Sunday was an almost perfect day for an outreach event in the amphitheater of the Iziko South African Museum (click here for more information) in Cape Town. Lynnette and I, unfortunately, got there a bit later than we had intended. Auke had almost finished setting up by the time we arrived and we just managed to get Lorenzo setup before the first visitors put in an appearance.
While we were setting up, Benjamin, the museum security guard, came round to say hello and put out the traffic cones thereby preventing people from attempting to park among the telescopes. Throughout the rest of the day, he appeared every now and again, keeping a watchful eye on the ever present idlers and strollers who often have less than honest intentions.
We had a steady stream of visitors throughout the day. However, every time a tour group passed through the activity around the telescopes peaked and required all hands on deck. It was really a pity that, other than one lone sunspot (2670) which was about to disappear over the rim of the sun, there was no activity to be seen. I found the overseas visitors far more aware of astronomical matters than the South Africans. Having said that though, Lynnette had one local three-year old who knew the names of all the planets and, when quizzed, also knew which planet was the smallest and which was the largest!
All in all, it was a very pleasant day with the wind dying down by mid-morning and the few clouds that there were never really posing a serious threat to our solar observing. One of the problems, that occurs every year, with this kind of event is the effort to get people to sign our visitor’s register. Some people just refuse point blank and others again refuse to give contact details. During periods of high activity, when everyone is manning a telescope, we also lose signatures because there is nobody available to monitor if visitors sign the register or not. Our counters, as is usual, gave far higher figures than the number of signatures but, because one is busy with visitors, one probably also misses visitors with the counters. Maybe we should get some inventive person to install a counter at the eyepiece that counts when people look into it.
We set up just outside the entrance to the Brackenfell Public Library. The forecast said it would be a sunny day so we also put up our gazebo and decorated that with some of our banners. The banners look nice, provide added wind protection, make the gazebo sturdier and also help prevent uncontrolled access. Sunelle, Lötter and her staff used the material we gave them, predominantly from our own stocks, to put up displays in the entrance foyer and several other parts of the library
As we have experienced in the past it takes a lot of effort to get the public to come and take a look, despite the fact that the telescope was very visible, as were our A-frames and pull-up banners. One has to resort to accosting people, as they approach the entrance and begging them to come and take a peek at the Sun and its lonely sunspot.
This all changed dramatically during the afternoon when the schools closed; we were almost inundated! The Library serves as a focal point for learners whose parents are at work as they also use the library hall to do their homework. The youngsters from the apartments across the road from the library simply use the library and environs as an entertainment area. For the latter group, our presence was a welcome added attraction to their normal routine.
Thanks to the sunny weather and the eager learners it was eventually quite a pleasant and productive outing.
Anja Bruton, the Science Promotions Coordinator at SKA Africa, approached StarPeople to accompany the NSTF Brilliants group (http://www.nstf.org.za/youth/brilliants-programme/) on the tour to the SKA and SALT and we jumped at the opportunity. Anja and Dimpho would fly to Kimberly to meet up with Jansie Niehaus and Wilna Eksteen from the NSTF (http://www.nstf.org.za/) and a group of students, chosen for their exceptional performance in the 2016 Matriculation exams; specifically in the Science paper. This group would fly down from Gauteng and, after a day’s sightseeing in Kimberley, they would tackle the long journey to Carnarvon in two Quantums on Saturday the 24th. They would also be accompanied by two photographers who were tasked with documenting the trip.
Lynnette, Auke, Snorre and I would leave Cape Town for Carnarvon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnarvon,_Northern_Cape) early on Thursday the 23rd and book in at the Lord Carnarvon Guest House. Anja and the rest of the group were scheduled to arrive shortly after lunch on Saturday and on Saturday evening StarPeople were to present a stargazing session at Klerefontein, the SKA’s operational base about 15 km outside Carnarvon. On Sunday morning the group would visit the SKA site itself and after that, e would depart for Sutherland. On Sunday evening there was to be stargazing session at the SAAO’s Visitor’s Centre and on Monday morning we would tour the SAAO facilities on the hill before heading for Cape Town.
However, as Robert Burns once said “The best laid schemeso’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” First of all, Auke had to pull out because of domestic complications. Then the car hire company notified us that the vehicle we required could only be delivered on Friday morning and not on Thursday afternoon as requested. This, of course, scuppered our 05:00 departure plan, but Lynnette and I made sure that we had everything packed and ready to load by 08:00 when the vehicle was scheduled to arrive. However, it only arrived at about 08:30 and, when it did arrive, it was petrol and not diesel driven as had been requested. Disaster! Petrol-driven vehicles are not allowed access to the SKA site because their spark plugs generate interference for the radio telescope. It is more than 600 km to Carnarvon and we had to be there before dark. We also still had to load the vehicle so, if we sent it back and insisted on a diesel driven one, there was no chance of reaching Carnarvon before dark. We signed for the vehicle, finished loading in record time and at 09:40 we set off for Carnarvon.
The journey was long but uneventful. We stopped for petrol and Lynnette’s packed lunch in Vanrhynsdorp (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanrhynsdorp) after 290 km. We then stopped halfway up the spectacular Vanrhyns Pass to take pictures. The original pass was constructed in 1880 by Thomas Bain and climbs almost 600 m from the Knersvlakte to its summit, situated at just over 800 m, which is about the same as the top of Du Toitskloof pass. The pass has an average gradient of 1:15 with the steepest section being 1:12.
On the last stretch, we had to push it a bit and reached Carnarvon in the gathering dusk at 17:45, where we reported to Pieter Hoffman at the Lord Carnarvon guest house in Daniel Street (https://www.carnarvon.co.za/lcindex.htm). This building was the Officer’s Mess during the Anglo-South African War and he has done a magnificent job of restoring it. We unloaded, got Snorre settled in, and walked round to Lord’s Kitchen in Victoria Street (https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/Restaurant_Review-g4226745-d8743616-Reviews-Lord_s-Carnarvon_Northern_Cape.html), also run by Pieter, for supper. After supper, we walked back to the Lord Carnarvon and had the amusing experience of being escorted by a police vehicle because “nobody walks around Carnarvon in the dark”. This remark struck us a rather odd considering the fact that there were quite a few other local people in the streets.
On Saturday morning, after breakfast at the Lord Carnarvon, Lynnette, Snorre and I took to the streets to do some house hunting in case we should decide to move to Carnarvon. The results of this expedition were rather disappointing as we soon discovered that, like many small country towns in South Africa, the homeowners wanted lots of cash for the property that was, in our opinion, worth a lot less. The other aspect which surprised us, even though Anja had warned us about it, was the negative sentiment toward the SKA project and the amount of disinformation circulating in the town. This varied from stories that farmers were being chased off their farms without compensation or that farms were being confiscated in order to distribute the land to previously disadvantaged persons, and even that townsfolk were to be evicted so that four blocks of houses could be knocked down to build a college. We also came across an openly hostile sign in a back yard in Kidd Street. Most obvious was the fact that almost everyone we spoke to had no bloody clue what the SKA was, or what it was about.
Shortly before 16:00 Anja let us know they had arrived and were having a late lunch at Lord’s Kitchen. We popped around and Anja introduced us to the group. After the meal the group dispersed to their various rooms and Anja, Dimpho, Lynnette and I set off for Klerefontein, the SKA’s operational base, to set up Lorenzo for the stargazing later that evening. Mission accomplished we headed back to town to collect all our warm gear and have supper. After supper, the five vehicle cavalcade made its way back to Klerefontein. On a hill southeast of where we were situated was the large 7,6 m dish of the C-BASS radio telescope (https://www.ska.ac.za/science-engineering/c-bass/) catching the last rays of the setting sun as it patiently toiled away sweeping back and forth to map the radio sky in the 4,5-5,5 MHz frequency range. The C-BASS dish, recently moved from Hartebeeshoek (http://www.hartrao.ac.za/) to Klerefontein, is the southern component (the other telescope is in California) of a project to produce a microwave (short-wavelength radio) radiation map similar to the one produced by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_(spacecraft)), but at longer wavelengths than Planck. C-BASS will also measure the polarization of the radiation.
Anja split the students into two groups for the planned activities. One group stayed with Lynnette, Lorenzo and I to do some stargazing. The other group went inside to participate in Skype Q&A session with Jim Adams, Deputy Chief Technologist at NASA (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/people/adamsj).The Milky Way was magnificent and drew many Ooh’s and Aah’s from the group. I did a basic what’s-up-tonight and then kept talking while Lynnette operated Lorenzo. There was no Moon but fortunately, Jupiter and Saturn were nicely placed and we could also show them a selection of the other well-known objects. After about an hour the groups changed around and Lynnette, Lorenzo and I repeated our earlier performance. Once we had done with the second group, it was packing up time and then back to town for a hot shower and some much-needed sleep.
Sunday morning at 06:15 it was breakfast time at Lord’s Kitchen and, after collecting our packed lunches, it was all aboard for the trip out to Klerefontein where Anja gave us a Health and Safety briefing and had us all fill in indemnity forms. During the briefing, the emphasis was placed on the mayhem electronic devices caused for the radio telescopes. Mobile phones, which all had to be switched off, were a prime source and even my hearing aid’s hands-free device, that uses Blue Tooth, had to be switched off. After all, this had been sorted out, our motorcade tackled the more than 70 or so kilometers out to the actual SKA site. Large sections have already been tarred, but there are still fairly long sections that are very rough and dusty. Lynnette and I had to leave our petrol driven vehicle with Snorre in it just inside the checkpoint at what used to be the Meysdam farmhouse and continue with Anja and Dimpho in their vehicle. Snorre was quite safe, with enough fresh air, water and food to keep him busy till we get back. We made sure that the vehicle would be in the deep shade while we were away too.
Our first stop was the very impressive, half underground, Karoo Array Processor Building. Placing the centre below ground level was essential to minimize the amount of interference from the computers. In addition to being below ground level, the whole installation is housed inside a huge Faraday cage (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faraday_cage). It is ironic that a radio telescope, which cannot function without massive computer support, also experiences its most annoying interference from computers. It was while touring the Processor Building point that I realized that, if I had simply put my phone on Airplane Mode, I could have brought it with me and taken photographs. Some mothers are just unfortunate to have very dense children! Our next stop was the huge, hanger-sized building where the MeerKAT dishes are assembled. It is only when one stands next to one of these huge constructions lying flat on the floor that one really gets an idea of their overwhelming size. Needless to say, at this point, I mentally administered several more resounding kicks to my posterior for not having anything to take pictures with. After completing this part of the tour it was back into the vehicles for the drive out to the telescopes.
The first stop was the KAT-7 dishes (http://www.ska.ac.za/) where all but one pointed south, collecting data on some unseen object light years away in a distant part of the Universe. KAT-7 was a precursor engineering test bed for the larger MeerKAT array and also served as a demonstration of South Africa’s technological ability when the bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) was submitted. However, KAT-7, the first radio telescope ever to be built with a dish consisting of composite material, is also a science instrument in its own right. Each 12-meter dish is fitted with a prime focus receiver and a Stirling pump cooling unit that supplies the cryogenic cooling to keep the electronics at 75 K. The total collecting area of the seven dishes is about 2000 m2 and they function in the 3 to 30 cm wavelength range at frequencies between 1 200 and 1 950 MHz. KAT-7’s minimum baseline (shortest distance between two dishes) is 26 m and the maximum baseline (longest distance between two dishes) is 185 m. These seven dishes will eventually be decommissioned as science instruments when their successors, the MeerKat Array, comes online and be made available for serious amateurs.
Then we were off to find a MeerKAT dish (http://www.ska.ac.za/) that was positioned in such a way that it would be easy to photograph, which wasn’t easy because, despite the fact that they were lots of them, they were all facing in different directions. It really is an impressive sight, seeing these dishes scattered across the Karoo veldt against the backdrop of the low, dolerite topped hills that surround the area, with the dolerite providing a natural radio screen for the telescopes. Considering that only half of the MeerKAT dishes have been erected so far, one can only imagine what a spectacle it will be when all 64 MeerKAT dishes have been completed. The final Karoo Array Telescope or KAT will definitely be a must-see destination and a breathtaking spectacle for all who visit it. MeerKAT will eventually form the core of the KAT radio telescope array. These 13,5m dishes differ from those of KAT-7 in that they use an offset Gregorian configuration for the placing of the secondary dish and the receivers. Each dish is equipped with three receivers; 0,58 – 1,015 GHz, 1 – 1,75 GHz and 8 – 14,5 GHz. The MeerKAT minimum baseline is 29 m and the maximum baseline is 8 km.
Both KAT-7 and MeerKAT are entirely South African conceived, funded and built enterprises and, even after the construction of the KAT, which has multiple international partners, these two installations will remain entirely South African.
Our next stop was the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) (http://www.ska.ac.za/) which is the simplest construction imaginable and is the successor to the Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER). PAPER has 128 antennae situated at the SKA site and 32 antennae situated in West Virginia in the USA. HERA is an American, British and South African collaboration that will eventually have 331 antennae of 14 m each at the SKA site. The existing PAPER installation will be moved to a location slightly west of the HERA installation and eventually decommissioned when HERA is fully operational. Whereas KAT-7, MeerKAT, and KAT are multipurpose installations HERA has only one fixed goal; it is going to probe back into time to try and find that moment when the very first stars switched on to light up in the Universe. In the process, it will produce a three-dimensional map of the universe during that specific period using radio waves in the 100-200 MHz frequency range. This project is the radio astronomy equivalent of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and when they succeed, this project could very well be in line for a Nobel Prize. The antennae are fixed in one position, pointing straight up at the sky and have no moving parts, which greatly reduces the cost of the installation. What makes this project remarkable is that it is constructed with materials bought off the shelf in a local hardware store by people from the local community of Carnarvon who have been trained by SKA scientists. The big dishes of KAT-7 and the even bigger dishes of MeerKAT look like science instruments. HERA, however, looks like an inverted chicken coop or perhaps some sort of landscape art and not very scientific at all.
We went back to the Processor Building to enjoy our packed lunches and, while there Lynnette noticed that one of the Quantums had a flat tyre, necessitating a wheel change. After lunch, Anja and Dimpho dropped Lynnette and I off at Meysdam to pick up our vehicle and then we all traipsed back to Klerefontein where Anja and Dimpho changed vehicles before we all drove back to Carnarvon to refuel. Lynnette and I had done that the previous evening so we just hung around until the whole convoy was ready to start the long journey to Sutherland, which Anja had elected to do via Loxton (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loxton,_Northern_Cape). The just under 70 km from Carnarvon to Loxton was a breeze on a nice tarred road but then came the long 100 km grind on the R356 gravel road to Fraserburg (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraserburg). We had been contemplating a visit to the palaeosurface at Gansefontein, just outside Fraserburg, but time was against as; seriously against us. We had hardly left Fraserburg when the sun set and, as it got darker, driving became more and more difficult. The 110 km stretch to Sutherland (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutherland,_Northern_Cape) was going to take much, much longer than planned and our stargazing appointment at the SAAO site (http://www.saao.ac.za/about/visting/sutherland/) outside Sutherland had to be canceled. Because Lynnette and I were the last car in the convoy, we collected all the dust from the four vehicles ahead of us. This forced us to fall back more than a kilometer behind the fourth vehicle before we had a clear view of the road ahead.
We all made it safely to Sutherland and, while the majority of the group was booking into the Sutherland Hotel (http://www.sutherlandhotel.co.za/accommodation.php), Lynnette, Snorre, Anja and I as well as the two drivers of the Quantums, booked into Kambro Kind Guest House, where we were welcomed by Juanita Hutchings. Once booked in we went back to the Hotel where we had a typical Karoo supper consisting of meat, meat and more meat with a few vegetables right at the end of the buffet table. It is just a pity that the hotel did not think of having a nice fire going in the dining area on such a cold evening.
After supper Lynnette and I, Lorenzo, Anja, the photographers and several students drove out to Middelfontein to do some stargazing (http://www.roomsforafrica.com/establishment.do?id=13879&gclid=Cj0KCQjws-LKBRDCARIsAAOTNd6cUH9fdKlh5bbYksnV0F5D-BQPK4kMRrO8IdxP7D_a6uSOZX_UQX8aAoUUEALw_wcB). The photographers were spending the night on Middelfontein, but the rest of us would have to drive back to town to get some sleep. The right side sliding door on our vehicle, which had been playing up since the previous day went on strike when we started unloading. It first refused to open and then, when we forced it to open, it refused to shut without the use of considerable force and, once shut, it refused to open again so we left it shut. Then the courtesy light inside the door which was supposed to only go on when the door was open, decided it wanted to be on even when the door was shut. A resounding thump on the outside of the door convinced the light to go off and stay off. Once that was sorted out we could get round to the stargazing which was a presented in the same format as on Saturday evening at Klerefontein and, once again, worked very well. So well, in fact, that Anja had to chase us all off to bed around midnight.
On Monday morning Lynnette and I packed up before breakfast and, true to Sutherland’s reputation of being very cold, the windscreen of our vehicle was thickly frosted over and the fishpond had a layer of ice over it, thick enough to walk on. After breakfast at Kambro Kind, everyone gathered at the Hotel before departing for the SAAO site where the group spent some time examining the displays in the Visitor’s Centre before Anthony Mitas took us under his very capable wing and shepherded us up the hill to start our tour at the Southern African Large Telescope or SALT (http://www.saao.ac.za/science/facilities/telescopes/salt/). SALT is an international collaboration between South Africa and several overseas partners and is operated as a separate research entity on the SAO site.
Anthony presented a most comprehensive and informative talk to the group and, to everyone’s delight, arranged to have the 32-ton behemoth raised on its air cushions and rotated for us. After SALT we went to the 1,9-meter telescope. This is the second largest optical telescope in South Africa and, as the Radcliffe Telescope, it used to be housed in Pretoria but uncontrolled light pollution chased it south in the mid-1970’s (http://assa.saao.ac.za/sections/history/observatories/radcliffe_obs/). It has since acquired new instrumentation designed and built by SAAO-staff and still has many years of valuable scientific life ahead of it. At the telescope, we were met by Dr. Potter, a senior astronomer on the SAAO staff. Dr. Potter talked most informatively about the telescope and his own work as well as the other projects being conducted on the telescope. He also demonstrated how easy it was to operate the telescope, especially after the installation of modern electronic control systems, and showed the group around the control room as well.
After saying goodbye to Dr. Potter and Anthony, we stopped off in Sutherland to refuel and then made a beeline for Cape Town where the group had an 18:00 appointment at the SAAO headquarters in Observatory. We made one stop at the Veldskoen Farm Stall and said our final goodbyes before splitting up.
My only regret is that with the group split over several vehicles it was impossible to do any guiding while en route. Although we considered stopping the vehicles at points of interest, it would not have been practical from a safety point of view. Time constraints, which played an important role during the trip, virtually canceled the possibility of additional stops even if safety had not been an important consideration.
I will post more photos at a later stage as they become available from other people who were on the trip as well as the two official photographers.
When the subject of this course came up both Auke and I immediately asked “Why didn’t we finish this thing long ago” and he was right we should have done it when we first talked about it three or more years ago. Well, it was too late for tears now and we had to get stuck in and get it done. We discovered that we had actually done a lot of the spade word back then and produced a very good basic framework. What we now needed to do was to put flesh on the bare bones and tweak a few things here and there.
That is exactly what we did and on the 20th of April we set off in the Vito for Sutherland. Lynnette and Snore stayed at home because there is a “no pets” rule in the hostel at the SAAO in Sutherland so Snorre would not have been able to come with us. Lynnette, very unwillingly, accepted the role of a cat sitter.
We arrived latish on Thursday the 20th at the hostel. After greeting Cedric, Sivuyile and Thembela in the dining room we transferred all our stuff from the Vito into our rooms and then went outside with coffee to appreciate the dark skies. I took a set of darks sky readings about which I will give some feedback later.
Next morning it was breakfast at 07:30 and shortly after 08:00 we were at the Visitors Centre to set up in the library. The group for the course/workshop was:
Anthony Mitas (SAAO, Sutherland)
Cedric Jacobs (SAAO, Cape Town)
Claudine Vernooi (SAAO, Sutherland)
Francois Klein (SAAO, Sutherland)
Jeremy Stuurman (SAAO, Sutherland)
Sivuyile Manxoyi (SAAO, Cape Town)
Thembela Mantungwa (SAAO, Cape Town)
Willem Prins (SAAO, Sutherland)
I am not going to give a blow by blow account of the course content or the progress in the class. That will be done in official reports. None of the attendees were entirely inexperienced except perhaps Francois and he made up for that in enthusiasm. People like Cedric, Sivuyile and Willem all had a great deal of experience and the others all had varying degrees of experience.
Our approach was that this was a workshop during which we would all learn from each other and we encouraged everyone to share experiences right from the word go. Everyone did exactly that throughout the two days and the result was a very positive learning experience for all concerned.
As far as outreach was concerned it quickly became apparent that there were too few people on the ground to handle the number of schools and the vast number of learners that had to be reached. As far as the essential follow-up of visits it was very clear that there was simply no chance of doing this at the frequency required to make it effective. In the Northern Cape, the numbers problem was further complicated by the distances between towns and the condition of the roads.
Taken all together the group had a large combined pool of experience. One of the energetically debated points was the problems experienced during outreach and stargazing sessions. Some of these problems originated from the belief systems people adhere to while others are the result of misrepresentations by science quacks and a small percentage can be attributed to genuine ignorance. Although some of these situations can be amusing all of them require tact to resolve as they all have the potential to damage science and our reputations as presenters. The bottom line was that as outreach practitioners we are all also at the forefront of science education to the public at large and to learners.
On the both the Friday and Saturday evenings we had practical sessions. Friday evening we did not use telescopes but rather concentrated on constellations and easy activities like finding satellites as predicted by appropriate software applications.
The Saturday session at the telescopes was quite an eye opener for us. There was so much enthusiasm and an incredible participatory spirit. It sounded more like a party than a stargazing practical. Make no mistake there was a lot of serious astronomy and learning taking place at the same time but in such a good spirit and everyone wanted to contribute or help wherever necessary.
The Ghost of Venus took the longest to find but eventually, that was also laid to rest. Willem’s attempts to keep everyone going till Sagittarius rose into the sky were eventually thwarted by a combination of a dropping temperature and overall fatigue.
What a pleasure to work with a group like this and a big thank-you to each and every one of you.
On Sunday Morning Auke and I talked Willie into showing us around the new 1-meter Telescope and giving us a brief overview of what was new up on the hill. Thanks, Willie! After that Auke and I hit the road considerably later than we had planned but we still had one stop to make.
In the Verlatenkloof Pass, the old Toll House has been bought by a long time resident of Paarl, Tjol Herbst. No not Lategan, he was the rugby player. This Tjol moved to the Karoo after his retirement on the advice of his doctor because of his asthma. We stopped off there for a very interesting chat and a cold beer. Pay the man a visit, it is quite an education.
After visiting Tjol we were finally on our way home which was uneventful except for two stops to buy fruit. The one at Veldskoen was a disappointment because their grapes were sold out so we stopped at the Seekoeipadstal, which had ample stock. After dropping Auke off in Somerset West I finally got to Brackenfell.
Auke, Lynnette and I pitched nice and early followed shortly by Wendy and we all promptly set about setting up the telescopes in preparation for the arrival of the Friends of the Helderberg nature Reserve later on. Wendy set up her 8” Dobsonian and Auke set up the Celestron nicknamed “Little Martin” while Lynnette and I set up the other Celestron known as the “One Armed Bandit”. Both Celestrons were automated and we hoped to gain time and make life easier by not having to adjust all the time to follow an object, as is the case with a Dobsonian. Although there are definite advantages to using an automated telescope as opposed to a good old push-and-tug Dobsonian I found that with the 5” instrument I had it was less stable and did not give me the clarity and brightness I was used to on our workhorse, Lorenzo the 10” Dobsonian. I will definitely investigate other uses for the Celestron but at present, I have my doubts when it comes to general outreach. Watch this space is I believe the expression to use.
There were still day picnickers around and when the children spotted the telescopes they made a beeline for us before we had time to set up properly. As soon as we were up and running we let them look at the moon to their heart’s content. Auke even had on eager little lass trained up in no time to operate the control paddle of his telescope; I was less adventurous. As the picnickers trickled away the Friends of the Helderberg Nature Reserve ) started arriving and setting up their picnics.
By the time it was dark enough to do a what’s up tonight most of them had looked at the moon. I kept my introduction as short as possible and steadily increased the number of stars and constellations as the gathering dark allowed us to see more of them.
After the talk, it was back to the telescopes and we spent the rest of the evening until packing up time around 21:45 showing various objects and talking about whichever astronomy questions were put to us. All in all, it was a very pleasant and enjoyable evening with fair weather, very little wind and nice people.
Thanks to the Friends for the invitation and we are very glad the weather gods viewed our little get together favourably this time round.
This outing started on the 10th of September when we were setup on the Pierhead in the V&A Waterfront (this link will take you to a page where you can read more about our monthly outings there). Gert van Lill an educator and Head of Department at Labiance Primary School (this is the school’s web page) was visiting the Waterfront and asked us if we could do something at the school as well. After hours activities would be difficult, so we settled on solar viewing and a small poster display. He undertook to discuss the arrangements with the school and we would then settle on a date. We have had this same enthusiasm many, many times before, only to have it dissipate over time as it became entangled in logistics and imagined difficulties, so we did not let our expectations get out of hand. Gert, however, was serious and before long we had a date, the logistics were sorted out and we had identified the display and viewing area at the school.
So on Friday the 23rd of September Lynnette and I saddled up the Vito and headed for the school just after 07:00. The traffic on the R300 northbound was very heavy but quite reasonable southbound until we got the Van Riebeek Road turnoff when it became bumper to bumper stuff and stayed that way on the R102 all the way to the College Road intersection. Once at the school we parked the Vito and Gert took us in to introduce us to the staff and show us where the essential amenities were. Then out we went and started unloading and setting up. Gert explained that we would be getting all the learners from grades five to seven in batches from about 08:30 through to 13:00. So we would have just over four hours to do our stuff with just over 400 learners (431 to be exact) and their educators but bear in mind we would be out in the full sun for the entire period. It was clearly going to a long hot morning but then solar viewing exercises are always hot stuff.
The hospitality at the school was fantastic. Mrs Mfika brought us coffee shortly after our arrival and later in the morning Mrs Thebus brought is soft drinks, pies, samosas and two chocolate bars. The educators were all very friendly and interested. The school is neat and very well run. The educators that accompanied the various groups of learners were always in control and I was impressed by the general quality of the question the learners asked and also by their general knowledge. The security is top notch and we never ever had the slightest qualms about our belongings possibly being relocated. We have been to a fair number of schools over the course of the last eight years and Labiance really stands out. The school deserves a pat on the back and a good round of applause because it is doing a great job. Congratulations to all concerned and we look forward to a return visit, possibly even an evening session with the Moon and the stars.
Last but not least a very big thank you to Gert van Lill for his initiative, the invitation and the very well organized and smoothly run event.
Lynnette and I left Brackenfell at about 10:00 under completely overcast skies. It thinned in patches at times, but in general the prospects for viewing the Sun or the Moon, which was due to rise at about 14:00, seemed pretty close to zero.
At the Waterfront all the access arrangements made by George Moolman (Manager: Events V&A Waterfront) worked very smoothly. Once we had parked the Vito we inspected the site we had chosen on the Pierhead and decided on a tentative layout for the telescopes, poster A-frames and other paraphernalia associated with outreach events. Auke and Wendy arrived after a while, followed by Dirk. As soon as we had agreed on a final layout we unloaded and took the vehicles back to our allocated parking bays.
By shortly after 13:00 we were ready for action, but our targets were hidden by the clouds so what were we going to show the visitors? People, attracted by the telescopes and posters, approached us to find out what it was all about and we had to explain that we could not show them the Sun or the Moon, as advertised, because of the unrelenting cloud cover. Auke and Dirk got their telescopes [“Walter”, a 5-inch refractor and a 5-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain] lined up on the lower cable station and used the image to talk about how telescopes worked but, despite muttered incantations and explicit and generally unprintable expressions of displeasure, the clouds kept the Sun and the Moon well hidden.
As the afternoon wore on the clouds began to thin and we were allowed fleeting glimpses of the Sun. Every time this happened there was a flurry of activity as Lynnette, Wendy and I attempted to get “Maphefu” (8-inch Dobsonian) and “Lorenzo” (10-inch Dobsonian) aligned on the Sun only to have the clouds maliciously close in just as we almost had it in our sights. Then, finally, at about 16:30, the clouds parted and we could actually see both the Sun and the Moon. Maphefu and Lorenzo were equipped with solar filters, so Wendy and I could show visitors the Sun and some very nice sun spots, while Auke and Dirk concentrated on the Moon. When the Sun set behind the Ferris-Wheel I switched Lorenzo to the Moon and, as soon as it became dark enough to see Jupiter, I switched targets again.
For most of the rest of the evening I kept Lorenzo on Jupiter while Wendy, Auke and Dirk focused on the Moon. By 20:00 dew was becoming a problem and it became evident that we would have to consider packing up. Mars was very bright and eventually Saturn and Antares also became visible as they climbed high enough to escape the effects of the light pollution glare over the harbour. Crux and the Pointers were visible all evening as were Sirius and Canopus. By about 21:00 the dew definitely had the upper hand so we had to pack away and load all the wet telescopes and other stuff into the vehicles and head for home.
Obtaining an accurate count of the number of visitors was, as is usual, quite tricky because one has to be careful not to count the same people at each of the four telescopes. Lynnette and I both had counters and we counted just over 400 visitors, but our count is usually a bit low and the actual figure could be closer to five hundred. We also asked visitors to sign our visitors list and collected 282 names, which is definitely less than the number of visitors we had. It is surprisingly tricky to get people to sign the lists. Some people just flatly refuse and the telescope operators find it difficult to work a telescope, explain things to people and collect names and signatures at the same time.
All in all the afternoon and evening were quite successful despite the clouds. Many of the visitors also showed considerable interest in our poster display and quite a few promised to return in June when we will be set up again on the Pierhead, hopefully without clouds. Our dates for astronomy on the Pierhead at the V&A Waterfront, weather permitting, are;
Saturday, June 11th. / Saturday, July 9th. / Saturday, August 20th. / Saturday, September 10th. / Saturday, October 8th. / Saturday, November 5th. / Saturday, December 10th.
The next day all the wet things we had loaded into the Vito at the Waterfront had to be dried before we could pack them away. Banners had to be unrolled, chairs and tables taken out of their bags, A-frames unfolded and eyepieces and finder scopes inspected for signs of moisture. Even our folders with the laminated A3-posters had to be taken out of the sleeves and individually dried.
The original appointment was somewhere in March but that had to be canceled due to inclement weather. The event was to have consisted of a talk at the retirement home, Huis Nerina, in the afternoon followed by a stargazing event at the Golf Course in the evening. The bad weather would not have affected the talk at Huis Nerina but would certainly have prevented the stargazing. So the event was rescheduled for Friday the 15th, which unfortunately clashed with an appointment we had with the EcoRangers in the Helderberg Nature Reserve (click here to visit their webpage and find out more about this magnificent corner of South Africa) . Rather than cancel one of the events we decided to split up. Auke would do the presentation for the EcoRangers (click here to find out more about the EcoRangers) while Lynnette, Snorre and I would go to Porterville and do Huis Nerina and the Golf Course stargazing. Nathalie, from Porterville Tourism, (click here to visit their webpage) (you can also visit their FaceBook page by clicking here) contacted us shortly after these arrangements had been made and told us that the Porterville event would have to be shifted to Thursday the 14th because there was a dance on in the town and people wanted to attend that and our stargazing event. This actually suited us because we would not have to split up and could all three do both events. This was not to be because, a few days later, an embarrassed Nathalie contacted us and asked if we would please be prepared to switch back to Friday the 15th as some other administrative glitch had popped up! So, because we try and please most of the people most of the time, we switched back to splitting StarPeople up.
On Friday morning Lynnette, Snorre and I set off to Porterville where we arrived around 11:00 and reported to Nathalie at the Tourism Office. From there we went to the Rendezvous B&B, Restaurant (visit a webpage with more informationabout this very friendly establishment) where we were welcomed by Riana van der Merwe and shown to our room. One of the staff, appropriately named Angel, quickly converted the two twin beds to a double bed. Shortly after 14:00 we headed for Huis Nerina and Old Age Home run by the ACVV, leaving Snorre in our room. The ACVV is the oldest welfare organization in South Africa, having been established in 1904 to render a comprehensive social welfare service to families in need (click here for more information on the ACVV) At Huis Nerina we discovered that there was no convenient white wall to project against, as we had been assured there would be. The staff quickly found a bed sheet and in no time it was fixed to a wall with sellotape and funny putty.
My talk was on astronomy in South Africa with some extra slides thrown in of pretty astronomical objects and a bit of Stellarium. I also asked the folks to encourage all grandchildren and great-grandchildren who had any interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics to stick with it and qualify themselves to participate in South Africa’s blooming astronomy endeavors. After fielding some questions we packed and said goodbye up after promising to come back with a telescope and do some real astronomy with them somewhere in the future.
A special note on the photographs in this post: Lynnette was the photographer but using my camera and somehow most of the photographs are just ever so slightly out of focus. Neither of us knows why because my photographs later on of the flowers are fine. Lynnette is not happy about the quality of her photographs but next time we will check the camera out first.
After a trip back to the Rendezvous for refreshments, we pitched at the golf course at around 18: to start setting up. Snorre was unfortunately confined to barracks because we were worried that some of the visitors might bring dogs, as they had on our previous visit. We were right because there was a particularly industrious Dachshund who felt duty bound to bark loudly at everything and everyone. Not Snorre’s cup of tea I am afraid.
By 19:15 the guests started trickling in and shortly after 19:30 I kicked off with a short talk before starting the telescope viewing. Orion was on its way down and already fairly low in the west so we started with M45, the Orion Nebula) and then worked our way eastward covering Jupiter and the Moon before switching to the Crux, the Diamond Cross and various objects of interest in the Milky Way itself.
Some sharp-eyed star gazers spotted Arcturus rising and mistook that for Mars which kindly put in an appearance a little while later, followed even later by Saturn. Once again one had proof positive that trying to view objects that had just risen above the horizon might have artistic merit but was an astronomical waste of time. By 22:30 we had packed up and not too long after 23:00 we could shower and hit the bed with a vengeance. Snorre was glad to see us but clearly perplexed at not being able to accompany us.
After a leisurely breakfast the next morning we packed up and headed home. We only stopped to photograph some Brunsvigia Orientalis (Afrikaans: Koningskandelaar) and Crassyn guttata (Afrikaans: Sambreelblom) in a field adjacent to the road near Halmanshof. Once home it was the usual schlep of unloading and packing everything away before being able to relax.
We will try and organize a special trip for the residents of Huis Nerina around the First Quarter Moon to give them the opportunity of looking through a telescope. Maybe Nathalie can pull a few strings for us.
We left in good time on Friday morning and our first stop was at the Veldskoen Padstal a few kilometers north of De Doorns for breakfast en grapes. Go here to read more about this excellent venue or click her to visit their FaceBook page. The Veldskoen has never disappointed us and their breakfast was, as always, first class. After breakfast and loading our grapes we set off on the second leg of the journey to Leeuwenboschfontein. Visit Leeuwenboschfontein’s website by clicking here to find out more about this lovely venue. We arrived there to find Iain and Willem already on site as well as a crowd of trainee drone pilots and their trainers.
Iain who was manning the admin-desk for Joan informed us that we would not be able to use the astro-enclosure that weekend because the drone trainees were doing the night-flying part of the course. So it was not just a case of not being able to drive on the runway while they were training, which I fully understood, we would also not be allowed in the astro enclosure. Apparently our presence there was disallowed by a regulation which specified that people were not allowed to be within a certain distance of an area in which drones were operating. I felt that the farm workers cottages were closer to the flying area than the astro-enclosure but my objections were met with a repetition of the statement that we would not be allowed to use the astro-enclosure as long as drone training was in progress.
This is a matter which will have to be discussed with Johan because the drone training is normally conducted during the working week so we don’t clash, but the night flying training was taking place over a weekend and a new moon weekend too. If the night flying training has to take place over a weekend than we can surely come to an agreement where they us one of the 40 weekends that are not on or close to one of the 12 new moon weekends, which is when we would like to have access to the astro-enclosure.
Anyway, there did not seem to be any wiggle room so we had to set up in the camp where there were only two other sets of non-stargazing campers and one set up on the hill at the camping site adjacent to the original fountain in the name Leeuwenboschfontein. There was still a bush up there but (un)fortunately no lion anymore.
Lynnette and I set up on the embankment next to the caravan where. Later in the evening we switched of the external lights at the ablution blocks but there was nothing we could do about the lights on the entrance road to the reception office and the guest houses. To top it all, the conventional incandescent globes had been replaced with new energy saving globes which were unfortunately much brighter than their incandescent predecessors.
The seeing was good and Lynnette and I spent most of the early part of the evening brushing up on our constellations and later switched to hunting for some deep-sky objects. Later on I decided to look for and photograph Comet 252P/Linear. Easier said than done because I had left my nice finder chart at home in Brackenfell. Lynnette, wanted to know where it was and I pointed in a general easterly direction and said, “Somewhere over there”. Her comment was, “Well why don’t you look over there then?” So I looked “over there” and, much to my surprise a very faint, vaguely greenish patch appeared in the finder scope. A quick look in the 25mm eyepiece to confirm and then switched to a 10mm eyepiece and, yes there it was. I let Lynnette look to confirm and then set up the camera on its tripod and took some photos. Mission accomplished and off to bed we went.
Somewhere in the course of the night we also had a visit from one of the drone trainees. It turned out that they had to do this course to qualify as drone pilots because they were going to use their drones for commercial gain. He personally had several drones, one of which set him back R80 000. The course set him back R40 000, but all this expenditure was worth it in view of the amount of money a qualified drone pilot could make.
Saturday was beautiful day despite some high level clouds that could not make up their minds if they were coming or going. We paid Iain, Willem and their two cats, Tiger and Aimee a visit. The cats had come along for the first time instead of going to the kennels. We did not take Snorre with us and it was just as well because poor Tiger was so nervous he hid under blankets and cushions. We had the opportunity to get a closer look at some of the drones. After the visit I set off down to the astro-enclosure by a very roundabout route so as not to be seen by either the drone trainees or their trainers. On the way there I came across a solitary male baboon, which is something we will have to reckon with if we leave equipment down there during the daytime. After taking my photos I sneaked back to the camp unobserved.
Late on Saturday afternoon Robert Bark with his wife, daughter and 8” Dobby moved into the caravan next to ours and shortly after that Louis Fourie arrived. Louis was not particularly pleased with the prospect of not being able to set up in the astro-enclosure, but decided to make the best of it and setup on the very last site at the western end of the campsite. Lynnette and I set up at the same spot as the previous evening and Robert set himself up right in the middle of the campsite, as we had once again switched off all the outside lights at the ablution blocks. Thanks to Lynnette I was able to take some good shots of the 3-day old moon setting behind the lapa on top of one of the peaks of the Nougat hills.
The seeing was not as good as the previous evening but improved steadily during the course of the night and by 03:00 it was very good again. Our drone trainee came back again and brought one of his fellow trainees along as well. They spent quite a while with us before heading off to bed as they had to do the final part of their flying test before six the next morning. After they departed Lynnette and I did some more constellation work and a little bit of observing before packing up and going to bed.
The next day, Sunday, we packed up at a leisurely pace and eventually left for home well after lunchtime and enjoyed an uneventful trip home.
I am always sorry to leave Leeuwenboschfontein but then there is also the pleasure of knowing that we will be back there at the next new moon.
Like in 2014 we were booked to do the Blaauwklippen Christmas Market again in 2015 (go here to read more about Blaauwklippen Wine Estate), but, unlike last year’s one night stand, 2015 was to be three consecutive nights. The weather forecast looked good and they proved to be correct too.
Star People spent three very pleasant and busy evenings there with solar viewing from 16:30 till sunset and from 18:00 till 22:00 the almost first quarter moon provided many people with a first time peek through a telescope. We had our Old Faithful, Lorenzo, there as usual and Auke set up Evan’s demo radio telescope as well. Jonathan brought along his refractor on the first evening. Lorenzo was operated, as usual by Lynnette, with Auke also doing several stints. Wendy and Rose each had an 8” Dobby there and Alan, not to be outgunned, set up his 12” Dobby. Dirk set up his 127 mm MAK, (F = 1500 mm) but was plagued by technical problems so he never really got into the swing of things. We had a surprise visit from Brett and Tammy too which was very nice.
This was also the maiden voyage of my Celestron 102 mm (F660 mm) refractor with the Samsung CCTV camera and the Martin Lyons modification. Although I didn’t actually project the image but only had it on the small screen attached to the telescope, it worked quite well. The system does not like wind, as the slightest breeze gave the Moon a serious case of the shivers. This is actually not the refractor’s first public outing but it is the first successful one. There was a previous outing at the Helderberg Nature Reserve, but that was a total disaster due to an electrical problem.
Anyway it was a lot of fun and we met lots of interesting people and some very nice ones too. Here are some of the images taken over the course of the three evenings.