Public Stargazing at Bergwater Lodge on the 18th & 19th of March 2013.

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The picnic people start arriving
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The picnic in full swing
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Christine arranging seating for the extras
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Peace and quiet after the crowd had left

 

 

 

 

 

 

The SSP crowd had left by 14:00 and Auke, Lynnette and myself were preparing for the group of locals who were coming for a talk and an evening’s stargazing at Bergwater Lodge.  Christine said there would be about 20 people, maybe a few more, say 25.  We only had one telescope so we thought we could make it if we also set up a pair of binoculars.  The arrangement was that the people would arrive early, have a picnic supper and then come inside for a talk while it got dark.  After the talk, we would go outside and do a laser-guided tour of the night sky and then show them the telescopic wonders of the night sky.

When the show started we had more than 50 people instead of “maybe 25” but all went reasonably well as far as the talk and the laser-guided tour were concerned, but at the telescope things were mildly chaotic, to say the least.  Lynnette manned the binoculars on a tripod, I operated the telescope and Auke mingled with the crowd handing out words of astronomical wisdom to all and sundry.

Some members of the group had imbibed liberally while having their picnic so one had to deal with quite a lot of alcohol-induced wit and wisdom.  The former was often funny and the latter was generally a nuisance.  Making sure the enthusiastic and sometimes unsteady viewers keep their distance from the equipment was a full-time job. Lynnette, for instance, turned away from the binoculars to answer a question and in those few seconds, the person at the binoculars managed to snap the mount right out of the front of the binoculars. When Lynnette pointed out that he had broken the binoculars, the man said, “So what.” shrugged his shoulders and walked away.  Thanks to Alan Cassels the binoculars have been repaired, but that person will not be welcome near any of our equipment anytime soon.

By about 10:00 everyone had left and we packed up and headed for bed.

Auke packed up on Monday morning and drove back to Somerset West, while Lynnette and I stayed behind to handle a second group scheduled for the Monday evening.  By late afternoon it had become fairly cloudy and most of the people must have seen the clouds and decided not to come because we eventually only had six people to entertain. Because of the clouds, there was really not much to show them after the talk as even the moon was partially obscured most of the time.  Everybody left at about 21:30 and, of course, by 22:00 there wasn’t cloud in the sky!

After a good night’s rest, Lynnette and I packed up the next day and headed home.  All in all quite an eventful weekend.

Autumn 2013 Southern Star Party: March 14 to 17 at Bergwater Lodge

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The Southern Star Party has been held twice a year, in Spring and Autumn, since March 2011. The most recent Star Party was the fifth opportunity for amateur astronomers to get together at a venue with as little light pollution as possible, and give free reins to their passion for astronomy. The first four events were held at Night Sky caravan park on the farm Oudekraal between Bonnievale and McGregor. The 2013 Autumn Star Party was, however, held at Bergwater Lodge adjacent to the Pietersfontein Dam to the North-West of Montagu.

Although Night Sky presents almost perfect dark surroundings for doing astronomy with low horizons right around, the feedback forms, submitted at previous Star Parties, indicated that amateur astronomers are not necessarily also campers. Bergwater Lodge, although as dark, cannot accommodate nearly as many people as Night Sky and the horizons are considerably higher too. In exchange, however, we gained the comfort of spacious, fully serviced rooms.  As an experiment, ELF Astronomy also decided to do the catering for the entire weekend.  All the attendees had to do, was pack their clothes, their telescopes and their favorite tipple and head for the Eastern edge of the Little Karoo, for three nights of unhindered star gazing.  For a change the weather gods also turned a benevolent eye on our proceedings.

The event was attended by 27 adults and three children.  We had visitors from as far afield as Cradock in the Eastern Cape, George in the Southern Cape and even Gauteng. Lynnette and I’s home base, Brackenfell, was well represented by ourselves, Jaco Wiese and Paul Kruger, while the attendance from the Northern suburbs was further augmented by Iain Finlay, Henry Oliver and the Lock family, Gavin, Suki, Dylan, Anja and Gavin’s Mom, Cherri.  The rest of the local contingent came from the other, less noteworthy, parts of Cape Town and two small country outposts, Stellenbosch and Somerset West.

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The first item on the astronomy menu was the occultation by Saturn of the star HD 128388 on Thursday night, or rather early Friday morning, because it only started at around 01:18. This star was just a teeny bit brighter that the four moons of Saturn that were also visible in the telescopes, i.e. Tethys, Mimas, Enceladus and Dione. By 02:12 the star reappeared in the gap between the inner edge of the rings and Saturn and, by 03:12 it had traversed the gap to disappear behind the planet itself. .Then a long wait followed before the star reappeared from behind the outer edge of Saturn’s ring system.  Those of us who had not faded could then pack away our equipment and get some sleep before brunch was served later that morning, between 10:00 and 11:30.

Friday night’s program started with a naked eye, laser guided, tour of the night sky and Milky Way, presented by Edward Foster. On Saturday night we dispensed with the guided tour and got straight on with the astrophotography and observing.  For the Astrophotographers Auke Slotegraaf had prepared a set of guidelines for taking astrophotographs as well as some exercises.  Auke had also prepared lists of Deep-Sky objects for the observers to find with the aid of the ConCards and then sketch them.  These activities took place on both the Friday and Saturday nights.  Henry Oliver and Jaco Wiese had considerable success with the observing exercises and Alan Cassels was very pleased with himself when he managed to find Proxima Centauri.  Congratulations Alan!

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Leslie’s Horshead

On Saturday morning during brunch we received the disappointing news that Brett du Preez, who was due to talk about “Advanced imaging techniques”, could not make it because of health issues. Hard on the heels of this bad news we learnt that Dr. Herman Swart, who was to have spoken about  “The psychology of astronomy”, would also not be able to make it due to work related issues. The other speakers were fortunately in good health and not tied down by their work. Alan Cassels gave an interesting talk on  “Constellation mythology” and Edward Foster’s talk  “A geological view of the Western Cape” enlightened everyone about the origin of the Cape mountains.

During the course of Saturday afternoon an astronomy quiz took place with a panel consisting of Edward Foster, Evan Knox-Davies, Johan Swanepoel and Gavin Lock.  Under the watchful eye of the quiz master, Auke Slotegraaf, the audience had the opportunity to test the panel with questions they had prepared at home. After supper everyone went out to their cameras or telescopes and continue working on the assignments Auke had handed out.

On Sunday morning, after brunch, everyone packed up and hit the road for home.  Most people probably went to bed early on Sunday evening to try and catch up on some sleep before the working week started on Monday morning.

Apart from the formal aspects of the weekend’s program, the main benefit of the get-together, for most people, lay in the many opportunities to discuss issues and exchange ideas. One could also not help being once again amazed by the ingenuity of amateur astronomers. Topping the list on this occasion was probably Johan Swanepoel’s huge, fully automated, 20-inch telescope, which he designed and built from scratch.  His equally neat and effective, automated, barn door tracker was probably a close second.  I suppose it helps being a retired electronics engineer if you are an amateur astronomer?  For the uninitiated, 20-inches refers to the diameter of the telescope mirror and not the length of the telescope.

Alan Cassels’s adjustable platform for his telescope, which enables him to get the telescope’s eye-piece to a comfortable height for observing, and his innovative light table, with a red light background also drew attention. Alan’s devices might, at first glance, appear to be less impressive than Johan’s telescope, but they are certainly no less effective or useful.

September is the month for our Spring Star Party so take a peek from time to time on this website and on www.psychohistorian.org for more information and updates. These two websites also contain a host of other information about astronomy and astronomy related events.  If you cannot find what you are looking for on the websites contact me on 0219826496 or 0837870792.  You can also contact me via edward@elfastronomy.com.

Antarctica Team Finds Largest Chondrite Meteorite in the Past 25 Years

An international team of scientists at Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth Antarctica research station has found the largest meteorite in nearly 25 years.  This find has the potential to facilitate the unlocking of secrets about the original chemistry of our solar system’s. The eight members of the SAMBA (Surface Antarctic Mass Balance)  project, from Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) and Tokyo University were searching for meteorites scattered across the Nansen Ice Field on January 28, when they found the 18kg chondrite. SAMBA is a research activity coordinated by GLACIOCLIM (Les Glaciers, un Observatoire du Climat)

Comet C/2011 L4 Breaks Up! How the Wind Briefly Fanned the Embers of my Ambition.

At last I got my pictures of the beastly thing!  Not very good but I got them, that’s the main thing.  I also experienced the very brief but intense thrill of thinking that I had photographed the comet breaking up.  Unfortunately it hadn’t and I had to come down to Earth very quickly again.

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The comet, which was then just over 150 million km away, is in the yellow rectangle just above the ESCOM power pole. It is almost swallowed by the glare of Cape Town’s lights. [Camera: Nikon 5000D, Lens: VR 18-200 mm F/3.5-5.6G, 18 mm, 3 sec, F/3.5 & ISO`1250].
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A better view of the comet. [Camera: Nikon 5000D, Lens: VR 18-200 mm F/3.5-5.6G, 200 mm, 3 sec, F/5.6 & ISO 1250]

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For a minute or two I could see the the headlines – “Cape amateur astronomer photographs comet PANSTARRS breaking up.” The excitement only lasted until I spotted the blurred pole and realized that a gust of wind had jarred the camera. [Camera: Nikon 5000D, Lens: VR 18-200 mm F/3.5-5.6G, 200 mm, 3 sec, F/5.6 & ISO 1250]
Comet PANSTARRS’s closest approach to Earth will be on 5 March 2013 when a mere 1.09 au will separate us from this visitor from the outermost reaches of the Solar System. It’s closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) will be on 10 March 2013. Original estimates predicted that it would brighten to an apparent magnitude of 0 (roughly the brightness of Alpha Centauri A in Centaurs or Vega in Lyra). Optimistic estimates in October 2012 predicted a magnitude of -4 (roughly equivalent to Venus).  In January 2013 brightening slowed down and revised estimates suggested it might only brighten to magnitude +1 (roughly Spica in Virgo).  During February the increase in brightness has slowed even further, so that the magnitude at perihelion is now predicted to be between +2.5 and + 3.0 (Markab in Pegasus and Deneb in Aquila).

Comet C/2011 L4 aka Comet PANSTARRS

This comet is now visible with binoculars from down here in the Cape, reports Dieter Willasch.  It is very close to the Sun and Southern Sky viewers have to look very carefully to find it..  Dieter managed to get a good shot of the comet shortly after 18:30  on Thursday the 28th February from Somerset West.  The image can be viewed on his website Astro-Cabinet, which also has many other excellent examples of his astrophotography.