Astronomy Outreach & Guiding Course/Workshop, SAAO Sutherland: Friday 21st to Saturday 22nd April 2017.

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.

TOP: A dead tree silhouetted against the red glow of the setting sun in the west. CENTRE: In the east, the night approaches across the Karoo landscape. BOTTOM: Auke, taking pictures of the standing stones.
TOP: A dead tree silhouetted against the red glow of the setting sun in the west. CENTRE: In the east, the night approaches across the Karoo landscape. BOTTOM: Auke, taking pictures of the standing stones.

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.

TOP: The prominent dark blue earth shadow receding in the west accompanied by the pink of the Venus Girdle ahead of the approaching daylight. CENTRE: Morning sunlight flooding across the hills casting deep shadows in the valleys. BOTTOM: SALT, done for the night and the contrails of a passing plane catching the sunlight.
TOP: The prominent dark blue earth shadow receding in the west accompanied by the pink of the Venus Girdle ahead of the approaching daylight. CENTRE: Morning sunlight flooding across the hills casting deep shadows in the valleys. BOTTOM: SALT, done for the night and the contrails of a passing plane catching the sunlight.

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.

TOP: Me talking with Sivuyile and Thembela listening against the backdrop of one of the shelves in the SAAO library in Sutherland. Out of the picture are Anthony, Francois, Cedric, Claudine, Jeremey and Willem. CENTRE: The group around the Lorenzo, our workhorse 10”Dobsonian, with the SALT dome in the distance and bright Arcturus also making it into the field of view. BOTTOM: Auke’s longer exposure showing short star trails and a flurry of activity around the telescope.
TOP: Me talking with Sivuyile and Thembela listening against the backdrop of one of the shelves in the SAAO library in Sutherland. Out of the picture are Anthony, Francois, Cedric, Claudine, Jeremey and Willem. CENTRE: The group around the Lorenzo, our workhorse 10”Dobsonian, with the SALT dome in the distance and bright Arcturus also making it into the field of view. BOTTOM: Auke’s longer exposure showing short star trails and a flurry of activity around the telescope.

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.

TOP LEFT: The 1-metre telescopes pedigree. I am very curious to see which name the SAAO will select from the many entries that they received. TOP CENTRE: View from the “front”. TOP RIGHT: View from the “back” and Auke can be seen in the lower right of the photograph photographing something in the basement. BOTTOM LEFT: The secondary mirror. BOTTOM CENTRE: Willie Koorts took this photograph of me looking up at the secondary. BOTTOM RIGHT: Willie looking very relaxed against the backdrop of the dome.
TOP LEFT: The 1-metre telescopes pedigree. I am very curious to see which name the SAAO will select from the many entries that they received. TOP CENTRE: View from the “front”. TOP RIGHT: View from the “back” and Auke can be seen in the lower right of the photograph photographing something in the basement. BOTTOM LEFT: The secondary mirror. BOTTOM CENTRE: Willie Koorts took this photograph of me looking up at the secondary. BOTTOM RIGHT: Willie looking very relaxed against the backdrop of the dome.
TOP: The 1.9 meter on the right and on the left the 11 meter SALT, CENTRE: Auke’s very artistic photograph of the telescopes at the SAAO site as seen through the protective dome of the all-sky measuring equipment. BOTTOM: In the centre of the photograph is the dome (apparently there will be a second one) of a private (French) enterprise on Klipkraal just west of the SAAO.
TOP: The 1.9 meter on the right and on the left the 11 meter SALT. CENTRE: Auke’s very artistic photograph of the telescopes at the SAAO site as seen through the protective dome of the all-sky measuring equipment. BOTTOM: In the centre of the photograph is the dome (apparently there will be a second one) of a private (French) enterprise on Klipkraal just west of the SAAO.

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.

TOP: The old Tollhouse in Verlatenkloof Pass now belongs to this gentleman, Tjol Herbst. 2nd FROM TOP: In the background the old stables of the Tollhouse and in the foreground the caravans that constitute Tjol’s living space. 2nd FROM BOTTOM: Myself and Tjol on the stoep of his unique pub with the partially finished ablution block in the background. BOTTOM: Tjol behind his bar counter in the tiny but very welcoming bar.
TOP: The old Tollhouse in Verlatenkloof Pass now belongs to this gentleman, Tjol Herbst. 2nd FROM TOP: In the background the old stables of the Tollhouse and in the foreground the caravans that constitute Tjol’s living space. 2nd FROM BOTTOM: Myself and Tjol on the stoep of his unique pub with the partially finished ablution block in the background. BOTTOM: Tjol behind his bar counter in the tiny but very welcoming bar.

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.

The SALT-model goes to Scotland.

StarPeople’s SALT-model is off to the SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation Conference to be held at the Edinburg International Conference Centre from the 26th of June to the 01st of July. This conference is advertised as “…. the most prestigious event for developers of ground- and space-based telescopes, the supporting technologies, and the latest instrumentation.

Some images of Alan's magnificent model of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT)
Some images of the magnificent model of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), which Alan built for StarPeople.

Dr Dave Buckley (Director: SALT Science) at the SAAO (South African Astronomical Observatory) and a South African team are taking a container full of innovative instruments developed at the SAAO to the conference. Dave approached us as he wanted to take Alan’s excellent model of SALT along to show off at the conference.

TOP LEFT: The base of the packaging being prepared. TOP RIGHT: SALT’s base and the telescope trusses put into place. BOTTOM LEFT: The next layer of packing material goes in. BOTTOM RIGHT: A final layer of packaging material before the rest of the model are packed.
TOP LEFT: The base of the packaging being prepared. TOP RIGHT: SALT’s base and the telescope trusses put into place. BOTTOM LEFT: The next layer of packing material goes in. BOTTOM RIGHT: A final layer of packaging material before the rest of the model are packed.

In preparation for the trip Alan has packed the model with great care. StarPeople are very excited that the model we commissioned Alan to build is going places were no model of SALT has been before.

I apologize, but I couldn’t resist that quip!

TOP LEFT: A view from the top of the mirror and trusses of the telescope. TOP RIGHT: The smaller bits and pieces are put in place. BOTTOM LEFT: Now everything is packed away safely. BOTTOM RIGHT: Final layers of packaging positioned so that nothing can fall out if the packages is accidentally flipped over. (Heaven forbid!)
TOP LEFT: A view from the top of the mirror and trusses of the telescope. TOP RIGHT: The smaller bits and pieces are put in place. BOTTOM LEFT: Now everything is packed away safely. BOTTOM RIGHT: Final layers of packaging positioned so that nothing can fall out if the packages is accidentally flipped over. (Heaven forbid!)

StarPeople are very excited on Alan’s behalf because of the recognition this gives his exceptional model building skills and it is just a pity Dave couldn’t fit him into the container as well.

We hope Dave and his team and the SALT-model have a safe trip and make their mark for South African Astronomy (and Alan) at the conference.

There we have it. SALT in a box, ready to go.
There we have it. SALT in a box, ready to go.

The Blaauwberg Meridian Expedition: 05 December 2015.

In support of the efforts currently underway to document the history of the Royal Observatory a lot of historic material has been made available in digitized form by Auke Slotegraaf. While attempting to work my way through this formidable volume of information I came across the following in Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, 1875 (iii).

“The “meridian mark” referred to in Table III, is on an undulation immediately to the east of the mountain called Blaauw Berg, and is situated some 13 miles north of the Observatory. It is a pillar built up to serve as a permanent meridian mark for the 10 feet Dolland’s Transit. The transit instrument is about 512 feet west of the meridian of the Transit-circle.  The azimuth of the mark from the meridian of the Transit-circle, assumed in the determination of the azimuthal errors given in Table III, has been 2’ 40” west. It would appear that the assumed azimuth is too great by about 1”.3, and that the true azimuth of the mark is nearly 2’ 38”.7 west. The azimuthal errors derived from the position of the mark have not been used in the reductions, except for the approximate determinations of the clock error for time-ball purposes. The mark can only be well seen near noon on rather cloudy days; on bright, clear days it can only be observed soon after sunrise and near the time of sunset. The value of the mark as an indication of changes in the position of the Transit-circle, is not so great as it would be were observations possible at any hour of the day.”

So where was this meridian marker? After several e-mails between Auke Slotegraaf, Dr Ian Glass and I, it soon became clear that this specific object had not been seen by any members of the astronomical fraternity for many, many years. Ian produced correspondence dating back to 2012, in which a Mr. Seymour Currie, verified that that the object was in fact on his farm. The correspondence was conducted via the staff of Cape Nature at the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy, and no mention was made of the farm’s name. Not knowing the farm’s name becomes a crucial point as the story develops.

I sent an e-mail to Mr. Currie who promptly phoned back. He had no objections to us coming to view, measure and photograph the meridian mark and he agreed to phone back again with instructions on how to get to his farm and an evaluation of how difficult it would be for us to get right up to the meridian mark. By Saturday morning, the 05th of December I had heard nothing from Mr. Currie and all telephone calls were answered by the dreaded voice message, “The subscriber you have dialled is not available ……”.

On the 05th a party consisting of Auke Slotegraaf, Chris Vermeulen, Dr. Ian Glass, Chris de Coning, Johan Brink, Kechil Kirkham, Dirk Rossouw and I, assembled at the Observatory. We were confident that, thanks to previous efforts by Ian and the help of Google Earth, we had the position pinned down and it looked as if there were useable access roads, but we were all anxious to hear from Mr. Currie.

TOP: Chris Vermeulen enjoying the view from the Observatory’s roof while Ian and Auke plan the activities for the rest of the day. BOTTOM LEFT: Johan, Kechil and Dirk are all concentration on the stoep of the Auditorium. BOTTOM RIGHT: Auke, Chris Vermeulen, Ian and Chris de Coning look equally engrossed in the proceedings.
TOP: Chris Vermeulen enjoying the view from the Observatory’s roof while Ian and Auke plan the activities for the rest of the day. BOTTOM LEFT: Johan, Kechil and Dirk are all concentration on the stoep of the Auditorium. BOTTOM RIGHT: Auke, Chris Vermeulen, Ian and Chris de Coning look equally engrossed in the proceedings.

The first task though, was to get up onto the roof of the Observatory building and try and see the meridian mark from there. Unfortunately the Eucalyptus trees that had been planted over the years successfully cut of, not only any possible view of the marker, but of the entire Blaauwberg. I had still not been unable to raise Mr. Curry on the phone so we decided to go with Google Earth and Google Maps and the coordinates of the marker. The route seemed pretty straight forward but Dirk several times expressed concern that we were venturing well of the beaten track and he had prior experience of the fact that Google did not take cognisance of fences and assorted farm gates in out of the way areas like this. In the absence of any communication from Mr. Currie we had little choice but to set off, guided by Google.

TOP: Dirk, on the correct side of the gate at the intersection of Zonnekus and Frankdale roads, giving Chris V and Ian, on the wrong side, instructions on how to get to rectify the problem BOTTOM: Chris dC looking quite cheerful about being in the wrong place at the right time.
TOP: Dirk, on the correct side of the gate at the intersection of Zonnekus and Frankdale roads, giving Chris V and Ian, on the wrong side, instructions on how to get to rectify the problem BOTTOM: Chris dC looking quite cheerful about being in the wrong place at the right time.

One section of the party, Auke, Kechil and Johan would stay behind and find a spot near the bird hide, at the northern extremity of the Observatory property, from which they hoped to observe the other section’s arrival at the marker. Chris dC had to first make a delivery and would join us later guided by Google. Chris V and Ian took the lead followed by myself and behind me Dirk. Somewhere on the N1 I lost sight of Dirk behind me but it turned out he had made a detour into Century City to refuel. I also lost sight of Chris V and Ian ahead of me but I had the Google turnoff from the N7, Frankdale Road, memorized so I was confident I would not get lost. I found the turnoff and after 1.3 km the tarred surface gave way to a track which became progressively worse, slowing me down to walking pace for long stretches. About 4.2 km from the N7, Zonnekus Road links up with Frankdale Road at a T-junction. There is a large, imposing, locked gate and, much to my surprise, parked on the other side of the gate were Chris V and Ian. While I was explaining to them how to get to where I was, Dirk pitched up, on my side of the gate. Chris V and Ian headed back to the N7 and Dirk and I waited. While we were waiting Chris dC arrived, also on the wrong side of the gate! More explanations and he also retraced his steps. After Chris V, Ian and Chris dC joined us Dirk once more voiced his concern that, although we were headed in the right direction, we might run into the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy fences before reaching our target. Our cell phone signal had faded on us shortly after leaving the N7, so we were unable to update Google maps or try Mr. Curry again.

TOP: Ian taking a long and sandy walk to find a higher vantage point from which to search for the illusive meridian mark. BOTTOM LEFT: Chris dC Dirk and Ian in front of the Blaauwbwerg Nature Conservancy’s Gate. In the background is the Blaauwberg and the meridian mark is somewhere to the right near the top of the photo but out of the image. BOTTOM RIGHT: Ian and Chris dC consoling themselves by taking a photograph of the view toward Table Mountain and the Observatory.
TOP: Ian taking a long and sandy walk to find a higher vantage point from which to search for the illusive meridian mark. BOTTOM LEFT: Chris dC Dirk and Ian in front of the Blaauwbwerg Nature Conservancy’s Gate. In the background is the Blaauwberg and the meridian mark is somewhere to the right near the top of the photo but out of the image. BOTTOM RIGHT: Ian and Chris dC consoling themselves by taking a photograph of the view toward Table Mountain and the Observatory.
In the grey square is the Meridian Mark, or what we assumed to be the Mark, as seen from the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy's fence.
In the grey square is the Meridian Mark, or what we assumed to be the Mark, as seen from the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy’s fence.

Off we went once again with Chris V and Ian in the lead, followed by Chris dC, then myself with Dirk bringing up the rear. Just over three km after leaving the gate, we encountered the gate and game fence of the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy, as predicted by Dirk. Ian and I walked along the fence for quite a way trying to find higher ground on order to get a better view of the area where we thought the marker was and eventually we thought we had it. Unfortunately it was a case of so near and yet so far. After some debate we decided to call it a day and head home. I had to refuel as I did not have enough to get me home to Brackenfell and Chris dC very kindly offered to follow me to the filling station in Killarney in case I ran out of fuel completely. So we said our goodbyes and off we went.

TOP: The conditions were very hazy as this photograph, taken from behind the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy’s fence in the general direction of the Observatory, shows. BOTTOM: The view from the position of the meridian mark was not really any better.
TOP: The conditions were very hazy as this photograph, taken from behind the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy’s fence in the general direction of the Observatory, shows. BOTTOM: The view from the position of the meridian mark was not really any better.

After filling up in Killarney I parked the car and had a sandwich while going over the day’s events and checking that Mr. Currie had not tried to contact me. The more I thought about the day’s events the more I felt that Dirk had been right after all and we should have tackled this expedition from a farm called Blaauwberg on the northern slopes of the mountain. By now everyone else was well on their way back home or back to the Observatory, so I set of on my own.  On the farm Blaauwberg I found that the owner was none other than Mr. Curry! It turned out that he and Willem Steenkamp had been very busy out in the veldt that morning planning the Battle of Blaauwberg Commemoration scheduled for the 09th January 2016.

After coffee we set off to the marker. Mr Curry and his wife took a quad-bike and I followed in their 4×4 all the way up to the marker, accompanied by their two magnificent Ridgebacks, racing along with the vehicles. The first kilometre after one leaves the farmyard is fine and can be attempted in any vehicle but the next just over one kilometre is uphill, sandy and riddled with mole tunnels. I would not venture up there in anything but a 4×4 vehicle.

TOP: The inscription on the north face of the meridian mark. Ian decoded it as BL:RG NMM 2 which he translated as “BLaauwbeRG North Meridian Mark. The 2 has him stumped. BOTTOM LEFT: The North Meridian Mark viewed from a south-easterly direction. The bushes surrounding it are prickly, very prickly. BOTTOM RIGHT: This piece came off the top of the structure and we think it was added at a later stage an probably held on of this black contraptions with the four vanes, used by surveyors, in place.
TOP: The inscription on the north face of the meridian mark. Ian decoded it as BL:RG NMM 2 which he translated as “BLaauwbeRG North Meridian Mark. The 2 has him stumped. BOTTOM LEFT: The North Meridian Mark viewed from a south-easterly direction. The bushes surrounding it are prickly, very prickly. BOTTOM RIGHT: This piece came off the top of the structure and we think it was added at a later stage an probably held on of this black contraptions with the four vanes, used by surveyors, in place.

Anyway, there the marker was and, after my hosts departed, I set about measuring and photographing. Both tasks were complicated by the fact that three sides of the marker were overgrown with very thorny bushes reaching almost to chest height. A section, which I think was added at a much later date than the original construction, has come off the top of the marker. The reason I think it is a later addition is that the cement looks quite different from that used in the construction of the marker and also, the removal does not seem in any way to have damaged the top of the marker. The marker is not, as stated in the reference at the end of this post, 14 feet (that’s over four m) high.

Mr Curry reports that up to about 10 years ago the military actually come round once a year and cleared away the brush around the marker but that no longer happens, as I can testify. It was not only the surrounding bush that made photography difficult but also the fact that the sun was fairly low in the west, which caused all sorts of complications with shadows. After finishing up I drove back to the homestead, reluctantly handed back the 4×4, said my goodbyes and headed home.

The Curries say that during military exercises with helicopters, it appears as if they fly to a point directly over the marker and then change course. Perhaps somebody could investigate this because it would be interesting to know if the marker is in fact used as a beacon, why and since when.

Mr Seymour Currie’s residence on the farm Blaauwberg.
Mr Seymour Currie’s residence on the farm Blaauwberg.

Dr Glass has also tracked down two more references to the meridian marker which seem to pinpoint its construction to August 1841. The references are to be found in Verification and Extension of La Caille’s Arc of Meridian at the Cape Of Good Hope by Sir Thomas Maclear. Vol 1, Published by order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 1866.

Page 403: “Having obtained permission on the 10th of August, 1841, from the trustees of Dirk Gysbert Kotze, to erect a pillar on the Blaauwberg estate, on a hill south-west of his dwelling house, in the meridian of the transit room of the Royal Observatory, a party was told off for this service shortly after the return from the measurement of the Base. The pillar is a truncated pyramid 14 feet high, constructed of stone and lime masonry, cased with Roman cement.

By observation of the consecutive transits of circumpolar stars in the winter season made with the 10-feet transit instrument, the azimuth of the centre of the pillar is 179° 59’.57”, reckoning from the south round by the west; and by triangulation its distance is 68415 feet, or nearly 13 miles north of the transit instrument.”

Page 444: “The position of the pillar is on the undulation, immediately to the east of the mountain named Blaauw Berg, distant nearly 13 miles north from the Royal Observatory. The pillar was built to serve as a permanent meridian mark for the 10-feet transit instrument; also for obtaining the azimuths, by direct angular measurement of the trigonometric points, that are visible from the Observatory.”

Astro-archaeology at the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town (II)

The search for the foundations of old buildings at the SAAO continues
Sunday 12 July 2015

On Saturday 11th of July Auke, Evan and Johan braved the rain to expand the diggings. I had been too chicken to get wet on the Saturday so I only joined them on the Sunday. Ketchil also visited us on the Sunday, fresh from her recent overseas gallivanting and Leslie arrived later in the day. He had been delayed for three hours while becoming intimately acquainted with his new cell phone. The main digging objective was to uncover as much of the Franklin Adams Observatory (FAO) as possible.  At the same time we would take accurate measurements and photographs of everything we found.

We were also anxious to pinpoint some of the places from which photographs had been taken in the past. This was particularly tricky, because there are now trees where none had been before and there are trees on older photographs that are not there now. Buildings are also a problem because some have been demolished, or had bits added on, and other structures have sprung up where there were none on the older photographs. Evan and I were tasked with this activity and, after some deliberation we thought we had found the spot from which a specific photograph, showing the two piers and sections of the FAO, had been taken.

Wearing my archaeology uniform an suitably protected against the chilly Northwesterly wind
Wearing my archaeology uniform an suitably protected against the chilly Northwesterly wind
From left to right we have Evan, Auke, Kechil hidden behind Auke, Johan and Leslie down on his knees all on the site of the FAO
From left to right we have Evan, Auke, Kechil hidden behind Auke, Johan and Leslie down on his knees all on the site of the FAO

A Tecomaria hedge, which had not been on the photograph in question, now made it impossible to see the FAO from that point. To verify the correctness of our deductions we had to be able to see over the hedge. I climbed onto one of the Moonwatch Pillars (MWP) (number five from the northern end) on the western side of the hedge, while Evan climbed up a tree on the eastern side. Evan could see me but he could not see the position of the southern pier in the FAO. Evan stayed up the tree and I balanced a length of metal irrigation pipe against MWP number five and held a second section of pipe upright in the middle of the FAO’s southern pier. From Evan’s arboreal vantage point the two pipes lined up perfectly so we now knew exactly where the photographer had stood to take the photo. To provide hard evidence we found a rather rickety stepladder and, while I did my best to keep it steady and stop it toppling over while Evan balanced himself precariously on top of the ladder and took the photograph, clearly showing the two irrigation pipes in line. The farthest one (held in position by Auke and Johan) served as a substitute for the non-existent southern pier of the FAO.

That's me up on the MWP and Evan handing me an irrigation pipe before he runs around to the other side of the hedge to climb his tree
That’s me up on the MWP and Evan handing me an irrigation pipe before he runs around to the other side of the hedge to climb his tree

The rest of the morning was spent opening up as much of the FAO observatory as we could find and cleaning away soil from the bits we had already found, so that we could see the construction details and also take measurements.  Of note was the fact that the two piers had been constructed differently. The southern pier seems to have been a better construction, judging by the appearance of the concrete and the brickwork.  In the photographs the southern pier is also the larger (taller) of the two piers so maybe it required a bigger and sturdier base.

Auke demonstrating the latest in archaeological dance moves to Kechil
Auke demonstrating the latest in archaeological dance moves to Kechil, flanked by Leslie (left) and Johan (right) measuring and me fiddling around behind the Eucalyptus tree
Leslie seems dismayed by the fact that Auke wants him to dig down another two meters
Leslie seems dismayed by the fact that Auke wants him to dig down another two meters
The south pier of the FAO with the two additional mountings visible just left of the pier
The south pier of the FAO with the two additional mountings visible just left of the pier

We could find no trace of any foundations. Where the foundations should have been, we did find definite signs of filling in with stones, bits of brick and pieces of masonry. It appears as if trenches had been dug, filled in with pieces of stone and building rubble and probably stamped down firmly before the concrete sections were cast in boxes on top of the filling material. This observation ties in with the appearance of the beam on the site. It has three relatively smooth sides and one very uneven side with impressions that could well be from the stones in the foundation trenches. The FAO was a wooden construction so it would probably not have required conventional foundations.

Leslie and Johan hard at work clearing and cleaning the southern pier of the FAO and just in view on the left are two identical structures to those uncovered next to the southern pier
Leslie and Johan hard at work clearing and cleaning the southern pier of the FAO and just in view on the left are two identical structures to those uncovered next to the southern pier

While looking for foundations we found numerous pieces of glass, most of them in the north and north-eastern section. Most of them appear to be ordinary window glass but there was one piece of bottle, without any distinctive markings as well. In the south-eastern corner of the dig I found the base of a ceramic container which dates to the late 1800’s or very early 1900’s.  This fits in neatly with the FAO’s time frame.

Lunch on the stoep of the Auditorium
Lunch on the stoep of the Auditorium
Auke's raised hand and pointing finger say it's back to work we go!
Auke’s raised hand and pointing finger say it’s back to work we go!

After lunch there was more cleaning and measuring and then we set about trying to find the row of Standard Length Markers (SLM) between the FAO and the Ron Atkins Observatory (ROA). Evan did his thing with the tape measure after careful examining the 1911 Gill-survey. With the first prod with his garden fork he struck cement!  Some quick spade work followed to uncover the second marker from the southern end so that the cleanup and measuring team could swing into action. In short order we found the next three north of that one, and then zeroed in on the most southerly marker. Two of these markers still had the wooden frames, in which the concrete had been cast, in place.

The northern SLM, or at least as much of it as we found that day
The northern SLM, or at least as much of it as we found that day
The SLM second from the northern end and again as we thought this was all there was
The SLM second from the northern end and again as we thought this was all there was
The third SLM from the northern end but here to there was more to be uncovered
The third SLM from the northern end but here to there was more to be uncovered
Leslie working on the fourth SLM from the northern end.
Leslie working on the fourth SLM from the northern end.
The fifth and southernmost SLM which also had some hidden surprises waiting to be uncovered
The fifth and southernmost SLM which also had some hidden surprises waiting to be uncovered

There is still some uncertainty about exactly how these bases for the SLM were constructed or what had been mounted on them. They differ considerably in size and appearance and method of construction.  After the measuring had been done, we covered them in lightly to prevent them from being disturbed and marked their positions with sticks stuck into the ground. We wrapped candy tape around these sticks to make them clearly visible. While placing these sticks I discovered that there was another slab about 20 cm north of the most northerly marker, which we hadn’t detected, and this raised the question as to whether we had not perhaps missed similar sections at the other SLMs. The sun was already setting, so we decided that investigation would have to wait until the next dig.

If you want to read about the work done before and after this post go to

Astro-archaeology at the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town (I)

AND

Astro-archaeology at the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town (III)

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Astro-archaeology at the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town (IV) 

AND

Digging up the SAAO: Standard Lengths / Distance Markers (V)

First South African Comet Discovery in 35 Years

13 April 2015 – First South African Comet Discovery in 35 Years

In the early hours of the 7th April, an un-manned robotic telescope, MASTER-SAAO, situated near Sutherland in the Karoo, discovered a new comet. This is the first comet to be discovered in South Africa since 1978.  The Russian – South African run telescope has been scanning the southern skies since it began operating in late December 2014, looking for “transients” – new objects which appear in the sky for the first time. Since then, over 60 new  objects have been discovered, most of them being erupting or exploding stars. However, the MASTER-SAAO telescope has just discovered its first comet. Please go here to read all about the discovery and see pictures on the SAAO website

SALT: March 2015

We visit SALT and get educated.

The visit to SALT was organized primarily to get Alan deep inside the telescope so that he could figure out some stuff he was unable to resolve from the drawings he had. Alan needed to know this minute detail because he is building the best model of SALT the Universe has ever seen for StarPeople’s outreach activities.  However, just when everything was organized disaster struck, because Alan’s employer withdrew his leave for complicated “technical” reasons. The rest of us decided to go in any case and give Alan all our photos afterward and then organize a second visit later in the year for his benefit.

In the end it was only Lynnette and I, Paul, Lucas, René, Wendy, Ross and his son that undertook the trip because Auke, Leslie and Martin couldn’t make it. Paul, Lucas and René camped at Sterland. You can go here to read more about Sterland. Lynnette, Wendy and I were put up by Ester Jordaan at Alpha B&B and Ester put up Ross and his son at one of her other guest houses, The Sutherland Guest House. Go here to read more about Alpha B&B and here if you want to know more about The Sutherland Guest House.

Top left: Paul on the prowl against the background of the building that houses the SAAO's visitor telescopes Top right: Wendy and Lynnette on their way to the Visitor's Centre. Bottom left: A very ingenious model of SALT by not quite what StarPeople have in mind for outreach. Bottom right:  Paul becomes almost double jointed when he gets behind the camera
Top left: Paul on the prowl against the background of the building that houses the SAAO’s visitor telescopes
Top right: Wendy and Lynnette on their way to the Visitor’s Centre.
Bottom left: A very ingenious model of SALT but not quite what StarPeople have in mind for outreach.
Bottom right: Paul becomes almost double jointed when he gets behind the camera

As arranged everyone made their own way to Sutherland and all of us pitched up on time at the SAAO’s Visitor’s Centre, where we paid our dues to Anthony Mietas before he led our convoy up the hill to SALT, where our guide, Chris Coetzee, was waiting. Go here to find out more about the SAAO’s Visitor’s Centre. The first thing we learnt was that we all had to be wearing closed shoes otherwise we would not be allowed to enter specific areas. General safety and the need to stay in a group where he could see us all, were stressed by Chris before we went in.  Next we were all issued with hard hats and I remember thinking that all we now needed, to really look “official” and have the run of the place, was a white coat and a clipboard.

Top left: Wendy and René in matching yellow hard hats and Lynnette in a white one to match her blouse. Top right: Up on the catwalk without Lynnette and Wendy.  It really is a long way down to the floor. Bottom left: Lucas and in the background one of the housing of the High Resolution Spectrograph situated right below  the telescope on the floor above. Bottom Right: Everybody making their way through the Spectrograph Room toward the Control Room.
Top left: Wendy and René in matching yellow hard hats and Lynnette in a white one to match her blouse.
Top right: Up on the catwalk without Lynnette and Wendy. It really is a long way down to the floor.
Bottom left: Lucas and in the background the housing of the High Resolution Spectrograph situated right below the telescope on the floor above.
Bottom Right: Everybody making their way through the Spectrograph Room toward the Control Room.
Top left: Paul looking a bit bewildered against the background of all those files.  Top right: Lucas and Chris discussing a point or two. Bottom Left: Paul on Saturday lurking around Sutherland with his camera Bottom right: Paul and Lucas discussing some finer photographic points against the backdrop of the Artist's Cottage in Jubilee Street
Top left: Paul looking a bit bewildered against the background of all those files.
Top right: Lucas and Chris discussing a point or two in the Control Room.
Bottom Left: Paul on Saturday lurking around Sutherland with his camera
Bottom right: Paul and Lucas discussing some finer photographic points against the backdrop of the Artist’s Cottage in Jubilee Street

I am not going to run through the tour step by step, as there is just too much to tell. So you will have to get the story from the photos. Lynnette and Wendy had to dip out when we went up on the catwalk as they both have an extreme reaction to heights.

Top left: Three of the refrigeration units used to cool the inside of the SALT building down to the expected temperature when the louvers are opened at the start of a night's observing. The cupboard with the grey door is an Igloo. It houses banks of electronics and keeps them cool an also prevents any light they may generate from interfering with the telescope's observations.  Top right: The framework that supports mirror structure. Bottom left: One of the giant feet supporting the telescope's structure/ The yellow section houses the rubber discs which form the air cushions on which the telescope moves when it rotates   Bottom right: A closer look at the underside of a mirror section.  The mirror rests on the blue bits and the grey cylinders are part of the system that control the movement of each mirror section during the alignment process.  The background photograph shows the segmented mirror itself.
Top left: Three of the refrigeration units used to cool the inside of the SALT building down to the expected temperature when the louvers are opened at the start of a night’s observing. The cupboard with the grey door is an Igloo. It houses banks of electronics and keeps them cool and also prevents any light they may generate from interfering with the telescope’s observations.
Top right: The framework that supports the mirror structure.
Bottom left: One of the giant feet supporting the telescope’s structure. The yellow section houses the rubber discs which form the air cushions on which the telescope moves when it rotates.
Bottom right: A closer look at the underside of a mirror section. The mirror rests on the blue bits and the grey cylinders are part of the system that controls the movement of each mirror section during the alignment process.
The background photograph shows the segmented mirror itself.
Top left: The wheel in the centre is part of the drive system that rotates the entire structure once it has been lifted on the air cushions. The small vertical cylinder measures the height of the structure above the concrete surface. The concrete is sealed with an epoxy layer to make it as smooth as possible and prevent it generating any dust. Top right: The cable housing that prevents the mass of cables leading up to the giant instrument beam above the telescope from becoming mangled or tangled when the telescope rotates. Bottom left: A gap in the mirror where a segment has been removed for cleaning and resurfacing. Bottom right: One of the motors that drives the rotation of the dome.  This yellow conduits carry high voltage power lines.
Top left: The wheel in the centre is part of the drive system that rotates the entire structure once it has been lifted on the air cushions. The small vertical cylinder measures the height of the structure above the concrete surface. The concrete is sealed with an epoxy layer to make it as smooth as possible and prevent it generating any dust.
Top right: The cable housing that prevents the mass of cables leading up to the giant instrument beam above the telescope from becoming mangled or tangled when the telescope rotates.
Bottom left: A gap in the mirror where a segment has been removed for cleaning and resurfacing.
Bottom right: One of the motors that drives the rotation of the dome. This yellow conduits carry high voltage power lines.
Top left: The instrument carrying beam at the top of the telescope structure. Top right: The eye or shutter in the dome that has to be opened for the telescope to see out into the night sky.  Bottom left: The "cherry picker" that is used to remove mirror sections.  Bottom right:  This motor is part of the system that opens the shutter. The background photo shows the mirror and part of its support structure.
Top left: The instrument carrying beam at the top of the telescope structure.
Top right: The eye or shutter in the dome that has to be opened for the telescope to see out into the night sky.
Bottom left: The orange device down on the ground floor is the “cherry picker” that is used to remove mirror sections.
Bottom right: This motor is part of the system that opens the shutter.
The background photo shows the mirror and part of its support structure.
Top left: A closer look at the instrument beam and the instruments it carries. Top right: A mirror section being prepared for cleaning and resurfacing. The large doors behind the technicians leads outside and the notice on the door is to remind anybody opening them that the hill is a windy place and that the winds can be quite ferocious. Bottom left: The underside of a mirror  section with all the trimmings removed and only the blue support framework left in place. Bottom right: The mirror section mounted and ready for placing in the vacuum chamber to start the refurbishing process.  The vacuum chamber is evacuated all the way down to one hundred thousandth of an atmosphere, which is quite a serious vacuum.
Top left: A closer look at the instrument beam and the instruments it carries.
Top right: A mirror section being prepared for cleaning and resurfacing. The large doors behind the technicians leads outside and the notice on the door is to remind anybody opening them that the hill is a windy place and that the winds can be quite ferocious.
Bottom left: The underside of a mirror section with all the trimmings removed and only the blue support framework left in place.
Bottom right: The mirror section mounted and ready for placing in the vacuum chamber to start the refurbishing process. The vacuum chamber is evacuated all the way down to one hundred thousandth of an atmosphere, which is quite a serious vacuum.

Later that evening, after dark, Paul, Lucas, Ross, his son and I were taken up the hill again by Chris to take photos. The one and only rule that Chris stressed repeatedly was that we were only to use red lights and very dim ones at that. On the way up we encountered Peter Haarhoff, the photographer’s group.  They were spread out across half the road surface right on a bend creating an extremely dangerous situation. Some of the group were using red lights that were definitely not dim ones and one in particular was more like a red spotlight. After the rather chilly photo session Lynnette and I joined Paul, Lucas and René for a very late braai and some red wine, courtesy of Paul, at Sterland.

On Saturday morning Lynnette and I took a set of photos in Sutherland’s Main Street and around the town.  Click here to read more and see the photos or you can go here to find out about Sutherland’s Solar System model and, if you want to know how many guest establishments in Sutherland have astronomy connections, you can go here. On Saturday afternoon Ester accompanied us on a rather bumpy ride out to their farm, Orion/Matjesfontein, on the road to Calvinia.  You can go here to read about that visit. On Saturday evening Paul, Wendy, Lynnette and I went to a dark spot about 15 km from Sutherland to do some observing and take photos.

What are these chaps building?  Bearing in mind that the local DRC congregation had held a prayer meeting for rain on the Friday I though they might know something I didn't and be building a large boat. Turns out this is part of a large sphere for the upcoming Africa Burn in the Tanqua.
What are these chaps building? Bearing in mind that the local DRC congregation had held a prayer meeting for rain on the Friday I though they might know something I didn’t and be building a large boat. Turns out this is part of a large sphere for the upcoming Africa Burn in the Tanqua.

On Sunday morning we packed up and, while everyone else made their way back to Cape Town, Lynnette and I went off to Floris and Annami Steenkamp’s place, Klipdrift, to do some observing there.  Click here to read about our visit.  You can also click here to read about how to own a piece of Klipdrift.

This is Lisa Marques's photo of the structure several days later with the builders Top Row: Quinton Maans, Jeff Whitlow, Benny Geduld and Julia Eszter Oláh. On the Floor:  Monique Schiess, Lollie Visagie, Karel Klein, Enrico Maans, Afrika Oncke, Davish Klein, Kosie Oncke, Kobus Klein, James Hayman, Koekie Prins, Nathan Victor Honey and Nicholas Raphael.
This is Isa Marques’s photo of the structure several days later with the builders
Top Row: Quinton Maans, Jeff Whitlow, Benny Geduld and Julia Eszter Oláh.
On the Floor: Monique Schiess, Lollie Visagie, Karel Klein, Enrico Maans, Afrika Oncke, Davish Klein, Kosie Oncke, Kobus Klein, James Hayman, Koekie Prins, Nathan Victor Honey and Nicholas Raphael.
A further updated photograph of the progress made with the structure. Photograph by Isa Marques
A further updated photograph of the progress made with the structure.
Photograph by Isa Marques

Sutherland’s Solar System: March 2015

The unhappy Solar System in Sutherland’s Main Street.

In Sutherland’s Main Street there is a scale model of the Solar System. It consists of stone pillars with the names of the planets attached to the front of the pillar and a brass disc on top of the pillar giving the name of the planet and its distance from the Sun. The model was conceptualized and its construction supervised by a past president of ASSA (Astronomical Society of Southern Africa), Professor Case Rijsdijk, while he was employed by the SAAO in an outreach capacity. What very few people realize is that each disc was also designed for use by visually impaired persons. That is why there is information in Braille on each disc and the planets in the centre were also intended to convey information to the visually impaired more than being an aid to the sighted visitors. At that time there was still a visitor’s centre in the pipeline, which was to have been constructed on the vacant property across the street from the Sutherland Hotel; next to Jupiter’s pillar. The centre unfortunately never materialized.

The brass was a magnet for thieves and at one time an unsightly cage was placed around each pillar and the door to the cage secured with a large brass padlock. Now the padlocks and cages have gone and a tall pole has been planted next to each pillar and on top of each pole there is a structure with four vanes that is supposed to rotate in the wind. It appears that some of them rotate and some don’t and some have already been removed. I could also not quite figure out the significance of the colours of these rotating devices but the poles and their rotating tops are intended to draw the attention of visitors to the planets.

Take a brief tour with me as I walk the Solar System in Sutherland’s Main Street.

Mercury the planet closest to the Sun is located across the street from the Ou Meul Restaurant.  Note that there is no rotating device on top of the pole
Mercury the planet closest to the Sun (0,4 AU or 60 million km) is located across the street from the Ou Meul Restaurant. Note that there is no rotating device on top of the pole and the name of the planet is also missing.
Venus the second planet from the SUN (0,7 AU or 105 million km) is in front of the OK-franchise
Venus the second planet from the SUN (0,7 AU or 105 million km) is in front of the OK-franchise. It has a yellow device on its pole which only rotates by fits and starts.
The earth is next (1,0 AU or 150 million km) with a green rotating device that does not rotate
The earth is next (1,0 AU or 150 million km) with a green rotating device that does not rotate.
Now we are at mars (1,5 AU or 225 million km) and appropriately it has a red rotating device which rotated quite readily in the stiff breeze.
Now we are at Mars (1,5 AU or 225 million km) and appropriately it has a red rotating device which rotated quite readily in the stiff breeze.
For Jupiter (5,2 AU or 780 million km) we cross the street and walk down to a point straight across from the hotel. Note that the planet's name is gone as is the large brass disk that should be on top of the pillar.
For Jupiter (5,2 AU or 780 million km) we cross the street and walk down to a point straight across from the hotel. Note that the planet’s name is gone as is the large brass disk that should be on top of the pillar. The device on the pole was also static.
Saturn (9.5 AU or 1425 million km) is in front of the Co-op but on the opposite side to Jupiter.  Here everything is intact and the device on the pole rotates.
Saturn (9.5 AU or 1425 million km) is in front of the Co-op but on the opposite side to Jupiter. Here everything is intact and the device on the pole rotates.
For Uranus (19.2 AU or 2880 million km) we have to go right out to the edge of town. Here the planet's name , the brass disc and the rotating device on the pole are all gone.
For Uranus (19.2 AU or 2880 million km) we have to go right out to the edge of town. Here the planet’s name, the brass disc and the rotating device on the pole are all gone.
For Neptune (30.1 AU or 4515 million km) we have to hike out all the way to the entrance to the showgrounds and the home of the Sutherland Stock Car Club. Here everything is gone and only the base of the pillar remains.
For Neptune (30.1 AU or 4515 million km) we have to hike out all the way to the entrance to the showgrounds and the home of the Sutherland Stock Car Club. Here everything is gone and only the base of the pillar remains.
Now I know Pluto (Average 39 AU or 5850 million km) is no longer a planet but it was when the model was constructed. To get there we have to walk out all the way to Sterland's gate.  Here everything is intact and the thing on the pole even turns.
Now I know Pluto (average 39 AU or 5850 million km) is no longer a planet, but it was when the model was constructed. To get there we have to walk out all the way to Sterland’s gate. Here everything is intact, but the thing on the pole does not turn.

Next time you visit Sutherland take a walk through the Solar System even if it is a bit tattered. Walking the Solar System does give one a real feel for the vast distances involved in space travel. Bear in mind as you walk from Earth to Pluto that it has taken New Horizons, the fastest space craft ever launched, from January 2006 to July 2015 to get from Earth to Pluto travelling at a speed of 58 536 km/h.

Perhaps if more visitors paid attention to the model the local Municipality might take better care of it.

Orion, an appropriately named potential stargazing destination: March 2015

A farm north of Sutherland with potential for affordable stargazing.

Sutherland is a problem for amateur astronomers because, although it is quite correctly considered to be the astronomy capital of South Africa, there are no facilities in the town for amateur astronomers to indulge in their passion. All the farms around Sutherland are potential observing sites and some farmers, like Nicol van der Merwe on Blesfontein, have already capitalized on this potential.

A panoramic view from the top of the small hill immediately behind the house which offers the best site for setting up telescopes
A panoramic view from the top of the small hill immediately behind the house which offers the best site for setting up telescopes. One can drive up from the house (about 300 m) to here.
This site is right next to the first one and both are situated in low walled, disused sheep kraals. The walls are just high enough to afford protection from the wind,
This site is right next to the first one and both are situated in low walled, disused sheep kraals. The walls are just high enough to offer some protection from the wind but not high enough to hamper viewing.

Albertus Jordaan farms on Matjesfontein about 35 km from Sutherland on the road to Calvinia and Albertus and his wife Ester have also recognized the astronomy potential of their farm. Those of you who visit Sutherland regularly will no doubt have seen Die Trommel also known, tongue in the cheek, as the Sutherland Mall. Go here to see more information about Die Trommel. Ester is the owner of that interesting establishment. Anyway, under the appropriate name of Orion, Ester and Albertus have established a self-catering facility on their farm. It is a large house with three bedrooms and a fully equipped kitchen and all the necessary bathroom and toilet facilities, as well as electricity. It will sleep eight comfortably and 10 with a bit of effort. I think going there is well worth the effort if you want to do some serious and undisturbed observing over an extended period.

This panoramic view shows the farmyard which could also be used if one did not want to drive up the hill to the sheep kraals
This panoramic view shows the farmyard which could also be used if one did not want to drive up the hill to the sheep kraals
Top left: The signpost at the entrance to the farm.  From here it is about 300 m to the farmstead. Top right. A view of the house from the northwest. Bottom left. View of the house from roughly due west.  Bottom right. A view from the house to the north and the sheep kraals can just be seen to the far right more or less in the middle of the photograph
Top left: The signpost at the entrance to the farm. From here it is about 300 m to the farmstead.
Top right. A view of the house from the northwest.
Bottom left. View of the house from roughly due west.
Bottom right. A view from the house to the north and the stone wall of the sheep kraals can just be seen against the skyline to the far right more or less in the middle of the photograph against that small strip of cloud.

The property is situated at -33°13’03”, 20°30’46”E & 1317m and interested parties or persons can contact Lynnette at foster.lynnette@gmail.com or on 084 512 9866. I would be unfair not to point out that fairly long sections of the road to the farm are very corrugated or as the locals say – sinkplaat!  Lynnette and I made it there and back in the Vito and the key to survival is to drive slowly, very slowly, over these sections. Slow means less than 20 km per hour. At that speed, you will also have time to admire the magnificent dolerite hills and boulders you pass through. Pack your telescope carefully and it will be fine, proof of which is the fact that we had the 12” Dobby in the Vito on that trip and it survived. On the way back to Sutherland there is a nice, if somewhat distant, view to the east of the SAAO site and SALT’s iconic shape.

Sutherland guest house names with astronomy links: March 2015

How many guest houses in Sutherland use astronomy to lure visitors?

Sutherland has a large number of guest houses. I was informed that there are at least 30, but I am not sure if that also includes those on farms in the surrounding area. Out of sheer curiosity I decided to find out how many have astronomy linked names or advertise astronomy as part of their service to the visiting public.

Sterland, on your right as you approach Sutherland from Cape Town, has a definite astronomy ring to the name, but it is not a guest house.  However, there is a camping facility so perhaps we could stretch the guest house concept a bit and include it. Sterland is without doubt the best known establishment in Sutherland that provides an astronomy service to the public on a regular and continuous basis. I was, however, disappointed to find that the well known Halley sê Kom Eet coffee shop attached to the Kambrokind Guest House had closed its doors. Go here to see more details about Kambrokind guest house.

Linked to Sterland is Kambrokind Guest House where Hally sê Kom Eet no longer functions
Linked to Sterland is Kambrokind Guest House where Halley sê Kom Eet no longer functions.

I could only find one other establishment that actually advertised astronomy as part of its services. The Cottage clearly says, on the large notice board next to its front gate, that it has a telescope. My inquiries revealed that it no longer has one or no longer uses it. I wonder if The Cottage still supplies all the motorcycle parts and services that it advertises. Go here to see more details about The Cottage.

The cottage advertises motorcycle parts and services and a telescope.
The cottage advertises motorcycle parts and services as well as a telescope.

Arriving from Cape Town you encounter a signboard on the left advertising Galileo. Go here to get more details about Galileo. Shortly after Galileo on the right there is a notice for The Galaxy. Go here to get more information on The Galaxy.  On the same corner is the signpost for Alpha B&B. Go here to see more details about Alpha B&B. This is one of Ester Jordaan’s establishments and it does not, at first glance, appear to have an immediately apparent astronomy link, but there is alpha Centauri as well as the fact that all the brightest stars in each constellation are prefaced with “alpha”, so let’s include it. Next there is a large sign for Skitterland. Go here to see more details about Skitterland. Skitterland does not necessarily have to be astronomy related, but let’s also give it the benefit of the doubt.

Galileo's notice board could do with some TLC
Galileo’s notice board could do with some TLC.
Alpha B&B and The Galaxy share a pole in Sutherland's main street
Alpha B&B and The Galaxy share a pole in Sutherland’s main street.
Skitterland has by far the largest signboard of all the guest houses.
Skitterland has by far the largest signboard of all the guest houses.

The next notice we encounter is for Jupiter and The Jupiter. Go here to see more details about Jupiter. I was assured that the two names definitely refer to the same establishment, as pictures later confirmed. As one is about to exit the town in the direction of Calvinia and Williston we find Andromeda’s signpost on our right. Go here to see more details about Andromeda. A little further on, to our left is a notice board advertising Venus Sisters. Go here to see more details about Venus Sister. However, Venus Sisters is situated way out other side the Observatory so perhaps they shouldn’t be counted here among the establishments based in Sutherland, but their notice board is here and we’ve been lenient in other cases, so let’s include them.

Jupiter and The Jupiter are one and the same place
Jupiter and The Jupiter are one and the same place.
You have to drive almost right through Sutherland before you are directed to Andromeda
You have to drive almost right through Sutherland before you are directed to Andromeda.
Venus Sisters has a notice board that is almost out of town and is definitely not in town
Venus Sisters has a notice board that is almost out of town and the Sisters are definitely not in town.

Southern Cross used to be up near the school hostel, but seems to have fallen by the wayside. A fairly new place has popped up on the western edge of town called Starry Night. Go here to see more details about Starry Night. Their name definitely sounds astronomical and also has a distinct ring of Van Gogh to it.

Starry Night presently completes the line-up of astronomy linked guest houses in Sutherland
Starry Night presently completes the line-up of astronomy linked guest houses in Sutherland.

My initial assumption that there would be many guest houses with astronomy related names was incorrect. There are, in fact, only nine, if I include the ones about which I expressed reservations (Sterland, Skitterland, Alpha B&B and Venus Sisters). Apparently only Sterland offers an astronomy experience on a regular basis to visitors.

Enjoy your next visit to Sutherland.

Southern African Astronomical Observatory Telescopes hit the Road: February 2015

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.

You can visit the SAAO site to see pictures and read more about this exciting development if you go here.

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.