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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie September 2007

Many of the seats in the Green House were filled for September's meeting of the Highlands Astronomical Society, and rightly so, as the evening delivered a great talk, a novel new addition, and the latest news and updates on the Society's progress. To start the evening off, Chairman John Gilmour skimmed through the notices, picking out some of the highlights. The full list is presented below:

  • Booked! The publishers of Iain Nicolson's new book, 'The Dark Side Of The Universe', have offered it to Society members for a special discounted price of only £16. The normal price is £19.95, so if you are interested in obtaining a copy, please contact Pauline
  • Musical Car Parks. Regrettably, due to lack of Janitorial cover at Inverness Royal Academy Secondary School, the original car boot sale planned for last month had to be cancelled. However, it has been rescheduled to take place at Inverness Caledonian Thistle football stadium on Saturday 15th September from 11am to 2.30pm with a set up time of 10.30am. So come and support your local astronomy team!
  • Be A Womble. We have joined a scheme whereby old printer cartridges and mobile phones can be recycled and the Society will receive a payment for each item offered. So, if you are thinking of throwing away your old mobile or printer cartridges, please let us know first – we may be able to get a funding contribution out of it! Attached to this newsletter is a document that lists all the models of phone and printer cartridge. Have a look and see if yours are on it!
  • Astronauts pt1. Buzz Aldrin, Edgar Mitchell, Gene Cernan and Alan Bean will all be attending an event which is being held at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel at Heathrow, London on the 13th and 14th of October 2007. Advance prices are £15 per day, £35 per gold pass, Saturday evening dinner £69. To book tickets telephone 01959 573792 or go to
  • Astronauts pt2. There are also Astronauts coming to Edinburgh. However, the only access we have to them is a talk which will take place on Wednesday 19th September at 6.30pm, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, 1 festival Square, Edinburgh. The talk will outline the effects that natural and human impacts have had on climate change. It will examine how the earth has changed, based on how the earth looked 50 years ago and how it looks now, and it will consider the vital role that space research has and is playing in addressing these issues. To book tickets telephone 0131 529 3180 or go to the Royal Society website
  • Astronauts pt3. The University of Strathclyde is hosting the following Congress sessions on Tuesday 18th September: 'A Review of International Space Programmes' - an ASE led technical session covering the activities and plans of NASA, and the European, Russian and Japanese Space Agencies. The session will run from 1.45pm - 4.45pm and the two keynote speakers will be astronauts Chiaki Mukai (Japan) and Reinhold Ewald (Germany). 'A Question of Space' - a joint ASE/Strathclyde session with a panel of experts from both organisations answering questions on a wide range of topics including Thinking Robots, Advanced Propulsion, Life on Mars, Disease and Infection Control, and Future Electrical Energy Systems. This session will run from 5pm -6.30pm. For tickets please Telephone: 0141 548 2193.
  • Visitor Centre Tours. Want to see what the new Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre will look like? Tours lasting about 45 minutes will take place on Tuesday 18th September and Wednesday 10th October both at 5pm. Contact 0844 4932159 to book and provide your shoe size for protective footwear. The tour is free but donations would be welcome. (Update 15/09/07 - these tours are now fully booked!)
  • Eric Walks Into Vacancy. Due to family commitments, Pat Williams has had to step down from the position of Secretary. After a brief (one month) stint as temporary stand-in, upstart Pauline has been sacked (only joking!) and Eric has now kindly volunteered to take on the Secretarial duties until the next AGM. We take this opportunity to thank Pat for all of her hard work to date in the role of Secretary and wish her well for the future, and we wish Eric well in his role as temporary secretary.
  • Stargazing Events. Alan Mumford will host a session on Friday 14th Sept, and all other sessions will take place on an ad-hoc basis, using the telephone contact list and message board to inform the membership.
  • Calendar 2008. The 2008 HAS Astrophotographic calendar is now available to order. There was a sample to look at and an order form to let Eric know how many calendars to make. Calendars will be delivered and monies collected at each meeting until the end of the year in return for a charitable donation of £2.50 per calendar. To add your name to the list, please contact Eric by email or phone.
  • Seeing Stars. The latest Seeing Stars article was in Friday 7th's edition of the Inverness Courier, and this month is about several of the features that can be seen on the lunar surface. Itis also now on our website, here.

Observatory Update

After the Notices, John went on to explain what had been happening with regard to the New Observatory project. He had prepared the following statement, which was distributed to all attending members, and is now reprinted here for you:

The Highlands Astronomical Society belongs to you, the members, and would not exist without you. I am pleased to say that we are now almost in the position where we want to involve every single one of you in the decision making process with regard to the building of our exciting new state-of-the-art observatory at Culloden Moor.

We have almost completed the fund-raising, apart from the on-going raffle and the forthcoming car boot sale. We will know the outcome of our final grant application within the next 2 weeks and we will have the final binding quotation from Fraser and Grant, the construction company within the same time-scale.

We are already in possession of the lease from the National Trust for Scotland although there are some details still to be ironed out before we commence building.

The committee have been working on this major project for the last 3 or 4 years and we are now coming to the stage where the years of hard work are about to come to fruition. We, the committee, are fully committed to this project, but before we do begin building the new observatory we intend to hold a ballot of all of the members. When we are in possession of the final financial figures which will be sometime between the dates of September 7th and September 15th I will write to each of you with this information and with a statement from and recommendation by the committee. There will be a ballot paper for you to confirm that you are happy for us to go ahead with this major project. There will be a deadline for the completed ballot papers to be returned to me at the Greenhouse and all members paid up in the current year will be eligible to vote.

If any of you have any questions that you would like to ask about this then I or one of the other committee members will try our best to answer you.

First of all I would like to just update you on progress this month:

  • We have been successful in obtaining £5,000 from the Robertson Trust towards the costs of the observatory.
  • We have also been successful with our last funding application and have been awarded £4,850 by the Co-operative Dividend Fund (we were notified of this on 5th September).
  • We have been unsuccessful in gaining any further funding from the Highland Council.
  • We have been successful in obtaining the building warrant (verbally at the moment but expected in writing any day) to allow us to start building.
  • Building is a little behind schedule and we will miss our target opening date of 3rd November. I hope to have a new opening date soon and expect it to be December or January.

We have obtained the lease from the NTS and the key points here are:
The lease is for 25 years; at the end of the lease the NTS would have the right if they wanted to ask us to remove the observatory or to take possession of it. However they would only exercise this right if we breached the lease agreement. Thus we will not own the building. However, we are not supplying the funds for the building out of our own pockets anyway so we can’t really complain. We will however own the telescope, dome and moveable items. It should be emphasised that the NTS are very keen for us to build our observatory on their land and they are doing their utmost to be helpful rather than the opposite. My opinion is that we have nothing to be worried about here.
The cost of the lease is £100 plus VAT per annum, and we will also have to bear on-going costs of £380 per annum for insurance and up to around £100 per annum for electricity, water and communications. We fully expect to be able to meet these on-going future costs through our own fund-raising efforts.

John Gilmour, Chairman Highlands Astronomical Society.

The Main Event
'The Total Eclipse Of 1919 And The Creation Of Einstein, The Celebrity' by Bill Leslie

Bill Leslie is a relatively new member of our Society, but has been a member of SIGMA, Moray's Astronomy Club, since soon after it was formed in 2000. He has worked in the aircraft industry and as Principal Teacher of Physics at Elgin High School before taking early retirement. Since retiring, Bill has spent many hours observing and imaging the Sun through his hydrogen alpha telescope, and hoping for more time to hunt down deep sky objects with his 8” Dobsonian. (Every home should have one)

The subject of his talk was how Albert Einstein came to be the most famous Physicist in the world, alive or dead, and how the use of the solar eclipse of 1919 to test one of his most advanced theories helped to bring it about. Instrumental in this process was another man: Arthur Eddington, a Quaker astrophysicist who lived in England at the time that Einstein was working in Germany.

Einstein was born in 1879, and went to Zurich University in 1900. His first scientific papers were produced while working in the Patents Office in Bern, and were concerned with such subjects as the particulate nature of light, Brownian Motion, and the equivalence of matter and energy – which resulted in his famous formula linking energy and mass: E=mc2.

In the following years, Einstein continued a career in academia, continuing to publish papers on Physics, and returning again and again to his work on 'relativity'. The First World War found Einstein working as a professor at the University of Berlin. The war had a huge effect on science in Europe and throughout the world, as although many scientists were desperate to continue their important work and saw it as a purpose higher than the politics of war, others used the conflict to prevent cooperation between scientists of different countries.

In 1911, Einstein had issued a challenge to astronomers, asking them to find a way of detecting the deflection of light during a solar eclipse, that he theorised would be present due to the effect of gravity on light. It was not until 1919 that an opportunity for this to happen presented itself, as there was to be a total solar eclipse on May 29th. The most suitable locations for observing the event were Sobral, in northern Brazil, and Principle, an island off the west coast of Africa.

This is where Arthur Eddington joins the story, as he was one of the scientists selected to travel to the observation sites and make accurate observations to try and detect evidence of the effect of gravity on light. The theory was that as the Sun's disc was obscured by the Moon, stars would become visible close to the limb of the Sun. By photographing them and then comparing their positions against photographs taken when the Sun was not near the star's light-path, it might show that the predicted position of the star differed from the actual position shown by the photographs taken while the Sun was eclipsed, and in the 'path' of the light from the stars behind it. It all depended on getting good accurate photographs, and of course on good weather conditions at the observing sites!

The actual results of the observations were mixed, due to differing conditions at the sites, but generally showed that the theory stood up: and so Einstein's work was vindicated. It was published by Eddington in 1920 with the title, “A Determination of the Deflection of Light by the Sun's Gravitational Field, from Observations Made at the Total Eclipse of May 29, 1919”, and was heralded by headlines around the world, including the likes of “Revolution in Science – New Theory of the Universe – Newtonian Ideas Overthrown”! It was the fact that Eddington's evidence was well-documented and presented accurately and fairly to the scientific bodies that really helped Einstein's theories be accepted on the world stage. In this way, Einstein's greatest work was proven to be accurate, and is now almost universally accepted amongst the world's scientists.

The celebrity status of Einstein came from not only the genius of his theories, but also from the hard work put into testing (and ultimately proving) his theories by people such as Eddington and his assistants in 1919.

Bill's presentation included many pictures of Eddington and Einstein, but only one of the two men together, seated and apparently enjoying a conversation. Amazingly though, they only met once – later in life – and were unable to converse properly because Eddington had no German, and Einstein no English! This, and other insights into the personalities behind the two main characters in Bill's story, made the tale very enjoyable as well as remarkably informative.

We would like to thank Bill for guiding us through Einstein's rise to celebrity. We can only wonder, in today's world of artificially created 'celebs' who seem to exist only for the purpose of 'being celebs', what would Einstein have said if he was invited, for example, to appear on Celebrity Big Brother? Perhaps one of his quotations on another subject would be apt: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former...”

Highland Skies – August 2007

The observing season is now fully upon us, as we have several hours of true astronomical darkness every night now, allowing us to hunt down many different types of celestial objects (cloud permitting). To gently ease our way back into observing, I’ve prepared a selection of easy examples of different types of object; a taster for the coming season.

Starting in the north (as north as you can get) have a look at Polaris, the pole star. Polaris is a triple star system and the furthest out of its two companions, Polaris B, can be easily seen in a small telescope. The main star shines at about magnitude 2, and its companion at about 8.4.

Moving eastwards slightly, you come to the familiar W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia. Below that is Perseus, and midway between the two, you may be able to detect a hazy patch against the background sky. Turning a telescope or binoculars onto the area shows two magnificent open clusters side by side – the famous ‘Double Cluster’ which consists of NGC 869 and NGC 664. Both are relatively young clusters, aged between 3 and 6 million years and are about 7000 light years away from us!

Now let’s swing overhead, almost right up to the zenith. In the heart of the constellation Cygnus is a fantastic supernova remnant, known as the Veil Nebula. It is the remains of a huge supernova that occurred thousands of years ago. The material that we now see as the nebula was blasted out from the explosion that destroyed the progenitor star. It has expanded so that it now covers about three degrees of sky, and is split into three distinct portions: NGC 6992 is the eastern arc, NGC 6960 is the western arc, and NGC 6979 is the central patch of nebulous material. Best observed from a very dark site with a low power eyepiece. An Ultra High Contrast or OIII filter can help reveal detail.

Just a few degrees south from the Veil is M27, the planetary nebula known as ‘The Dumbbell’. M27 was the first planetary nebula discovered, by Charles Messier in 1764. The star that cast off this magnificent shell of material still shines at a dim magnitude 13.5 in the middle of the magnitude 7.4 nebula, and is discernable through telescopes with 12” aperture or more.

Coming a few degrees southeast from the M27, towards the star, Enif, in Pegasus, you should arrive at M15, one of the best globular clusters in the sky! Shining at an apparent magnitude of 6.4, M15 appears as a fuzzy blob in binoculars, but yields more and more resolution and detail as larger aperture is used to observe it. Through a 4” scope it is pleasing, through an 8” impressive, and a 12” makes it outstanding! We look forward to seeing it through a 14”, coming soon to an observatory near you!

We can head back north for our final target – M51, a classic spiral galaxy with an added ‘twist’! M51 is a relatively bright galaxy at magnitude 8.4, but does require a dark sky to be seen easily. M51 has a companion galaxy, NGC 5195, from which it is drawing material. This is resulting in compression of interstellar gas, and is thought to be producing areas of star-birth. Young stars are being born as a result of the cataclysmic interaction between these two galaxies.

September is a great month for observing. There are hundreds of deep sky objects to hunt down and explore, from easy clusters and asterisms to faint galaxies and nebulae. We hope that on the night of 8th September some of those targets reveal themselves to us at the Culloden car park, where we’ll be holding a public observing session as part of our annual Open Day event. Hope to see you there under a clear September sky.

'Stellarium' Software Demonstration' by Eric Walker

Following the tea break this month was a new feature. Eric Walker brought along his laptop computer, on which was installed the latest version of 'Stellarium', a free piece of open-source astronomical software that allows you to see what objects are observable in the sky at any time. It also boasts a lot of other features, many of which Eric was able to demonstrate.

For this 'demonstration' run, Eric worked his way through the objects listed on the Highlands Skies handout, and popped in a few of his own favourites along the way. The software is completely free to download, and is a reasonably-sized file at only 35mb. It is available from the Stellarium Website. The original download contains 'only' 600,000 stars or so, but it is possible to download further catalogues of stars, going down to lower magnitudes, by following the instructions on this page. These additional star catalogues are bigger downloads, and if you really want or need to go down to magnitude 16 stars, then expect to spend a long time downloading! Eric and I have limited our catalogues to magnitude 13.5, which is about the limit of most amateur sized telescopes anyway, and is still a manageable download.

Eric showed that you can set your observing location when setting up the software, then you can select the exact time and date that you want the night sky to be displayed for. Constellations can be marked out in simple line diagrams, or you can add full artistic imagery over the stars to help you 'see' the constellation shapes dreamed up by the ancient (and probably crazed) observers that created them!

As with any planetarium software, you can 'search' for objects using the user interface, and can then zoom in to see them magnified. You can even deselect the normal graphical renditions and instead see actual images of the objects that are stored in the software's database! Further (better) images can be imported and installed into the software by the user, but I gather it can be a bit of tricky to align the images correctly.

Planetary positions and the main asteroids are all plotted, and the software is regularly updated with the positions of new bright objects. It is not as complicated a program as the likes of Cartes du Ciel or Starry Nights, but it is not designed to be. It is principally 'planetarium software' that was developed as a useful and affordable (free) utility for clubs, schools etc, to show the delights of the night sky in an impressive visual way.

Overall the demonstration went very well, and most members who saw it were impressed. It is hoped that this will become a regular feature, but whether it will be in the form of a breakout group, or will be presented for everyone in the main auditorium, is still open to debate. The general consensus on the evening seemed to be that it should be for everyone, but we are still hoping to receive as much feedback before deciding. If you have any thoughts on this, please contact Eric or myself by email or phone, or post a message on the Spacegazer message board.

Next Time.

Next meeting will take place on Tuesday 2nd October, and will feature Rhona Fraser's 'Travelog – A Southern Sky'. The start time is 7.30pm and the meeting will include the usual tea break, Breakout groups, news and updates.

Between now and then, try to enjoy the September sky as much as possible, and feel free to post a message on the message board if you have anything to report or ask.

Until October 2nd, Clear Skies!


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