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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie September 2006

Tuesday 5th September was the night of a really great meeting for the Highlands Astronomical Society. It was packed! Biggest turnout this year, I’d say. Why did they all turn up? To hear Dave Gavine talk about James Nasmyth and his telescopes? To discuss telescope purchases for the beginner? To hear about how supergiant stars end their days? To hear about the plans for viewing sessions and the Going Nova event for 2006? To drink tea and to talk about Pluto’s relegation from the solar system’s family of planets? Probably all of the above, and who can blame them? As always, the meeting started with a fresh batch of notices, read by Chairwoman Pauline.

  • Open Day. Another public event this month is the Eastgate Centre Open Day on Saturday 23rd. It will run from 10.30am to 3.30pm and we will be situated next to the lift outside M&S. We will have telescopes on display as well as lots of information about HAS, and we would welcome any members who could offer to help out, even if only for an hour or two. These Open Day events are very successful, and we are again hoping to have a public viewing session at Culloden in the evening, from 8pm onwards.
  • Astronomy Tours. The holiday firm, Ancient World Tours, have been in touch again, this time to inform us of two new tours. One to experience dark skies from Egypt and explore some interesting sites there, and the other to see the aurora borealis from Iceland. The tours take place next year and details can be gleaned from their website. The chance to see the Leonids from Morocco is still around too, but is priced at £1245, so these trips are not quite cheap. Reports from any takers would be appreciated!
  • Going Nova 2. Last year’s Going Nova event was very successful, and this year we are hoping for more of the same- and some more! The dates for this year’s event will be from 22nd through 25th November, with the following provisional schedule: 22nd Energy Day; 23rd rail travel in the future and hear about your chance to get into space with Virgin Galactic, 24th Schools day and the Faulkes Telescope, 25th Public day with special evening entertainment. Volunteers are once again being sought, with promises of free entry to the talks and events being offered as lures. Please contact Pauline or Maarten if you are interested.
  • FAS-CON. The Federation of Astronomical Societies is having their convention at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, Birmingham, on Saturday 30th Sept. Speakers include Prof. John Brown, Dr. Allan Chapman, Dr. Somak Raychaudhury and Dr. David Whitehouse. There will also be various exhibitors. Tickets are £12 on the door or £10 if pre-booked. Contact Pat Williams or Pauline Macrae for details.
  • Observing sessions. Observing season is starting up again, so come along to the viewing sessions at the Culloden Observatory to sample September’s deep sky delights. Sessions will run from 8pm to 11pm, depending on weather. Contacts are as below. Please use the first phone number before 8pm and the mobile numbers after 8pm.

Friday 15th Sept.... Pauline Macrae
Saturday 16th Sept.... Trina Shaddick
Friday 22nd Sept.... Antony McEwan
Saturday 23rd Sept .. (Open Day event)Pauline Macrae

  • Magical Mystery Tour. Prof. John Brown is also to be heard speaking at a public lecture being held in the Tower Lecture Theatre at the University of Dundee on Friday 15th September. The Astronomer Royal for Scotland will be speaking about ‘The Magic Of The Cosmos’, and he probably will be incorporating some of his own special brand of magic into that talk. The show starts at 7pm. Please contact Pat Williams for details.
  • Star-scripts. It is said that everyone has a book inside them. I say people should eat more sensibly, but whatever your opinion you may be interested in a search being carried out by Springer Books for new British writers to contribute to the rapidly growing list of amateur astronomy writers. For details please email john.Watson at
  • Feeling Spaced-Out? Then perhaps you need to attend the third UK Space Medicine Conference at the National Space Centre in Leicester. It takes place on Sat 30th Sept and Sun 1st Oct, and there will be an informal dinner on the Saturday night. For details on the programme please contact Pat Williams, and please be advised that you may find the subject matter somewhat esoteric unless you have at least some medical knowledge. Oh, and yes there will be a doctor in the house.

The Main Event

‘James Nasmyth and His Telescopes’ by David Gavine

Dr David Gavine has a comprehensive background in science and astronomy. Born in Dundee, he has a BSC in Geology from St. Andrews, MA in Geography from Aberdeen and a PhD in the History of Astronomy from the Open University, and has been a past president of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh and the Scottish Astronomers Group. At one time Dr Gavine was Master at Fort Augustus Abbey School, where he made a small planetarium and set up a reflecting telescope on the Abbey roof, the mirror from which is now housed in our own society Dobsonian telescope! Although he is currently retired, David holds the post of Director of the British Astronomical Association Aurora Section, organises the SAG weekends and still finds time to visit astronomical societies and give lectures.

Dr Gavine very kindly wrote the following synopsis for those members who missed his talk this month.


Nasmyth was born into the large family of four sons and six daughters of the famous artist Alexander Nasmyth, all of whom inherited their father’s talent. The daughters and one son became well-known artists and teachers of art. The family lived in a big house in York Place, Edinburgh, where Alexander’s social gatherings included many of the intelligentsia, Walter Scott, Robert Burns and the scientists Watt, Playfair and Leslie. He was also a member of the Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh which ran the Calton Hill Observatory, so James’ interest in astronomy obviously took off there.

James and his brother George showed aptitude for engineering and were apprenticed to the engineer Henry Maudsley in London. James had investigated the prospects of setting up in engineering business himself, and when Maudsley died in 1831 the brothers went up to Patricroft and eventually established themselves as a firm producing steam engines, machine tools and later locomotives and the steam hammer which James patented.

James had already made small reflecting telescopes from his teens, he had intended making one for Mr Maudsley, but at Patricroft he made his biggest, a 20-inch reflector with which he did all his subsequent astronomical work. It was a unique design, in which the observer sits in a seat attached to the telescope mount, looking into the eyepiece, which is in a fixed position at the end of the trunnion about which the telescope moves up and down in altitude. The mount is built onto a circular rail around which the whole mounting rotates horizontally in azimuth. The observer turns two handles to move the telescope round and up and down without changing his position, a highly convenient arrangement. However, it required three speculum metal mirrors, each of which reflected less than half of the light falling upon it, unlike William Herschel’s and Lord Rosse’s telescopes which used only one mirror. So with only about 20% efficiency Nasmyth did not bother with faint stars or nebulae but specialised in the Sun, Moon and planets where light grasp was not so important.

In 1856, aged 48 and with a fortune of about £250,000 he and his wife Anne Hartop left for the clear skies of Kent and set up a house called “Hammerfield” to devote the rest of his life to astronomy. He described the granulation of the surface of the Sun in a paper to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, but his main study was the Moon.

The craters and lunar mountains were not understood at the time, so Nasmyth sketched them, made plaster models (which show the mountains and crater walls much higher than we know them now) and photographed them. He thought the craters were of volcanic origin – and this notion persisted until the space age, and that the mountains, like those of the Earth, were formed as the interior cooled and shrunk. He published his findings and pictures in “The Moon considered as a World and a Satellite” with James Carpenter of Greenwich in 1874. It ran to many editions. James’ models and drawings also appeared at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Many are preserved in the Science Museum in London, along with the big telescope, but they are not on public display now.

James planned a much bigger, 5-foot diameter telescope but it was never built – it would have been a huge engineering undertaking and impossible to operate by one person. However, some of the world’s biggest modern telescopes have a Nasmyth Focus, which sends the light into a laboratory or a large piece of immovable apparatus.

James Nasmyth seems to have had a happy family life but his Autobiography edited by Samuel Smiles mentions only what Nasmyth wanted to reveal to the public. He mentions his brother George only once (they probably didn’t get on) and could be a ruthless taskmaster, firing workmen who did not come up to his exacting standards. He also had a mistress and an illegitimate daughter. He died in 1890 and his ashes are buried under a huge Celtic cross in the Dean Cemetery.

David Gavine

The society would once again like to extend their thanks for yet another fascinating and enjoyable presentation, delivered as always in Dr Gavine’s relaxed and entertaining style. I would also personally like to thank Dr Gavine for the notes above, which have made my task of chronicling the meeting just that little bit easier this month!

Antony McEwan.

Eyes on the Skies.

September brings darker skies, cooler temperatures and longer hours of darkness. In short, it is the beginning of the astronomical observing season. The Summer Triangle and its constellations of Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila are higher overhead now, and this can be a great time to search for the fainter or more elusive objects contained within their environs. Yes, I’m talking about the Veil Nebula.

The Veil is a supernova remnant, consisting of the diaphanous shell material cast off by the death throes of a massive star. It is actually quite a large deep sky object, and covers an area of sky of about 3 degrees. Within that area, it consists of four main parts, each with a separate NGC number: 6960, 6979, 6992 and 6995. The strands and swirls of material are spread out and so have a very low surface brightness. They can be hard to detect unless you have access to a dark sky away from artificial lights and have good seeing conditions.
Try for it with a wide field or low power eyepiece, and make sure your eyes are dark-adapted first so that you can catch as many photons on your eye’s sensitive receptors as possible. An OIII or Ultra High Contrast filter can help, as was demonstrated at one of the Society’s viewing sessions last year, when the Veil was viewed through the 10” reflector using a low power eyepiece and OIII filter. You can even try for it with binoculars, though larger aperture ones will have a better chance.

From faint objects to the brightest in the night sky- the Moon plays a special role this month, especially if you happen to be near Callanish on the 29th. At that time, the Moon will be at its maximum negative Declination (-29.6415 degrees) and will appear very close to the horizon for northern latitude observers. It will rise, and then stay so low as to appear to skim the horizon, before setting at 6.40pm BST. At Callanish the standing stones will add to the atmospheric magic of the occasion, as the light from the moon interacts with the stones. At least, that is the usual way of things, but this time round the moon will only be 43% illuminated on the 29th, so will not be casting as much light around as if it were full, which would be a much more impressive spectacle. It will also be setting during daylight, so it is possible that some people will not notice the event at all! Poor unfortunates.

Take note of the observing events and open days listed in the notices, and be sure to have your eyepieces, binoculars and telescopes all cleaned and ready for the new season. Pick your targets (old favourites and new challenges) and be ready to brave the cooler nights in search of our celestial quarry. I feel the 2006/2007 season will be a promising one…

Next Time.

3rd October sees the magical reappearance of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Prof. John Brown, and his delivery of another wondrous talk to the Highlands Astronomical Society. This will take place at the Green House at 7.30pm as usual. The subject is 'Update on RHESSI, with magic'.

The Breakout groups will also take place, along with the ever-popular door entry prize raffle, which is really helping to bring in some extra (much-needed) funds. Until then, enjoy the darkening skies, and I hope to see you at the open events or observing sessions at Culloden. Remember to pop in to the Spacegazer message board or events page from time to time for the latest information too!

Dark Skies!

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