Reports of Events & Activities
European Astrofest, Kensington Conference and Events Centre,
10-11 February 2017
Time to head off again to London to attend Astrofest! This is the 25th year of the event and my seventh visit. On this occasion, I decided to attend the afternoon session on the Friday and both morning and afternoon sessions on the Saturday.
Highlights included OASI Honorary President, Dr Allan Chapman, talking about Charles Messier. Allan has been the only speaker to give a talk at all 25 Astrofests. A magnificent achievement! Garry Hunt gave a fascinating talk on the Voyager Legacy. Impressionist and keen amateur astronomer, Jon Culshaw, brought Saturday to a close with a hilarious, multi-voiced, description of exoplanets. Among his impressions were Carl Sagan, Patrick Moore and Donald Trump!
The exhibition area was, as ever, busy. There were several interesting new products for sale, but my credit card stayed firmly in my pocket this time! I noticed a rise in the prices of astronomy gear, due to the weak pound and (allegedly) Brexit. Most traders were still offering special Astrofest deals.
I attended the following lectures:
- Space Rocks on Ice, Katherine Joy, University of Manchester.
- Listening to Einstein’s Universe, Martin Hendry, University of Glasgow.
- Pluto and the Kuiper Belt Objects Beyond Neptune, Scott Sheppard, Carnegie Institution for Science.
- Of Comets, Ferrets and Nebulae. Charles Messier, his Discoveries and his World, Allan Chapman, Oxford University.
- The Dynamic Cosmos, Will Gater, author and astrophotographer.
- Proxima b: The World Next Door, Guillem Anglanda-Escude, Queen Mary University of London.
- Alien Hunters, Louisa Preston, Birkbeck University of London.
- The Voyager Legacy, Garry Hunt, Voyager imaging team (1972-90).
- ExoMars and the Search for Life, Peter Grindod, Birkbeck University of London.
- Beyond Pluto, the Hunt for a Massive Planet X, Scott Shephard, Carnegie Institution for Science.
- Landing on Comet 67P, Andrea Accomazzo, European Space Agency.
- The Exoplanet Super-League, John Culshaw, impressionist and exoplanet aficionado.
Images from my visit are below.
Garry Hunt's title slide.
Skywatcher EQ6-R pro mount at the Widescreen Centre stand.
Nexus Digital Setting Circles (DSC) at the Astro Systems stand.
Breckland Astronomical Society Star Party, Haw Wood,
28-31 October 2016
The Breckland Astronomical Society autumn 2016 star party was held on the weekend of Friday 28 - Monday 31 October at Haw Wood Farm campsite, just 25 miles from Orwell Park up the A12 at Darsham. David Murton, Mike Norris, Mike O'Mahony and Mike Whybray attended from OASI, bringing with them the OASI Millennium Telescope.
European Astrofest, Kensington Conference and Events Centre,
05-06 February 2016
Astrofest time again! On this occasion I decided to attended the afternoon session on Friday 05 February and both morning and afternoon sessions the following day.
The number of traders at the exhibition was down on previous years. This may have been due to the rather cramped conditions and the International Astronomy Show, held in the autumn, becoming more established. However, there was still plenty of kit to tempt visitors (but my credit card remained in my pocket on this occasion!)
On Friday, I attended four lectures and on Saturday, eight, covering many diverse and interesting subjects. The lectures which I attended were:
- Tom Whyntie: Higgs in Space? Particle Physics Amongst the Stars.
- Pete Lawrence: Observing Highlights For 2016.
- John Spencer: New Horizons: The Long Road to Pluto.
- Brian May: A History of Astro-Stereo-Photography. Illustrated with full screen 3-D projection.
- Mark McCaughrean: ESA Science Missions in 2016.
- Debbie Lewis: Taking the Hit - Asteroid Impact Scenarios.
- Michelle Heurs: The Gravitational Universe.
- Allan Chapman: Light Waves, Lunar Geology and Chemical Comets-Robert Hooke.
- Andrew Pontzon: Does Dark Matter Exist?
- Hugh Hudson: The Making of a Solar Eclipse Mega-Movie. For anybody attending the 2017 US Solar Eclipse, there is an interesting project called "The Eclipse Mega-Movie". Observers are invited to submit eclipse images and videos for research into coronal dynamics. The link is: http://eclipsemegamovie.org
- Lewis Dartnell: What Makes a Habitable Planet?
- John Spencer: New Horizons: Pluto Revisited.
Particularly inspirational were the talks by OASI Honorary President, Dr Allan Chapman and Dr John Spencer. However, the undoubted highlight was the presentation by Dr Brian May covering the history of 3-D astronomical imaging since the 1850’s. His presentation included recent images from NASA and ESA missions, stunning results from the Rosetta and New Horizons missions among them. Brian used a new 3-D projection system and issued the audience with high quality 3-D glasses. If you have a 3-D TV or have seen a 3-D movie at the cinema, you may have thought that the 3-D effect was good. But, believe me, the system at Astrofest is ten times better.
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Astrofest so, I am sure, something big will be planned! It will be held 10-11 February 2017.
Images from my visit to Astrofest are below.
While I was in London for Astrofest, I took the opportunity to visit the nearby Science Museum to see the Cosmonauts Exhibition. On display were many items never seen before outside Russia. These included space-flown Vostok and Soyuz capsules, a prototype manned lunar lander, space suits and other equipment. The spacecraft were very primitive and cramped, and it must have taken great courage to fly them!
Images from my visit to Cosmonauts are below.
Bury St Edmunds Athenaeum Observatory,
17 October 2015
On 17 October 2015, eleven members of OASI visited Bury St Edmunds Athenaeum Observatory.
The Athenaeum is located on Angel Hill and its frontage presents a majestic appearance from Market Square. It is a Grade 1 listed building with a lengthy history. An original mediaeval building on the site still leaves its traces in some timbers recently uncovered during alterations and restoration. From around 1674, there is a reasonably good record of all that has taken place with regards to the building and its uses.
The building in its present form was built by the architect Frederick Sands, who also worked on Ickworth House. Originally a private dwelling it was, in the time of Daniel Defoe’s visit to Bury St Edmunds in the 1720s, a public hall used for "Assemblies". It was used to host balls; during the annual fair at the end of September as many as 400 people would attend, including such as Lady Bristol.
When such use became less popular, by 1807, James Oakes, a local banker, together with 12 other local men, purchased the building paying £500 each to enable building work to take place. At this time, the building was given the name "The New Subscription Rooms", which can still be seen today, above the portico.
With changing times, Lord Arthur Harvey encouraged the Mechanics’ Institute, the Young Men’s Institute, the Archaeological Society and the Museum Service to get together to form the Bury St Edmunds Institute or Athenaeum. The Athenaeum eventually opened in Guildhall Street but the Institute then purchased The New Subscription Rooms for £2,500 and renamed the building "The Athenaeum".
In October 1858 Donati’s Comet streaked across the night sky – an amazing phenomena and of unknown origin at the time – and the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddell Airy (a man with strong Suffolk connections) came to give a lecture at the Athenaeum. Airy's lecture inspired Lord Harvey and the committee that it would be a good idea to obtain a telescope built into an astronomical dome for the use of the Institute. The dome can be seen at the top of the building, above the portico. The telescope, in its day a reasonable instrument, is still in place but has suffered badly from neglect for many years (it appears to have been last used a decade ago) and is in need of serious renovation and cleaning. (Note the deceased spider and bent cross-hairs in the finder scope, visible in the image below!)
It is the aim of the Athenaeum Committee to identify ways and means of bringing the observatory back into the public domain and back into use once again and, with the aid of modern technology, to provide an astronomical resource for the people of Bury St Edmunds and beyond. The Committee is considering a proposal to renovate the observatory and telescope and provide modern imaging equipment enabling the view of the heavens offered by the instrument to be shown in one of the public rooms downstairs, solving the problem of limited space around the telescope itself. However, the proposal is contingent on a suitable society taking responsibility to run the facility. At the time of writing (November 2015) discussions are in hand about this with the Stour Astronomical Society and there is also discussion about the possibility of forming an astronomical society in Bury St Edmunds.
Our visit began at 10.00 when we gathered in one of the first floor rooms for a coffee and welcome talk by our hosts, Pat and Richard. After a brief overview of the history of the facility, our visit to the observatory proper began. The observatory is small, and can accommodate only a handful of people at a time, so for this we split into three groups. Access is via two flights of stairs from the first floor; the stairs are steep, narrow and cramped, and pass through older parts of the roof space of the building.
The dome is not a true hemisphere, but rather constructed as 12 flat sectors, one of which can be opened to enable the telescope to view the night sky. The telescope, constructed by Troughton & Sims, is 100 mm in diameter. It is mounted on a vertical iron pillar which, although mounted on the framework of the building under the wooden floor of the observatory, is clearly not fully isolated from the floor, as movement of people in the room could perceptibly alter the alignment of the instrument. The instrument is equatorially mounted, with a weight-powered RA drive. There is a small finder-scope and even a small eyepiece slider bar for a solar filter – something frowned upon and avoided nowadays but indicating that solar observing was within the design remit.
Members of OASI visiting the Athenaeum were (alphabetically): Roy and Merlyn Adams, James Appleton, Bill Barton, FRAS, Roy Gooding, Neil Morley, Pete and Nikki Richards, Martin Richmond-Hardy, Paul Whiting, FRAS, Mike Whybray. Thanks are due to Pete Richards for organising the visit.
Photos below are by James Appleton and Martin Richmond-Hardy.
Frontage of the Athenaeum.
A welcome coffee while waiting for everyone to arrive.
First flight of stairs to the observatory.
Second flight of stairs to the observatory.
View from the observatory over market square.
Objective glass - in need of cleaning!
View through the finder-scope. Note the deceased arachnid and bent guide wires!
Roy Adams, Martin Richmond-Hardy & James Appleton
Breckland Astronomical Society Star Party, Haw Wood,
09-12 October 2015
View of the Milky Way on Friday evening.
The Breckland Astronomical Society autumn 2015 star party was held on the weekend of Friday 09 - Monday 12 October at Haw Wood Farm campsite, just 25 miles from Orwell Park up the A12 at Darsham. Attendance in 2015 was swelled by a group of 20 members of the Castle Point Astronomy Club from Rayleigh, Essex on their annual weekend away, who arrived with a variety of telescopes. A big increase in the number of people doing
astrophotography was evident in 2015 with people taking advantage of the really dark conditions at this location where the zodiacal light has been seen and the Milky Way really stands out.
I arrived on the Friday afternoon. People who had arrived earlier confirmed that Thursday night had
been clear and, with a good forecast for Friday night, things were looking good. Having set up my tent and scopes, I had a look at some of the other instruments on display. There were several huge Dobsonians, with the largest being Andrew Robinson’s 60 cm go-to motorised model which requires a step ladder to reach the eyepiece when it pointing near the zenith! Andrew is ahunter of deep sky objects and gave a guided tour of the sky on Saturday evening for the public on site.
Friday evening started promisingly but heavy dew and some light, high-level cloud, while not too much of a problem for visual observing, hindered attempts at photography. However, the Milky Way was glorious (see image to the right) and the early hours saw the Pleiades and the Orion Nebula appearing very prominent.
I spent Saturday talking astronomy and drooling over huge telescopes and complicated CCD imaging rigs. The forecast for Saturday evening wasn’t good and, sure enough, as Andrew gave his talk, the sky suffered from much high-level cloud with stars showing through occasional gaps. Suddenly a bright fireball streaked across the sky leaving a huge trail behind it, stimulating gasps from those present. This prompted Andrew to claim that he had arranged the event beforehand - nice try! After the get-together and Andrew's sky tour, it was time to get back to the scopes and do what we could. The high-level cloud again prevented meaningful photography and most of the big Dobsonians were unused as faint galaxies were hard to make out with the cloud and reflected light.
All in all it was an excellent weekend. The organisers of the camp site went to great lengths to make everyone welcome and to provide a good environment for astronomy, including putting black-outs on the windows of the excellent shower/toilet blocks, turning off site lighting and laying on a get-together and sky tour including hot soup. The skies may not have been the best but it didn’t rain and who can complain about a weekend talking and doing astronomy with like minded people?
International Astronomy Show, Stoneleigh Park, 02-03 October 2015
The third International Astronomy Show was held on 02-03 October 2015 at the National Agricultural Exhibition Centre at Stoneleigh, near Coventry. (The venue was changed from the previous year's event.) The new venue was marvellous with ample indoor parking, plenty of space and easy access to major roads.
John Wainwright, Mike O’Mahony and I drove to the show on Friday 02 October, knowing that the first day is generally the quieter of the two, in search of bargains! We found lots of exhibitors covering all aspects of
astronomy, none of the crush associated with some other shows, and very reasonable catering with hot food available.
Despite an excellent lecture programme, we decided against attending any of the lectures as we aimed to be back in Ipswich for an OASI lecture in the evening. There was so much to see and talk about that it would have been difficult in any case to attend any lectures. As far as the bargains are concerned, see the photo of the goodies in the boot of my car!
The show is excellent and I would recommend it to everyone just to drool over some of the gear on display!
Bayerische Volkssternwarte München, 03 August 2015
The family 2015 summer holiday toook me to Munich, where the astronomical highlight of the trip was a visit to the Bayerische Volkssternwarte München (Bavarian Community Observatory, Munich). The Volkssternwarte is located in the south-east of the city, housed on the top floors of a building that began life as a WWII air raid shelter. On the fourth floor of the building is the entrance lobby, an exhibition hall, meeting room, lecture room and planetarium. The telescopes are mounted on the roof of the building (the antecedents of which mean that the mount provided is very stable), accessed via an internal, wide, spiral staircase. The main telescopes (complementing several smaller instruments) are as follows:
- an 80 cm Cassegrain reflector (eyepiece at the Nasmyth focus),
- a 25 cm folded refractor (focal length 4 m, physical length approximately half that figure),
- a 40 cm Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector,
- an 18 cm refractor.
The Volkssternwarte is run by a group of approximately 500 amateur astronomers of whom, discussion with one of the members revealed, approximately 10% are active. (A similar proportion to OASI!) The group runs the facility primarily for public education in astronomy and, for this purpose, opens it to the public five days a week during school term time and six days a week
during school holidays (clearly, a very significant commitment of time and effort). In addition to general visits, the group hosts school visits and also makes the facility available for private functions – apparently children’s birthday parties are popular. The group is funded by entrance fees (€5 adults, €3 concessions) and an annual grant from the city of Munich in recognition of services to education in astronomy.
My visit to the Volkssternwarte began at opening time, 9.00pm on a Monday evening (on Mondays, proceedings are conducted in English). Approximately 60 visitors arrived, most Germans, a few French and Italian, and the British contingent of three, comprising me and mine. The arrival of approximately 60 visitors is, apparently, not atypical of an evening and the organisers split us into two groups of approximately 30 people each, touring the facility in different orders. The group of which I was a member first visited the telescopes on the roof, then the exhibition space, and finally the planetarium. There was an opportunity for a second visit to the telescopes later in the evening (around midnight) but, as I had an early start the following morning, I had to forego the opportunity.
Waiting for the facility to open, the lobby provided a welcoming entrance, with astronomical display materials to keep visitors amused. Following the inevitable cash desk and a selection of astronomically-themed items for sale, I was assigned to my group for the evening, and then ushered upstairs to see the telescopes.
All the main telescopes benefit from computer control providing accurate celestial tracking. Several objects were under observation during the evening and I was able to compare views of Saturn in the 80 cm, 40 cm and 26 cm telescopes and also observed M13 with the 40 cm instrument. The site suffers from very bad light pollution but the light-gathering power of the 80 cm instrument was nevertheless apparent as it easily showed four of the small moons of Saturn against a bright sky. The 40 cm instrument too provided a good view of M13 despite the brightness of the background sky. The 80 cm instrument was acquired in 2005 and since that time has benefitted from much development, including improvements to the drive system, the capabilities of which were convincingly demonstrated when the instrument successfully tracked a passage of the ISS from horizon to horizon, keeping the object within the field of view at x300 magnification.
After viewing the telescopes, the group was taken to the exhibition hall. This houses a number of permanent exhibits including two chronometers, meteorites in display cases (the meteorites were removed and handled under supervision), a scale model of the solar system and various other material. After our guide had explained the scale of the solar system, we passed briefly through the lecture room, which can accommodate an audience of approximately 70 in comfort, to reach the planetarium. The planetarium is small, accommodating only 30 guests; however, in practice the small size created a refreshing intimacy and immediacy often absent from larger facilities. The planetarium projector is by Zeiss; it is a small model providing sharp images (aided no doubt by the small scale of the projection dome), benefitting from little internal reflection (false projection) of bright objects such as the Sun and Moon.
I highly recommend a visit to the Volkssternwarte; it will provide an evening that is both entertaining and informative. Further information is available from the website www.sternwarte-muenchen.de.
Waiting in the entrance lobby.
80 cm reflector.
Control room for the 80 cm reflector.
26 cm reflector.
40 cm reflector.
European Astrofest, Kensington Conference and Events Centre,
07 February 2015
I attended the European Astrofest conference and exhibition on Saturday 07 February; it was my fifth visit to the event and, as ever, it was a very enjoyable day. I travelled up to London on the day before and stayed at a hotel in Earls Court, only ten minutes walk from the venue. I attended both the morning and afternoon conference sessions which covered a varied selection of topics.
The speakers were:
- conference chairs Lucie Green and Stuart Clark,
- Chris North, Cardiff University, Herschel and the Hidden Universe,
- Professor Pedro Ferreira, University of Oxford, 100 Years of General Relativity,
- Jo Dunkley, University of Oxford, Cosmic Inflation and BICEP 2 Results,
- Nik Szymanek, Adventures in Robotic Imaging,
- Nial Tanvir, University of Leicester, SWIFT and the Biggest Bangs in the Universe,
- Stephen Lowry, University of Kent and Barbara Cozzoni, DLR, Picturing Rosetta’s Comet and Landing on a Comet,
- Megan Whewell, Mullard Space Laboratory, Supermassive Black Holes,
- Ray Villard, Space Telescope Science Institute, Hubble's 25 year Spacetime Odyssey.
It was a shame that I missed the annual lecture by OASI's Honorary President, Dr Allan Chapman, which was held on the day before.
One piece of information which was new to me concerned the SWIFT discovery of Gamma Ray Burst GRB080319B. This was the brightest GRB measured at the time, and had a peak apparent magnitude of 5.8. In the right place and at the right time it would have been just about visible to the naked eye! The explosion which caused the burst took place 7.5 billion years ago.
During the tea and lunch breaks there was plenty of time to browse the many trade stalls. There was also ample time to empty one's wallet with the tempting astro-kit on display!
I met Mike O’Mahony during the lunch break, and fellow OASI members Abi Lee and David Murton also attended on the Saturday.
I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Astrofest. Yes, the trade stalls are crammed into a small area and the food is expensive (bring your own sandwiches), but the Conference Hall is excellent.
International Astronomy Show, Stoneleigh Park, 07 June 2014
Five members of OASI made the trip to Stoneleigh Park on 07 June 2014 to the International Astronomy Show. Much equipment was purchased, including some William Optics 50 mm eyepieces for use with the Tomline Refractor.
The "other" members of OASI at the show, by David Murton.
BAA Radio Astronomy Group General Meeting, National Space Centre, 17 May 2014
I attended the BAA Radio Astronomy Group (RAG) general meeting at the National Space Centre, Leicester, on 17 May 2014. In addition to the meeting, there were a demonstration/exhibition area, trade stands and the BAA bookstall.
Synopses of the lectures, provided by the speakers, are as follows:
- Gordon Dennis, Modelling Galactic Topology: Project Update. The Hydrogen Line Observing Group is attempting to construct a three dimensional image of a part of our Milky Way galaxy by observing the "brightness/temperature" and the Doppler shift of radiation from neutral Hydrogen residing in the spiral arms. The 3.7 metre telescope at Redenham Observatory is operated on-line by a dispersed team of observers with various backgrounds and experience. All data collected will be available to all participants to use as they wish. The core team is using the data to construct the 3D map and plans to write a paper describing the project in the amateur astronomy press. The talk provides a progress report and summarises the science behind the project, the equipment and software, and the organisation required.
- Dr Klaas Wiersema, University of Leicester, Cosmic Explosions at Radio Wavelengths: the Afterglows of Gamma-Ray Bursts. New radio telescope technology now allows us to explore the "transient" radio universe. Radio transients (new sources that are detectable for a short time before fading away forever) come in a wide variety: from the mysterious milli-second duration "fast radio bursts", to the energetic afterglows of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), which are sometimes visible for years. This talk will show how we observe GRB afterglows at radio wavelengths, and how we use the observations to understand the physics of these transients. Finally, we will show how new technology, particularly the LOFAR (Low-Frequency Array) observatory and new instruments on the venerable WSRT (Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope), allow us to study afterglows and other transients in a completely new way.
- Dr Laurence Newell, Making and Analysing Observations with Starbase. The Starbase software observatory has been developed by RAG members primarily for radio astronomy applications, but has a variety of uses in data collection, analysis and display. The presentation will give a brief introduction to the facilities available in the virtual observatory, and then concentrate on how it can be used with external hardware (and other software) to make some simple (simulated) observations. Finally examples of real observations will be shown, e.g. from a VLF receiver and a magnetometer, illustrating the various ways in which the data may be exported and published. The use of Lego is optional!
- Dr David Morgan, OBE, Some Limitations of Amateur Radio Astronomy. This paper briefly covers the basic equations for antenna gain and beam width and considers some of the implications arising when using small diameter antennas with half-power beamwidth of 5° to 10° to detect radio astronomical objects. The problems in detecting supernova remnants and extra-galactic objects against a diffuse radio background with such beams are explored. Finally, consideration is given to the desirability of antennas larger than 10 m diameter and the possibility of a collaborative effort by UK amateur radio astronomers to obtain such equipment.
- Prof Paul S Cannon, OBE, FREng, University of Birmingham, Solar Super-Storms: Storm in a Teacup, or Danger for the Nation and the World? Solar super-storms generate X-rays and radio bursts, accelerate particles to relativistic velocities and cause detrimental effects to the electricity grid, satellites, avionics, air passengers, satellite navigation systems, mobile telephones and more. Since the start of the space age, there has been no true solar super-storm and consequently our understanding of them is limited. Mitigation of such storms necessitates a number of technology-specific approaches to reduce risk as much as is reasonably possible, and then adopt operational strategies to deal with the residual risk. Forecasting a solar storm is a challenge, and contemporary techniques are unlikely to deliver actionable advice. Irrespective of forecasting ability, space and terrestrial sensors of the Sun and the near space environment provide critical space situational awareness, an ability to undertake post-event analysis, and the infrastructure to improve our understanding of this environment.
- Jonathan Rawlinson, The State of Flux: an Arduino-Based Magnetometer. The Arduino is a multipurpose, open-source micro-controller platform that is used by amateurs and professionals alike in a wide range of areas. Here a combination of Arduino and Raspberry Pi is used to create a system that is capable of taking data from a wide range of sources, logging the data to a safe area and uploading it to a website. For the purposes of this presentation the system is connected to a FGM-3 flux-gate magnetometer in a setup designed to detect fluctuations in the geo-magnetic field. This will allow the user to detect and monitor solar events and other magnetic disturbances. All software and hardware for this project are easily available; the name of the software is "PyDat". The system was designed with three major criteria in mind: simple deployment, high level of reliability, and extendibility. This presentation will discuss the system in detail, how it can be used and what related developments are planned.
- Dr Dave James, The Harold Clayton Observatory: RA and Geophysics Amongst the Sheep. This paper describes the recent programme to develop a new, private RA and Geophysics observatory in the rural south-west. Different measurement types from static H-field, including proton precession and flux-gate magnetometers, through ELF, VLF, HF, VHF, UHF through L-band sensors are described. The practical issues addressed include quiet site selection, data link, solar and wind power, coping with the elements, on-site EMC, local planning approval, time stamping, interferometer design, security and RFI - and co-existence with the landlord farmer’s haylage and sheep rearing needs. Also mentioned are measures taken to allow extension to larger antennas and higher frequencies, possible collaboration with other amateurs, and local outreach.
- Jason Williams, Development of the East Anglian Amateur Radio Observatory (EAARO). The EAARO is a scientific and educational charitable company establishing a new radio observatory and ground station near Cambridge, UK, to undertake meaningful research projects, support satellite missions, and encourage young people to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and careers. Scheduled to commence initial operations in early 2014, we will report on our current progress and future plans, and discuss the results of EAARO's first major project in support of the KickSat satellite mission.
- Peter East, OBE FREng, An Ultra-Low Cost Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope Using the RTL TV Dongle. Detecting the hydrogen line in the arms of our galaxy using modern technology is now easy. With a home-made Yagi, a couple of modest amplifiers, a cheap RTL 2832U TV dongle, some free software and a little effort, for less than £200 it is possible to measure the velocity and positions of the spiral arms, some tens of thousands of light years distant. Of course a 5 m dish gives a lot more signal and resolution, but that can be another project - and you've already got the receiver! The paper describes what to buy and how to build it so that you soon collect and analyse your first hydrogen line data.
Dr Laurence Newell presenting.
Information about Starbase (re Dr Newell's talk).
Breckland Astronomical Society Star Party, Haw Wood,
25-28 April 2014
On 25 April, three intrepid OASI star-party-goers headed up to the Breckland Astronomical Society’s spring star party at Haw Wood farm near Halesworth. At least the weather was kinder than last time with sunshine and light winds making it an easy job for Mike Norris and I to erect his his huge tent. We were joined during the evening by Michael Atkins with his venerable TAL reflector but, unfortunately, the weather remained cloudy all evening, only clearing around 2.00am when we were long asleep!
Saturday morning dawned sunny but it soon clouded over and started to rain. After a great breakfast at the new co-op shop and café just up the road, we returned to a very wet site with everyone sheltering in their tents and caravans. The rain carried on until mid-afternoon when it stopped just in time for the barbeque that Breckland had organised. This gave everyone an opportunity to chat and talk astronomy for a couple of hours, during which the Sun came out and the clouds started to clear. We were able to get out the Coronado PST and gave several of those present their first views of the Sun through an Hα scope.
By the time the Sun had set, Jupiter had appeared and it was into night sky observing. Jupiter was followed by Mars and then Saturn. A covering of light, high-level cloud, largely from contrails of passing airliners, meant that light pollution was a problem with fainter objects. However, the most serious problem was dew, with most people having problems after a couple of hours. Even the mirror of my 1000 mm focal length Newtonian with long dew shield misted up. After drying it with a hairdryer belonging to the lady in the pitch next door, it remained clear for only another half hour. After it misted up again, we gave up and went off to look at the 60 cm push-to Dobsonian belonging to and built by Andrew Robertson. The mirror of this beautifully constructed instrument was ground over a three month period by the expert optician Es Reid of Cambridge (who recently reconfigured the lens of the Tomline Refractor). A stepladder is required to look through the eyepiece. Andrew specialises in looking at faint deep sky objects and gave us a tour of some of these, culminating in the "intergalactic wanderer" cluster (NGC 2419), one of the furthest objects in orbit about the Milky Way.
All in all a worthwhile weekend! The weather may not have been cooperative but the chance to meet the chairmen of several other local clubs was very productive and has led to an agreement on better communication and cooperation which will hopefully bear fruit during the coming months and years. Many thanks to Mike Norris and Michael Atkins for their company. There will be another star party at the same venue later in 2014: it’s a perfect opportunity to observe at a really dark site while meeting other astronomers and having the opportunity to see and use some terrific scopes.
Mike Norris at the OASI pitch.
North Essex Astronomical Society Starfest III, The Colchester Institute, 02 November 2013
On 02 November 2013, I attended the North Essex Astronomical Society Starfest III, at the Colchester Institute, together with fellow OASI members Bill Barton, Roy Gooding, Mike Norris, Steve Shapland and Mike Whybray.
There were commercial stands, in the car park, Andy Green of Stardome Astronomy and Astronautics ran a planetarium, and there was an interesting lecture programme as follows:
- Caroline Crawford, The Science and Beauty of Nebulae. (Caroline is outreach officer at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge.)
- Caroline Smith, Meteorites. (Caroline is curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum.)
- Pete Lawrence, Observing and Imaging the Moon. (Pete is an enthusiastic amateur astronomer and presenter of the BBC Sky at Night programme.)
- Alan Bond, A Novel Rocket Motor. (Alan is with Reaction Engines, a company developing innovative propulsion technology.)
- Stuart Clark, the author and astronomy journalist, talked about his books.
The organisers stand, with Roy Gooding looking for a bargain.
Members of OASI find something interesting in the trade hall.
All in all, it was a grand day out!
Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA) Convention, Cambridge, 12 October 2013
Seven members of OASI attended the Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA) convention at the Institute of Astronomy (IoA), Cambridge, on 12 October 2013. The event celebrated the diamond jubilee of the SPA.
The first lecture was delivered by Mark Hurn, IoA librarian, describing how the Cambridge Observatories have evolved since 1953, at which time they employed only thirteen staff, including a cleaner! Next, Nik Szymanek presented a history of astro-imaging. Given the limited equipment available in the late 19th century, some impressive results were obtained in the early days. Of course the images that Nik produces now from his back garden are jaw-dropping, due to advances in autoguiding, CCD chips
During the lunch break there was an opportunity to browse the trade stalls. I was on my best behaviour, all I bought was another SPA mug for my collection! Dr Ralph Cordey from Astrium then gave the next lecture, describing the role that the company was undertaking in construction of a Mars rover. The rover is due to be launched in 2018 on a joint ESA-NASA mission to be called ExoMars. Next, The Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, delivered The Sir Patrick Moore Lecture detailing breakthroughs in astronomy in the last 60 years. Intriguingly, he also considered whether we would see as many in the next 60?
Several of the OASI party decided to skip the next lecture, on high frequency radio astronomy, and instead join a tour of the telescopes at the IoA. We toured the Thorrowgood Telescope, a 200 mm Cooke Refractor dating from 1864; it is approximately a decade older than the Tomline Refractor and is smaller in aperture. Unfortunately, due to refurbishment, we were not able to view the Northumberland Telescope.
Following the tour, it was time for me to head home after a very enjoyable day; some other members of OASI stayed on for an after-event reception. Other OASI members who attended were: Mandy Gibbs, Roy Gooding, Pete and Nicky Richards, John Wainwright and Jenny Wood.
Autumn Equinox Sky Camp, 03-05 October 2013
The Autumn Equinox Sky Camp, held at Kelling Heath, is the largest annual star party in the UK. In 2013, OASI had an official presence there thanks to Mike Norris, David Murton, Mike Atkins and Roy Gooding. Mike Norris and David arrived on Friday 03 October and, having found the pitch, battled against a gale to erect the tent. They were successful only after a neighbour on the adjoining pitch generously flung himself into the fray and helped, eventually, to quell the beast. After a meal and a pint at the pub to settle nerves, the sky remaining completely overcast, they opted for an early night in case things were to improve later.
It must have been well after 10.00pm when the plaintive cry Miiiike? sent both scuttling from their warm sleeping bags. Fortunately, the OASI tent was pitched close to the entrance to the campsite, and the large, bright, yellow society banner was very conspicuous, enabling Mike Atkins to find the tent amongst the hundred or so others that filled Kelling despite his red torch having ceased to function. Celebratory bottles were duly opened!
On Saturday morning, Dave cooked up a sausage hash for breakfast after which the party toured the many pitches, admiring the astronomical equipment on display. There were many large Dobsonians with apertures of 50 cm or greater; in some instances, the arrangement of step ladders for reaching the eyepiece when the instrument was pointed to the zenith, seemed very precarious! Everyone was most helpful and informative. By lunch Roy arrived, completing the quartet. By early afternoon, the trade stands were in full swing. Later, the group attended lectures given by members of Loughton Astronomical Society.
The evening meal was something of a disaster as the pub was fully booked. In the end Roy was transported back to Sheringham so he could catch his train home while Mike, David and Mike settled for a long overdue pizza. Saturday night cleared with a great opportunity for some excellent observing making the whole trip thoroughly worthwhile.
On Sunday morning, Mike Atkins cooked a fantastic egg and bacon butty, after which it was packing up and heading for home.
All in all a great weekend!
The OASI pitch at Kelling Heath. (Mike Norris.)
Mike cooks breakfast. (Mike Norris.)
The sky on Saturday night. (David Murton.)
The sky above the OASI pitch. (David Murton.)
Mike Norris, Roy Gooding
Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 27 July 2013
At 7.30am on 27 July 2013, a group of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed members of OASI gathered at Ipswich railway station for a visit to Greenwich Observatory. If we were only half awake on joining the train, we were soon roused by a large group of men in the same compartment who even by 8.00am were all the worse for a drink or two. They seemed to be going to a wedding - when they departed at Stratford we all gave a silent prayer for the bride!
We arrived at the Cutty Sark and did a bit of sightseeing and then walked through Greenwich Park where we became entangled with a charity run. All Martin needed was an official number and he would have been on the podium! The weather was perfect and we stopped for coffee before entry to the observatory proper. We toured the interior rooms where past Astronomers Royal had lived and looked at an amazing collection of Harrison's clocks. We visited the planetarium and enjoyed a dramatic programme covering the possibility of life on other planets. Bill Barton was the perfect guide, his knowledge and commentary made the entire visit so instructive and worthwhile. By the afternoon the observatory had become much busier so it had been a wise decision by Bill to make an early start.
We parted with Martin and Jen Richmond-Hardy at the Cutty Sark station as they were going on to sample the night life. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable day and one that OASI should repeat. Again our thanks to Bill for making the arrangements.
Members attending were: Lucinda & Charlie Green, Mike Norris, Martin & Jen Richmond-Hardy, John Wainwright and our guide, Bill Barton.
Photographs below by John Wainwright.
Entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel.
View west along the Thames.
The Cutty Sark.
Entrance to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
Entrance to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
View over the Old Royal Naval College towards central London.
Section of William Herschel's telescope with the Onion Dome in the background.
Sign marking the prime meridian.
Moveable quadrant in the Octagon Room, Flamsteed House.
The Shepherd Gate Clock.
Bradley's mural quadrant.
Troughton's transit instrument.
Airy's transit instrument.
71 cm refractor.
North pillar of mount for the 71 cm refractor.
Kelling Heath Autumn Sky Camp, 12-15 September 2012
Anyone who read my report on the Kelling Heath Spring Sky Camp 2012 (below) will not be surprised to learn that, after much deliberation followed by the purchase of a larger tent, I did attend the autumn star party in September of the year.
On Wednesday 12 September, when I arrived, only a few pitches were taken. However, prospects initially did not appear too good as my pitch was in the blue sector, under trees blocking much of my view of the sky! As I pitched my tent, a gale was blowing up which grew ever stronger and, during the night, threatened to blow me, my tent and my belongings into the North Sea.
The following day, the wind had dropped. Pitches began to fill up. I soon made the acquaintance of Daniel, who had taken three years to build a 48 cm Dobsonian similar to OASI's Millennium Telescope and was hugely excited about the prospect of trying it out for the first time at Kelling Heath. Since he had forgotten to bring a waterproof cover for it, we spent Thursday morning in sunny Cromer searching for a tarpaulin. On Thursday night, the sky cleared and I enjoyed some great observing with my 200 mm Skywatcher Dobsonian.
By Friday morning, the site was completely full and I spent the day wandering around, admiring the many hundreds of telescopes, some exquisitely hand-made in wood or metal. I met a group of three elderly astronomers who had driven to Kelling Heath from West Yorkshire. They ran a self-funded centre for schools and similar bodies. They had brought a self-made solar telescope that appeared in an uninspiring sort of way to consist of a Coronado PST stuffed into an aluminium tube but, through it, I saw some of the best solar images ever!
Friday night was awesome. Some astronomers had been coming to Kelling Heath for years and, even so, had never seen a sky so clear. Such was the abundance of stars visible to the naked eye that it was almost impossible to discern constellations. The familiar "W" of Casseopeia, usually such a clear signpost in the sky, was completely lost amid the neighbouring stars. In fact, so magnificent were the stars that, for most of the night, I was content just to sit in my chair looking up through my binoculars.
On Saturday, the trade stands arrived. In contrast with the spring event, it was warm, the Sun shone, and the stands were packed. Wex was offering a deal on an ex-demo Meade 125PE; it caught my eye and eventually my pocket. They only had two and, on the first, they were offering six Meade 4000 series eyepieces as part of the package: it was just too good to miss!
Saturday night was also wonderfully clear. I spent it with a newly-made friend on the next pitch who was observing with a monster 300 mm Meade and a selection of very expensive 50 mm eyepieces. Together, we toured every Messier object visible. I crawled reluctantly into my sleeping bag at 3.00am.
The combination of clear skies and willing participants, eager to share their experiences, made it a great four days. The obsering was certainly worth the effort and discomfort involved. I have booked already for spring and autumn in 2013 - hope to see you there!
BAA Summer Meeting, Bexley, 07 July 2012
The 2012 BAA Summer Meeting was held on 07 July at Hurst Community Centre, Bexley, Kent. Members of OASI attending were Bill Barton, Sue Brown, Mike Harlow, Mike Norris and Paul Whiting, FRAS.
Photos below are by Mike Norris.
Kelling Heath Spring Sky Camp, 19-20 April 2012
I understand that plots for Kelling Heath star parties are as rare as hens' teeth, so I jumped at the opportunity offered by Ben Jarvis to take up a plot. I managed to scrounge a "crawl in and hope" tent, together with a junior-sized sleeping bag, from my grandson. (The equipment had had its last outing on an abortive camping holiday to Wales ten years previously.) After a week of very wet weather, I decided to delay my journey to Kelling Heath by a day, finally arriving on Friday 20 April, in weak sunshine. I had some trouble pitching my tent. Fortunately Gordon, a member of Breckland AS who I had met at the Breckland star party in March 2012, came over to help rescue my tent after it was caught by the wind and threatened to disappear into the trees.
I walked around the site. There were many empty pitches, possibly due to the weather, but there were still over a hundred pitches occupied, with scopes under cover, some of them monster Dobsonians. By lunchtime, it had started raining. The rain continued into the evening, so I abandoned plans to cook outside and retreated to the pub. It rained most of the night, hammering on the tent, but fortunately it remained dry inside.
Saturday morning was cloudy; the trade stands arrived at 10.00am and so did the rain. It was hard work for those manning the trade stands, covering and uncovering their wares. On the way back from inspecting the trade stands, I met a fellow astronomer, water dripping from his nose. "I will never understand how astronomy took off over here," he said, "what with the cold, the rain and the worst light pollution in Europe. Then you come here and buy things that you will never use. I was in South America, with inky black skies that no-one ever looks at..." I left him, dreaming of inky black skies.
The rain continued into the evening. Again, I retreated to the pub, where I met with David from Grantham AS. His mates had deserted him and gone home. I crawled into my tent at about 11.00pm and fell asleep.
I awoke to the sound of voices; the noise of rain on the tent had abated; I checked my watch and found that it was 12.15am. Half-asleep, I opened the flap of the tent to see an inky black sky! I quickly got dressed and stepped outside. Brian, on the next pitch, was wrestling with a broken deck-chair: "Just thought I'd sit here," he said, "it's not worth getting out the scope." He was right: light clouds were moving across the sky but, where the sky was clear, the stars shone in such abundance and with such brilliance that it seemed they were falling to earth. We sat in silence as the Lyrid meteor shower put on a show for us. By 3.00am, cloud rolled in and the show was over.
On Sunday morning, more rain was expected. I decided to pack up and return home. Gordon came over to see me and to exchange e-mail addresses. "See you at the autumn star party," he said, shaking my hand. "You bet!" I replied.
FAS Convention, 15 October 2011
The FAS has held its annual convention in early October since the mid 1980's. The earliest meetings were held at the RGO at Herstmonceux Castle, to which, on occasion, up to 20 members of OASI would travel, often by minibus. Reports of these meetings may be found below. In recent years the meetings have been held at the Institute of Astronomy (IoA), Cambridge. The 2011 Convention was held there on Saturday 15 October.
The number of OASI members attending FAS Conventions has varied considerably in recent times, with only one or two members attending in some years. However, 2011 was different, with six members attending: me, Paul Whiting, Bill Barton, John Wainwright, Pete & Nicky Richards! Paul had volunteered to set up the OASI display boards and a laptop hosting the Society website together with our Millennium Telescope, a 48 cm Dobsonian. For good measure, Bill Barton brought his recent acquisition, a 15 cm Meade refractor. The two telescopes were by far the largest on display. The Millennium Telescope in particular occasioned much attention and, throughout the day, many attendees came to look at it and discuss its construcion and use.
During the lunch break the IoA's observatories were open for guided tours. The afternoon was taken up with a series of lectures.
All in all, it was a thoroughly interesting day. If you have not been to a FAS Convention, I recommend that you do so next year!
Photographs below by John Wainwright.
The IoA, Cambridge.
The lecture hall of the IoA.
The OASI Millennium Telescope and Bill Barton's 150 mm refractor.
Dome of Northumberland Telescope.
Dome of Thorrowgood Telescope.
Dome of 910 mm Telescope.
The 295 mm Northumberland Telescope.
The 200 mm Thorrowgood Telescope.
Statue of Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001).
RAS Library, Burlington House, 02 October 2010
A visit to the RAS Library in Burlington House on 02 October 2010, organised by Tina Hammond in conjunction with RAS Librarian Peter Hingley (1951-2012), was a great success. Neil Morley captured some photographs of the visit, reproduced below.
Melbourne, October 2010
Well, sometimes you need a change from work! My first jaunt was to visit the Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV) at one of their specialist group meetings, talking about exo-planets. The venue for this informal talk was the ASV Lodge, which is a nice little set up in the back barn of a private house in the suburbs, an hour's tram ride and half a mile walk from the city centre. The Lodge is equipped with everything you might need for talks, presentations and exhibitions, including full AV equipment and a tea urn. The talk was very informal by nature and took the form of an intelligent discussion around a magazine article on exo-planets. We might do
worse than adopt this style for one or more of our workshops.
The ASV hold one formal meeting a month (which I just missed, it being the week before I arrived), a number of specialist section meetings and, this month, a public exhibition at Melbourne Observatory, which took place the day after I left! More of Melbourne
My second jaunt was to visit the Melbourne Planetarium, part of the Museum Victoria Scienceworks facility. This facility is based about five miles out of town, and can be reached via a short ride on the suburban metro train plus the ubiquitous half-mile walk. I should have hired a car, what with the Aussie's driving on the correct side of the road and all that, but I could never get used to the Melbourne turn right from the left lane only rule. The Scienceworks is obviously geared up for kids and the great interactive exhibits demonstrated pretty much every aspect of the human body. For example there was the F.A.R.T machine, which asked kids to pull the mechanical finger. I also caught a young couple playing the race a sperm game. Younger kids had fun in a special zone with lots of Lego, toy trucks and soft balls. However, the interactive exhibits were but a diversion whilst waiting for the afternoon performance Black Holes to begin inside the 16 m dome. It was an excellent recorded presentation, but why are the reclining chairs so
comfortable? I'm sure I started snoring at one point (as usual in planetariums). Then came 15 minutes on what we could see in the sky that night, if it wasn't cloudy, which it was. Every night. The planets were well placed as were the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, but as I said, it was cloudy...
The third jaunt was to Melbourne Observatory, part of the Royal Botanical Gardens. The observatory is situated much closer to the centre of Melbourne than the first two locations, which of course creates problem with light pollution. The first observatory on the site was initially set up in 1853 to provide a proper time standard for the town and visiting shipping. The opening of the astronomical observatory proper was in 1863, with Robert Ellery as Government Astronomer. His first task was to improve the accuracy of the time service by accurately mapping the southern skies. In fact, Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, said The Melbourne Observatory has produced the best catalogue of stars the Southern Hemisphere has ever published. The observatory also collected data about Earth's magnetic field, earthquakes and atmospheric electricity and, just like Hong Kong Observatory, was home to the local weather service.
The Great Melbourne Telescope, a 122 cm speculum Cassegrain, built by Grubb and installed in 1869, was the largest, fully steerable telescope in the world for the next 30 years. After the Observatory was de-commissioned in 1944 the telescope was moved to
Mount Stromlo Observatory, near Canberra, until it was destroyed in a bushfire in 2003. For a lot more information on
Melbourne Observatory, and especially about historic transits of Venus have a
look at www.rbg.vic.gov.au/visit-melbourne/attractions/melbourne-observatory.
The observatory, or at least the smaller domes and telescopes, are now administered by the ASV, who hold regular tours and telescope viewings, which leads me on to my next jaunt... Jupiter and its Moons - the title of the open evening that I booked to see one Monday. It was cloudy again (of course!) but the organisation of the tour was quite good. Every visitor had had to pre-book via the Botanical Garden office and pay $18. I wonder how much of the fee the ASV receives and how much the Gardens keep...? There were about 20 visitors that night, and we were swiftly split up into three groups - one group assigned to
each of the two open domes and the third to have a brief tour of the outside covering the history of the place. At every turn, the guides' patter could have been copied from my own for Orwell Park Observatory, covering different types of telescopes, how they work, construction of the dome, problems with the bearings, etc. it is very reassuring that, the world over, we guides tell the same
We started in the dome which currently houses a wooden 30 cm reflector constructed by an amateur in the early part of the 20th century (this is not the telescope originally housed there), then moved on to the helioscope dome, actually a double dome. One dome houses a smallish telescope mainly used for solar work, including the Victorian transits of Venus. The second dome houses a 20 cm refractor installed in 1874 which, together with its mount, was constructed by Troughton & Simms. It was obviously a stable-mate of our own 26 cm Troughton & Simms instrument, also installed in 1874. The dome above our heads rotated on real 19th century canon balls.
There are many other buildings/rooms connected with the observatory containing much old equipment which, unfortunately, the Botanical Gardens are not inclined to restore and display. This includes one or more large transit instruments, the largest also being made by Troughton & Simms. The former observatory Director's house and that of his assistant still exist but are used by the City Council and have not been maintained in their original form.
One interesting note - the ASV have in their possession the remains of the burnt out Great Melbourne Telescope retrieved from Mount Stromlo and they have long term plans to return it to use, in its former run-off roof style building.
On the only partially clear night of my stay, Venus, Mars and Jupiter were well on display along with the Southern Cross, the Pointers and Scorpius, but beyond that it was too cloudy to see what I really wanted to see - the Magellanic Clouds. In any case, time for astronomy during the evening was limited as I visited a penguin colony! The little penguins on Phillip Island put on a parade when they come ashore to roost every evening at sunset.
After three weeks of bad weather I never did get to see the Magellanic Clouds, but I did just catch the closest approach of Jupiter for 47 years (21 September 2010), with Uranus just one degree distant. A nice sight with (reasonably high powered) binoculars from the small park opposite the hotel, with common brush-tailed possums running about my feet wondering what I was doing.
A little penguin (eudyptula minor) wandering home to roost after a hard day's fishing.
Paul Whiting, FRAS
Herstmonceux, September 2010
It must be about 32 years since I last visited Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex. Then, it was still home to the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) and the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT). Now it is home to the Observatory Science Centre, owned and operated by a learning charity that constructs the science educational gizmos on display at many museums and activity centres. The Science Centre, with the help of volunteer experts, has renovated and restored the domes and remaining telescopes and opens them whenever possible for use by the public (at a charge). For six years now they have been holding an Astronomy Festival (an excuse to make more money) and this year I attended.
The festival started on Friday night with an observing session. This was followed by day and night sessions on Saturday and Sunday. Each session cost £7.40. The day sessions each offered five talks, priced at £2.00 per talk. So the whole weekend cost £57.00 - plus raffle tickets.
I attended the Saturday sessions. The talks, held in Dome B underneath the one metre Yapp reflector, were interesting. First Dr Chris Arridge from UCL gave a talk on the gas giant planets, detailing some of the latest discoveries from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft. Then Dr Anthony Wilson of the London Science Museum gave a short history of the INT. The story began with endless committee work to agree a specification for the instrument. The mirror was constructed from one of the first pyrex 250 cm mirror blanks cast in the USA several years previously for another project (which had been abandoned after funding ran out.) The
telescope was inaugurated at Herstmonceux in 1967; however, the advent of cheap air travel in subsequent years made it plausible for UK astronomers to study the heavens under much better seeing conditions abroad and, during the period 1979-84, the INT was moved to La Palma. The telescope was significantly upgraded during the move, being fitted with a new mirror, new mounting and new controls.... I think that part of the original casing survived! Next came Dr Lewis Dartnell talking about astrobiology - I skipped this lecture to visit the exhibits in the amateur radio shack, reaching it via the Coronado PSTs (which showed a nice little prominence on the solar limb). The radio shack, based in the old weather station office, was tracking and monitoring satellites, including the ISS, as they passed overhead. We heard one of the astronauts aboard the ISS talking, but we were unable to talk back.
In the afternoon, Will Gater, of Sky at Night magazine, spoke about his book, The Cosmic Keyhole, a list of the most important (to him) discoveries over the last 10 years. Will and the earlier speakers (who were also touting new books) were available at book signings, but I managed to resist the temptation... Finally Nik Szymanek gave his usual great talk illustrated by his latest wonderful photographs. Everyone left feeling very
amateurish by comparison.
The evening session saw Domes A, D and E open for observing. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in but there were a few clear patches. First to Dome A and the 76 cm Thompson reflector. The optics are not brilliant, but the instrument is acceptable for
planetary observing. Unfortunately Jupiter was obscured by cloud. The crowd was getting ugly so the man in charge was persuaded to rotate the dome and aim the telescope at Arcturus. The trouble is that a star through a giant telescope looks like, well, a star! I moved on to Dome D, which houses the 25 cm and 33 cm astrograph refractors, with the smaller instrument used as a spotting telescope for the larger. It took the expert in charge about 15 minutes to find Jupiter, so I helpfully suggested the purchase of a still smaller refractor to use as a spotter for the spotter! The Galilean satellites were well placed but the seeing was too bad to see many stripes on the surface of the planetary disk. The Red Spot was on the far side of the planet at the time, so not visible. Finally on to Dome E and the 147 year old Thompson 66 cm refracting telescope. This instrument was equipped with a 115 year old 33 cm spotter (will they never learn?) The best part of this dome is the floor, the height of which can be adjusted to make for a comfortable viewing position at the eyepiece - great fun! Despite the cloudy sky we did get to glimpse the globular cluster M13 in Hercules.
So, it was a good day out. It was pleasing to see the old domes and telescopes of the RGO from its two previous homes (Greenwich and Herstmonceux) preserved and in use once more. Personnel and volunteers at the Science Centre appeared capable and showed a genuine interest in the preservation of the facility. My one gripe was the lacklustre displays put on by the trade stands and local astronomy societies (some made more of an effort than others). The beer tent was good though, not to mention the wonderful bacon toasties on sale in the cafeteria.
Camping is encouraged (£10) and a weekend pass to enter the festival (not the talks) costs £30. I found a very pleasant pub to
stay in, the Horseshoe Inn, about a mile from the observatory on Windmill Hill - recommended, especially the included breakfast. Visit www.the-observatory.org/telescopes for more information.
Paul Whiting, FRAS
St John's College, Cambridge, 2009
Whilst visiting Cambridge recently, my father and I took the opportunity to drop into the small exhibition in the library at St John's College entitled The Way to the Stars - a History of College Astronomy. The exhibition had been advertised in an email circulated on the OASI email group.
It was just a few minutes walk from Park Street multi-storey car park to the ancient and impressive college entrance, where the porter let us in free to walk through to the exhibition (normally tourist entrance costs ó). Proceeding through the First Court to the
sound of organ music from St John's Chapel on the right, we entered the Second Court, at the far side of which stands the short Shrewsbury Tower upon the roof of which the college observatory once stood. Turning right through a passage we entered the serene Chapel Court and on the left came to the library entrance, with a massive, modern wooden door that pivots easily about its central axis - once you've worked out where to push!
The exhibition was in a small area, maybe only five metres by five metres, but being so small one felt inclined to read everything rather than just skim the material. On display there were a few scientific instruments (clock, astrolabe, sextant, telescope), several
manuscripts and various photos together with explanatory texts. A description of the College Observatory, by William Ludlam in 1769, was particularly interesting. It described some of the instruments the observatory contained (including a transit telescope) and the method of its construction. The observatory was built from wood and stone in such a way that the floor was mounted separately from the supports for optical instruments, thus preventing vibrations being passed from the building to the instruments. A similar technique was adopted at Orwell Park Observatory around 100 years later when it was built, about the time the St John's College observatory was removed from atop its tower.
John Couch Adams, who deduced the existence of the planet Neptune from irregularities in the orbit of Uranus, was Keeper of the College Observatory in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1859, he was appointed Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Director of the University of Cambridge Observatory on Madingley Road (now the Institute of Astronomy). The exhibition related the well-known story of how Adams' prediction of the location of Neptune was not, initially, taken seriously in England. Meanwhile, Urbain Le Verrier had also predicted the location of the new planet, and his calculations were taken seriously; on the night of 23 September 1846, it was found by Johann Gottfried Galle at Berlin Observatory.
In 1758, John Dolland patented and popularised the achromatic lens which reduces chromatic aberration. A refractor constructed by Dollond around 1816 was on display. Adams had catalogued it as follows: An achromatic refractor of 42 inches focal length and 2¾ inches clear aperture, with three Huygenian eyepieces (each with a dark glass), various other eyepieces, and a stand, with polar axis, and two long handles with Hooke's joints.
Famous astronomical alumni of John's College include Sir John Herschel and Sir Fred Hoyle, and personal papers from both were on display. Sir Fred is best remembered in the popular recollection for coining the somewhat derisory term Big Bang for the theory which challenged his own steady state explanation of the formation of the universe. He was also instrumental in fundamental work on how the cores of stars synthesise heavy elements from lighter ones.
Overall the exhibition provided an interesting way to spend an hour, after which it was possible to have a quick look round the rest of the marked tourist route around the College - until the porter spotted that we were not en route from the Library!
The Shrewsbury Tower, St John's College. The observatory was a squat wooden construction with a window, sited immediately above the crenellation.
Dolland's telescope, 1816.
Autumm Equinox Sky Camp, 20 September 2007
Loughton Astronomical Society has organised an Autumn Equinox Star Camp since 1994. Up to 2004 the venue was Thetford and from 2005 onwards it has been Kelling Heath, near Weybourne in north Norfolk. Having known about the camps for many years, I decided eventually
that it was time to go and have a look! The 2007 event was held from Monday 10 September to Thursday 20 September 2007, and I went along on Saturday 15 September which, fortunately, turned out to be a perfect late summer sunny day.
En route to Kelling Heath, I made a detour to my usual watering hole in Sheringham, The Lobster pub, for lunch. While walking down the main street my attention was drawn to the
great number of people dressed in 1940s military uniforms and civilian clothing: it was just like visiting Walmington-on-Sea! The explanation turned out to be that Sheringham was holding a 1940s theme day.
My route on foot to Kelling Heath from Weybourne involved passing Weybourne station on the North Norfolk Railway. On approaching the station, the air was filled with the sound of gunfire. A group of Dad's Army enthusiasts were staging a re-enactment of capturing an enemy agent. There was an audience of several hundred people watching the performance from the station platforms and footbridge. Steam trains passing through the station, on the line between Sheringham and Holt, provided added
authenticity. As is often the case at such events, many restorers of vintage military vehicle were zooming around in American jeeps.
I reached Kelling Heath Holiday Park at about 14:00. Not knowing the layout of the park I made enquires at the reception office where I was given a vague sketch map of the site with two large circles indicating where astronomers could set up their equipment. I went out to find the astronomers, following one of the many nature trails across the heath and, after about twenty minutes, I stumbled across a group of caravans with various telescopes set up outside on the grass. This turned out to be the smallest of three areas forming the Autumn Equinox Star Camp. I walked past rows of campers and their telescopes and other equipment. There were many solar
instruments and an amazing range of other telescopes, from the smallest Skywatchers to 35 cm Meade Schmidt Cassegrains equipped with all the CCD equipment that money can buy! The most prominent telescopes were large
Dobsonians and I estimated that many on display were in excess of 50 cm aperture. Many large Dobsonians were equipped with automatic tracking devices.
I was not expecting to meet any familiar faces. However, a passing car suddenly stopped and the occupant jumped out and came rushing over to me exclaiming Hello Roy! At first I did not recognise the person, even though he did look familiar. It turned out to be Colin Green who, together with his wife, had been our special guests at the BAA Back to Basics meeting in January 2007.
After meeting Colin I made my way to the trade stands. Over the years I have attended many dozens of astronomical events, but his one was the first where the trade stands looked like a car boot sale! Everyone was outside, trading from tables. I purchased a filter that, it is claimed, should reduce some of the chromatic aberration inherent in refractors. At the time of writing I have not yet tried it; I look forward to trying it on the Tomline refractor.
I walked back to Weybourne by an alternative route that took me alongside the North Norfolk Railway. As I walked along the path two steam trains thundered past and, as the track is less than ten metres distant from the rails, I had a close-up view. Keeping to the theme of TV programmes, The Railway Children kept coming to mind... Finally, you may be wondering, how does the independent traveller get to Kelling Heath? Easy: shanks's pony, two trains, one bus followed by shanks's pony again. Total cost £13.70. I left home at about 08:00 and returned at 20:30.
Mallorca Observatory, July 2007
Having booked to spend six days in Palma in July 2007, I was interested to meet some people from the Mallorca Planetarium (really an observatory) at an Astronomy Festival in Cambridge earlier that year. Armed with a brochure, I made arrangements, via email, to visit the Observatory during our stay. Visits are 8.00pm on Saturday evenings by appointment. A simple email (or five, as occasionally you get a reply in Spanish!) is all that is needed to obtain the date you need.
After a meal at a Spanish Tapas bar run by English speaking Germans in nearby Inca, we made the 20 minute journey to the Observatory, leaving plenty of time in case we got lost on the back roads, which quickly turned into single file rural roads. We did not, and were there with half an hour to spare. This gave us time to pay our admission fee of €40 (for three of us) and examine the exhibits of (allegedly) 21 meteorites, tektites, etc. I could not see where the figure of 21 came from: there were less than 21 cases, but as some contained more than one sample, the total number much exceeded 21! Our early arrival also gave us an excellent opportunity to
inspect a very fine gecko climbing the outside wall.
The Observatory, opened on 04 April 2003, is part of the University of Mallorca. The building, as are many in Mallorca, is very modern art-ish, and extremely angular, albeit in a non-offensive fashion. In front of the main entrance is a paved line which indicated the 3° W meridian (not the usual Greenwich meridian to which we were more accustomed!) In the area between the main building and the seven telescopes at the back are poles bearing metal flags featuring several of the more well known constellations.
The evening was supposed to start with a familiarisation of the Mediterranean night skies in the Planetarium, but due to a technical hitch with the electricity supply to that room, this had to be delayed.
This meant that the normal itinerary had to be reversed and - even though it was not really dark enough - we had to go outside for a 45 minute potted history of the Observatory and its alignment, followed by spotting a few (very bright!) constellations in the twilight. We were also able to admire the exterior of the research block which is, alas, not open to visitors.
By the time we had done this, the Planetarium electricity supply was restored, and we returned inside. Somebody who I swore was James Mason, but whom the end credits showed to be Spanish, narrated an interesting 30 minute show. It included the Balearic skies, with seasons, star clusters, the sun, the planets, and other zodiacal objects identified. We learnt that Mars is an inferior planet!! And to think I was puzzling over the meridian and number of meteorites on display...
Back outside again, and we were rewarded with a tour of the seven telescopes. Each named after somebody or something from the world of Astronomy, they bear the names Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, Copernicus, Clavius, Mutus (Moon Mapper) and Schmidt. We were able to view Venus through one of them. By the time we came to leave at 9.45pm it was getting dark, sufficiently so that Jupiter was easily visible to the naked eye. There is also a winter solstice viewing slit which we were able to see but not, at that time of year, utilise. Shades of Giza...
The 30 km drive back to Palma and our hotel took 45 minutes on good motorways (most of Mallorca's roads are excellent, contrary to what you may think). We had the satisfaction of an enjoyable evening behind us.
Should anybody feel the need to visit this hidden gem (even when just one km away, it is totally invisible!), you may contact the Observatory at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.mallorcaplanetarium.com.
Entrance to the Planetarium.
66.7 kg meteorite.
Representations of constellations.
Marker of the 3° W meridian.
Research telescopes (off limits to visitors).
Telescopes (general purpose), one of which we looked through.
Norwich Astronomical Society, 10 June 2006
On 10 June 2006, Ipswich were visitors to Norwich's home turf. I'm talking here about the beautiful science rather than the beautiful game - astronomy rather than football! - and the visit of OASI to the observatory of the Norwich Astronomical Society (NAS) at Seething. NAS has had an observatory there for just over 10 years. Before that, its observatory had been on land owned by the University of East Anglia at Colney Lane, just south of Norwich. When plans were announced to build not just one but two new hospitals next door to the observatory at Colney Lane, NAS became understandably concerned about light pollution and anxious as to whether the site would be viable as an astronomical facility in the long term. At the public inquiry into the development, NAS was promised compensation to allow it to purchase a new site, pay for a professionally built facility to replace that at Colney Lane and relocate to the new location. NAS has built on this enforced
relocation and now has an excellent and well equipped observatory.
It was a pleasant sunny evening when we arrived, so we began with a look at the Sun in Hα light through a Coronado PST1, followed by a tour of the site in daylight. The observatory is situated in an attractive location in unspoilt countryside, away from light pollution, and is well equipped for observing. It offers two domes, each housing a good-size telescope, and two areas of hard-standing, each offering six observing pitches for members to set up their own telescopes, and a run-off shed which can accommodate members' telescopes and provides shelter from the wind and power for equipment. In one of the hard-standing areas, each pitch has electrical hook-up to power drive motors, laptop computers and imaging equipment. The four-acre site also provides picnic tables, which are ideal for "star-becues".
The main building has a well-equipped lecture room, toilet, kitchen (including a dishwasher2) and a recreation room with a pool table. We were told that all good observatories - both amateur and professional - should have a pool table! This left us wondering where we could fit a pool table at Orwell Park: perhaps on top of the stairwell roof with lifelines to catch players falling to the ground!?
After the tour, our hosts gave two talks: one on the history of NAS and one on Mars in 3-D, using images from the Mars Exploration Rover missions. We were so impressed with the latter that we purchased 3D viewing glasses and obtained the images so we can run the same sort of presentations for visitors to Orwell Park. After the talks we had a chance to chat to our hosts over tea, coffee and biscuits and then it was sufficiently dark for observing and another look at some of the instruments.
The new, big instrument at Seething is a 30 cm Meade LX200 Schmidt Cassegrain housed in the Genesis Dome, which has a diameter of four metres and is motorised. A CCD camera can be attached to the telescope and connected via a cable running underground to the clubhouse. NAS find this arrangement particularly useful to show images taken through the telescope to visitors who cannot climb the steps into the dome. The Genesis Dome and telescope were installed as part of a £15,000 project to which many organisations contributed. I was reminded of NAS's previous main attraction, the 76 cm reflecting telescope at Colney Lane. When OASI visited
Colney Lane in the 1980s, this instrument was the highlight of the visit. However, it was difficult to use and maintain and has been replaced by the Genesis Dome. I wondered what happened to it, and have subsequently discovered that it has been adopted by another club, The Norfolk Astronomers, based at Reepham to the North West of Norwich. They have established an observatory at Reepham with a telescope which has been in operation for a couple of years; a dome containing the 76 cm telescope should be available for use shortly.
We also saw the Herschel Dome which some OASI members may remember from the visit to Colney Lane in the 1980s. On the earlier visit it housed a 25 cm reflector with a mechanical clock drive. Now it has been refurbished and holds a Skywatcher 15 cm refractor. A large achromatic refractor like this will nevertheless show some chromatic aberration, so NAS has fitted a correcting lens in front of the eyepiece. This approach, costing some õ00, makes the instrument perform virtually as well as a telescope several times the
price. As NAS say on their web site, this is a telescope that now provides members and visitors with stunning high-resolution planetary and lunar views. We certainly put it through its paces looking at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon.
NAS is looking to develop its radio astronomy facilities. We saw the washing line (technically a dual dipole antenna) which is designed to detect the radio emissions generated by the motion of Jupiter's moon Io through the magnetic field of the planet. During the day the antenna array can be used to monitor solar activity. NAS has also started to renovate two 3 m radio dishes that are mounted on rotating bases; the two dishes are situated around 100 m apart on an east-west axis and NAS hopes ultimately to configure them as an interferometer.
It was fascinating to see such a wide range of instruments at Seething and all the visitors had a most enjoyable time. With OASI approaching its fortieth anniversary it's encouraging to see another, even more venerable, East Anglian astronomical
society going from strength to strength!
||The Coronado Personal Solar Telescope (PST) is a 40 mm instrument designed specifically to observe the Sun at the wavelength of Hα (which looks pinkish to the eye). This provides spectacular views of solar prominences.
||As one of OASl's regular dishwashers at lectures and workshops I can see the value of that particular piece of equipment!
National Space Science Centre, 15 September 2001
At Astrofest 2000, there was a display stand advertising the National Space Science Centre at Leicester. It looked like a good venue for a future OASI summer excursion; however, we had to wait for some 18 months, as it did not open until June 2001.
The months soon passed and, on Saturday 15 September 2001, a party of 26, comprising members of OASI, families and friends gathered at Crown Street coach lay-by in Ipswich, setting out for Leicester by coach at about 08:10, arriving a little after 11:00. The weather started fine, but turned to intermittent drizzle during the journey.
The exhibitions of the Space Centre illustrated the uses of Earth-orbiting satellites and progress in exploring the planets and the universe. There was also a full-scale mock-up of the module that ESA (the European Space Agency) is building for the International Space Station. The displays were designed to be used principally by children and school groups, with a large selection of hands-on exhibits that would keep youngsters of any age amused for hours.
By the side of the coach park at the Space Centre there was another museum that we did not know about in advance of our visit. It was a former pumping station that used two very large steam-powered beam engines to power the pumps. The beam engines are still in
working order and are turned on a few times a year on "steam days". Several members of the OASI party were able to take a quick look at the facility on the way back to the coach. Had we known about it earlier, we would probably have given it rather more attention than we were able to.
We broke the journey back to Ipswich with a short break at a road-side service station, arriving back in Ipswich a little after 20:00. Everyone was very satisfied with the day out!
Leeds Astromeet, 06 November 1999
On Saturday 06 November 1999, OASI members Bill Barton, St John Robinson and I made the long journey up to a very sunny Leeds to attend the annual Leeds Astromeet which, this year, marked the 140th anniversary of the foundation of Leeds Astronomical Society (LAS). The trek was worth every minute because, aside from the chance to browse the trade stands and partake at lunchtime of beer brewed from Pennine water, there was an impressive line-up of expert speakers to deliver talks on subjects ranging from detecting extra-galactic particles to the professional career of Sir George Biddell Airy.
The principle draw, perhaps, was the chance to hear that doyen of astronomy historians, Dr Allan Chapman, speak for ninety minutes on Airy. Indeed, having discovered that we visitors from OASI had made the journey all the way from Suffolk, he wasted no time in praising our efforts and pointing out that Suffolk was the adopted home of Airy. Incidentally, I have in some small way been assisting the Ipswich Evening Star newspaper with a major feature, which will be published around
December 1999, on Airy and his connections with Ipswich and the Millennium.
Christmas came a little early for LAS this year, in the guise of an impressive looking, brand new 350 mm reflector of a remarkably similar design to OASI's Millennium Telescope. Members of LAS have spent time constructing the instrument in order to mark their 140th anniversary and they decided to name it the William Trant Telescope in honour of their founder. The instrument stood next to LAS's first telescope (which is contemporary with the foundation of the Society), a tripod-mounted, brass tube 75 mm refractor bearing the name the John Herschel Telescope.
Dr Chapman took great pleasure in dedicating the William Trant Telescope and then went on to discuss the foundation of LAS. He described how William Trant, a 17 year old lad, wrote uninvited to Herschel asking if he would care to become president of a Leeds-based astronomy club that he hoped to establish. A contemporary analogy might be to write to Professor Stephen Hawking! Anyway, Herschel accepted the invitation and the rest is history - in 1859 Leeds Astronomy Society became the first recorded amateur astronomical society, slightly before Liverpool Astronomy Society was established (and, obviously, somewhat before OASI came into being!) Oh, and Trant? - he eventually emigrated to Canada and made his fortune, but not in astronomy - to do so would have been another first...
It was certainly inspiring to see the completed William Trant Telescope and, by way of conjecture, if OASI can successfully complete our Millennium Telescope after a mere 32 years of existence - we'll probably have something to rival the Hubble Space Telescope after 140 years! Yes, Leeds is a long way from Suffolk, but certainly worth the journey!
FAS Convention, Sidmouth, 08 May 1999
Saturday 08 May 1999 saw 112 delegates gathered in Sidmouth, Devon to attend the Federation of Astronomical Societies (FAS) annual convention. We were treated to three excellent lectures, each illustrated with slides. Konrad Malin Smith gave the first lecture, showing a selection of the slides that he has taken of total solar eclipses over the last 15 or so years. Some of the images that he showed have graced the pages of Astronomy Now. He also showed some examples of what can go wrong during those all too short minutes of totality. A very informative and entertaining lecture! For someone who never got beyond the stage of iron filings and a magnet, the title of Dr Percy Seymour's lecture, The Magnetism of the Universe was daunting! However Dr Seymour presented a logical and informative lecture. Current scientific thinking, based upon evidence from a number of sources, is that a magnetic field pervades the entire Universe. Finally Dr Allan Chapman delighted us with a potted biography of the life and work of one of the foremost astronomers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sir Norman Lockyer.
The FAS then held its AGM, the committee accepted all reports (the main item of business being an increase in subscriptions), and the members present elected Pam Spence president.
Following the closure of the FAS Convention, delegates were invited to visit the local astronomical society based at the Norman Lockyer Observatory. The observatory was founded in 1912 by Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer KCB, FRS for astronomical and meteorological research. Lockyer was founder and for more than fifty years editor of the scientific journal Nature. He was professor of Astronomical Physics and Director of the Solar Physics Observatory at the Royal College of Science, London. He discovered Helium in the atmosphere of the Sun and contributed much to our knowledge of the Sun and its effects on the weather on Earth. He studied the spectra of stars and developed theories of their formation and evolution. He is regarded as the father of astro-archaeology and investigated Celtic circles, Stonehenge and ancient sites in Egypt, and was one of the first to understand their astronomical significance. The Norman Lockyer Observatory houses a number of instruments of historical interest, all well preserved and regularly used by members of the society. The instruments include:
- Lockyer's own 150 mm refractor circa 1870,
- a Browning 230 mm reflector, also circa 1870,
- the Kensington telescope circa 1888,
- an equatorially mounted twin-tube refractor by Cooke of York comprising a 150 mm viewing tube and a 230 mm photographic tube,
- the Maclean telescope, circa 1894, by Grubb of Dublin, again a twin-tube refractor this time with a 250 mm viewing tube and a 300 mm photographic tube.
The observatory also boasts a planetarium and is home to an amateur radio station and an amateur weather satellite and meteorology station.
The visitors enjoyed a guided tour of the facility including viewing Mars and Venus through the above telescopes, a guided tour of the heavens via the planetarium and a lecture on modern weather satellite systems illustrated with slides.
Devon is a long way from East Anglia but the effort of getting there was well rewarded for the five delegates from OASI who attended, all of whom had a very enjoyable day.
Norwich Astronomical Society, 16 April 1999
It is more than 12 years since OASI last visited the observatory of Norwich Astronomical Society (NAS) so, in Autumn 1998, the OASI committee decided to rectify this and arrange another visit, finally settling on the date Friday 16 April 1999. The NAS observatory is situated at Seething, on the edge of the Seething airfield, about 16 km south of Norwich. The journey from Ipswich takes about an hour, with the last 10 km or so along country lanes.
NAS's observatory is very well equipped. It contains a large meeting hall with kitchen facilities, a dome containing a 1 m reflector, another dome containing a 250 mm reflector, a roll-off hut containing two telescopes and several concrete hards for members to stand their own telescopes. On the evening of our visit, members of NAS brought a 250 mm Meade and another 250 mm reflector.
Pre-arranged astronomical events in the UK that include observing the sky usually result in any passing monsoon depositing its entire contents onto the unsuspecting astronomers! However, on 16 April the clouds decided to take a rare holiday - and the sky remained completely clear throughout the evening! Seething is a much darker site than Orwell Park; although the glows from Norwich, Yarmouth and Lowestoft are visible, they are manifest only as thin lines near the horizon. Our visiting group comprised nine members of OASI and, once it became dark, we joined approximately 30 members of NAS in observing the stars. Owe were spoilt for choice of telescopes, and observers were able to move between all the instruments in use and form small discussion groups across the site. The highlight of the evening was discerning the spiral structure of M51 with the 1 m reflector.
Members of NAS served coffee and tea at regular intervals throughout out the evening and generally provided us with excellent hospitality, which we greatly appreciated. Our group left Seething slightly after 22:00, having had a very successful evening.
Woolsthorpe Manor, 18 July 1998
On Saturday 18 July 1998, members of OASI enjoyed the Society's summer excursion, this year to Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, the birth place and childhood home of one of Britain's (and probably the world's) greatest scientists - Sir Isaac Newton. The Manor dates from the 17th century and is small by the standards of the era. Nowadays, it is owned by the National Trust.
Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor on Christmas Day 1642. He was a very sickly baby who was not expected to live. His father had died several months before he was born and three years later his mother remarried and moved to a nearby village, leaving Isaac to be
looked after by his maternal grandmother. He was educated at grammar school in Grantham but, upon the death of his stepfather in 1656, his mother removed him from school to train him to help manage her estate. However even at this early age his interests ran more toward books, mathematics and the workings of machines and objects around him: drawings showing geometrical shapes and patterns or buildings and animals can still be seen on the walls of the house. His family finally decided that he should go to university and he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in June 1661.
For two years after Newton graduated (1665-66) Cambridge was closed due to the plague and he returned to Woolsthorpe. It was at this time that he made his greatest strides in science and mathematics and performed many of his famous experiments including splitting white light into its spectral colours. It was also at Woolsthorpe during this period that he formulated his laws of gravitation and went on to use them to describe planetary motion. His formulation of the idea that gravity is a universal law does indeed appear to have been triggered by the falling of an apple from one of the trees in the orchard next to the house. The orchard was where Newton would sit and work on warm summer days and there is today in the orchard a very old apple tree, still growing and bearing fruit, that is reputedly a re-growth of a tree living in Newton's time. Supposedly the original tree was blown down and the tree visible today grew from its remains. The visiting public has willingly adopted the legend - and who now knows the truth?
The National Trust welcomed us as a visiting group and laid on tea and biscuits in a barn which also dated from Newton's era. The current custodian has some ambitious plans to create in the barn a "hands on" science centre with lecture and video theatre and a telescope (probably a 250 mm Meade SCT) for use by visiting groups. A video projector will show bright objects visible in the telescope, such as the Moon and planets, live to the audience in evening lectures.
Moving on from Woolsthorpe Manor we went to nearby Rutland Water and spent a pleasant hour or so strolling round the shore before setting off to find a suitable hostelry for a meal and drink prior to our journey home. After a failed attempt to get into a pub near Rutland Water, our coach driver suggested that Stilton (of cheese fame) could be a suitable place for a meal. Deferring to his superior knowledge we duly set off and found a pub/country club that didn't mind serving, without any prior arrangement, a coach full of astronomers. The meal was a fitting end to a pleasant day which was thoroughly enjoyed by all.
The entrance to Woolsthorpe Manor. (Roy Gooding.)
Rear of the manor house. (Roy Gooding.)
The famous apple tree. (Roy Gooding.)
The OASI visitors. (Alan Smith.)
Members of OASI in the garden of the Manor. (Roy Gooding.)
The exterior of the barn. (Roy Gooding.)
Inside the barn where the NT provided hospitality. (Roy Gooding.)
Rutland water. (David Payne.)
Evening meal at Stilton. (David Payne.)
Herstmonceux Science Centre, 06 September 1997
The OASI trip to Herstmonceux Science Centre on Saturday 06 September 1997 began on a beautiful sunny morning with the first pick‑up point at Pete Richards' house in Nacton, about half a mile from Orwell Park Observatory. On schedule at 9.00am, seven of us boarded a brand new 24-seater coach (this was its first real outing!) and started for Ipswich town centre to pick up a second group of members. From Ipswich the coach made its way to the A12 and then Colchester for our final pick up. The journey went without incident, except for an unplanned tour of Hastings after we missed the turn for Herstmonceux at Battle(!), and eventually we arrived at the Science Centre at about 12.30pm.
On arrival, we decided to have lunch before taking a guided tour of the telescopes. (The Science Centre is accommodated alongside the Equatorial Group of telescopes belonging formerly to the RGO. When the RGO moved out of Herstmonceux Castle to relocate to Cambridge, the telescopes were left behind: it was cheaper to abandon them than to move them to the new site!) After lunch and a quick round of bridge building (see photo below), the group met with our guide and proceeded to the dome of the 66 cm refractor in the south-west corner of the Equatorial Group. It was here that we took the obligatory group photo. Originally the 66 cm refractor was used exclusively for photographic work for the precise measurement of stellar positions and parallax. The Science Centre has added an eyepiece focusing mount so that it can be used visually by visitors to the centre and by local astronomical societies. From the 66 cm dome we went to the south-east corner dome which houses a 97 cm Schmidt camera. This telescope was given as a gift to the RGO but, unfortunately, its optical quality was very poor and it was rarely used. The Science Centre has installed in this dome an interesting model showing the relative sizes of the planets and Sun; it does, however omit Saturn's rings! The final dome that we visited housed the 91 cm Yapp reflecting telescope. This instrument was originally donated to the RGO by Mr William Johnston Yapp in 1932 and, until the 2.5 m Isaac Newton Telescope was commissioned in 1967, was the RGO's largest and finest instrument. The Science Centre claim that they will restore the instrument to full working order but did not give a timescale and I formed the impression that while there may have been an aspiration to complete the task, there was no detailed program of work. This does seem a waste of a magnificent instrument! After visiting the Yapp, the group split up to see the exhibits within the Science Centre. Many of the exhibits were very interesting and kept young and old interested and amused for the remaining time. A major theme of the Science Centre is hands on science and most of the exhibits involved interaction and participation. One of the attractions outside on the lawn within the Equatorial Group was of particular interest to our younger members: many water pumps of different designs and principles required the expending of considerable manual labour to keep the water circulating! Some of our party also visited Herstmonceux Castle which is owned and managed separately from the Science Centre and has a separate admission charge.
We finally left the Science Centre at about 5.40pm and made our way back home, stopping en route for fish and chips to complete a very enjoyable day.
Photos below by David Payne.
Group photo in front of dome housing 66 cm refractor.
66 cm refractor.
Scale model of the Sun and planets.
97 cm Schmidt camera.
91 cm Yapp reflector.
Drive for the Yapp reflector.
Herstmonceux Science Centre, 1996
Some members of OASI will remember visiting Herstmonceux Castle and the RGO way back in October 1988. The visit was at a time when closure of Herstmonceux was more than rumoured, but the staff there really knew no more than anyone else. About a fortnight after OASI visited, the complex was essentially closed and the RGO relocated to Cambridge. A period followed during which offers were made by Japanese interests up to around ô0m for purchase of the complex at Herstmonceux, but such a high offer was not realistic and eventually the complex was sold for a much lower figure.
Queen's University of Kingston, Ontario (Canada) took over and a company known as Science Projects, with charitable status and backed by local councils and other supporters has established the Herstmonceux Science Centre, which opened in April 1995. Developments at the Centre are currently ongoing: a complete renovation is planned and it is intended that the Centre will become a major venue for educational programmes, lectures and exhibitions. Research and training facilities will also be developed in conjunction with other organisations, with the telescopes eventually being brought back into operation. The entrance fee for the Centre is currently £2.50, and it provides a good day out!
I visited Herstmonceux Science Centre with Merlyn in May 1996 for the Centre's Space Fete. The history of the Centre is still visible: the main, isolated equatorial dome still stands, stark and empty, visible on a clear day for many miles. Some of the domes of the Equatorial Group still house their original telescopes, in surprisingly good condition. On entering the Centre we found many hands-on displays including a 3-D pterodactyl, physics-of-light tableaux, demonstrations of inertia and gravity and wave resonance. Visitors can play tricks with at least one of the exhibits. A small, shallow bath filled with water invites visitors to rub handles at the sides: if the mischievous visitor does so at the right frequency, it is possible to produce a central spurt of water coming up from the bath. Anyone getting rather close might receive an unexpected eyeful! Another interesting exhibit demonstrated just what can happen if you jump too high (many kilometres too high!) without wearing a space suit - the demonstration involved lots of bubbles!
There is a shop and a handy cafe in the main Equatorial Building along with some of the new exhibits. In the cafe, we partook of some
"space food", said to be high in protein but, so light, almost like biscuit-flavoured candy-floss, that I wondered whether the space that it occupied was more critical than its density!
Lots of exhibits and a playdome stood outside the Equatorial Building. Apparently local amateur astronomers, some from Eastbourne Astronomical Society, helped in constructing and arranging the exhibits, and manning them during events. The exhibits included some wooden bridges which help to entertain younger children who may be less interested in the more scientific exhibits.
Not long after we arrived, we found ourselves studying moonrock samples (which a staff member coolly told us were worth about £1m) when we learned that Helen Sharman was coming and would be giving two talks. Helen is Britain's only astronaut to date and her visit was an unexpected surprise. We jostled for position to hear her second talk, held in a translucent dome behind the main building. She was obviously very enthusiastic about her time as an astronaut and about space exploration in general. She explained how she had first heard
a call for would-be astronauts on local radio, and went on to describe her experiences during astronaut training and subsequently with the Russian Joint Space Satellite Programme aboard the orbiting Mir space station. She was very matter-of-fact in her talk and in answering questions about what it was like to be aboard Mir. Lithium chlorate is used to store oxygen for the crew of Mir: this material can hold a great deal of oxygen, more than a pressurised can. Toilets on Mir are air-flushed, and if you lose your toothbrush, as likely as not after a few hours it will turn up against one of the air filters used to draw in air for recycling. Asked how the astronauts used to wash, Helen told us that, in the early days, showering used to take hours, but that now the crew uses large body-wipes, which are much quicker. Helen explained the types of research that can only be conducted in a space environment with an absence of gravity. And she commented that it is Mankind's nature to explore ever further... Helen did not train to undertake a space-walk so was unable to leave Mir during her time in orbit. The extra training for space-walks would have lasted for an additional 18 months; the extra time is necessary to learn how to wear a space-suit at only about half the atmospheric pressure at sea level on Earth. (If the suit were pressurised to full atmospheric pressure, it would impose such a restriction on movement as to make any significant movements virtually impossible.)
After Helen's talk, we gave a postcard which we had bought earlier to the Master of Ceremonies for her to sign. Once the crowd had dispersed, we had a few minutes of conversation with Helen. She said that what impressed her most about her experience on the Joint Space Satellite Programme was the Russians and their outlook: she had come to appreciate that people are more important than things. She believed that the day will come when spacecraft are constructed in a much better way than at present, and will use propulsion methods which are more convenient, less polluting and cheaper than the rockets used today. (Yes, I did mention a couple of ideas that I had!) Then Merlyn asked Helen if she believed in extraterrestrial craft, UFOs, in loose terms. Helen replied Yes, but that she had not seen any although she would have welcomed, or at least been receptive, had she done so. Helen consented to have her picture taken with Merlyn - so it certainly was a lucky day for us. Taking leave of Helen we thanked her for all she was doing to help promote space interests including astronomy. We left convinced that whoever chose Helen to be Britain's first astronaut had certainly made the right choice!
Webb Society Meeting, Cambridge, 21 May 1994
Pete Richards and I attended the Webb Society meeting at Cambridge on 21 May 1994; the society specialises in observation of "deep sky" objects, far beyond the domain of the Solar System.
The morning session was about the current hot topic in amateur astronomy: CCD cameras. Alex Coburn was the first speaker and I was able to make an interesting comparison with a talk that he had given previously at the Keele University Astro Imaging Course on 16-17 April 1994 where I had seen his camera, attached at the eyepiece end of a 43 cm Newtonian, produce stunning results. This time, however, Alex showed results from the same camera at the eyepiece end of a 25 cm f10 Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and, interestingly, results were much poorer. The simple fact is that CCDs provide amazing images but a bigger telescope will still give better results. It may seem obvious but it is not the impression given by most of the popular astronomy magazines. The next talk, by two members of Castlepoint Astronomy Society, showed that you do not have to be a computer or electronics wizard to work with CCDs. Both speakers came into the field with next to no experience and have learned the subject by doing, with excellent results. The final talk of the session was about the computing aspects of CCD astronomy. There is no standard image format and the presenter made the point forcefully by displaying an overhead with 21 different image types! The computing power and storage to manipulate large images is still underestimated: for example an image from a 1024x1024 CCD (not common in the amateur community it must be said!) would occupy 2.09 Mb of disk space so could not be stored on a standard 1.44 Mb floppy disk.
At lunch we met three members of Norwich Astronomical Society who confirmed that they would be holding an open day at their new observatory on 02 July. Several members of OASI have already expressed an interest in going to Norwich for the day but, be warned: entry is by ticket only! More details nearer the event.
There were two talks in the afternoon. Dr David Dewhurst gave the first on The Observing Books of the Earls of Rosse. Although the title seemed out of place after the high tech start to the day, David pointed out that the 3rd Earl of Rosse (1800-1867) was in his day at the leading edge of technology having built by far the largest telescope in the world at the time. The instrument in question was the 1.8 m telescope at Birr Castle, finished in 1845, which led astronomy into the modern age with the discovery of the spiral structure of galaxies. David's talk left no one in any doubt that the 3rd Earl of Rosse was a highly skilled observer as well as optician, engineer and mathematician. David painted a picture of Birr Castle as a world class observatory with foundries (mirrors were made of metal in the early 1800's), optical workshops and engineering facilities as well as technicians and visiting astronomers. Professor Augustus Oemler, visiting Cambridge from Yale, brought us back up to date with a talk on one of the current hot topics of research astronomy, the evolution of galaxies. As he pointed out, there are as many theories of galaxy evolution as theoreticians, typical of a science that has to rely on observations rather than direct experiment! However the quality of observations is improving and many results are now coming from the repaired Hubble Space Telescope (HST) showing structure in galaxies far beyond what was previously observationally possible. Interestingly, the HST has revealed arcs in and around many distant clusters of galaxies; these are thought to be the results of gravitational lensing of even more distant galaxies.
To finish the day we indulged in a very English activity: touring the observatories and telescopes at Cambridge in the rain!
Oxford Astronomy Weekend, 13-15 May 1994
The 1994 Oxford Astronomy Weekend was held Friday 13 - Sunday 15 May at Rewley House, the Centre for the Department of Continuing Education of the University of Oxford. The weekend attracted a wide range of attendees, from enthusiastic amateur astronomers to those with a general interest in things scientific and philosophical. The theme for the 1994 weekend was Planets and Planetary Systems and proceedings started on Friday evening, after dinner, with an introductory overview of the Solar System by Dr Bob Lambourne, from the physics department of the Open University. Bob was director of the weekend and therefore at liberty to choose his subject matter: he dealt mainly with the outer Solar System, the remote planets, Pluto, the recently discovered Kuiper belt objects and beyond. He delivered his talk with such clarity and enthusiasm that everyone forgot that it was late on Friday evening: the audience was absorbed by the mysteries of Pluto and the search by the Voyager spacecraft for the edge of the Solar System.
The specialist lectures began on Saturday morning. Professor F W Taylor delivered the first, discussing planetary atmospheres from Mercury out to Neptune including those of some of the bigger planetary satellites on the way. Yes, Mercury does have an atmosphere but, as Professor Taylor explained, not the Earth-like atmosphere that was anticipated as little as 25 years ago but one that is only
10‑12 the density of that of the Earth and consists mainly of hydrogen, helium and sodium! Following coffee, Dr David Rothery, also of the Open University, gave a fascinating talk entitled Great Balls of Ice about the icy satellites of the giant, outer planets. Before the Voyager flybys the majority of geologists thought that these satellites were geologically dead; however, they are now known to exhibit a wide range of geological processes including cryo-volcanism. During David's talk I stopped taking notes - his dazzling display of images using two slide projectors simultaneously plus the occasional overhead was too much to digest so I just sat back and enjoyed the show! The amount of detail in the Voyager images is truly amazing. From being just tiny, fuzzy discs in Earth-based telescopes these icy satellites can now be seen as active worlds in their own right - and the Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s will show ten times as much detail. My lack of notes means that my recollection of the rest of the weekend is not so clear. However, one other memorable talk was given by Dr Mike Lancaster from UCL (I think), on the planet Venus. The audience had some doubts about Mike's talk before he started, largely because he was introduced as a replacement speaker following the cancellation of the scheduled speaker. However, all doubts were quickly dispelled as Mike got underway: his knowledge of the surface of Venus was astonishing. If you have seen the Magellan radar images of Venus you'll know that it is far from clear what they actually represent, but Mike obviously had a very good understanding of how to interpret them and was keen to share his knowledge and experience. He gave a breathtaking performance and I heard some appreciative comments from the audience afterwards.
Sunday was different again with Dr Roger Griffin discussing ways of detecting planets beyond our Solar System, in orbit around other stars. The practical difficulties are immense but with certain techniques it should be possible to detect such planets now. The last talk of the weekend was a speculation about life on other planets put into context with a discussion of life on Earth. It provided a very thought provoking end to a thoroughly fascinating weekend.
Astronomical Imaging at Keele University, 16-17 April 1994
Imaging in astronomy is currently undergoing a revolution and the weekend course at Keele University 16-17 April 1994 revealed some of the exciting possibilities open to amateurs today. The course was run by the University Centre for Adult and Continuing Education and was enthusiastically led by Dr Tim Naylor, a staff member in the physics department.
I arrived on Friday 15 April and, in the evening, visited the University Observatory. The observatory has two domes, one of which houses a 30 cm refractor dating from the 1870s which was housed at Oxford until the 1960s. The telescope is mostly used as a guide telescope for a 43 cm Newtonian reflector bolted to its side! The other dome houses a 61 cm reflector which is now used for CCD imaging with an ST-6 camera. The telescope and ST-6 are situated in the dome while the computers controlling them are in a room below the dome floor. A BBC computer controls the positioning of the telescope and an IBM-compatible Intel 286 PC runs the CCD camera.
Friday night was not a good night for astronomy with patchy cloud and the orange glow from Stoke-on-Trent covering much of the sky. However, in spite of this we imaged remarkable detail in M66 in Leo using the 61 cm reflector plus CCD. The internal structure and distorted spiral arms of the galaxy were well seen with only a 15 second exposure. Indeed, this instrument can reveal 17th magnitude stars with only a 10 second exposure!
The following morning, Tim Naylor opened the course proper by introducing the first speaker, Alex Coburn, to the 60 attendees. Alex, jointly with Steve Hale, has developed the "Hale" camera, a CCD camera system based on a 512x512 pixel chip which provides about twice the area of the next biggest amateur CCD. Alex gave the first talk about the theory and practice of CCD cameras, from the structure of the silicon chip to images taken with the Hale camera, in a highly technical presentation.
The second talk was a good antidote to the first "high tech" talk. Lee McDonald was invited to the course to present the possibilities available to amateurs using "low tech" (and low cost) equipment. Lee uses 100 mm and 200 mm Dobsonians and a 60 mm refractor. The refractor is ideal for solar projection and Lee makes high quality drawings of sunspots as well as recording sunspot numbers which he submits to the BAA. His objective was to show that a large expensive telescope is not necessary to do valuable work; rather the key is using the equipment that you have, whatever it may be.
It was back to technical material for the next talk with Tim Naylor presenting details of using CCD cameras and how to get the most from them. The conclusion was that you need good seeing conditions and dark skies! Not too surprising really, but there are also subtleties like matching pixel size to size of seeing disc and minimising dark currents (by cooling the CCD chip) with respect to the sky background signal. Tim has calculated that the faintest stars visible with the University Observatory 61 cm reflector plus ST-6 CCD would be magnitude 21.
Alex Whittle, a student at Keele, gave the last talk on Saturday. He is examining ways of achieving diffraction-limited images by applying techniques very similar to those used by radio astronomers. His method involves masking off most of the telescope mirror leaving relatively small circular apertures and examining the interference pattern in the image. It didn't sound very practical to me! Alex's talk finished the formal presentations for the day but the best was yet to come.
In the evening, the clouds melted away so once again the University Observatory was open for business... The first object of observation was the crescent Moon against a twilight sky: it was a lovely sight through the 30 cm refractor. After dark we attached the Hale CCD camera to the 43 cm Newtonian - with stunning results. We imaged M51 with a 60 second exposure. The galaxy is under intensive study at present because of the supernova close to its nucleus. Images from the Hale camera easily showed the supernova, and the size of the camera's chip (512x512 pixels) gave both a wide field of view and high resolution. This particular version was controlled from an Apple Macintosh with software written by Alex Coburn. The system is excellent and very easy to use with pull-down menus and full mouse operation. Cost is between £2500 and £2800.
On Sunday morning an overhead was shown of the CCD image of M51 so that everyone could see the galaxy and supernova (then about magnitude 13) in all their glory. An excellent talk by John Brough then opened the formal presentations. John is a member of Birmingham Astronomical Society and has constructed many mirrors for its members (the Society also has an active telescope making group). A quick show of hands in the audience revealed that 10 of the 60 attendees had made at least one mirror but John's talk had something for everyone and was very well presented. At the end of his talk, he set up a practical demonstration of the Foucault and Ronchi tests using a video camera and monitor enabling everyone to see what was involved in testing a mirror.
The last talk that I attended before starting for home was by Steve Finney, another active member of Keele University
Observatory, who showed some of his results using conventional photography. He also described some advanced techniques like hypersensitising and litho printing to bring the most out of the film.
Overall the weekend was extremely interesting and some of the images acquired were truly stunning, especially considering the sky conditions. CCDs are certainly going to open up amateur astronomy at a time when visual observing of faint objects is becoming increasingly difficult because of light pollution. The weekend illustrated one interesting point: at times there were up to 10 people studying on the computer screen a detailed image of a distant galaxy which would have been barely visible visually through the same telescope to just a single observer. Looking at an image on a computer screen may not be "observing" in the traditional sense, but still represents study of a real image of a real object and is accessible to many people simultaneously!
Tenerife, March 1994
Seeking dark, clear skies, many amateur astronomers now follow the professionals and fly south for the winter (and summer). Many migrant astronomers travel to the most north-westerly of the Canary Islands, La Palma, home to many of the world's leading observatories including several British telescopes. A disadvantage of La Palma is that the choice of package holiday trips is very limited in winter and there are no direct flights from the UK at present.
In the middle of a cold, damp and cloudy British March in 1994, I joined the migration, teaming up with a group from the Bristol Astronomical Society (BAS) heading for the Canary Islands. The group with which I travelled chose to go to Tenerife as they had visited there several times before. This was for a number of reasons: the great number of last minute bargain package deals available; the availability of direct flights from Bristol Airport; and the fact that Tenerife had proved to be an excellent destination. A particular advantage for the group was the possibility of a visit to the observatory on Tenerife, courtesy of Mark Kidger, who has been a professional astronomer there for several years and was formerly a member of BAS.
The Canary Islands were formed by volcanic action in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of North Africa (near the Sahara Desert). Tenerife is a former giant volcano which grew out of the ocean to a height of over three and a half thousand metres. In prehistoric times it exploded, leaving a large caldera in the form of a plateau ringed with mountains. The highest of the remaining peaks is Mount Teide, virtually as high as the original volcano and the highest mountain on Spanish territory.
We devoted much of our time on Tenerife during the day to "solar astronomy". The beach provided the ideal observation site from which to measure the flux of solar radiation - using a "white body detector". Caution must be used in all observations of the Sun and for this type of work the use of filters is essential, my preference being for factor 25. Using the wrong filter, or none at all, can lead to the detector becoming overloaded in which case it will turn bright red!
Soon after sunset (having watched unsuccessfully for the green flash) we collected together the parts of our portable 250 mm Dobsonian1 telescope and made ready to ascend the mountain in search of more distant suns. The telescope had been constructed for a previous observing trip and, apart from the optics, was made from scrap materials and recycled components. The relatively low cost of the telescope body allowed it to be abandoned on the return leg to avoid a hefty excess baggage charge at the airport; we carried the optics as hand luggage. In fact, the telescope has survived many expeditions and, after several years' use, still gives excellent service. El Telescopium always amuses the Spanish airport security officers.
The temperature a the top of the mountain was considerably lower than that at sea level, so we donned heavy coats, scarves, gloves and woolly hats for the journey. The sight of four stargazers sporting winter clothing, walking through the foyer of the apartment block on a balmy "tropical" evening, carrying what looked not unlike a set of rabbit hutches, aroused considerable curiosity amongst fellow tourists clad in shorts and tee-shirts who were heading for the centros nocturnos2. No, it's not a karaoke machine, I said when one tourist enquired about the function of the Dobsonian base as we descended in the lift.
The Fiat Tipo that we had hired could barely carry four astronomers and our observing equipment. The Dobsonian weighed heavily on the laps of those in the rear seats. We climbed the seemingly endless winding mountain road and a succession of tall mountains ahead and above us gradually turned into small foothills behind and below us. It's not like Suffolk! I thought to myself as the altitude started to make my ears pop. Eventually we left a landscape laden with desert cactuses and, at an altitude where the climate was much cooler, found ourselves in a coniferous forest. We stopped at a clearing at the edge of the road and unloaded the Fiat. We were at an altitude of 2100 m in a cold and windy spot on the edge of the caldera. Our precautions against the cold, which had seemed absurd at sea level, now seemed quite sane. Then we looked upwards...
The sky was clear - remarkably clear... A difference of colour in the stars - oftener read of than seen in England - was really perceptible here. The sovereign brilliancy of Sirius pierced the eye with a steely glitter, the star Capella was yellow,
Aldebaran and Betelgueux shone with a fiery red.
The description is not mine, it's Thomas Hardy's3 in Far From the Madding
Crowd, but it is the perfect description of the night sky we saw from the edge of the caldera on Tenerife. I've never seen a comparable sky from the British Isles. The star Canopus, which is below the horizon from the UK, was high in the sky. The great number of naked eye stars made many of the constellations difficult to recognise: I would like to refute the rumour that I failed to recognise Canis Major!
Using the 250 mm Dobsonian, under these excellent conditions I had no difficulty making out spiral structure in M51 (the Whirlpool Galaxy). As well as colour being more obvious in the stars, I could also discern it in the Orion Nebula through the Dobsonian. The celestial spectacle and the altitude conspired to make our heads spin. Nevertheless we carried on observing until our enthusiasm ceased to outweigh the increasing chill after which we descended back to the welcoming heat of the lower altitudes.
In the afternoon of our final day we visited the Tenerife Observatory as guests of Dr Mark Kidger. He gave us an excellent tour, showing us many of the telescopes there, including optical, radio and infra-red instruments, and a number of solar telescopes. The work at Tenerife is wide-ranging with solar astronomy one of the main activities. The radio observations included study of the Cosmic Background Radiation with observations from Tenerife playing a crucial role in determining the uneven distribution of matter "shortly" after the Big Bang. Mark also showed us the remains of a giant crane which had been shipped in to assist in the construction of a new French telescope building; a giant crane that many people said should never have been left on the plateau in winter. The people who gave the warning were correct: the crane had been reduced to a tangle of scrap metal by a ferocious storm. At the end of the visit we had coffee in the restaurant at the astronomers' residence, where we watched the Sun setting spectacularly behind Mount Teide.
In conclusion, the Canary Islands offer superb skies and a great way of defrosting after a winter of chilly observing sessions in the UK. All this and no jetlag, as local time is the same as UK time.
||The Dobsonian is the classic low-cost, easy-to-build portable telescope invented by amateur telescope maker John Dobson. The instrument that we brought to Tenerife took the features of the design to their absolute limit - having taken one evening and less than £15 to build.
||Spanish for night clubs!
||Thomas Hardy had a great interest in astronomy. A number of his books include paragraphs describing the starry skies and his poems include At a Lunar Eclipse. His book Two in a Tower has astronomy as a central theme - one of the two main characters is an astronomer with the tower being an observatory. Written in 1882, the tower in the book has interesting similarities to Orwell Park, which was a working observatory at that time.
BAA Variable Star Section Meeting, 19 February 1994
Throughout the year there are generally several astronomy meetings in Cambridge either at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) or the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) next door. The first meeting of 1994 was held on 19 February in the IoA and was devoted to variable stars. A capacity crowd filled the Hoyle lecture room and enjoyed a day of talks devoted to the topic.
Dr Allan Chapman of Oxford University set the scene by talking about the history of variable star astronomy from its beginnings in the late 16th century up to the 1920's when it had matured into a science. Dr Chapman is an excellent speaker who has the rare gift of being able to talk without notes, slides or overheads and yet keep his audience on the edge of their seats.
The second talk was about one particular extraordinary variable star, IP Pegasi, and was a call for amateur observations of the object. IP Pegasi, which can be found in the Square of Pegasus at coordinates RA 23h 20m 39.5s, dec +18° 08' 42" (B1950), exhibits two types of variability. It is both a dwarf nova, i.e. undergoes violent semi-regular eruptions, and an eclipsing binary. It is known as a U Geminorum type star, after the first member of this class to be discovered (in 1885 by Hind). When IP Pegasi erupts, approximately every 95 days, it brightens from an obscure magnitude 15-16 to magnitude 12. All the time however it is undergoing periodic eclipses every 3 hours and 48 minutes when it can dim by up to three magnitudes. Each eclipse lasts 42 minutes. The star system has a large, dim star and a very small, dense white dwarf companion. The large star is losing matter to its dense companion which forms a ring around the latter. Eventually so much mass accretes in the ring that it becomes unstable and undergoes an eruption. The orbit of the two stars is exactly edge on to us so that we see the white dwarf pass alternately in front of and behind the large dim star; in the latter case the system fades dramatically.
The next speaker, Tony Markham, director of the Society for Popular Astronomy Variable Star Section (SPA VSS), talked about the SPA VSS program. He first noted that the SPA had recently changed its name from the Junior Astronomical Society (JAS). The SPA observing program includes 24 stars, all of which are easy to see either with the naked eye or binoculars, chosen to illustrate the main types of variable. Some of the naked eye stars include β Persei (Algol) and β Lyrae which are both eclipsing type variables. There are also Cepheid variables on the list, e.g. δ Cephei itself and ζ Geminorum, longer period Mira-type stars like Mira itself, χ Cygni, T Cephei and some other eclipsing stars like RZ Cassiopeiae and λ Tauri. The SPA publishes a leaflet on variable star observing and its program is a good place to start for anyone interested in entering this area of astronomy.
Lunch followed, giving a chance to look around and investigate the displays. Rosemary Naylor was present with her bookstall which is an excellent source of a wide range of astronomy books, posters, maps and sets of slides and always attracts lots of attention. The BAA had a stall selling books, postcards, ties etc. Next to the BAA stall was the Webb Society stall; the Society is devoted to deep sky observing as well as variable and double stars.
Also over lunch I saw the latest light curve for Nova Cas 1993 which showed a dramatic dimming from magnitude 8 to less than 11 in only a few days. This behaviour has been seen in other novae in the past when a dust cloud forms around the central star.
After lunch, Martin Hendry of Sussex University talked about his statistical work on cataclysmic variables or dwarf novae (like IP Pegasi and U Geminorum). This talk was detailed and illustrated the value of amateur observations made over many years as the majority of the analysis was based on BAA data.
Tristram Brelstaff, Director of the BAA variable star section, then gave a talk on supergiant variable stars seen in the spectacular Perseus double cluster. The most obviously variable of these are S Persei with a magnitude range of 8.5 to 12.5 and a period of approximately 826 days, and RS Persei with a magnitude range of 8 to 10 and an average period of 152 days. All the other examples that Tristram showed varied very little and didn't appear to be suitable for observation by the casual observer.
The final talk, given by Mike Collins, was again for the real enthusiast. Mike described a method for detecting novae by taking many photographs of selected areas of the sky and searching for very faint novae. Usually the detection limit for novae is around magnitude 7 to 8 but with suitable camera lenses and films it should be possible to detect novae at magnitude 11 or slightly fainter. Last year Mike detected 730 objects that varied for some reason on his photos, none of which however proved to be novae! Of these, 359 were known variables listed in the General Catalogue of Variable Stars, 120 were known by the American Association of Variable Star Observers and 141 were catalogued elsewhere. The remaining 110 were asteroids. However, at the end of his talk Mike noted that there have been some successes in recent years, with his method being responsible for the discovery of several previously unknown variable stars.
FAS Cambridge Convention, 26 September 1992
The second FAS Convention in Cambridge was held on 26 September 1992, attended by thirteen members of OASI. Organisation of the day was similar to that of the 1991 Convention: trade stands were in attendance, lectures were held throughout the day at the Pipard Lecture Theatre in the Cavendish Laboratory, and there were tours organised during the afternoon of the University Observatory, Royal Greenwich Observatory, Institude of Astronomy and Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory.
The lectures were:
- Dr Paul Murdin, Astronomy of the Invisible,
- Professor Sir Hermann Bondi, Why is the Night Sky Dark?,
- Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, In Pursuit of Pulsars,
- Dr Robin Catchpole, Results from the Hubble Space Telescope,
- Professor Malcolm Longair, Sub-millimetre Astronomy.
FAS Cambridge Convention, 21 September 1991
In the 1980s the Federation of Astronomical Societies (FAS) held annual autumn astronomical conventions at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) at Herstmonceux. These conventions were very popular and members of OASI regularly attended, often hiring a minibus to provide transport. The FAS held the last convention at Herstmonceux in 1989.
In 1991, following the relocation of the RGO from Herstmonceux to Cambridge, FAS resumed its autumn conventions, holding them in Cambridge. Several centres of astronomy are located in and around the city, including the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) with its associated optical telescopes, the Mullard Radio Observatory (MRO) at Lords Bridge and the relocated RGO. Although Cambridge hosts a much wider range of astronomical activity than did Herstmonceux, the disadvantage for the convention-goer is that the astronomical centres are not within easy walking distance of one another, whereas the site at Herstmonceux was self contained within its own grounds.
The FAS 1991 convention was held at the Cavendish Laboratories, Cambridge on 21 September. Thirteen members of OASI attended, travelling in four cars. The day's programme consisted of five lectures plus visits in the afternoon to the IoA, RGO and MRO. The first lecture, starting at 10.15 was by Dr David Malin entitled Things To See and Do In The Dark. In recent years David has published many colour photographs of deep sky objects using techniques that he has developed himself. His talk was about his darkroom work. He showed several new colour photographs for the first time, some of which may be published in Sky & Telescope magazine in the near future. After a short break, the second lecture began at 12.00. This was given by Professor Martin Rees and was entitled Dark Matter, Quasars and Cosmology. The first half of the talk deviated from the main theme with an account of the possible discovery by Jodrell Bank Observatory of a planet orbiting a pulsar. There followed a break for lunch, taken either as a packed meal or as visit to a local pub. Dr David Dewhirst gave the third lecture, entitled 700 Years of Cambridge Astronomy. The title was a misnomer as the majority of the lecture was devoted to only the last 300 years! Most members of OASI missed the fourth lecture as they either attended one of the conducted tours of the IoA, MRO or RGO or spent time at the trade stands. The last lecture, by Professor Andrew Fabian, entitled Galaxy Clusters and Dark Matter, started at 17:00; unfortunately, by this time most members of OASI had begun the journey home.
Jodrell Bank, 1990
Jaudrell: one of the families who owned the land
Bank: a small river valley
Had Bernard Lovell not studied physics at Manchester University before the second world war (during the war he was taken from his studies to work on radar systems), and had he not found the electromagnetic interference from the trams in Manchester's busy Oxford Road too disruptive for his study of cosmic rays post-war, we may never have had the Jodrell Bank telescope complex. His pleas to the University to provide a new location reached the Botany Department, which owned some land at Macclesfield in Cheshire, just 30 km south of Manchester. Lovell started doing basic research on radio astronomy there in 1945 and, by Christmas, had detected faint echoes which turned out to be from meteors. By 1947 he had managed to build a 66 m parabolic reflector, then the largest in the world, but with the distinct disadvantage of being able to observe only the part of the sky directly overhead. It did, however, pick up the first radio waves from the Andromeda Galaxy, and confirmed that meteor showers were active during the day as well as at night, and that meteors are indeed part of our Solar System. Alas, it did not detect any cosmic rays.
A better and more versatile instrument was needed and, by 1957, Lovell and Charles Husband, a consulting engineer from Sheffield, had managed to overcome vast problems regarding planning and funding to construct a fully steerable 76 m radio telescope, which became known as the Mark I. Timing, as in so many things, was vital, as Sputnik I was only months from being launched, and the Mark I was the only telescope in the western world able to track the satellite by radar. In 1960, Lord Nuffield and the Nuffield Foundation cleared all debts associated with the construction of the Mark I, and the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station became known officially - although not widely - as the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories. In 1962, Jodrell Bank first identified the objects later to be known as quasars and, in 1966, it received pictures of the Moon beamed back from Luna 9 (the first spaceprobe to make a soft landing).
Then, as now, breakthroughs in science were being made rapidly and, in 1970-71, a huge maintenance and upgrading project was carried out on the Mark 1, giving it a vastly enhanced capability. From thence onward it has been known as the Mark lA. In 1986, the enhanced telescope discovered the first millisecond pulsar in a globular cluster (M28, in Sagittarius). On the 30th anniversary of the Mark I, in 1987, it was renamed the Lovell Telescope in honour of its founder who, by then had become Professor Sir Bernard Lovell.
I visited Jodrell Bank as part of a mini-tour of north-east England 1990-91, which included several days in Derby and Manchester. (I was also able to indulge another interest by including a visit to the highest pub in Great Britain, the Tan Hill in Richmond, North Yorkshire, part of lucky William Hague's constituency, if you fancy a pint!) The size of the radio telescope is very impressive even when far distant - it is huge, and certainly lives up to its reputation as a world class instrument. Even nowadays, it remains the third largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, smaller only than the 100 m Effelsberg dish operated by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn and the 100 m Green Bank, Virginia dish operated by the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
Once inside Jodrell Bank, there is a small exhibition area, which does not do justice to the size and importance of the telescope, and a 3D Theatre. One memorable display when I visited was a hologram of Sir Isaac Newton - speaking! I realise this is not much to get excited about nowadays, but in the early 1990s, a moving hologram, combined with an audio device, was something rarely seen.
In keeping with the former ownership of the land by the Botany Department of Manchester University, Jodrell Bank benefits from being set in 35 glorious acres of trees, presumably still used by the university for study and research. The environment certainly makes a change from the usual isolated hilltops upon which professional optical telescopes are perched!
As expected, there is a souvenir shop. There, I purchased two small plates, one inscribed Jodrell Bank and the other Jodrell Bank Science Centre but, oddly, bearing in mind that, for ever 30 years, the official name of the facility has been the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories, there was no mention of Lord Nuffield and his generous donations to release the facility from its debts! In the early years of the 21st century, a major restoration and upgrading project is in progress to bring the telescope up to the highest standard, so that it can continue to provide valuable data and make discoveries for many years to come.
The Lovell Telescope.
Joint European Taurus (JET), Culham, Oxford, 11 November 1990
Photo of a section of the JET fusion reactor. Taken by Alan Smith during an OASI visit to the facility on 11 November 1990.
Cambridge Astronomical Association Star Party, 22 September 1990
On 22 September 1990, Cambridge Astronomical Association (CAA) held a star party to celebrate the commissioning of a new half-meter Dobsonian, named the Hysom Telescope. I took an hour to drive from Ipswich to Cambridge, arriving at the Veterinary College for the start of the event at 4.00pm. The evening was warm and on offer when I arrived were guided tours around the telescopes of the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) across the road from the College. The tours included the Northumberland 250 mm refractor, the one metre Cassegrain telescope and an innovative 56 cm three mirror wide-angle telescope designed by one of the members of the IoA. The latter telescope was designed to give perfect distortion-free images 5° in diameter on a 100 mm diameter film plate.
By the time I had looked around the IoA it was about 6.00pm so I walked back to the College for some well earned food. On display were some telescopes belonging to members of CAA, including a 150 mm refractor on a rather wobbly pillar mount and five Dobsonians (two of about 250 mm, one of 380 mm, one of 430 mm and the new Hysom half-meter which was to be named later in the evening). At about 6.30pm, David Barnard and Elaine Ward arrived, having been delayed on the Cambridge one-way system. After they arrived, the three of us accepted an offer to visit the electron microscope facility at the Veterinary College.
Later in the evening the Mayor of Cambridge arrived and presented a cheque to CAA from the city council for completion of their new telescope. CAA then held a ceremony to name the new telescope after Jim Hysom, the optical engineer - much to his evident surprise! By this time it was about 9.30pm and the Hysom Telescope was moved over to a dark area at the back of the College. The telescope provided some good observing (although spoiled slightly by intermittent cloud), including excellent views of Saturn and M13 (globular cluster in Hercules).
After a few more hamburgers and some free beer we said goodbye to members of CAA and started our weary way home. David Barnard later told me that while on his way home both he and Elaine saw a very bright fireball in the direction of Ipswich which they think may have resulted in fragments falling to the ground.
BAA Centenary Meeting, 15 September 1990
The British Astronomical Association (BAA) held its centenary meeting in Liverpool, hosted by the Liverpool Astronomy Society (LAS), on 15 September 1990. LAS pre-dates the BAA by 10 years and LAS members were instrumental in the formation of the BAA so it was fitting for the BAA in its centenary year to visit the city. LAS gave a warm welcome to members of astronomy societies from all over the country and the day proved full of interest. I attended the meeting with my sister, a member of Worthing Astronomy Society.
Some sessions of the meeting were held in the lecture theatre of Liverpool City Museum, where LAS has its observatory. We visited the observatory in the morning to see the LAS refracting telescope. This was followed by an educational 40 minute programme Search for Life in the museum's planetarium.
BAA president Colin Ronan opened the afternoon's proceedings by recounting the early years of the BAA. Eric Jones, a member of LAS, then gave a paper on measuring the diameter of the Sun. Dr John Mason, who was consulted by designers competing for the commission to create postage stamps commemorating the centenary of the BAA, showed slides of the selected designs and commented on the significance of each feature. Patrick Moore then spoke about the favourable opposition of Mars 1990-91 and encouraged those present to make observations of the planet.
Dr Allan Chapman of Oxford University gave a graphic account of the life of William Lassell, 1791-1880. Lassell was born in Bolton of a middle-class "trading" family, was apprenticed to the wine trade and, by 1817, was living in Liverpool. A few years later he was developing his own brewing business. In 1837, he moved two miles out of Liverpool city and devoted more time to his hobby of telescope making and observational astronomy. After William Herschel, Lassell was the prime developer of the reflecting telescope. Not only did he experiment with mixtures of tin, copper and arsenic for casting speculum mirrors but, with the collaboration of engineer James Nasmyth, improved the mounting and balance of large aperture reflectors. In 1839, Lassell was elected FRAS. He visited Lord Rosse in 1844 and subsequently built telescopes which out-performed Rosse's Leviathon in manoeuvrability and resolution. In 1844, his 61 cm telescope was operational and, in 1846, only 11 days after the discovery of Neptune he observed the planet and discovered a satellite subsequently named Triton. The quality of Lassell's telescopes and his observational work were recognised by professional astronomers: amongst those who visited his observatory were Struve, Airy and Bond. Lassell's main observational interest was the outer planets and in his search for more satellites he shipped his 61 cm telescope to Malta in 1851. In 1861, a 122 cm telescope, also built in Liverpool, was shipped to Malta. When Lassell returned from Malta in 1865 he moved to Maidenhead. He had offered his 122 cm reflector to other observatories but, in spite of its excellent quality, it was finally broken up for scrap in 1877. This marked the end of an era: glass replaced speculum and photography and spectroscopy overtook the capabilities of the visual observer. In 1849, Lassell was awarded the RAS Gold Medal - in his citation, the president of the BAA, Sir John Herschel, remarked that Lassell was a grand amateur with a sheer love of learning. In 1870, Lassell himself became president of the RAS and in his latter years he was involved more with society business than observational work. When he died in 1880 the obituaries were very eloquent about his achievements as a successful business man, amateur engineer and astronomer.
The Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir Francis Graham Smith, spoke in the evening at a public lecture at Liverpool University. His title was The Insides and Outsides of Pulsars and the content may be found in his article published in the September 1990 Sky & Telescope magazine. This entertaining day then concluded with a celebration dinner.
D M Randle
Astrocamp, 11-25 August 1990
Astrocamp is over for another year and it's time to go back to work! Not for another 12 months will I hear the excited shouts of astronomers gazing skywards for the brief spark of a meteor, as well as the approaching groan of car suspensions as delicate but still very heavy optical instruments are carefully inched along rough tracks to the camp site.
This year's Astrocamp ran from Saturday 11 to Saturday 25 August inclusive. The dates were chosen to coincide with the maximum of the Perseid meteor stream on the night of 11 August and to include the last quarter Moon on 13 August. The weather was kind for most of the fortnight with only three days of rain and four cloudy nights. One problem with the camp's location in a forest was the inevitable dewing of telescope optics owing to the high night-time humidity and lack of wind. It was therefore important to have anti-dew devices such as low voltage hair dryers, heater pads, heated dew caps, or the low-technology shake your woolly hat over the optics method which I guarantee works, eventually!
The Perseid meteor maximum brought much excitement; several observers even stopped their more normal night time activities to watch the show! There were a few really bright meteors and lots of fainter ones. The average visual count was about 40 per hour. One meteor which I saw crossing the western sky was bright enough to leave a trail visible for nearly half a minute through the 50 mm finder on my telescope. I witnessed the trail contort in the high altitude winds as it faded.
We were also lucky to be able to observe the naked eye Comet Levy in the evening sky. At about magnitude +3 and with a fan shaped tail extending about 0.5° it was an easy object to find and thus an obvious starting point for an observing session. I observed the comet regularly and obtained some good photographs with a driven mount borrowed from Norman Fisher. I should explain at this point that the mount was not what one would call a regular camera drive; instead it consisted of an old central heating clock adjusted to run as fast as it would go (to give a siderial drive rate) together with an attached 5x30 spotting scope for polar alignment. Despite its rudimentary nature it gave acceptable results on exposures up to about 10 minutes.
In the early mornings we obtained excellent views of the Sun through Norman Fisher's sun-beam telescope. This was a 150 mm f10 Newtonian telescope with highly polished but un-silvered mirrors and a sun-diagonal at the focus. This design gives the advantage of colour-free comfortable direct views of the Sun with fail-safe design. The latter arises since any damage done to the optics would only reduce the amount of light transmitted and would not risk beaming the full light and heat of the Sun into the observer's eye. The telescope provided superb resolution and showed sunspots very clearly, including umbra and penumbra together with dark and light bands of infalling and upwelling associated matter. It was also possible with some luck to see granulation and faculae on the solar disk without filtering.
There were many other objects to observe too, including Saturn low in the southern sky, Mars rising after midnight and all the summer deep sky objects. I would recommend, when searching for objects near the zenith, to make sure that you're not over-stretching to peer up the finder scope. I did just that and spent the next two days with a stiff neck!
A very wide range of telescopes was on show at Astrocamp this year including five Schmidt-Cassegrains of sizes between 200 mm and 360 mm aperture with a range of digital setting circles and fully automatic target acquisition systems. There were also Dobsonians from 150 mm to 300 mm including one 200 mm model made from plywood with a skeleton frame of 10 mm dowel rods which weighed only 5 kg yet was very rigid. Refractors ranged from 75 mm to 150 mm aperture and there were numerous equatorially-mounted Newtonians from 115 mm to 360 mm aperture. Norman Fisher displayed a new telescope design: called Equuleus, it was a 115 mm f4.5 Newtonian weighing less that 1 kg, costing less than £150 and able to be folded so as to fit into a suitcase for easy observing on holiday. The optical quality of Equuleus was excellent and, in my view, it provided the best views of the event of Comet Levy.
Other highlights of Astrocamp included a Star-B-Que and a visit to Hammerwood Park House near East Grinstead. The Star-B-Que was held on the evening of Saturday 18 August, one of only four cloudy nights during Astrocamp. The local folk group Southern Folk provided music. The event was a great success with only one or two mishaps, one of which occurred while we were enjoying the music inside the marquee. A rather drunk individual, who must remain nameless (it wasn't me!), decided that it would be fun to let down the guy ropes which hold up the sides of the marquee. Luckily no damage was done and after restraining the miscreant from doing any further damage we put the guy ropes right again. The visit to Hammerwood Park House during the second week was very interesting. The house was built in 1792 by the French-trained English architect Henry Latrobe. It was his first big contract; he later went on to design the Capitol Building and the White House in Washington where he gained fame for his innovative designs. He built Hammerwood House as a hunting lodge for a local landowner. The present owner bought the building six years ago when he was 21 years old with money that he had inherited from his grandfather. At that time the house was in a state of total disrepair: there was no lead on the roof and dry rot had weakened the floors to such an extent that the floors and ceilings of the second, third and fourth floors were resting on the ground floor ceiling which in turn was only held up because of the large amount of lead plumbing in it. Since that time the house has been refurbished throughout and brought back to its original condition. It contains several collections owned by members of the family, including a collection of all things photographic, a collection of antique clothes and a collection of antique glassware. We spent almost four hours at the house looking around the many rooms and enjoying the huge cream teas on offer in the light and airy atrium in the middle of the old servants' quarters, which contains around the walls the only complete copy in existence of the Elgin Marbles. If you are visiting East Sussex the house is well worth a visit.
Details of next year's Astrocamp will be available around June 1991 but provisionally the date has been fixed for the beginning of August. It will be well worth a visit even if you stay only for a weekend.
FEAAS Summer Sky Camp, 21-23 July 1990
On the weekend of 21-23 July 1990, members of astronomical societies associated with the newly formed Federation of East Anglian Astronomical Societies (FEAAS) gathered at the Dower House camp site in Thetford Forest for a sky camp. Avoiding any jokes about astronomical activity being "in tents", I should explain that a sky camp is about taking telescopes or binoculars and tent or caravan to a rural campsite with good dark skies to enjoy excellent observing conditions without a long trek back home at the end of the night. Gary Marriott and I from OASI attended the sky camp and we joined members of North Star Astronomical Society (Thetford and Diss) and Lowestoft and Yarmouth Regional Astronomers (LYRA). We made observations of sunspots by day and of planets, Comet Levy, Messier and other faint objects by night. We also witnessed a number of bright meteors which might have been early Delta-Aquarids.
Solar observation did not occupy us all day so we also took the opportunity to explore the area, which has many points of interest: nature trails winding through the forest and the remains of the old estate, of which the Dower House was a part, are worthy of exploration. On Saturday the party took a trip to Bury St Edmonds to see the sights and to ponder the plight of a disused observatory, complete with 150 mm refractor, situated above the council buildings. The observatory was established around the beginning of the 20th century when the building was the venue for meetings of local literary and scientific societies. With no astronomy club operating in Bury St Edmonds at present it is likely that the observatory will fall into irreversible decay. We agreed that the FEAAS should address the issue in the near future.
Saturday proved to be a very warm day and after challenging a group of American campers to a game of volleyball and enjoying a practice session the hot weather - not our lack of sporting ability! - forced us to withdraw. In the evening the sky campers enjoyed a barbeque which benefitted from the warm weather.
The next FEAAS Sky Camp will be arranged for Autumn 1990 or Spring 1991 when the nights are longer and the seeing is likely to be at its best: look out for details!
Rayleigh Astronomical Society 21st Anniversary Convention,
06 May 1990
On Sunday 06 May 1990, the Rayleigh Astronomical Society (Rayleigh AS) held its 21st anniversary celebration at Mill Hall, Rayleigh. Being only some 90 minutes drive from Ipswich, several members of OASI attended. Usually for such an event, if numbers travelling warrant it, we hire a minibus. In this instance, eleven members of OASI announced their intention to attend, so we therefore (again!) asked Alan Smith to volunteer to arrange a minibus. Unfortunately, due to the May Day Bank Holiday on the following day, no minibuses were available, so instead we had to make last-minute arrangements to travel in two cars.
The trip was to be an exercise in precision timing! We arranged to meet at Alan's house between 8.30 and 9.00am. I had volunteered to drive half the party and Eric Sims had volunteered to drive the other half. I arrived at Alan's at about 8.30am with my two sons Darren and Martin to find Alan and James Appleton ready and waiting. Unfortunately, on arrival I discovered that I'd left our packed lunches at home! Seconds after making this unwelcome discovery, Gary Marriott and Pete Richards arrived. I therefore decided to make a swift journey home to collect our lunches, taking Pete, Gary, James, Darren and Martin with me, and making arrangements that Alan would depart with Eric Sims and Roy Gooding (not yet arrived) for Rayleigh if we had not returned by 9.00am. In the event, I arrived back at Alan's before Eric and Roy left so we began the journey to Rayleigh in a convoy of two cars as originally arranged, with Eric leading the way. Some 200 m down the road we met the first traffic island and were separated by the flow of traffic, not meeting again until we arrived at Rayleigh.
We found our way to Mill Hall using the map provided by the organisers of the Convention. Our journey was relatively trouble free, involving only one more circuit of the Rayleigh one-way system than is strictly necessary! However, arriving at Mill Hall we found that the car park had been commandeered for a fete that was to take place the following day - so once more we circulated around the one‑way system to find another car park!
We finally arrived at the convention in time for a quick look around before the first lecture. Rayleigh AS had arranged a very high quality display of astronomical pictures and notices. There were also games and quizzes and a number of trade stands, including Earth & Sky (Rosemary Naylor), Broadhurst Clarkson and Fuller, Ian Poyser and A W R Technology. While waiting for the lecture to start, we met Roy Adams (trustee of OASI and committee member of Rayleigh AS) and Joe Walsh plus his wife and daughter, bringing the grand total of the OASI contingent to thirteen. Joe's daughter went on to win one of the quizzes!
Harry Ford of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) gave the first lecture, an entertaining and fascinating account of his work and experiences at the RGO, including descriptions of the instruments and the characters of the famous astronomers who used them. He also gave a humorous account of the letters written over the years to the RGO by various august bodies.
Lunch followed Harry's lecture. Several members of the audience decided to enjoy the hot, sunny weather outside and went to the mound adjacent to Mill Hall, the site of Rayleigh Castle, to eat lunch.
After lunch, Neil Bone gave the second lecture. He presented some beautiful pictures of the spectacular auroral display that occurred on 13 March 1989. Some observers obviously had much clearer skies than we did in the Ipswich area! The second lecture was followed by a short break for refreshments and further time to look around the exhibits. Of particular note were some ex-government finder 'scopes being sold by Ian Poyser: these were very high quality optical instruments providing about x10 magnification. They had the interesting feature of tilting the magnified image downwards enabling visual alignment of the target object using sights along the top of the instrument.
Victor Clube gave the final lecture, with the interesting title of Catastrophism. He gave a brief overview of the accumulating evidence to support his theories that large scale catastrophes that have occurred in historic times have been precipitated by meteor or cometary fragments colliding with the Earth. This was the second time that I have heard Victor talk on this subject and although the first time I thought that much of the evidence was circumstantial and coincidental, I am now beginning to think that the mounting evidence may well prove him correct - in which case we should keep a much more careful watch on the heavens!
After a final look around the trade stands we left the event just after 5.00pm and headed for home.
Astrocamp, 23 July-05 August 1989
Astrocamp is over for another year and I can now get back to eating real food and sleeping (for more that five hours a night) in a comfortable bed! However, my celebration may give a slightly misleading view of Astrocamp 1989 because, apart from the normal difficulties associated with a camping holiday, it was a very enjoyable two weeks spent among like-minded people who were friendly and helpful. The camp was located in an idyllic setting in the Ashdown Forest, Sussex, with clear dark skies where I could get down to come serious observing, talking, photographing and (most importantly) drinking!
The camp was not at all regimented but it soon became apparent that most people did more-or-less the same things at the same time. A typical day for me was as follows:
05:00, 06:00, 07:00 or 08:00 Suddenly woken by strange noise, cold or finding that I had kicked down the tent pole (or combination of all three).
09:00-10:00 Get up, get washed and have breakfast.
10:00-10:30 Organise day's events, usually shopping or visits, and see if anybody needs a lift - usually at least four people do!
10:30-16:30 Out of camp most of the day either visiting or looking for good alternate viewing sights (the forest can get misty).
16:30-19:30 Go swimming in pool, then have dinner, then get equipment organised ready for later. Go to pub.
19:30-22:30 In pub, talking, playing pool and having a few drinks. All the while waiting for it to get dark (honestly!) May leave at 23:50 if cloudy.
22:30-04:00 If skies are clear, observing, photographing, comparing instruments with other observers etc.
04:30-09:00 A well earned sleep. Yawn, crash, snore....!
Now to the holiday itself. For the first week we could not use our normal site because of a mistake by the owners who had double booked us with a group of under-privileged kids from North London (also referred to as little hooligans). So, for the first week, we had to be careful not to leave anything unguarded and, for observing, to take our astronomical equipment to Four Counties Point, a viewing location high on the South Downs about five kilometres from the camp sight with an all round, flat horizon and very dark skies. One unfortunate problem with Four Counties Point was that being both a car park and a viewing site it was very difficult to drive into without ruining the dark adaptation of observers already present.
The weather stayed good for most of the holiday except for one or two nights when it was cloudy. I was most glad that it wasn't at all misty this year; maybe it was just too dry for mist. During the second week a strong weather front passed over giving thick cloud cover and some heavy rain. When this cleared on the last night it left good stable seeing and very little dust in the atmosphere: perfect for a final night of meteor and deep sky observing.
Objects observed during the two weeks included the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mercury and Neptune and Messier objects M15, M27, M31, M101. I also attempted to take some guided astrophotographs of the Cygnus region, Cassiopeia isophotes, M15 and M31, meteors and sunspots. Unfortunately, the meteor photos were not successful.
The most interesting visit of the two weeks was to Commander Henry Hatfield's House in Seven Oaks, Kent. We spent several hours there touring his house and his solar spectrohelioscope, used to observe areas of the Sun's surface at defined wavelengths, around which the house was built. As well as optical observations, he listens to the Sun at two radio frequencies: 139 MHz and 1.6 GHz (approx). The radio receivers plot results on two paper roll plotters which were home-built and cost £15. While we were visiting, the 139 MHz plotter began to show a sharp peak: when the spectrohelioscope was re-adjusted we could see a massive ribbon flare at the centre of the Sun's disk. This consisted of material being blasted out of the Sun, along a magnetic field line directly towards Earth. The detail visible was amazing and, fine-tuning the wavelength knob by just 0.5 nm enabled one to see the top of the flare disappear and the bottom get brighter, since the top is coming towards the Earth and is blue shifted and the bottom is moving away and thus is red shifted. At the end of the visit we spent a final hour in the large terraced garden enjoying tea and biscuits discussing solar and other phenomena.
All in all, Astrocamp is a very enjoyable experience and well worth a visit. If the thought of camping for two weeks is daunting, it is possible to visit for just a day or two or a weekend.
Thetford Sky Camp, 28-30 April 1989
Deep in Thetford Forest something stirs! Could it be squirrels? Deer? Teddy bears?! No: it's star gazers!
The second Thetford Sky Camp was held 28-30 April 1989 (the May Day Bank Holiday weekend). Equipped with telescopes and tents, amateur astronomers from across the region came to the Dower House Camping and Caravan Park near East Harling for the event. Members attended from the Astronomical Society of Haringay, Loughton Astronomical Society, Lowestoft and Yarmouth Regional Astronomers and OASI. Members attending from OASI were Gary Marriott and Pete Richards.
The bar, with an open fire, proved a pleasant venue for talk of observing programs, societies and the Universe (big bang to big crunch or whimper) on the cloudy Friday evening (28 April). However, the Saturday evening was clear and observers braved the cold and damp until the early hours, taking advantage of skies with almost no light pollution. A great variety of instruments were in use: reflectors and refractors; Newtonians and catadioptrics; binoculars and telescopes of up to 30 cm aperture. On Sunday, those observers who managed to stay awake after the previous night's observing visited local attractions, among them Grimes Graves, a neolithic flint mine, which proved very interesting.
The next event of this type is Astrocamp in Ashford Forest, Kent, later in 1989.
BAA Winchester Weekend, 31 March - 02 April 1989
As Orion disappears into the evening twilight and the summer constellations enter the night sky, the thoughts of many observers are of the forthcoming season of conventions and astrocamps. In the vanguard this season is the British Astronomical Association's Annual Weekend Convention, known universally as the BAA Winchester Weekend - the major event bringing together amateur astronomers in the UK.
For 21 years King Alfred's College in Winchester has hosted the Winchester Weekend. The occasion has brought together large numbers of members and non-members of the BAA (up to 200 in total) to hear lectures and to participate in practical demonstrations given by top amateurs and professionals.
In 1989, the OASI delegation to the Winchester Weekend comprised Mike Harlow, Roy Cheesman and me (Pete Richards). I was pleased to meet old friends from the Bristol Astronomical Society and those made at earlier Winchester Weekends. The talks at the Weekend covered a wide range of subjects from solar observation techniques to next generation computing for amateur astronomy. Ian Ridpath discussed the mythological goings-on behind the constellations (see me for sordid details); John Mason gave an astronomical update - news of the universe hot off the press - including news that the second Mars/Phobos probe had gone missing. The audience put the latter news item in context by remembering that the lecture was taking place on the morning of 01 April! Wil Tirion gave the annual Alfred Curtis Memorial Lecture about his work as a stellar cartographer. Wil inherits the mantle of Bayer (author of the first printed star map, Uranometria, published in 1603), Norton, Gall-Inglas et al. It was a privilege to have Wil autograph my copy of his publication Sky Atlas 2000.
In Saturday's practical session, Mike Maunder gave an opportunity to try printing astrophotographs. We engaged in more practical astronomy when, as almost always, the night skies cleared for one night of the weekend to allow those who had brought instruments (of all shapes and sizes) to observe and allow others to test the optics.
Another feature of Winchester Weekends is the trade stands. After considerable browsing of these and discussion, I purchased a manual of advanced celestial astrophotography for the OASI library. (I hope that it will be a useful addition.)
1990 is the centenary year of the BAA, so next years' Winchester Weekend is likely to be better than ever. Perhaps we will see a bigger OASI contingent than ever before: don't miss it!
Orkney, 02-10 February 1989
In 1980, a group of members of OASI visited the North of Scotland, the excuse being to observe the Aurora Borealis. Although no aurorae were observed, the awesome majesty of the scenery immediately impressed itself upon the whole group and the trip became an annual event. In midsummer 1988, the visit was extended to include the Orkney Islands and, with the extra degree of northern latitude gained by location of these islands, we planned observations of the Sun around the summer solstice. In the event, a continual sea fog covered the low lying islands and all astronomical interest was taken up by visits to the standing stone henge monuments and other neolithic structures that abound in an amazing state of preservation and restoration. Once again it was the "spirit" of the land and its people that made a lasting impression on the small group of OASI members that made the journey. As a result we planned a return visit, this time during the long dark days of winter 1988-89, with a hope of observing the Northern Lights. The following is an account of the journey to, and time spent on, the Orkney Islands...
Three members of OASI, David Barnard, Pete Richards, and I assembled at 3.30pm on Thursday 02 February 1989 to begin the journey. Because bad weather and poor road conditions were expected we decided to let the "train take the strain" (in the words of the advert for British Rail) and so our assembly point was Ipswich railway station. (Owing to British Rail pricing structures and the availability of trains and ferries at weekends, our journey had to start on a Thursday!) We first purchased tickets for the day-long journey of over 800 miles (at what we thought was a very reasonable price) and booked a sleeping car for the return trip (at what we thought, and subsequently indeed proved to be, a very unreasonable price). Then the adventure began!
Our journey started well. We easily reached London and caught the connection to Edinburgh (occupying our reserved seats) without difficulty. (Several tens of people without seat reservations had to STAND for the entire journey!) Unfortunately, a suspected suicide on the line meant that our arrival in Edinburgh was delayed and, despite assurances from the guard on our train that our connection with the last train to Inverness would be held, an empty platform at Edinburgh Waverley Station told a different story. This was disaster, as missing our connection with the Inverness train would mean that we would miss all further connections, including the only ferry to Orkney, and two nights accommodation somewhere in Scotland would not be an adequate alternative. We approached the station manager, explained the situation and, within half an hour, were on a special train taking us to Stirling where the original connecting train was being held for us! We made the rest of the journey to the most northerly station in Britain, Thurso, without incident and with a "hostess" style buffet delivering refreshments through the night, it was as comfortable as we could ask for. The bad weather that we had expected did not materialise and, in fact, we did not see a single flake of snow on our journey at this stage.
We boarded the ferry MV St Ola at midday on 03 February and the final two hour leg of the journey commenced. The waters of the Pentland Firth between the mainland of Northern Scotland and Orkney, in which we had seen killer whales during the summer, were now churned by a force eight wind - and not all passengers were good sailors! We passed the Old Man of Hoy and welcomed the sight of Stromness Harbour.
We began our first day proper in Orkney, Saturday 04 February (day 3), with a visit to Yesnaby cliffs. These sheer cliffs, in excess of 60 m high, face almost due west and we could see, due to storm conditions, the waves breaking over the top as we drove our hired car along the access road to park in the lee of a long-abandoned wartime lookout post. It was difficult to stand upright in the teeth of the gale and the pictures that we took do not convey the force of wind and sea that sent plumes of spray and foam tens of metres into the air.
Our second night on Orkney was to be spent on the remote island of Hoy, so we drove across Orkney Mainland (largest of the islands) to the small ferry terminal in gathering darkness hoping that the inter-island ferry would still run despite the weather conditions. Fortunately, it did! We completed the 30 minute ferry crossing to Hoy and the short drive to our farmhouse bed and breakfast accommodation in total darkness and it was with some apprehension that we knocked on the door. However, the warmth of our welcome was incredible and our rooms were perfect. Our hosts, Louise and Arthur, ran a beef farm, and our short stay will remain in my mind forever - the farmhouse was a perfect retreat from the rat-race of southern Britain. Arthur was working flat out to complete construction of a new byre before the cows began calving. Although our stay was for only three nights it quickly became apparent that the people of Hoy have retained something that we in the south of the UK seem to have lost: a regard for the land and all that it supports. Even though Arthur was running a commercial enterprise he still had time for all of his animals individually (a calf born while we stayed on the farm was not just pounds and pence), chemicals were virtually never used on the fields, and wild flowers still abounded in the spring.
We spent our first day on Hoy walking to the summit of Ward Hill, the highest point in Orkney. We ascended the 500 m hill in storm force winds with David being lifted off the ground at one point. We saw white mountain hares near the summit just before a short, sharp blizzard cut visibility to nil, and at last we saw and felt snow under our boots. On our return Louise told us that our climb in such conditions would be a talking point for some time to come! The next day we walked overland to the Old Man Of Hoy and St John's Head, at 400 m the tallest sheer cliffs in Britain. Persistent high winds and driving rain made the walking difficult and the possibility of observing the aurora was beginning to look dubious. (The day before we arrived, Arthur explained, the auroral display had been so spectacular that even the locals, used to such displays, had suspended darts matches and left the pub to watch!)
The next day we took leave of our marvellous hosts and made our way back to Orkney Mainland and then on to the small island of Rousay. The crossing to the island on a small ferry was accompanied by a vicious squall and large quantities of water poured into the boat, only good door seals on the car keeping the flood out of the passenger compartment! On arrival we booked into our next bed and breakfast and then walked to a large natural arch, previously visited by Pete in the summer. Once again, enormous waves pounded the cliffs and explosively rocketed out of caves cut into the cliff face by the power of the water. (This time, fortuitously, Pete was not attacked by nesting birds!)
The night on Rousay was our second last under the dark skies of Orkney and the chance of seeing the aurora was slipping away. Despite a clear interlude early in the evening, cloudy skies had returned and we sat in the bar eating dinner and wondering how we were to get home, having just heard on the news that the rail bridge at Inverness had collapsed leaving the entire North of Scotland rail network isolated from the rest of the UK! Again the friendliness of the locals was evident and before long we stopped our occasional quick looks outside to see if the cloud had cleared. Our host at the bar on this occasion was attempting to keep to the licensing laws, with non-residents asked to leave at around 11.15pm. We residents were just finishing off another round when car headlights pulling into the car park aroused some comment from our landlady. A tap on the glass and the comment The Merry Dancers are just starting, so if you are quick you will see them from near the ferry resulted in frantic activity from we non-Orcadians as we hastily threw warm coats, cameras, tripods etc into the car. (I should explain that the Merry Dancers of the Viking legends are the Northern Lights!) By the time we had got outside, the clouds were beginning to hide a spectacular auroral display with several bright, white, rays shining from an arc high up in the northern sky. There was no time for photography; just amazement that the display was so bright. Unfortunately, the clouds soon cloaked the scene. Despite staying up until 3.00am, rain forced me to believe that there would be no further chance to see the Merry Dancers that night.
The next day dawned clear and the return ferry trip to Orkney Mainland was very smooth, but the forecast for the next day, our last, was for severe SE gales. We again visited the stone circles at Stenness and Brodgar, this time in splendid sunshine and low temperatures, enabling us to take some good pictures. Gathering cloud by sunset told us that gales were indeed on the way, and we prepared for a very rough crossing of the Pentland Firth to the North of Scotland the following day. During our last night on Orkney we reflected on what we might have seen of the Northern Lights if only the weather had been better...
The return trip on the MV St Ola to the port of Scrabster on the north coast of the Scottish mainland was memorable through being rough but we saw no bad sailors this time (perhaps it was too rough?) After the short bus ride to the railhead at Thurso, British Rail assured us that a bus connection would he provided to circumvent the broken rail bridge in Inverness. Our journey home went well until, reaching Inverness, we boarded our overnight sleeper to London to find that there was no restaurant car and the buffet was for 1st class passengers only. Nearly 12 hours on the train and no meal or drink available except for a small bottle of mineral water in our sleeping compartment! We finally arrived home mid-morning 10 February, already planning our next trip!
FAS Convention, Herstmonceux, 08 October 1988
The Federation of Astronomical Societies (FAS) has held a convention at Herstmonceux Castle, Sussex, every year since 1981 and each year members of OASI have looked forward to the pilgrimage. The 1988 convention was the last one to be held at Herstmonceux since, in two years time, the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) is scheduled to move from Herstmonceux to a new base in Cambridge.
The 1988 convention was held on 08 October. A total of 29 members of OASI attended, making this the largest society excursion for many years. Many members travelled independently, but the biggest group made the journey by the usual mode of transport, a 12 seater minibus. All the minibus travellers assembled at Alan Smith's home for a 7.50am start. In previous years the journey to Herstmonceux has often been full of incident; however, this year it passed without a single event of note. Alan drove the minibus on the outward journey, which took less than two and a half hours.
We arrived at Herstmonceux at about 10.15am and parked in front of the castle. The first task was to take the obligatory group photograph, but this seemingly simple task had its pitfalls! We formed an incoherent rabble on the steps leading to the bridge over the moat. Our large gathering seemed to draw the attention of a less experienced group of Herstmonceunians who were searching for the entrance to the castle and we were soon joined by many unknown faces who at first must have been bemused as to why none of us was making any attempt to enter the building. Alan was the first to grasp a moment when no interlopers were present and take a photograph, soon to be followed by Gary who gave everyone an entertaining performance with his efforts to set up his camera. After nearly 15 minutes we made our way over the bridge and into the castle in search of a cup of coffee which we found in the Long Gallery. The weather forecast was for rain arriving around midday and with this in mind several of the group decided that it would be best to walk round the gardens while it was still dry - the walk ended when it started to drizzle. In fact the weather this year was not good; although at the start of our journey the Sun had been shining, the rain that brought the walk around the gardens to a premature end continued until past 6.00pm.
The programme for the day was similar to that of previous years. There were four lectures - I did not attend these so cannot comment on them. However, many members of OASI did attend some or all of the lectures, and Roy Adams, for one, was particularly enthusiastic about David Stickland's lecture on the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite.
The Long Gallery was crowded this year as it had to hold not only the refreshment area but also the trade stands. In the afternoon the RGO facilities were open for inspection; these included the telescopes of the Equatorial Group, the Laser Ranging Telescope and the Star Link Computer. Our contingent split up into several small groups to visit the various attractions.
After a very wet time walking between the various facilities and exhibits of the RGO we decided to call it a day and began the journey home a little after 6.00pm. We made two stops on the way home. The first was at a fish and chip shop in the village of Robertsbridge. The road through Robertsbridge is very narrow and there was a garage forecourt opposite the fish and chip shop. Alan managed to slip the minibus behind the two petrol pumps quite easily. Unfortunately getting away was a little more difficult. The garage forecourt appeared to be very small indeed on the way out and we nearly left with one petrol pump in tow. About five miles down the road Alan handed over the driving to Peter.
The evening saw the first performance of Jean Michel Jarre's concert and laser light show at the London Docks. Driving along the M25 away from the Dartford Tunnel, looking towards the London Docks we were able to see searchlights and laser lights. We decided to find a suitable observing point so, instead of turning right off the M25 onto the A12, we turned left. After about 15 minutes we came across an area of waste land, on a hill with a clear view to the west, which provided a good vantage point to enjoy the laser show some six or seven miles distant. The very best vantage point was from the roofrack on top of the minibus. We stayed watching the show for over half an hour. Although the evening was dry it had by this time become very windy and this eventually persuaded us to resume the journey home. We arrived back in Ipswich at 10.30pm.
Photos below are by Alan Smith.
The group on the bridge to the castle.
Searchlights and laser lights at the Jean Michel Jarre concert.
Astrocamp, 06-20 August 1988
Astrocamp is held each year at the Bernard Sunley Activity Centre in the heart of the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, just south of East Grinstead. The camping facilities there are spartan but clean. The camp is usually timed to coincide with new moon and, if possible, with the Perseid meteor shower, and so in 1988 it ran 06-20 August. During these two weeks, nights were spent observing when clear or drinking when cloudy! Days were spent either resting from the previous night's exertions or taking part in one of the many organized activities which included a guided tour of the RGO at Herstmonceux, a sports day, BBQ, and a paper aeroplane flying competition. Each evening before dinner there was an opportunity to spend an hour in the indoor heated swimming pool at the centre.
I was the only member of OASI attending Astrocamp in 1988. There were members of many other astronomy societies present, including Harringay, Mid-Kent, West Yorkshire and Croydon. Most societies which had a presence at Astrocamp had between two and ten members present.
At night, when the skies were clear the telescope field came alive with observers eager to get the view that they always wanted of a difficult object away from city lights. The number and variety of telescopes was astonishing. Refractors ranged in size from a home-built 75 mm f15 to a huge 200 mm f15 mounted on a tripod standing 2.6 m tall. In the middle of the range
there were two 125 mm refractors, one an f15 folded design made by Unitron, the other an f5 monocular the owner of which has another lens at home to construct, eventually, 125 mm binoculars. Not to be outdone there were reflectors in every size from 150 mm to 250 mm at f6 to f8, both home built and purchased commercially. At the distant end of the telescope field, dwarfing everything else, including its owner, was a 360 mm f5 equatorially-mounted Newtonian, owned and built by Alan Snell from Harringay Astronomical Society. There was also a 250 mm Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain but, even with a 750 mm long dew tube it could only stay operational for 10 minutes at a time before the accumulation of dew on the corrector plate rendered it unusable.
On Friday 12 August, the highlight of the week, the Perseids were at their peak. I spent the first part of the night watching for meteors with all around me calls of There's another one! shortly followed by the cry Oh shut up! from the unlucky who missed the transient sight. Later on I went with an observer from Brighton to a better observing site at Four Counties Point, so called because from it one can see the counties of East and West Sussex, Surrey and Kent - but it being dark I cannot comment on the terrestrial view! Four Counties Point is the highest point for 40 km in any direction and enjoys an almost flat horizon, so provides an unbroken view of the entire sky. I spent the rest of the night at Four Counties Point observing meteors and photographing them using a tracking platform. When we returned to the camp site just before dawn, one eagle eyed observer informed me that during the night he had spotted 275 meteors!
Oxford Astronomy Weekend, 1988
The annual Oxford Astronomy Weekend is organised by the Department of External Studies of Oxford University and is intended to give an account of the latest research in astronomy for the interested layman / amateur astronomer. The course was first run in 1979 and proved so popular that it has been held ever since. With a different area of focus each year the course now attracts great interest and a sizable proportion of attendees have become regulars. The high technical level of the course matches the knowledge of the amateur astronomers, well-read laypeople, "armchair" cosmologists and astrophysicists who attend.
The venue, Rewley House, is attractive and well equipped with a good sized lecture theatre and other facilities. Its location, close to the colleges, makes it an excellent base for exploring the city. Accommodation is provided in pleasant rooms.
The first lecture of the course was given by Dr John Barrow, co-author of the controversial Cosmological Anthropic Principle. It was an excellent opportunity for those present to quiz directly one of the two cosmologists promulgating this theory so recently in the news and the subject of a BBC Horizon programme. Dr Victor Clube then cheered everyone with his account of how the Earth might be devastated in the near future by a gigantic meteor storm. Other lecturers gave up-to-the-minute accounts of recent work on galaxy formation, solar studies and the origin and history of the Universe as a whole.
I was pleased to discover that I was one of four attendees who had also attended the first Weekend in 1979 (I had been under the misapprehension that the Weekend had been run before 1979). However I did miss several years after the first one. The one person who had been to all ten Weekends, by now no doubt a truly expert amateur astrophysicist(!), received a gift from the course organisers. The special dinner to celebrate the occasion of the 10th Weekend was thoroughly appreciated by all and the quiz that followed was tremendous fun. If anyone is interested in attending the 1989 Weekend they can either contact the Department of External Studies directly or contact me.
BAA Winchester Weekend, 25-27 March 1988
Two members of OASI, Mike Harlow and I, attended the 1988 British Astronomical Association Annual Weekend Convention at King Alfred's College, Winchester (the 1988 BAA Winchester Weekend). This was the 22nd Winchester Weekend, an event which brings together amateur astronomers from all over Britain, both members and non-members of the BAA. The course fee included meals and accommodation in college halls from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. (The food was better than when I last attended, in 1982!)
The convention started with a lecture on Armagh Planetarium's new hi-tech shows, which employ video laser-discs and computers to transform the planetarium into a star ship, complete with Hitch-Hikers-Guide-to-the-Galaxy-style ship's computer, in which the visitors cruise around the Universe. The lecture included a demonstration of the dramatic visual effects which could be generated, including real and computer-generated images (still and moving). During the Saturday afternoon practical session we were given hands-on experience in operating the system. Particularly memorable was a sequence in which the audience flies around Mars and swoops down into Olympus Mons (the largest volcano in the Solar System). John Wall, of Crayford Manor Astronomical Society, then gave a lecture in which he showed how an amateur society could build a large telescope - large in this case does mean LARGE, over 75 cm in diameter. After John's lecture we were ready to build a little 20 cm or 25 cm reflector when we returned home, as a practice exercise before we went in for more serious telescope building! Next, Dr Allan Chapman of Oxford University delivered the 12th Alfred Curtis Memorial Lecture, entitled Historical Telescopes. Dr Chapman proved to be a really excellent speaker and the lecture was both fascinating and entertaining. Heather Couper, Nigel Henbest, Michael Maunder and Dan Turton, recently returned from observing the total eclipse in Malaysia, described and showed slides of the event. A tape recorder, said Heather, is essential at a total eclipse. If you record what you say throughout totality you'll be amazed afterwards at how silly you sound - being so awestruck! Michael Maunder told us of his close encounter with a volcano while on the eclipse expedition: several members of the party went to take a look at Krakatoa which had started to rumble gently after a long quiescent period. Close to the centre of the volcano Michael set his camera self-timer and struck a pose with a plume of smoke from the volcano in the background. About two seconds after the timer triggered, Krakatoa ejected a large quantity of ash and rock which came showering down on top of him. He reported that his sunhat saved him from harm but he didn't say if his attempt at photography was successful. Other lectures covering meteors, planetary nebulae, clusters and how to observe and photograph them were given respectively by Neil Bone, Owen Brazell and Bernard Abrams.
Yet again (after 1980, 1981 and 1982) I was fortunate in choosing a Winchester Weekend with (mostly) clear skies. Attendees brought a large number of instruments which we used for observing. The wide variety of telescopes, including home-built reflectors and Celestron and Meade Schmidt-Cassegrains, allowed interesting comparisons of performance. The Students Union bar was a major venue for discussion of different telescopes, observing programmes, news of other societies etc.
The lectures and observing together with numerous trade stands and displays make the Winchester Weekend the biggest event of its kind in the UK with around 200 amateur astronomers attending each year. The event is well worth attending. Winchester is within a few hours of Ipswich by road. Next year's Winchester Weekend will be held 31 March - 02 April and bookings can be made, early in 1989, through the assistant secretary of the BAA.
Thetford Sky Camp, 16-24 April 1988
Sky Camp 1988 was held in Thetford Forest at the Dower House Camping and Caravan Park near East Harling, 16-24 April 1988. On Saturday 16 April I packed a few essentials in the car: telescope, tent, television (for cloudy nights), cans of beer plus the rest of the
paraphernalia for camping with all home comforts. Once loaded I set off for Thetford and, less than an hour later, I had found the Dower House. As I was attending an astronomical event I thought the best place to find out what was going on would be the nearest bar, which was in the Dower House. Thinking correctly, I found Adrian Ashford, responsible for organising the event on behalf of the North Star Astronomical Society, in the bar. After a drink he showed me where to pitch my tent. The field in which tents were pitched had a good all-round view with little light pollution from any nearby towns or villages. As with most field trips it was raining so, after getting myself organised, I watched on the television Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night talking about sunspots. As the programme finished the Sun came out but before I could set up my telescope the clouds had taken over again.
Later in the evening someone spotted Venus through the window of the bar so everybody downed glasses and headed for the field and telescopes. After about an hour of half-decent viewing through holes in the clouds the holes disappeared so everybody gave up and went to bed hoping for a better sky the next night.
Sunday morning after breakfast I went for a wander round the camp but, not having a map or compass, I didn't venture too far. About 10.30am I met others also out walking and joined them, not getting back till 2.00pm. After dinner, more telescopes were set up, covering the range from 75 mm refractors to 300 mm reflectors. At about 9.00pm, Venus was visible in a clear darkening sky. Everybody out again! After about four hours of viewing all types of objects, including satellites, everything became too damp to use, including the mirrors in the telescopes, so we gave up and went to bed about 1.30am.
Next morning I decided that after two nights of good viewing my luck wouldn't hold so I packed up and loaded the car to return home. As I left the site it started to rain.
In the two days I spent at the camp about twenty people attended. Everybody had a good time and some would like to return if another camp could be arranged for perhaps a weekend in September or October.
FAS Convention, Herstmonceux, 03 October 1987
The FAS held its annual convention at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO), Herstmonceux on Saturday 03 October 1987. Members of OASI have attended this event since the first convention in 1981 and, indeed, it has become something of a tradition in the Society's calendar. In 1987, eleven members of OASI met at Alan Smith's house to begin the journey to Herstmonceux by hired minibus. In previous years, Alan had been able to obtain the minibus on the Friday evening. Unfortunately the hire arrangements changed this year and he could not pick up the minibus until 8.00am on Saturday morning; as a result, it was 8.25am when the party finally departed for Herstmonceux. This year was the first time that we were able to take advantage of the new bypass round Chelmsford, thanks to which we arrived at Herstmonceux in record time, the journey having taken only two hours and 25 minutes.
The procedure on arrival at Herstmonceux followed a similar pattern to that of previous years: park on the grass in front of the Castle, register at the west entrance, then take a coffee in the castle dining room. Shortly after sitting down with our coffee, Roy Cheesman and R Bayley arrived, completing our party. While waiting until 11.30 for the first lecture to start, our group perused the various trade stands.
The first lecture was Gravitational Lens by Dr K Subramanian. Those who attended returned a positive verdict. At 1.00pm we adjourned to the minibus for a packed lunch on the grass. The weather was not quite as warm as last year but it was nonetheless sunny with only a gentle breeze.
The afternoon programme at Herstmonceux always involves a walk round the grounds. The walk includes the annual circuit round the former dome of the Isaac Newton Telescope with much philosophical discussion on the future of the structure; visits to the domes and the RGO exhibition at the equatorial group and concludes with the yearly clamber over the laser ranging facility. This year was no exception! During our exploration of the grounds, the incident that caused most interest had nothing to do with astronomy and instead revolved around a brightly coloured hairy caterpillar that we discovered crawling across the approach road to the equatorial group. We could not identify the species, though I suspected that it may belong to the hawk moth family as it had a horn-like structure at its tail end. We returned the caterpillar to the cover of nearby sweet chestnut trees.
After walking around the grounds, our party fragmented, everyone going his separate way. There were two more lectures, Chemically Peculiar Stars and And God Created Newton - A Scientific Genius at Work, but I don't know whether anyone attended either. Towards the end of the afternoon we all met up again in the RGO cafe before walking over to the laser ranging facility and then walking round the grounds once more. We concluded the afternoon with a final look at the trade stands, and approached four of them with invitations to attend our 21st Anniversary Convention on 16 July 1988.
Our party left Herstmonceux a little after 6.00pm. We interrupted the journey twice: first at a fish and chip shop in Robertsbridge and secondly at the Cross Keys pub at Hurst Green; in recent years we have adopted the Cross Keys as our "local" whenever we are returning from the FAS Convention.
We have always experienced unusual and amusing incidents on excursions to Herstmonceux and this year was no exception: two
noteworthy events occurred after our exit from the Dartford Tunnel. Observing the Moon is a familiar sight to all astronomers but we were amused by the spectacle of an occupant in an overtaking car displaying his bare behind through the open rear window. Having
passed us, the driver switched on the car's hazard warning lights and then sped away from us. It was several seconds before everyone in the minibus appreciated the oddity of the apparition and the minibus filled with loud laughter. The second incident occurred a little after 10.00pm and concerned a near graze with a speeding car that had refused to slow down on the M25/A12 interchange slip road.
Members of OASI on the excursion were: David, Darren and Martin Payne, Martin Cook, Eric Sims, Pete Richards, Mike Harlow, David Barnard, Alan Smith, Paul Beaumont and Roy Gooding.
Southern Area Group of Astronomical Societies Convention, 13 June 1987
On Saturday 13 June 1987, five members of OASI left Ipswich bound for Guildford to attend the Southern Area Group of Astronomical Societies Convention. The journey took around two and a quarter hours and we arrived at Guildford Technical College at 10.30am. First call was to the college refectory for coffee, where we met Roy Cheesman, together with two other members of the Rayleigh Astronomical Society.
The first lecture was scheduled to start at 11.30am and, while waiting, we examined the various trade stands. There were about a dozen commercial firms represented, ranging from book sellers to mirror aluminisers. Two items were on the OASI shopping list: an equatorial head and a micrometer. We eagerly obtained various price lists.
Professor Stuart Malin gave the first lecture, Instruments of the Old Royal Observatory, Greenwich. He interspersed his talk with many outstanding anecdotal stories concerning the holders of the post of Astronomer Royal. After the lecture we all adjourned for lunch on the grass near the main college entrance.
The first item of the afternoon was an astronomical Call My Bluff. I was not present for this, instead taking a walk into Guildford town centre. Professor Paul Murdin then gave the second lecture, Supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This lecture gave an interesting insight into the interpretation of the results so far obtained on the recent supernova, though some parts were quite technical. There then followed a break for refreshments after which Dr Victor Clube gave the final lecture Giant Comets and Global Catastrophies Past and Future. Dr Clube has been researching ancient reports with the possible interpretation that many large objects from disrupted comets or other Earth-orbit-crossing bodies have collided with the Earth with greater frequency than was previously believed; this subject at the present time is highly controversial.
At the conclusion of Dr Clube's lecture we re-grouped at the minibus for the journey home. The weather had been sunny all day until the journey home commenced, when it changed for the worse: visibility was only a few hundred yards with torrential rain all along the M25. We found that the nearest fish and chip shop was closed, so we had to look for a second establishment. With a final stop in a hotel bar, our small band of travellers arrived home around 11.30pm. Members of OASI on this trip were: Martin Cook, Alan Smith, David and Darren Payne, Eric Sims, Gary Marriott and Roy Gooding.
Norwich Astronomical Society, 20 February 1987
Anyone who endeavours to pursue an interest in observational astronomy in the UK requires infinite patience and a fatalistic approach to the infamous British weather! For six months, we had arranged dates for a visit by OASI to the Norwich Astronomical Society (NAS) observatory, but bad weather and prior engagements had thwarted all our endeavours. We optimistically awaited Friday 20 February as the latest date for the long-awaited visit.
The weather on the morning of 20 February exhibited a tantalising amount of sunshine between numerous clouds, to raise one's hopes for a clear evening while leaving the final outcome far from certain. However, at 5.00pm, skies were virtually cloudless and at 5.30pm I received a telephone call from Pete Richards: the trip to Norwich was on! Between 6.00pm and 7.00pm my telephone took the part of an unofficial exchange for members of OASI with nine calls in and out. Pete Richards arrived at about 6.40pm to be joined by Gary Marriott at 7.00pm. We collected the final member of our group, Rachael Keveren, and set course for Norwich, in Pete's car, at 7.15pm.
Regular readers of OASI excursion reports are no doubt waiting for an anecdote about the trip to Norwich. They will not be disappointed. After travelling a few miles along the A140 we were overtaken by a fast moving police transit van which was soon hindered in its progress by a slow moving lorry of the type used for transporting sand and gravel. For the next five miles or so the driver of the police van showed all the signs of an impatient driver, attempting to pull out to overtake the lorry, only having to return to the left-hand lane when confronted with oncoming traffic. After a time, a driver behind us decided enough was enough and proceeded to overtake us and everything else up to and including the lorry. Meanwhile, immediately behind the lorry, the police transit van was continuing to oscillate between lanes. As the overtaking car approached, the van was pulling out to its maximum extent behind the lorry. With only feet separating the vehicles, the driver of the van must have glanced in the mirror, realised the danger and taken corrective action just in time to avoid a collision! In time everyone passed the lorry.
We arrived at the NAS observatory at about 8.15pm. The last member of our visiting party, David Payne, arrived about 40 minutes later. Brian Mitchell was already using the 76 cm reflector as we made our way from the car park to the dome. A thin layer of haze was present but did not hinder observations. We used with the 76 cm reflector for over two hours, observing M31, M32, M36, M37, M38, M42, M45 and the double cluster in Perseus. We then transferred to a second dome housing a 250 mm reflector which we used to look at M41, M42 and M43.
We concluded our visit with a short discussion in the NAS club room. Our party left for home at 11.00pm having been considerably chilled by the night air but satisfied with a successful observational evening.
Greenwich Observatory, 24 October 1986
In October 1986, OASI made arrangements to observe the night sky with the 71 cm refractor at Greenwich Observatory. Unfortunately, the instrument was under repair at the time, so observations were not possible.
FAS Convention, Herstmonceux, 04 October 1986
The first Saturday in October is eagerly awaited each year, for it defines the date of the annual FAS convention at Herstmonceux. The FAS has held an annual convention there every year since 1981, and members of OASI have attended each one. Some years we've been hard pressed to fill a car, while other years we've managed to fill a minibus. In 1986, Saturday 04 October was the date of the convention and, I'm pleased to report, we filled a minibus and two cars travelling from Ipswich with an additional three people visiting from Essex and London. This gave a grand total of 24 visitors from OASI, the highest number for an excursion since the 1970s when we could easily fill a 30 seater coach. (Long-time members of OASI may remember Dave Brown and the infamous "white tornado" coach.)
Alan Smith had hired a minibus and those intending to travel with him had assembled at his house by 8.25am. By 8.30am, we were on our way on the first leg of our journey, to the Dartford Tunnel, where we would cross under the river as troglodytes. The journey to the Dartford Tunnel was uneventful and we did not suffer any delays even at Chelmsford. However, three curiosities en route caught my eye:
- The most bizarre sighting was at the start of our journey, where I saw a large notice in bright red letters in Belstead Road advertising a rival attraction for the the day. The Anglian Water Authority had decided not to be out-done by the CEGB at Sizewell and was staging its public open day with no expense spared. If you and your family were tired of picnicing at local beauty spots and longed for a change of air in fresh surroundings, how about the pleasure of a day out at your local sewerage treatment works?!
- The vehicle recovery services of the AA and RAC must have fallen upon hard times. Their respective vehicles were parked vulture-like in the middle of numerous fly-overs all the way to the Dartford Tunnel, waiting eagerly for dying cars to pass by.
- And finally, have you ever seen a regatta taking place along the A12? I witnessed one: two large mastless boats on transporters voyaging in parallel along the opposite carriageway on course for an unknown finishing gun. Their speed would have done justice to any power boat race!
The minibus was well behaved except for the battery which, Alan told us, was suspect, the speedometer which did not wake from its slumbers until Chelmsford, and the super-responsive suspension which amplified every bump in the road to the extent that the inside of the van gyrated much as a boat does on a choppy sea. A request for sea sickness tablets would not have been inappropriate.
We arrived at our destination at 11.00am after a journey of two and a half hours, making it one of our fastest runs to Herstmonceux. The feared hold-ups at the numerous road works after the Dartford Tunnel did not materialise. Our first priority after parking the minibus was to find a supply of coffee. In previous years we had made use of the cafe; this year, instead, coffee was being served in the castle. Whilst we waited in the queue, Roy Cheesman, who had arrived some time earlier, stumbled across our group. After the refreshment break our party fragmented and dispersed all round the castle in pursuit of the various trade stands and exhibits or went walking round the grounds. We found Eric Sims and family wandering around the gardens; they had journeyed independently by car, leaving Ipswich at 8:15am. David Payne and family did not arrive as early as they had intended, having been delayed by the road works mentioned above.
The first three Herstmonceux Conventions (1981-83) suffered abysmal weather. In 1984 and 1985 the weather was considerably better. However, this year the weather pulled out all the stops and the sun shone continuously all day from a cloudless blue sky. In fact the day was probably the best Saturday since July. Any astronomical programme that coincides with good weather is a rare occasion, an event to be savoured!
As the time approached 1.00pm our thoughts inclined towards lunch. The last member of our group, Donald Taylor, arrived just as we were starting lunch; Donald is a member of ASH (the Astronomical Society of Harringay) and has visited us at Orwell Park for the last two years while holidaying in the area. We enjoyed packed lunches on the grass in front of the castle, with everyone taking full advantage of the Indian Summer.
After lunch our party again split up with people going their separate ways. The largest group made their way up the hill to the domes of the Equatorial Group of telescopes. The public exhibition that used to be housed in the castle had been moved to the Equatorial Group and several of the domes were open to the public. The first dome that I visited was home to the Hewitt camera, used for determining precisely the orbits of artificial satellites. It was no ordinary camera, with a 61 cm diameter corrector lens and a 76 cm mirror behind it.
Following the visit to the Hewitt Camera, I attended a presentation entitled Encounter, A Journey Through The Solar System. The presentation took the form of an audio-visual display. For those
not familiar with this type of presentation I will explain: two slide projectors are used, alternately fading slides in and out in sequence on to the projection screen, with backing music to complete the presentation. The first part of the programme featured hot air ballooning. This was followed by a selection of recent images from planetary probes. This was the only presentation that I attended out of the five held during the day.
I then visited the RGO cafe and thereafter made my way to the Laser Ranging Telescope for my annual visit. Every year something new is fastened to the outside of tube of the instrument and this year was no exception; a long black tube accompanied by its "Black Box" (actually bright orange in colour) had been fastened to the telescope tube. The tube housed a new low light TV camera. Alan, the perpetual optimist, remembered that in previous years there had been a different camera on the telescope and enquired if it was, perhaps, no longer required. Unfortunately, it was not surplus to requirements and was in use elsewhere! Everyone wanted to see the laser fired; unfortunately the next firing was not until 4.00am so we missed it.
After perusing the trade stands one last time, we set off for home at 6.30pm. Another ritual of trips to Herstmonceux is to stop off at the Cross Keys pub at Hurst Green on our way home. Our stay there this year was longer than in previous years as some of our group decided to have a meal. For those not dining at the Cross Keys, we made an additional stop at a fish and chip shop in Orpington. The remainder of the journey home was uneventful and we arrived at 11.00pm. Travellers in the minibus were: Martin and Judith Cook, Roy and Margaret Lobbett, David Barnard, Maria Poster, Michael Harlow, Garry Marriott, Nigel Gage, Wendy, Alan Smith and Roy Gooding.
Photographs below by Roy Gooding.
The Hewitt Camera.
The Laser Ranging Telescope (the laser itself is on the other side of the telescope).
Mid-Kent Astronomical Society Convention, 01 February 1986
On Christmas Eve 1985, together with a bundle of almost belated Christmas cards, presumably posted with complete indifference to the yearly plea from the Post Office to post early for Christmas, a brown envelope arrived. Inside was a letter from the Mid-Kent Astronomical Society giving details of their forthcoming convention to be held on Saturday 01 February 1986 at the Mid-Kent College, Horsted, Chatham in association with the Institution of Electronic and Radio Engineers. It was impossible to circulate details of this event in the January OASI Newsletter, as it had already been distributed. However, I made known the details of the meeting at the OASI AGM on 11 January 1986. Several members showed an interest in attending so I subsequently purchased tickets. Unfortunately, as the date approached, four people intending to attend had to cancel the trip due to clashes with other commitments.
So it was that on 01 February, Michael Harlow, Roy Lobbett, Gary Marriott and I left Ipswich heading towards the car park at the Dartford Tunnel. We arrived at 9.40am to meet Roy Cheesman and another member from the Chelmsford Astronomical Society. Roy knew the way to Chatham so we followed him, reaching our destination with ease in about 30 minutes.
The day's programme comprised eight lectures heavily biased towards the Voyager II spacecraft at Uranus, the Giotto spacecraft and Halley's comet, together with various trade stands. The morning's programme began with a talk by the TV South weatherman, Ron Lobeck. Ron talked about his use of weather satellites and what they can and cannot do along with the numerous pitfalls of live broadcasting. He concluded his lecture by showing time lapse photography of cloud formations over the UK during a 10 day period. The second lecture was given by Gregory Smye-Rumsby on Voyager II at Uranus. Before Gregory started, the audience had been informed that he was suffering from jetlag, having recently arrived hot-foot from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, the headquarters of the Voyager programme. What followed was quite amazing. The presentation was more a comedy act than a serious talk! Within the first five minutes I had developed a puzzled expression, thinking what have we got here? Amidst roars of laughter Gregory bounced about the stage dashing between a blackboard, an epidiascope and a large globe of the Earth, accompanied with sound effects to describe the solar wind intercepting the magnetic fields of the Earth and Uranus. If this speaker were jet lagged, what would he be like when at his most energetic? A lecture on the history of Halley and Herschel followed before everyone adjourned to the college refectory for lunch. After lunch, I spent the time before the start of the afternoon programme perusing the trade stands, where most of the OASI group succumbed to the temptation to buy something. The afternoon programme consisted of a talk on Halley's Comet, followed by three lectures by people involved in the design and operation of experiments on board the Giotto space probe and concluded with a presentation on comets and the formation of meteor streams.
The convention closed at 6.30pm having overrun by about 30 minutes. We left for home about a quarter of an hour later. As we set off, I noted that it was still raining, having never stopped since we left Ipswich some 10 hours previously.
Greenwich Observatory, 06 December 1985
In May 1985, Roy Cheesman suggested that OASI make a request to use the 71 cm refractor at Greenwich to observe Halley's Comet. We subsequently booked our observing slot for Friday 06 December 1985 and, at 10.00am on that day, our party congregated at Alan Smith's home where we piled into a hired minibus and proceeded along the A12 towards London. It was not long before we became aware of the eccentricities of the minibus. A red light flashed to life whenever we exceeded a predetermined speed while the near side wing mirror gave Alan, our driver, a bird's eye view of the front wheel and not much else! However, the most alarming peculiarity was the flexible and noisy roof which resulted in every bump in the road exclaiming its presence with a loud clank. The first time we transited a bump many pairs of anguished eyes peered all around and behind the minibus to see what had fallen off!
We had arranged to meet Roy Cheesman at H W English's shop near Brentwood and, by good luck, we arrived there within minutes of him. Originally, our stay there was planned to last for only minutes. However, with a group of 11 astronomers at an optical equipment shop, a rapid departure was wishful thinking! We scrutinised the window display in great detail and held a lengthy discussion before venturing inside, completely filling the available floor space. Except for Alan, no-one had intended buying anything. However, during the next hour we made numerous requests to look at pieces of equipment, especially after we learned that the business was closing down in early 1986. We requested to look at an ex-government pair of 10x80 binoculars. These were so massive that it required two people to use them: one to hold the instrument with the second person looking through them. We transferred the binoculars to a rickety wooden tripod positioned outside the shop and took turns at using them to count the number of bolts on a nearby pylon (about half a
kilometre away), to determine whether or not a flag on a church steeple was at full or half mast (about eight kilometres away) and to examine the tail section of a low flying Boeing 747 to look for fatigue cracks! After what seemed like a long period of thought and careful consideration (about five minutes in reality!) the consensus of opinion was that the best home for the binoculars would be Orwell Park Observatory, and we purchased them. Before we left, we purchased in addition to the binoculars two 7x50 monoculars and a large piece of hemispheric glass. Leaving with the unplanned booty we made our way back to the A12.
Roy Cheesman decided to join us in the minibus if he could find a parking place for his car, intending to leave it in a hotel car park near the A12-M25 interchange. We sped along the A12 in convoy towards the junction. After some time, in the minibus, Alan heard a cry from the rear Ah, there's the place, Trust House "Fawlty"! upon which he executed a 180° turn at a roundabout (the first of many such manoeuvres). After watching the to-ing and fro-ing of several vehicles, all intent on either parking at the hotel or leaving it, Roy was able to slide his car into an empty parking spot, leave it, and join us in the minibus for the remainder of the journey.
The time was approaching 1.00pm and we began to look for a suitable venue for lunch. Eventually we found a pub, named The Pigeon, advertising food. We parked in a nearly full back street which displayed signs saying "No parking!" and then entered the pub. Once inside, it became immediately apparent that our presence was at variance with the majority of the clientele. We would not wish to enter a less salubrious emporium: all that was lacking was sawdust on the floor and spittoons! Our retreat was faster than our advance. However, all was not lost, since round the corner was the lounge; this was well furnished with wall-to-wall carpets and offered a selection of hot and cold foods at reasonable prices. However, after our initial experience, it was several minutes before the last of our group could be persuaded to venture into the lounge bar.
Up until lunchtime, we had enjoyed clear blue skies that boded well for the evening. Unfortunately, this was to change and it rained with variable ferocity continuously for the next eight hours. We reached Greenwich Park at 2.00pm. Moments before our arrival, a back‑seat driver instructed Alan that the car in front was at the Park gates. We drew up next to the car indicated only to find that it was parked off the road nowhere near the gates! With a bump our minibus lurched over a kerb and back on to the road having followed the premise that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line: we had inadvertently cut a corner.
After parking, we descended upon the Greenwich Park tea shop for refreshments. We pulled together two tables in the tea shop to facilitate the first committee meeting to be held in London. Despite threats from the proprietor of the tea shop, the possibility of premature curtailment of the meeting through eviction never came to fruition! When the meeting was over we reported to the kiosk of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. After a while we met Carol Stott who suggested that a visit to the space exhibition in the National Maritime Museum at the bottom of the hill would be a good idea. The exhibition was too extensive for us to see it all in the time available before we had to report back to the Observatory. On reporting at the Observatory, a member of staff asked if a visiting Australian could join our group and, of course, we consented. As the weather did not permit any observing, we spent about an hour in the Planetarium where Carole Stott gave a general talk on the Observatory, and hosted informal discussions on our sighting of Halley's Comet and the workings of the Planetarium. For the benefit of Alan and Roy (recently returned from a trip to Australia to observe Halley's Comet) Carole projected the southern hemisphere stars. We spent about 45 minutes in the dome of the 71 cm refractor, much enjoying the time there.
A little after 6.30pm we started the journey home and, after several wrong turns, eventually found our way to the A12. A stop in Leytonstone at a fish and chip shop lasted about 20 minutes. We then missed the turning to the Trust House Forte Hotel and Roy's car and had to make an eight mile detour up and back down the A12 before we were able to reach it. After that we spent nearly an hour in the public bar of the hotel before setting off for home, where we arrived at about 11.00pm.
The members of the group were: Martin Cook, David Barnard, David and Darren Payne, Roy Lobbett, Michael Harlow, Chris Albins, Eric Sims and Roy Gooding.
FAS Convention, Herstmonceux, 05 October 1985
The FAS held its fifth annual convention at Herstmonceux on 05 October 1985. Although this yearly event seems to come round as frequently as Monday mornings, it is a lot more enjoyable! The assembly point this year was my house. Eric Sims arrived at 07:00 by car, our means of transport, to be followed shortly by Martin Cook and Judith Herring. We first made a short journey across town to pick up Alan Smith. Both Martin and Alan were showing signs of not being able to last out the day as they had been up most of the previous night vainly attempting to locate Halley's Comet. By 07:25 our group was heading south for darkest Sussex.
As we approached the Dartford Tunnel, visions of our last abortive attempt to traverse the Thames via this route were never far away. Fortunately, on this occasion the M25 was congestion-free, at least on the section that we were using! About a ½ mile from the tunnel is a tower with seemingly little practical use except to be the harbinger of potential doom and congestion. On the top of the tower are two numbers that flash on and off, giving the time and temperature. The number of motorists who divert their gaze to these flashing lights is unknown, but at least four pairs of eyes did in Eric's car. We negotiated the tunnel with ease but ahead lay the formidable barrier of the tollbooths. We found an empty tollbooth; Eric proceeded to look around, hopeful of finding a willing hand emerging from a kiosk to accept our voucher. No hand appeared: nobody was in residence. We had inadvertently entered an automatic tollbooth, accepting only coins. We pressed the button to summon assistance; nothing happened except that the car behind us reversed back to find another tollbooth. We rapidly followed suit, with anguished glances towards the fast approaching traffic to our rear. Finding a manned kiosk we were once again on our way.
We had arranged to meet Roy Cheesman at 08:30 at the tunnel car park. Precisely at the appointed time, we found him waiting for us together with two friends, David Perkins and Michael Frost. We proceeded towards Herstmonceux in a convoy of two cars with Roy in the lead. Everything went smoothly until we neared our destination. In previous years, entrance to the RGO grounds had been by the east gate; this year the preferred route was changed to the west gate. As Roy approached the lane for the east gate his left indicator sprung to life. With flashing headlights and a cheer we bid him farewell as he disappeared gracefully round the corner. Our car made its way to the west gate, arriving at 10:00. Car parking was at the usual place on the grass in front of the castle. On seeing the parked cars, it seemed reasonable to turn off the road to join them. However, with little room to spare, we narrowly missed giving potential spectators the most dramatic entrance of the day. The ground in front of us suddenly plummeted downwards by 1.5 metres. Fortunately, a quick touch of the steering and we avoided the drop, leaving in doubt the question as to whether Eric's car could ever gain its air worthiness certificate. It was ten minutes before Roy reappeared, having failed to pass through the east gate. The wait was not without incident. The car park extended over an acre but this did not deter a determined person from parking a retired van only 1 metre away from us. It appeared that the air conditioning in the van was malfunctioning as all four doors were soon flapping in the wind to admit a cooling breeze and, unfortunately, one of them made contact with Eric's car. Once our party was complete again, we walked over to the reception desk in the castle, then went for coffee in the cafe, and for a look round the trade stands.
At 11:00, Dr Paul Murdin, of the European Observatory on La Palma, gave the first lecture. Only a limited number of seats were available, which left nearly as many people standing as sitting. The number of people in the room caused the temperature to rise considerably and this, unfortunately, soon became a major distraction. After the lecture, our thoughts turned to lunch. The cafe was closed at this time so hot drinks were unavailable. After all, cafe workers are entitled to have a lunch break so why shouldn't they close at lunch time! We retreated back to the cars for packed lunches. After lunch we split up into several groups to walk around the grounds, take refreshments at the bar in the castle, and look round the trade stands again. Everyone joined up again for the 14:00 lecture by Michael Maunder on Astrophotography. When the lecture finished everyone went outside to enjoy the fine, sunny weather and to visit the laser ranging and 66 cm refracting telescopes. Roy and his friends attended the third lecture, by David Hardy on Artists in Space. We left for home at 18:00 and were thus unable to bid farewell to them as we left.
The journey home went well until we encountered a roundabout at which we took a wrong turn. I can now put at rest the minds of those who have been kept awake at night with the nagging doubt as to whether or not a Ford Sierra car can turn in its own length: with passengers cowering in the back, Eric executed a U-turn back to the roundabout. The next stop was at a fish and chip shop in Orpington. Having passed through the Dartford Tunnel, we noticed an ambulance parked in the middle of a fly-over, close to the tower displaying temperature and time information - we questioned whether ambulances in Essex tout for business! We reached home at 21:30. Members present on the trip were Martin Cook, Judith Herring, Alan Smith, Eric Sims, Roy Cheesman and Roy Gooding.
Greenwich Observatory, 15 June 1985
The last OASI excursion to the old Greenwich Observatory was in 1979. Since that time, we had discussed on several occasions possible arrangements for a return trip - but these were all abandoned due to lack of support from members. However, at the beginning of 1985 we decided to go to Greenwich at any cost: we agreed a date of Saturday 15 June but, unfortunately, a request for a guided tour of the observatory and the 71 cm refractor on that date did not come to fruition.
On the arranged date, two groups of OASI members travelling in separate cars met at a garage forecourt at Copdock. We had agreed beforehand to travel to Greenwich via the Dartford Tunnel. The journey was uneventful until some five miles from the tunnel when we passed a motorway hazard warning light indicating a 60 mph speed limit. We did not assume anything untoward at this point as all traffic continued at a speed consistent with the warning. About one mile further on a second warning gantry flashed an equally prominent 50 mph limit. Visibility was good (at least 1 AU!) so the problem could not be fog - so what was it? A few seconds later we passed an advisory 30 mph speed limit. Then, from out of the heat haze, emerged a traffic jam stretching as far as the eye could see. At this time, we had travelled some 60 miles from Ipswich in under one hour. In the next 30 minutes we travelled a further distance of 75 feet! We quickly convened an escape committee. The first meeting was initiated with much flapping of maps and communication between the two cars with David Payne acting as foot messenger. Our situation on the motorway was as follows: we were embedded in three lanes of traffic stretching for (at least) two miles ahead and probably more to the rear. To our immediate left was the hard shoulder which was free of traffic. Fifty yards behind us was a slip-road which led to the A13 and Blackwall Tunnel while 100 yards further behind was parked a police Range Rover which fortunately appeared devoid of life. We made the obvious decision at this point and executed a manoeuvre which is not found in any edition of the Highway Code. Thirty minutes later we were travelling under Old Father Thames via the Blackwall Tunnel with the South Bank beckoning in the near distance. Our arrival time at Greenwich was 10:45.
We spent the first hour and a half at Greenwich in the old Observatory before adjourning for lunch to the top of the Park Hill with a fine view of the National Maritime Museum and the Thames, with St. Paul's in the distance. During lunch, the Red Arrows flew past leaving red, white and blue smoke trails over London. This was not for our benefit but was connected with the Queen's official birthday and the Trooping of the Colour ceremony. After lunch, everyone in our party except Mary Edwards walked down to the National Maritime Museum. Mary was even more nautically inclined and went for a river trip along the Thames. We all met back at the cars at about 17:00 for a quick tea, eating any leftovers from lunch.
We left Greenwich Park at about 17:30 and set course for the Dartford Tunnel. We broke the journey for some 40 minutes at a pub where Martin Cook, David Payne and Eric Sims endeavoured to impress each other with their skills on the pool table. After this the two car parties bid each other farewell, making their separate ways home. We experienced no delays on the homeward trip.
Members on the trip were Martin Cook, Judith Herring, David Payne, Mary Edwards, Eric Sims and family and Roy Gooding. As a postscript, Roy Cheesman, who had intended meeting us at Greenwich and had begun the journey, had a quick change of mind and returned home when he saw the traffic jam that we had experienced. According to Roy, the congestion was due to a bus which had shed a wheel inside the south-bound tunnel.
Norwich Astronomical Society, 12 April 1985
On Friday 12 April 1985, four members of OASI visited Norwich Astronomical Society's observatory, situated near the boundary of the University of East Anglia campus. The NAS observatory consists of three buildings: a club room, a dome housing a 25 cm reflector and a larger dome housing a 75 cm reflector.
NAS has been constructing the 75 cm reflector for well over a decade! It is now operational but requires additional work before it can be said to be fully functioning. The additional work includes motorising the dome and and installing computer controllers and a digital display for the RA and declination drives. Currently, the dome has to be turned manually.
Members of OASI who went on the trip were: Roy Lobett, Eric Sims, Martin Cook and Roy Gooding.
Second East Anglian Astronomical Societies Convention, 23 February 1985
On Saturday 23 February 1985, the Braintree, Halstead and District Astronomical Society hosted the second East Anglian Astronomical Societies Convention. As on so many previous occasions, we used Alan Smith's house as the assembly point for members of OASI living in or near Ipswich to meet before travelling to the event. Two cars left Alan's at 09:00 for the Village Hall at Silver End, near Braintree. The address gave us visions of a dilapidated hut in the corner of a field surrounded by the elements of a village in decline; however, on arrival we found a large, well built community centre. But car parking was limited, and recent arrivals were attempting to park in a field behind the hall, which transformed it into a muddy quagmire in a matter of minutes, with vehicles slithering uncontrollably.
We took the display of OASI activities for 1984 into the hall and set it up. Within some 20 minutes, the rest of the OASI party arrived. The convention then began, with the following
- Nigel Henbest: Telescopes
- Heather Couper: Journey to the Centre of the Galaxy
- Break for lunch
- Ian Nicholson: The Universe
- David Dewhurst: The Sun
Throughout the event, there were several trade stands and numerous displays from astronomical societies.
Members of OASI who attended included: Roy & C Cheesman, Mike Nicholls, David & Darren Payne, Martin Cook, Eris Sims, V Chapman, D Thorpe and Roy Gooding.
FAS Convention, Herstmonceux, 06 October 1984
On Saturday 06 October 1986, the Federation of Astronomical Societies (FAS) held its fourth annual convention at Herstmonceux, the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, in Sussex, about 11 miles from Eastbourne. Three members of OASI attended from Ipswich: Martin Cook, Eric Sims and Roy Gooding. We left Ipswich at 07:50 and en route (at the Dartford Tunnel) met with Roy Cheesman and a member of Chelmsford Astronomical Society for the remainder of the journey. We travelled in convoy from the Dartford Tunnel to Herstmonceux.
On three previous visits to Herstmonceux, heavy rain had greeted us. However on this occasion, on our arrival, at 10:20, there was a cloudless blue sky. As soon as we parked the cars, we found our cameras and took some hurried shots of the castle and surrounding grounds to record the unprecedented weather conditions in case the rains should reappear without warning!
After reporting to the reception desk, our party went into the flower garden at the back of the castle where we gave particular attention to the sun dial. We spent the remaining time before lunch looking round the RGO permanent exhibition and various trade stands. Then we enjoyed our packed lunches in the warm October sunshine and spent some time after lunch strolling around the grounds of the RGO.
We decided to attend the lecture on Photometry for Amateurs, scheduled to start at 14:00. Unfortunately, after the audience was seated and waiting for the speaker to start, the venue was changed! Needless to say the start was delayed. We sat through the lecture with patience and fortitude with interruptions only to catch people
falling off their chairs through boredom! We should have remained in the original room, where an astronomy Call My Bluff panel game was held; this feeling was reinforced when loud appreciative applause emanated at the conclusion of the game.
Next we visited a second room containing an RGO permanent exhibition that opened in the afternoon. Here we were able to admire a
15 cm refractor made by T Cook and Son. Looking through the eyepiece we had the good fortune that the telescope was pointed at M42 (the Orion Nebula) - actually, the full colour view was provided by display material on the far side of the room! Now there's an idea - on the next cloudy night we should try the same with the Orwell Park Refractor!
We took some refreshment at the RGO cafe before commencing a second stroll round the grounds which brought us to the laser ranging telescope, used to determine the distance to the Geos satellite. This is one of several similar stations round the world that are used to study plate tectonics. As the skies were clear the instrument had just completed a measurement prior to our arrival at the dome. Whilst staff were explaining the equipment to us the laser was calibrated by using a reflector on the side of the former
dome of the Isaac Newton Telescope situated about 0.5 km away.
After a final look around the trade stands we retired back to the cars for tea. After tea we attended a lecture on the Interiors of the Planets and Their Satellites, which ended at 19:00.
Then it was time to travel home. The journey home was interrupted by three stops. The first was a return visit to the Cross Keys Pub at Hurst Green (first visited last year); the second was a fish and chip shop in Orpington; and the third was at the Dartford Tunnel where we bid farewell to Roy Cheesman and friend. We arrived home after an enjoyable but tiring day at 23:00.
Cambridge Optical and Radio Observatories, 05 May 1984
On Saturday 05 May 1984, eleven members of OASI set out on an excursion, only a week after the last one! This time the venue was Cambridge, to visit the optical and radio observatories. At 11.00am we assembled outside the library of the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) in Cambridge where Dr D Dewhurst, who was to be our host, met us. The tour began in the library where Dr Dewhurst gave a brief account of the history of optical astronomy at the University. This was followed by a visit to the 30 cm Northumberland Refractor, the Schmidt Camera, the 91 cm reflector and the photographic plate measuring equipment. The visit was concluded in the map room of the IoA where we examined photographic plates taken with the UK Schmidt Camera at Siding Springs, Australia and had an extensive discussion about various star catalogues. The visit ended a little after 1.00pm. We then went for lunch at the Barton Public House, about one mile from the Mullard Radio Observatory.
After lunch we journeyed to the Mullard Radio Observatory where, at 2.00pm, we were met by Dr Elsmore to begin our tour. He began with a short introduction to the type of work carried out at the observatory. The largest instrument in use is the 5 km telescope, consisting of four movable and four static 18 m dishes, built on the site of an abandoned railway line.
We undertook a close inspection of one of the eight dishes and the control room, and then took a short drive to see another part of the observatory grounds. Our visit lasted nearly two hours, then we made our way home.
Members who visited were David Payne and family, Mike Barriskill, Dave Barnard, Eric Sims, Roy Cheesman plus guest, Martin Cook plus colleague from work and Roy Gooding.
South East Essex Astronomical Society, 28 April 1984
On Saturday 28 April 1984, four cars carrying eleven members of OASI set out independently for Westcliffe-on-Sea to attend the 10th Anniversary Meeting of the South East Essex Astronomical Society at the St Thomas Moore High School. Using the map printed on the reverse side of a ticket for the meeting, we found the school easily. After travelling for about an hour, the first car, carrying Alan Smith, Roy Gooding, Carl Cornish and Colin Button, arrived at 10.15am. Although the day's programme was not scheduled to begin until 11.00am, the hall containing the exhibition and trade stands was already quite full. By 11.00am the rest of our group had arrived: Dave Payne and family, Mike Nicholls and Roy Cheesman.
The following lectures, delivered by four well-known speakers, provided the main attraction of the day:
- Nigel Henbest: The New Telescopes
- Break for lunch
- Heather Couper: Exploring the Universe
- Mat Irvine: It's a Small Universe
- Patrick Moore: Exploring the Solar System
There was also a 30-minute quiz, with teams captained by Patrick Moore and Nigel Henbest.
Lunch and refreshments could be purchased from the school's canteen - throughout the entire day it never appeared to close! Those who had brought their own lunches either retired to their cars or braved the cold breeze on the school's playing field to find a venue to enjoy lunch.
The day's programme ended at about 6.30pm, at which point, after an enjoyable day, we all set course for home. A few days later, I learnt that Steve Wenham from OASI had also attended.
FAS Convention, Herstmonceux, 01 October 1983
On Saturday 01 October 1983, the Federation of Astronomical Societies (FAS) held its third annual convention at Herstmonceux Castle, situated about 11 miles west of Hastings. The castle has been the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) since 1948 when it relocated there from Greenwich. A total of 14 members of OASI made the trip, 12 by minibus and two by car.
Alan Smith, having volunteered to drive the minibus, collected members from various locations around Ipswich. By 07.15am he had collected everyone and set a course for the A12 towards London via Nacton Road. Resisting the temptation to drive everyone to Orwell Park Observatory in Nacton, Alan turned right at the roundabout heading out of town over the Orwell Bridge. The journey to the Dartford Tunnel was uneventful, unlike last year, and by 10.15 we reached our destination and parked the minibus.
Everyone then reported to the FAS reception desk to obtain programmes and tickets for visits to the RGO facilities in the afternoon. By popular demand, a visit to the cafe for coffee came next. Having finished our liquid refreshment our party split up into groups.
I joined Eric Sims and Martin Cook for a lecture on colour. We were lucky enough to get to the lecture room just before the doors were locked; several of our colleagues left it too late and missed the talk. The lecture had nothing to do with astronomy but proved to be just as interesting. Using a bank of six projectors the lecturer showed how to produce an arbitrary colour by mixing the three primary colours with varying degrees of intensity. Some colours could only be matched if a colour was subtracted instead of added. The lecturer concluded with a question and answer period after which we made our way back to the minibus for lunch. While we lunched, Roy Cheesman and Michael Barriskill arrived by car and parked next to us.
After lunch we were left to our own devices. Potential activities included browsing the trade stands (where OASI member Ron Hebbs of Bretmain Ltd was to be found), visiting the RGO exhibition hall, attending lectures and taking guided tours of three RGO facilities, namely the Starlink Computer, the laser ranging telescope and the 76 cm refractor. Alternatively, it was possible to enjoy a ramble through the grounds.
The last two FAS conventions were wet and windy. The weather at this year's meeting behaved true to form, largely rain showers mixed with periods of prolonged drizzle, although fortunately the wet conditions did not prevail for the whole period at Herstmonceux.
After completion of the afternoon's activities, we returned to the cafe for more coffee, then commenced the journey home leaving Herstmonceux at about 6.00pm. After travelling about 10 miles Roy signalled that he intended to stop for petrol. During the refuelling break, we agreed that a stop at a pub was also required. We resumed our journey and quickly made a second stop, having travelled at least 100 yards from the garage (!) at a pub called The Cross Keys. Having quenched our thirst we made a third attempt to travel some miles from Herstmonceux, but it was not long before someone proposed a third stop, this time for fish and chips, for which we intended to stop at Tonbridge.
For some miles before reaching Tonbridge we had been travelling behind a car which appeared to be shy of travelling above thirty miles per hour resulting in a considerable tailback of traffic. Just before the Tonbridge turn-off we finally overtook the car. This manoeuvre was followed by probably the fastest passage through Tonbridge that anyone had ever experienced! Needless to say we sighted no fish and chip shops. Emerging from Tonbridge and back on the main road, we found ourselves behind the same car, still travelling at the same speed! We quickly overtook it again. We then investigated the next town, Sevenoaks, which proved successful as a source of fish and chips.
The journey from Sevenoaks to the Dartford Tunnel proved uneventful until we reached the toll gates. Approaching a gate with no vehicles waiting, Alan suddenly put the minibus into reverse with apparently no concern for any vehicles behind. With equal suddenness
we changed direction again and lurched forward into another toll gate lane. Automatic toll
gate was all that he muttered subsequently!
Our final problem before reaching Ipswich could have proved very inconvenient had it occurred earlier in the evening. By the time we reached Capel St Mary Alan noted that the electrics on the minibus were misbehaving. The battery appeared to be running down, not recharging and the headlights were barely illuminated. We turned the headlights off to conserve battery power leaving the side lights on. Had the engine stalled, there might not have been sufficient charge in the battery to restart it. Limping into Ipswich, Alan dropped everyone off at home and finally abandoned the minibus outside his house for collection by Willhire.
Members of OASI on the trip were: Alan Smith, Martin Cook, David Barnard, Eric Sims, Carl Cornish, Tom Gillan, David, Martin, Angela and Darren Payne, Colin Button, Roy Cheesman, Michael Barriskill and Roy Gooding.
Norwich Astronomical Society, 19 November 1982
We are indebted to members of Norwich Astronomical Society (NAS) who welcomed a visiting party of nine members of OASI to their Colney Lane headquarters on Friday evening, 19 November 1982. We had a very interesting time as members of NAS showed us over their new observatory building, including a tour of the basement! We then took advantage of a fine dark sky to make observations through the 25 cm reflector with flyball-governor-regulated weight drive in the NAS 3 m dome, then saw what marvellous work had been done on the 76 cm reflector.
If not told, one would never know that the main RA drive assembly of the 76 cm reflector was a large oil rig bushing - a massive piece of metal about a metre across. NAS are still constructing the drive mechanism, which will involve a heavy cycle chain to turn the bushing. Teeth to engage with the chain will be carefully pinned into the originally smooth outside of the bushing at intervals. The diagonal flat of the 76 cm reflector has a minor axis of 16.5 cm and its housing together with the shrouding cylinder at the diagonal end is rotatable on a tube rail with "V"-action supports.
The dome for the 76 cm reflector is truly a space-age construction: the steps providing access move with the rest of the dome which rotates on a series of wheels mounted on a base which is outwardly nearly invisible. The dome itself is a galvanised iron hemisphere which opens by a pivoting door much reminiscent of the ultimate in sports cars, or of what might be expected in an interplanetary craft of science-fiction. The inside of the dome, though still in late stages of construction and finishing, is no disappointment. The dome is expected to be ready for use in about four months.
Down in the basement next to the concrete pier, situated on top of a prodigious man-made mound with a suitable flat top (necessitated by the earlier unevenness of the site) is the mirror-grinding machine. NAS had to dismantle the machine to get it into the basement and, after some further mirror-grinding work, will have to take it apart again in order to remove it from the basement! The machine is in itself something of an education: its many strange disks and rods fire ones enthusiasm to grind a large mirror.
The Clubroom, scene of our later departure, is a good size for lecture meetings as well as for homely chats. Some members' observing work was displayed on the walls. OASI owes NAS a return visit to Orwell Park, and we hope that this will take place soon. In the meantime, NAS are always glad to receive visitors and anyone making the trip will find it very worthwhile.
FAS Convention, Herstmonceux, 02 October 1982
OASI hired a Willhire minibus for the Society trip to the Federation of Astronomical Societies (FAS) convention at Herstmonceux in South Sussex on 02 October 1982. Around 8.00am, the minibus, with Martin Cook at the wheel, began the journey by picking up the various members who were going on the trip. By 8.20am, we had left Ipswich and were thundering along the A12 towards Chelmsford where Roy Cheesman was waiting. Having gained experience of collecting people in Ipswich, by the time we reached Chelmsford the method was finely tuned: as Roy struggled to shut the back doors of the van from the inside, David Payne jumped out of the passenger seat, ran to the rear and forced the doors shut from the outside. Do all transit vans have doors impossible to close from the inside?
After collecting Roy Cheesman, we again set off, heading towards Brentwood and the Dartford Tunnel. By this time a committee, all seated behind the driver, was navigating. Approaching a roundabout a voice shouted, No! Turn right! upon which command Martin, using a skill presumably learnt in Scotland, violently swung the wheel to the right, sending the van's occupants into a heap, whilst narrowly missing two bollards and a signpost before careering down the correct road.
Approaching the Dartford Tunnel toll booths, someone produced a pass with the compliments of a company that shall remain nameless. Beyond the tunnel, David took over driving for the remainder of the journey, which passed without incident.
We arrived at Herstmonceux Castle at about 11.30am and reported to the reception desk in the foyer. After picking up a programme for the day's events, we decided to return to the minibus for lunch. After consulting the programme it was obvious that it would not be possible to see and do everything; there were lectures being held in two venues simultaneously; three guided tours of parts of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and various trade stands and society exhibits to see. We were not all of the same mind as to which events to attend, so for some of the time we split up.
Walking around the trade stands, we found Bretmain Ltd manned by OASI member Ron Hebbs. One exhibit that proved most unusual was a collection of holograms. We decided to attend a lecture scheduled to start at 2.00pm. However, it did not, in fact, begin until 2.15pm, and we learned that it was to be recorded. The lecture duly started, along with fresh howls from David's youngest son, Martin. After five minutes we chose to beat a hasty retreat, leaving through a creaking door manned by a FAS official who muttered
It's not that bad, is it?
The first guided tour was of the RGO's new laser ranging telescope. This instrument should be fully operational before the end of 1982. It consists of a laser mounted alongside a Cassegrain telescope and is the UK station of a worldwide network of similar instruments, principally to be used for studying the orbit of the Lageos satellite that was launched in 1976. Eventually, the
results may assist the understanding of plate tectonics. The telescope is completely electronic, with a TV camera at the eyepiece, and controlled entirely from a room below.
Our second tour was round the dome housing the 66 cm refractor. This telescope is considerably larger than the Orwell Park 26 cm refractor and, for ease of access to the eyepiece, the whole observatory floor can be raised and lowered. The telescope is used exclusively for photography. It has a finder telescope - itself a 33 cm refractor.
The final tour was round the RGO's Star-Link computer. This complex is one of six identical, linked computers around the country and is used for analysis of data obtained from the astronomical observatories operated by the UK. Initially, all of our group had intended visiting the computer centre but, due to other distractions, only four arrived for the tour. By the time the tour was over, it was approaching 5.30pm and thoughts of tea were in our minds.
Back at the minibus we found David, who volunteered the news that Roy and Simon Cheesman were both at the talk to be given by Heather Couper, and that the lecture room was completely full. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, we adjourned to the RGO cafe for further refreshments, where we again joined David and his family. A few minutes later, Mat Irving (of BBC fame) brought over one of his radio-controlled K9 dogs from the Castle, and it trundled round the cafe, much to the amusement of several children.
So far in this report, nothing has been mentioned about the weather. This, like most pre-arranged astronomical events, had Spode very much in evidence. After the two previous sunny days, Saturday turned out very wet and blustery. It drizzled most of the morning and afternoon. Two consequences of the rain were: Glyn Buckley-Jones travelled home with a differently-coloured shirt than the one in which he had arrived (the dye from his jacket started to wash out) and Martin, having jumped out of the minibus, slipped and landed on his back, providing much amusement for the benefit of onlookers.
Knowing that it would be some time before Heather Couper's lecture was over, we decided to pass some time in the bar that was scheduled to open in the evening. Outside the RGO Members' Clubhouse, other FAS members with similar ideas were found huddled in groups under the trees, sheltering from the rain. After a quarter of an hour a car arrived, from which a voice shouted that the bar could not be opened as no barman had arrived. Everyone walked back to the Castle to get out of the rain, muttering words of indignation along the lines of, Talk about not being able to organize a beer party in a brewery...
We had to wait for nearly 20 minutes before Heather Couper's lecture was over and Roy and Simon reappeared. The weather was by now quite monsoon-like, and the entire OASI party agreed unanimously to head for home. With bated breath, David switched on the minibus' ignition. Nothing happened! He tried again. STILL nothing happened! Several more attempts failed to start the engine. With visions of either having to push the minibus or to have a jump-lead start, the engine eventually spluttered into life. This left only one more possible problem: would the minibus get stuck on the grass where it had been parked? At 7.15pm, with all problems solved, we commenced the journey home.
David drove to the Dartford Tunnel, after which Martin carried on to Ipswich. The only stops on the way home were at a fish and chip shop somewhere in south-east London, at the Dartford Tunnel to pay the toll, and at Chelmsford to drop off Roy. This trip must rank as one of the only "dry" OASI outings to date.
As a postscript, it turned out that Roy Cheesman and Eric Sims were at school together, and this was the first time that they had seen each other for, dare I say, nearly thirty years! Other members of the party not mentioned above were: Linda, Darren and Angela Payne.
North-West Scotland, 16-25 July 1982
On Friday 16 July 1982, at 8.25pm, a blue minibus departed from Ipswich, containing seven members of OASI who regularly visit the most desolate, unheard of, or just plain out-of-the-way places to observe eclipses, aurorae, grazing lunar occultations, meteor showers and other astronomical events not seen by any but the most dedicated astronomers. This time we had a specific goal, the partial eclipse of the Sun on 20 July, only visible from north-western parts of Britain just before sunset.
We decided about a week before departure that while we were in north-west Britain we should visit the nearby well known holiday resort, the Outer Hebrides, for a couple of days. We therefore booked ferry passages from The Macbrayne Steamship Company, leaving Uig on the Isle of Skye for Lochmaddy on the island of North Uist, and waited to find out what crossing one of the roughest stretches of water around Britain would be like. One of the less nautically-experienced travellers amongst us purchased an appropriate quantity of sea-sick pills, while the remainder decided to rely on more traditional medicine (brewed locally by Tolly Cobbold and Co.)
Seven hundred and twenty miles later we were safely installed on the ferry (not a steamship!) and after ensuring that plenty of medicine was available we decided that a visit to the deck might be worthwhile. The crossing turned out to be very smooth, with many seabirds and the awe-inspiring scenery well worth the travel.
After arriving at Lochmaddy (and sorting out which map we should use, after some misunderstanding involving the navigator and his medicine!) we drove to the island of Benbecula to find the brand new (and only) camp site. The island is very flat, with no trees at all, just small lochs, rock outcrops and hundreds of dead motor cars. However, seabirds of all types abound: we saw turnstones, great skuas and all kinds of gulls on the beaches. If you want to get away from it all this is the place to go! The camp site turned out to be like some sort of Spanish joke - unfinished. There were cement mixers and builders' equipment all over the place, no hot water, no electricity, no food, just cold water and medicine from the pub up the road.
After an abysmal attempt at map reading while trying to find a passage through thousands of lochs to the only hill of note on the island, and a triumph of archaeology in finding a stone age house buried under four feet of ferns half way up a smaller hill, we posted some postcards from what must be the most remote postbox in the British Isles.
We left the Hebrides, with some relief, on Monday. The weather turned hot and sunny and as we passed through the magnificent scenery of the Isle of Skye we realised that the eclipse on the following day might be visible. Heading for Gairloch on the west coast of Scotland, we stopped for a brief rest and an attempt to fly the glider (fitted with radio-control and airborne camera) brought by Chris Albins... After picking up the pieces we carried on to Kerrydale south of Gairloch and set up camp in the hills.
Tuesday dawned clear and bright and after various activities by different members of the party, we duly observed the eclipse, albeit obscured by the light cloud that had built up during the day. Maximum eclipse was at 18:34 UT with about 20% obscuration, and 4th contact was at 19:02 UT. Of course, having observed the event that we had travelled about 900 miles to see, a celebration was called for, so musically (?) accompanied we spent the evening in a happy mood.
Wednesday turned out to be even better. Two especially deranged members of the party went mountain climbing and observed all types of birds, from golden eagles to stonechats plus a couple of "Harriers" courtesy of the RAF. The rest of the party spent the day swimming and sunbathing at Loch Gairloch.
Thursday came and we moved camp from the idyllic hills of Kerrydale to the bleak Durness, arriving at about 5.00pm. We saw some familiar faces (it's them again, they were here last year, we kept hearing), and after obtaining some dried peat (the stock fuel in the area) we held an enjoyable barbeque on the beach.
Friday morning found three idiots mounting bicycles for the trip to Cape Wrath, the extreme north-western tip of mainland UK. For David Barnard it was a return trip, as he had made the journey the previous year. (Never, ever again, he said at the time!) He was glad that he made the trip again, however, because although the Cape was shrouded in sea fog and the fog-horn boomed out every two minutes, the discovery of a hidden bay, bathed in sunshine, with golden sands and deep blue sea, flanked by the tallest cliffs on mainland Britain and inhabited by thousands of birds made the trip worthwhile. Puffins, shags, cormorants, razorbills, oystercatchers, divers and others flew about by the score. Why didn't anyone take a telephoto lens? Never mind, next year maybe... We caught the ferry (a wooden rowboat) with only a few minutes to spare and made it back to camp, 28 miles and seven hours later, at 5:30pm.
The remainder of the group had spent the day walking on the shores of the Kyle of Durness, gathering mussels and one or two pieces of peat for the next barbeque. Something about an attempt to catch fish using mushrooms as bait was mentioned on our return. (No names here.) The barbeque was a great success and was well under way when David arrived at 1.30am for his steak. (At least, it was a steak before it caught fire.)
Saturday morning dawned and we left Durness. There were now nine of us. We visited again the souterrain that we had managed to locate on the shore of Loch Eriboll the previous year. After dropping off a friend in Inverness and parting company with a potential looney on his motorcycle, we stopped at Culloden Battlefield and again at Pitlochry (power station and police station) on the journey homewards. At 12.15am on Sunday, seven weary OASI members staggered out of the minibus in Ipswich. No-one felt the worse for the ordeal, but there were just a few empty wallets! It was a great success, for what was, almost certainly, the final OASI expedition to Scotland. So, who's for Iceland next year?...
David Barnard & Alan Smith
FAS Convention, Herstmonceux, 03 October 1981
Durness, 28 August - 05 September 1981
On Friday 28 August 1981, at 20:40, five members of OASI left for another holiday in north-west Scotland. This was our second visit to the region to observe aurorae, 53 weeks since our first expedition there. This time we all travelled in one minibus. We crossed the border between England and Scotland at 03:54 and stopped at Pitlochry at 07:10 for petrol and to take a look at the salmon leap. After ordering breakfast in a cafe in Pitlochry at 08:30 we finally managed to have only a very light-bite indeed; however, in the end the stop at Pitlochry lasted for some 2.5 hours!
We arrived at Durness at 15:10 after a drive of 18.5 hours and 729 miles - not bad considering the lengthy stop at Pitlochry! Yes, the very same friendly Scottish voice as last year greeted us! After cursing the midges (Scottish slang for mosquitos) we pitched our two frame tents and retired to the Oasis for the rest of the evening.
Sunday dawned calm and sunny. We decided that once and for all we should find the Earth-house or souterrain (OS grid reference NC428613) that had eluded us last year. After a brief search we found it beside two cairns at the roadside! Then we proceeded down a C-road signposted Altnaharra to see Dun Dornaigil (an old broch or defensive structure). There was some bad luck here as our driver managed to get one wheel of the minibus stuck in a ditch, so the passengers had to lift the vehicle out. On finally turning to leave we seriously jeopardised Dun Dornaigil's role as an 1800 year old fort as our rear bumper touched the stonework!
On the way back to camp we stopped at Allt Smoo, a small river which flows down about 25 metres before reappearing in a large three‑chambered cave. This time the river was no more, as no rain had fallen for several months. In the evening, we saw what we had come for, the aurora. At 23:20 BST, in a fantastically clear sky, we observed two auroral rays in the north, low down, at an altitude of approximately 25°, stretching up from the horizon. Our sighting lasted until 23:25 BST. Shortly after, we took our friendly camp reception man for a drink (well he did hail from Colchester, not far from Ipswich). Then the aurora reappeared, the same faint white rays lasting again for only five minutes (23:40-23:45 BST). After that we kept watch throughout the night but did not see the aurora again throughout the entire week.
On Monday, the weather was still warm and not a cloud was to be seen in the sky. After much discussion we decided to attempt the 22 mile round trip cycle ride to Cape Wrath, the extreme north-western tip of Scotland. Unfortunately, the ride proved to be a most gruelling experience. A strong wind blew up on our return journey, compounding to such an extent the fact that the road was uphill, that it proved virtually impossible to ride the bikes! On the ferry back across the Kyle of Durness our friendly ferryman demonstrated the art of eating live mussels - I settled for oatcakes instead! In the evening the skies were beautifully clear again: the coal-sacks in Cygnus were easily visible.
We spent Tuesday morning recovering from the cycle trip and looking at the jet planes pounding the nearby naval bombardment range. In the afternoon we took advantage of the dry weather to go back to Smoo Cave where there normally would have been a torrent of water flowing. In the evening, after walking half way up Faraid Head, we decided to have a barbeque as we had acquired some peat. It went very well, even if the sausages were rather well done! Later, we saw Orion rising.
On Wednesday we drove to Tongue and on the way saw two interesting symbol stones, the Castle of Tongue, the remains of a chambered
cairn and a dune with fantastic views of the Kyle of Tongue. On returning, we made a short stop to hunt for the legendary "horse mussels", giant shellfish found only on the shores of Loch Eriboll. We found plenty of midges, herons, curlews, etc. but no horse mussels.
On Thursday, a woman at Balnakeil craft village confirmed our sightings of the aurora. By this time the weather had deteriorated a little but it was still warm. We held another barbeque at night, and had a second attempt to melt sand in a peat fire, but failed.
Friday morning dawned, and a familiar sound awoke us just after dawn: yes, the weather had changed, a force eight southerly gale had blown up and our two tents were now potential hang gliders! We abandoned camp at 07:30, but even so, one of the tents suffered some damage. We left Durness at 12:10 and arrived in Ipswich at 08:20 the following day. Our trip was truly memorable and enjoyable, and we hope to repeat it!
Durness, 15-25 August 1980
On Friday 15 August 1980, six members of OASI and one other idiot set out from Ipswich to visit Durness and Cape Wrath on the north‑western tip of Scotland, hoping to observe aurorae. The journey lasted some 22 hours and 787 miles. We were totally unprepared for the "lunar like" landscape during the last 100 or so miles, during which we did not seen a tree, bush or any significant vegetation. Finally, we arrived at one of the most desolate places in the British Isles to be greeted by a friendly (?) Scottish voice saying: That'll be £21 and keep your cars off the grass!
Three nights later (and not an aurora seen) the seven of us were dressed in oilskins, desperately trying to hold our two large frame tents on the ground (struggling despite the frames being lashed to our minibus and car). We had been hit by a gale, with winds gusting to 50‑60 mph, which was forecast to last for another three days. By mid-afternoon the next day, still wearing oilskins and having gone without sleep for over thirty hours, we still clung to the remnants of our tents which were threatening to become two very large hang-gliders! Eventually, one of the tents started to fail (and the other was in a very bad state) so we made a hasty decision to abandon camp, slung everything into the back of our minibus and retreated south to Invergarry (south-west of Loch Ness).
What a change! The scenery around Invergarry was very like Switzerland: pine forests, lochs and clear skies. We spent the next five nights observing a few meteors and enjoying very clear views of the Milky Way but, unfortunately, did not see any aurorae.
We returned to Ipswich on Bank Holiday Monday, 25 August, with two damaged tents, a damaged minibus and wallets considerably lighter than they had been when we left! But what an excursion it had been: we had enjoyed mountains, lochs, golden eagles, buzzards,
skua and the odd drink or three (whisky, I think they called it!)
Greenwich Observatory, 23 June 1979
On Saturday 23 June 1979, at 8.25am, a 29-seater yellow tornado whirled out from behind the Odeon Cinema in Ipswich, not unduly late, with a happy and expectant crowd of astronomers on board, heading for Greenwich Observatory. En route we had ample time to stop and indulge in coffee (or milk or cream cakes or whatever refreshments suited the personal taste), arriving in Greenwich at 11.15am. On arrival, we found plenty of time to resist and/or succumb to the temptations of the Maritime Museum "sale bar" which carried everything from the sixpenny I've been there badges up to a brightly shining 75 mm Gregorian reflector (souvenir?) in excellent reproduction fashion costing upwards of £500. (The slides available from the Maritime Museum are excellent and, although seemingly costly, are not so expensive when one considers how much money and effort goes into taking one's own slides or prints, plus the fact that taking good photographs of historical instruments at Greenwich and of samples of moonrock is not so easy for the amateur!)
We took turns to pirouette on the 0° meridian, adding to the countless miles of film exposed in this place, then got down to the more serious business of studying the very interesting and beautifully constructed telescopes and equipment in the Octagon Room and in other parts of the museum under the valuable guidance of one of the directors.
When we were told that the 28 inch refractor was undergoing some renovation and redecoration to its dome and building, hearts sank to the level of the Thames but, seeing our disappointment, our kindly host took us all up to the 28 inch, which is one of the biggest refracting telescopes in the world, and explained to us many of its attributes and intricacies. When my camera film had run out, however, I was just in time to hear that OASI members who most use the Orwell Park 26 cm refractor (or in other words, reasonably experienced observers) were invited to use the 28 inch refractor by special arrangement in small, organised groups on three nights during Autumn 1979. Roy Cheesman or Mike Barriskill can provide more information on this.
After lunch, the main body of our party attended the first afternoon show at the planetarium - open to anyone with a 15p ticket who still found room available! - a talk principally on Venus, but showing the capabilities of the Planetarium generally. As everyone apart from the odd exception (my wife will shoot me for this!) wanted to see the Planetarium as soon an possible, and no-one else was going to see the second show, we decided to wait and go to the second show, which dealt mainly with the Moon. We could thus compare notes afterwards.
Both shows were an hour long although, to us, they passed very quickly indeed. At the start, some time was given for our eyes to accustom themselves to the near-darkness of the Planetarium, then the star projector and afterwards the planets, Sun and Moon projectors were revolved in different combinations to show us the Moon's phases speeded up over a period of a year. The star sphere projected was held static for this and used as a background, otherwise we would all have been giddy (and worse?!) or seen nothing! Some excellent slides of the Moon were projected onto the roof of the Planetarium, helping us to get our day-eyes back again, and then we were out in the open once more - all too soon, but the broad expanse of the grounds of Greenwich Park has other wonders, including panoramas of the Thames and squirrels so tame that they will feed from ones hand!
At 5.30pm we departed in the capable hands of our lady co-driver for a little something extra - a guided tour of part of Central London. In spite of the "detour", we arrived in Chelmsford at about 8.00pm, exploring (without telescope) for a fish and chip shop. Some "fell short" by a few yards and ended up in a Wimpy Bar. At 9.45pm we were all home again. Many of us were thinking about when we could return to Greenwich for another fine day (or night!) out.
London, 01 October 1977
At 8.00am sharp on 01 October 1977, a full bus, piloted by Mr D M J Brown, left Ipswich for London. The bus, referred to as The White Tornado by some and The White Elephant by
others, sped west along the A12 at a maximum speed of 50 mph (downhill with a tail wind). It finally arrived at the Science Museum, London, at 10.15am.
OASI had arranged the trip to London in conjunction with the Ipswich Geological Society (IGS), and many members of IGS braved the journey with us. Although the majority of passengers spent the day either in the natural History Museum or the Science Museum, many members of OASI rushed across London for a visit to Madame Tussauds and the Planetarium.
The White Tornado picked up the party at 6.00pm and after a stop in London for chips and a further stop at a little ale house for light or dark refreshments, deposited the travellers in Ipswich at 9.45pm.
Cambridge Optical and Radio Observatories, 28 May 1977
On a glorious spring morning at the end of May 1977, a party of approximately 40 people boarded a Bickers Special coach in Ipswich and set off for Cambridge. Twenty five passengers were bound for the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory (MRAO) and Institute of Astronomy (IoA) optical observatories, while the remaining 15 aimed to spend a pleasant day shopping and sight-seeing in the city. David Brown, that well-known member of OASI, was driver.
At the MRAO, a Mr Baggott welcomed us. He first explained how a radio telescope works and the principles of aperture synthesis, and then showed us around the control room of the new Five Kilometre Radio Telescope. This is an aperture synthesis instrument, with eight radio dishes, four fixed and four movable, the latter situated along the line of the former Oxford-Cambridge railway. The control room, housed in a former railway station, contains the computer and control console which operate the dishes. It can produce contour maps of radio-emitting regions of the sky.
We then walked around the site and saw other telescopes and aerials including the One Mile Telescope, the cylindrical paraboloid used to undertake the 4C sky survey and the Four Acre Phased Array, the instrument which discovered the first pulsar.
At the end of a very interesting morning we boarded the coach and stopped for a picnic lunch at a pub several kilometres away. After everyone's thirst was quenched we continued the journey to the IoA, Maddingley Road.
At the IoA, Dr David Dewhirst welcomed us. Although we were not able to enter the building to see the library, Dr Dewhirst showed us several very interesting telescopes. The oldest was a 30 cm refracting telescope built in 1820 and still used for observations. We also saw the 1 m Schmidt Camera used to photograph areas of the sky with very high resolution. The largest telescope on view was a 1.5 m reflector, but this was designed to facilitate attachment of various scientific instruments (e.g. spectrographs) and is not used for direct visual observations. During our visit to the IoA, we met Simon Mentha, Vice-Chairman of Southport Astronomical Society, who was passing through Cambridge.
Our last stop before returning to Ipswich was to another pub for a quick pint! Everyone enjoyed the visit to Cambridge, and thanks are due especially to Dr Dewhirst who arranged the visit and to David Brown who gave his services free of charge.
BAA Winchester Weekend, 15-17 April 1977
For the eleventh Easter running, a party of enthusiastic amateur astronomers occupied King Alfred's College in Winchester for the BAA Weekend Course In Observational Astronomy. Started a decade ago with only a handful of participants, the course now attracts over
200 participants, coming from all parts of the UK.
The course is based on a series of about half a dozen lectures on observational astronomy, each delivered by a prominent member or section director of the BAA. Subjects this year included Observing The Sun and Photography At The Telescope. In addition to the lectures, there were several slide shows and film shows, and the Students' Union bar was open for participants to meet and discuss subjects whether they be astronomical in nature or not! Several participants brought their telescopes with them, with apertures ranging from 5 cm to 30 cm, and there were informal viewing sessions in the evenings, as permitted by the weather.
Accommodation for the course was the best that one could hope for when dealing with over 200 people. Each participant had a single room in the halls of residence; the rooms were mostly only a few hundred metres from the main buildings. Meals were served in the main dining hall - they were of typical mass-catering standard! The course cost £10 per head, including everything except coffee and drinks served in the Students' Union; next year the fee will be increased to around £11.50.
By teatime on Sunday, everyone had certainly enjoyed a good weekend. Beginners were well acquainted with the subject, and more experienced astronomers had enjoyed two days of interesting lectures and discussions. Participants now look forward to another successful weekend in 1978, when many of them will meet again at Winchester.
BAA Meteor Section Meeting, 02 April 1977
At 07.15am on Saturday 02 April 1977, nine members of OASI in two cars set out from Ipswich for London; five people
heading for the BAA Meteor Section Meeting at Imperial College and four for a day in the Science Museum. The five travellers attending the BAA Meteor Section Meeting, together with three other members of OASI who were already in London, arrived at the lecture room at 09.45am. In total, some 100 people attended the meeting to hear lectures by several members of the BAA and by the director of the Meteor Section of the Natural History Museum.
During the coffee break and the one hour lunchbreak, we met other members of the BAA and also managed to fit in a quick visit to the Science Museum next door, returning to the BAA meeting about 30 minutes late.
The meeting finished at 6.00pm and after inspecting various items of equipment constructed by members of the BAA Meteor Section, we had an evening meal at Imperial College before making for home. Although the trip to London had been uneventful and we had found our
destination straight away (sterling navigation by Mr Gage!), on the return journey we went round Soho and Piccadilly Circus twice before finding our way out of London. A one-hour stop on the way home for some liquid refreshments (!) and we arrived back in Ipswich by 10.00pm.
The cost per head was only ò.50 including evening meal and a swift half of ale. The day was thoroughly enjoyable and informative and it is to be hoped that more members of OASI will take advantage of such events in the future.
Norwich Astronomical Society Lecture, 20 March 1976
On Saturday 20 March 1976, six members of OASI travelled to Norwich to attend a lecture evening on Jupiter, billed as a teach in, where the latest NASA images of the planet would be shown. The skies were clear, as they always are during trips to Norwich! The meeting turned out to be very informal, as not only did the main speaker not arrive, but neither did the films of Jupiter from NASA! Nevertheless, the evening proved to be most interesting (and well worth the journey from Ipswich), with Mr C Blout, FRAS doing most of the talking, and we all learnt a great deal about Jupiter.
Some eight boys from Northgate School Astronomy Society also travelled from Ipswich to attend the lecture.
Norwich Astronomical Society Lecture, 20 December 1975
On Friday 20 December 1975, nine members of OASI attended the lecture at Norwich Astronomical Society on How A Star Dies, given by Dr J Miller of Oxford. This was a well-attended meeting and the trip to Norwich proved to be well worthwhile.
Mullard Radio Observatory, Cambridge, 06 April 1974
Upon a pleasant, sunny spring morning on 06 April 1974, an enthusiastic band of astronomers gathered at the Electric House, Ipswich, to begin a journey to visit the centre of astronomical activity at Cambridge. Transportation soon arrived in the form of a
coach driven by OASI member David Brown (who kindly provided his services free). Eventually, the engine of the coach sprang into
life and the party thundered up the A45 in the direction of Cambridge.
After three hours travel, the rumour began to spread throughout the coach that, despite David's expert driving, we were hopelessly lost. But fortunately, after completing several more ever-decreasing circles, the cry went up that a radio telescope was visible! All
at once, from behind a tree, we could see dozens of vast radio dishes and aerials of every conceivable shape and size dotted over several square miles of flat Cambridgeshire. After squeezing the bus through a tiny gate (This is a
grazing occultation!, declared David Bearcroft, who at once received several disapproving stares) we arrived at a disused railway station which had been converted to the British Headquarters For Probing The Universe.
Bruce Elsmore of the Mullard Radio Observatory (MRO) then met us, and showed us round some of the Observatory's complement of telescopes. Of particular interest was the five kilometre aerial synthesis telescope, consisting of eight fully steerable dishes positioned along the former British Rail Bedford to Cambridge line. The control centre of the instrument was fully computerised, resembling something out of Star Trek. While we watched the telescope, radio astronomers were using it to monitor a radio source in Cygnus. We watched the telescope complete its observing run and move back to its storage position; the sight was altogether most impressive!
Bruce then showed us the one-mile telescope, where two researchers were busy with an experiment which generated miles of paper tape!
One of the radio aerials had a bullet hole in it, which it received while the valiant Tommies were liberating it from the wicked Nazis. Another link with history was that the Observatory had been a bomb store during World War II.
Around 3.30pm, our visit to the MRO ended, so we thanked Bruce and travelled to the site of the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) and Cambridge University Observatory at Madingley Road. En route, Tom Cardot (c/o of USAF Bentwaters) was suitably impressed, saying That Mullard Radio Observatory is a tribute to Man's ingenuity! David Bearcroft immediately replied, to murmurs of approval: British ingenuity!
At Madingley Road, Dr David Dewhirst met us. He showed us the second edition of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbis and a star atlas used by Sir John Herschel, complete with what looked like authentic, period coffee stains! He then showed us the 200 mm and 310 mm refractors, a 430 mm Schmidt Camera and the 1 metre reflector.
We then made for home. Fifty miles plus several cigars and chips (!) later, we reached Ipswich and went our separate ways after a very enjoyable and interesting day out. And all for only 75p!
Photographs of the trip taken by Tom Cardot are below.
Cambridge University Observatory
Cambridge University Observatory
Belstead House Astronomy Course, 21-23 September 1973
An astronomy course was held at Belstead House, Ipswich, 21-23 September 1973. The lecturers were: Dr Simon Mitton, Mrs Jacqueline Mitton and Dr Andrew Fabian, all qualified astronomers based at the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) in Cambridge. Dr Mitton is a radio astronomer who has conducted much research and writes about and publicises the science; only the week before the course he lectured in Norwich on his latest discoveries about quasars. Mrs Mitton teaches astronomy, and is
interested particularly in the astronomy of stars. Dr Fabian researches X-ray astronomy and has launched Skylark rockets from Woomera, Australia.
On Friday 21 September, Dr Mitton gave the first talk, addressing space exploration, particularly of Venus and Mars. After the talk, the audience went outside and, with a couple of small telescopes, a few pairs of binoculars and many pairs of eyes, undertook
On Saturday 22 September, first Dr Mitton talked about astronomy and then Dr Fabian talked about cosmic dust clouds, how they formed, what they look like, and how they are the birthplace of stars. After lunch, Dr Fabian talked about his research into X-ray astronomy and the amazing discoveries that have been made in that field. He showed some spectacular pictures of rocket launches, including one of a rocket which crashed nose-first into the ground, looking like a giant dart! Then, Mrs Mitton spoke about the Sun. After dinner on Saturday, everyone crossed Ipswich to Orwell Park Observatory and looked at Jupiter through the Orwell Park
Refractor. When it grew cloudy, the consensus of opinion was to close the dome and retire to our homes, even though (as predicted by some!) the skies cleared half an hour later.
On Sunday 23 September, the final day of the course, Mrs Mitton spoke about the evolution of stars. Then, Dr Mitton spoke about the Universe as a whole; this was a very interesting presentation and provided a fitting climax to the course. However, as always with cosmological discussions, the audience was left somewhat confused, baffled by the fourth dimension, curved space, everywhere being the same space, and matter appearing from nowhere and disappearing equally mysteriously down black holes!
Lunch on Sunday marked the conclusion of a very interesting and enjoyable weekend.
Clacton Astronomical Association Open Day, 16 June 1973
A few members of OASI visited Clacton Astronomical Association for their Open Day on 16 June 1973. CAA is an excellent society, at present trying to build an observatory for their 200 mm telescope, which will later be replaced by a 300 mm reflector. Good luck to them!
Norwich Astronomical Society Film Evening, 18 November 1972
On 18 November 1972, some 20 or more members of OASI assembled at the Electric House in Ipswich at 6.00pm to take a coach trip to Norwich Astronomical Society (NAS) for a film evening. Transport plus admission to the film show cost 50p per person. Thanks are due to Mr D J Brown of OASI, a coach driver by profession, who took the helm all the way to Norwich and back, rendering his services free of charge and thus greatly reducing the cost of the expedition. Reverend Cyril Blount, secretary to NAS, hosted the film show, which comprised the following films, all of which proved very interesting:
- Apollo 13 - Houston We've Got a Problem Here
- Apollo 14 - Mission to Fra Mauro
- Apollo 15 - The Mountains of the Moon
- Powers of Ten
- The Martian Investigators
Photographs of OASI visits to Cambridge during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Photographs of OASI visits to Greenwich during the 1980s and 1990s.
Photographs of OASI visits to Hestmonceux for FAS conventions during the 1980s.