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.
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.
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.
Auke, Lynnette and I were invited, in our capacity as StarPeople, to set up outside the entrance to the Iziko Museum (**) at the top of the Company Gardens (**) in Cape Town and let people look at the Moon, Jupiter and whatever through a telescope. We also intended projecting at least the Moon onto a screen so that we could discuss important features with members of the public. We felt quite chuffed to be participating in the Museum Night project, so we accepted without hesitation.
We arrived shortly after 15:00 to find Auke already parked in front of the Museum building and a brief discussion with Elsabe sorted out where we should set up. The venue is a very attractive one and our position at the head of the stairs leading from the Company Gardens up to the Iziko Museum was perfect, because we were so visible to people approaching or leaving the building. We began unpacking and setting up and by shortly after 16:00 everything was set up and ready to go, except the projection system. Elsabe brought us coffee which was most welcome as well as some small containers of juice. By 17:00 the people were queuing for tickets to the planetarium shows scheduled for 18:00, 19:00 and 20:00 and by about 17:30 we had Lorenzo aimed at the still pale daylight Moon. At first people were hesitant to take a peek, but after the ice had been broken, we soon had a steady stream of moon gazers.
Our poster display on the cardboard A-frames was quite effective and drew many readers and lookers of which some had questions but most did not. Auke and Lynnette had the A3-planet posters set up on the steps representing a scaled down Solar System. Later in the evening the planets and our other poster displays again showed their vulnerability to windy conditions with most of them ending up either flat or propped up against a wall out of the wind. Short of carting around a load of bricks to weight them down, we have a not yet come up with a workable solution to the problem of them falling over at the slightest puff of wind.
Lynnette helped Auke lay out the Solar System and put up the poster A-frames and when the action started she manned the information table with all our handouts. She had to spend a considerable amount of time chasing after handouts and blown of her table by the gusting wind as well as setting the Solar System posters and our A-frame poster boards up every time the wind toppled them. Eventually she decided to let the wind win and put the handouts in boxes, laid the planets down flat and propped the A-frames up against the nearest wall. As it turned out her table also became the point where people approaching the Museum, expected to get information about the Museum Night and the Planetarium. When it later became clear that neither Auke nor I were going to have time to take photographs she shut down the information table, put on her photographer’s hat and took most of the photos we have of the evenings proceedings. All in all Lynnette had quite a busy night even if she did not spend time manning a telescope.
As is usual with events like this, there is always somebody who manages to do something amusing at the telescope. I have in the past had people drop to their knees and attempt to look through the Dobby’s handles at whatever. This time around I had several people walk up to Lorenzo from the front, embrace him and peer intently into the front of the finder scope. There were also the three gentlemen who looked as if they had not seen a change of clothing or too much water in quite a while. They first stood off to one side, glancing from the refractor to the Moon and back again and conducting an animated conversation, presumably about the Moon and the telescope. When they finally came closer, the spokesperson took a long look through the eyepiece, stood back and motioned his cronies forward. After they had each taken a long look and also glanced up at the moon several times while doing so, their leader had a second look and, as the three walked away, he announced to all within earshot, “it’s a hoax” before they disappeared in the direction of the National Gallery.
Initially we were only drawing people from the queue going into the museum but, after the first planetarium show finished just before 19:00, we had people coming out of the planetarium also stopping off for a look. Things quickly got quite hectic and as it grew darker I prepared to put the refractor and projection system into action, so as to relieve the pressure on Lorenzo, now taken over by Auke. The wind was a nuisance because it made the screen flap even though the central shaft was tied to a pillar underlining the need for a wall or other non-flapping surface to project onto. The wind also caused the telescope to vibrate, especially after I attached the video camera. Then my inexperience using the system in public came to the fore because, try as I might, I could not get a decent image. Nerves, lack of practice or just plain stupidity, or possibly all three, who knows. After a while I gave up and simply used the refractor with a high magnification eyepiece to give people a close-up view of the Moon and later of a very fuzzy Jupiter too. I must really get this projection thing sorted out so that it works anywhere, first time and every time.
In the meantime Shaun, who had popped in earlier in the evening, had fetched his Meade and set up further down the walkway, where he was also showing people astronomical objects. In exchange for looking through his telescope he was asking viewers for donations toward a 2015 Africa Burn project with an astronomy theme.
Later we had to move the telescopes back to keep the Moon in view as it slid behind a tree. Doing this with the Dobby is simply a case of pick-up-and-go. With the refractor on the alt/az-mount attached to a large 12V battery, it is not that simple. You have more pieces, the battery is heavy and re-positioning the telescope necessitates a re-alignment, so when I too had to move, Lynnette was called in to help as Auke had his hands full with a long queue of patiently waiting moon gazers.
Eventually everything wound down and the crowds dwindled until only one or two die-hard individuals were left. Packing up became a bit of a rush and was quite tense because somebody informed us that we had better hurry up as once everyone was gone; we ran the risk of being mugged! Rather an icky finale to an otherwise lovely and exciting evening showing more than 2000 people the sights of the night sky from central Cape Town.
Thank you Iziko Museum for inviting us and in particular thanks to Elsabe and Theo for advice and help on the evening. StarPeople had a lot of fun and we would like to think that the Museum benefited from having us there. If we get invited again, and we sincerely hope we will, there are some changes we will make to improve our service delivery.
The 0.5m and 0.75m telescopes will soon be leaving Sutherland for Durban (University of KwaZulu Natal) and Boyden (University of Free State) respectively.
The 0.5m was constructed by Boller & Chivens of Pasadena, California, for the Republic Observatory in Johannesburg at the end of 1968. Boller & Chivens collaborated with Perkin-Elmer during the 1950’s to develop and manufacture the Baker-Nunn satellite tracking camera for the United States Vanguard satellite tracking program. Eventually, the company was taken over by Perkin-Elmer in 1965. The telescope’s main function at the Republic Observatory was photometry and planetary photography and was, in fact, the only telescope ready for use in June 1972 at the new Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) location in Sutherland. Initially, it was used with the Texas designed UCT high-speed photometer connected to a Nova minicomputer with software by R.E. Nather. Later the “People’s Photometer”, designed by Richard Bingham and built at the Greenwich Observatory, became the main instrument deployed with this telescope. A considerable number of publications about rapid variables such as dwarf novae originated from data produced by the 0.5m telescope.
The mounting of the 0.75m was originally located at the SAAO site in Cape Town. Its old home is currently the IT building. While there, from 1964 onward, it was officially known as the Multiple Refractor Mount (MRM) because it carried three refractors and the largest of the three produced around 7000 photographic plates between 1964 and 1970. These plates were part of the extensive Southern Reference Star Programme. The 0.75m telescope itself was a reflector telescope and was specially built for installation in Sutherland by Grubb Parsons of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 1974. Grubb Parsons was officially Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons and Co. Ltd. The company was originally founded in Dublin by Thomas Grubb as the Grubb Telescope Company in 1833. He was joined by his son Howard in 1864. In 1925 Sir Charles Parsons bought the company and renamed it. The company had an illustrious career as a builder of formidable telescopes until it ceased to trade in 1985. A list is provided at the end of this post. The 0.75m telescope also had an impressive career at Sutherland where it was used for many important infrared and visible light studies of stars, including the supernova that exploded in 1987 in one of our neighbouring galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud.
According to Dr. Ramotholo Sefako, head of Telescope Operations at the SAAO says the domes of the 0.5m and 0.75m telescopes will be modified after the telescopes have been moved. Both domes will eventually house new robotic telescopes. One of these telescopes is the 0.65m MeerLICHT that will be used to simultaneously observe the same part of the sky at night as the MeerKAT radio telescope outside Carnarvon. It will provide a real-time optical view of the radio transient sky as observed on MeerKAT. MeerLICHT is jointly owned by the University of Cape Town, SAAO, the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NOW), and University of Oxford. The second dome will house the new SAAO 1.0m wide-field telescope with modern instrumentation. Currently, none of the SAAO telescopes have a wide field so this creates a new dimension in the SAAO’s research capabilities. This telescope will be installed late in 2015 or early in 2016.
Some telescopes produced by the Grubb Telescope Company and Grubb Parsons of Newcastle upon Tyne.
The “Great Melbourne Telescope” – a 48-inch-diameter (122cm) reflecting telescope with a speculum primary mirror (1868).
The 27-inch (68cm) refractor for the Vienna Observatory (1878).
The 10-inch (25cm) refractor at Armagh Observatory (1882).
Seven 13 inch (33cm) refracting telescopes for the Carte du Ciel international photographic star catalogue project (1887).
The 28-inch (71cm) refractor at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (1893).
The 10-inch (25cm) refractor at Coats Observatory, Paisley (1898).
After 1925 they built the optical components for the Anglo-Australian Telescope, the UK Infrared Telescope, the Isaac Newton Telescope and the William Herschel Telescope.