting observational data to groups such as Heavens-above, SeeSat-L, or SatObs.Org.

These observations can also simply be fun and rewarding! Binoculars, a stopwatch and an accurate clock are all you need, along with some satellite prediction times. Sometimes it is possible to see satellites passing in front of (or transiting) the Sun or Moon, as was shown in a great video clip of the International Space Station transiting the Sun!

Alan explained that you can sometimes tell something about what you are observing by the way it behaves in the sky. For example, if you see a satellite that seems to flash bright, dim, bright, dim, then it could be ‘tumbling’ over and over in space, with perhaps a reflective surface catching, then losing, the Sun’s light. Ditched booster rockets do this a lot. Some observation satellites, particularly the Naval Oceans Surveillance Satellites, travel in pairs or trios across the sky, moving in perfect unison. These groupings are quite often mistaken for UFO’s. Then there are the famous Iridium Flares- satellites with large door-shaped antennae that catch the Sun’s light and become amazingly bright, sometimes up to magnitude –8, which is bright enough to see in daylight!

One interesting and amusing fact that Alan shared with us is that it can be easier to gather data on ‘secret’ satellites than on non-secret ones. This is because the prediction data, or ‘elsets’, on non-secret satellites is controlled by Space-Track, a US Government organisation that requires users to register before receiving information. The data on ‘secret’ satellites has always been handled by unofficial amateur groups, with much less regulation, so is essentially available to anyone!

So the next time a bright blur whizzes across the deep-sky object you’ve been trying to image for hours, instead of cursing it you may consider noting its direction, brightness, speed and the time, and then try to identify exactly which satellite it was. After all it’s only fair- they’re watching us, so we can watch them back!

Thanks to Alan Pickup for sharing his information and resources, and providing us with such a deep insight into this particular branch of observational astronomy.

Next Time. The next meeting will start at 7.30pm sharp at the Green House on Tuesday 1st November. In a presentation entitled ‘Star City’, Maarten will entertain us with his new proposal for a celebrity based reality TV show, in which B-list celebs will be shipped off to a Moon colony with a limited air supply and a return spacecraft with only one seat. Actually, that may not be quite true; the title is correct but I'm just guessing about the content...

John Burns, director of Strathspey Binoculars, will also be there, showing a selection of his binoculars and tripods and giving a short talk about them. There is lots going on in the Society these days, and your best chance of keeping up with it all is to make sure you’re able to join us on the 1st. In the meantime please feel free to check our website regularly for the latest news updates and information on the society’s projects. If you have any comments or feedback about Stargazey Pie, please contact me with them.


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