On the 16th of July 2017 Leeuwenboschfontein had a light sprinkling of snow and the staff there were kind enough to send us some photos.
Leeuwenboschfontein is situated in the Western Cape on the very western edge of the Little Karoo at an altitude of just over 1 000m. It is a fantastic place for stargazing and observing and was the venue for the thirteenth Southern Star Party held in February 2017 (more about that event can be found here). We are already planning the 14th Southern Southern Star Party scheduled for October 2017.
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.
This Unihedron Sky Quality Meter (Ser. No. 5739 / Mod. 2.17) has been used over a six-year period at various venues in South Africa. I noted that the first four to six readings in every series of measurements we took drifted lower before stabilizing. My revised operating procedure discards the first four reading in every series and this has virtually eliminated the initial drift of earlier measuring sessions. My results showed and still show inexplicable outliers which have a negative impact on the error profile of the results produced. By mounting the unit on a tripod and making sure it is level and exactly vertical instead of operating it while hand-held, I have reduced the number of outliers but not eliminated them.
The results of the first experiment were obtained at Bergwater Lodge (-33°39’47.06″, 20°00’44.13″, 501m) near Montagu. The objective was to see if the readings taken with the Sky Quality Meter at the zenith (0°) and at 30° and 60° down from 0°, toward each cardinal direction varied and, if they varied, by how much. In experiment 1 the meter was hand-held.
Results for Experiment 1.
Discussion of Experiment 1.
The results in Figures 1 to 6 show that the values given by the Sky Quality Meter do differ at the different cardinal points and also at 30° and 60 ° down from the zenith (0°). At both 30° and 60°, the readings were darker toward the west and east than at 0° and less dark toward the north and south.
In order to illustrate the differences more clearly, the Sky Quality Readings were calculated as a percentage of the value obtained for the zenith (0°) and these results are depicted in Figure 7 (above). Here it is clear that W30°, E30°, W60° & N60° readings were consistently darker than the readings at 0° (average -0.4222) while those for N30°, S30°, N60° & S60° were lighter by a larger margin (average 0.8175).
One set of results is not enough to draw any general conclusions from and I suspect the results will vary from site to site. In all probability, they will also vary from season to season for the same site as the position of objects in the sky changes seasonally. I will select a suitable site and repeat the test at three monthly intervals over the course of one year.
The values in the second experiment were obtained at the SAAO Hostel near Sutherland (-32°22’35.29″, 20°48’18.56″, 1703m). I wanted to verify that my Unihedron Sky Quality Meter’s readings were consistent at 0° when the instrument was rotated 90° between consecutive readings around the vertical axis. In experiment 2 the meter was tripod-mounted and the tripod was set to level and vertical using a spirit level.
Results for Experiment 2.
Discussion of Experiment 2.
From these results, it appears that the Unihedron Sky Quality Meter I use does, in fact, give different readings in the two 90° orientations around the vertical axis that were tested. Even if one takes into consideration the three outlier values the S/N values are consistently darker than the W/E values. It seems possible to produce quite different sets of values, and therefore draw different conclusions depending on how the instrument is orientated around the vertical axis.
I will repeat the test using all four possible 90° orientations around the vertical axis. On that occasion, it will hopefully have the time to take two or three sets of readings on the same evening and also to repeat all of them on two or more consecutive evenings.
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.
The first Southern Star party held at Leeuwenboschfontein was a success. So, any suspicions about unlucky 13 were neatly sidestepped or perhaps the jinx only applies to people who suffer from triskaidekaphobia.
Lynnette, Snorre and I arrived on Wednesday the 22nd, downloaded our stuff at Dalzicht and set about getting the shed converted into a lecture area with a display section. Fortunately, their spacious kitchen made organising the coffee area very easy.
Jim Adams (speaker), Jonathan Balladon, Deon Begeman, Ronelle Begeman, Steyn Botha, Samuel Botha, Dominique Brink, Johan Brink, Nellie Brink, Anja Bruton, Alan Cassells, Rose Cassells, Pamela Cooper, Chris de Coning, Micah de Villiers, Pierre de Villiers, Barry Dumas, Miemie Dumas, Clair Engelbrecht, Dwayne Engelbrecht, Arné Esterhuizen, Iain Finlay, Edward Foster, Lynnette Foster, Louis Fourie, Maureen Helman, Cheyenne Kersting, Christine Kersting, Harald Kersting, Jamie Kersting, Evan Knox-Davies, Dianne Nxumalo-Kohler, Robin Kohler, Bennie Kotze, Paul Kruger, Lia Labuschagne, Eddy Nijeboer, Jannie Nijeboer, Lorenzo Raynard (speaker), Kim Reitz, Marius Reitz, John Richards, Rogan Roth, Johan Roux (Jnr), (Johan Jnr’s wife), (Johan Jnr’s eldest son), (Johan Jnr’s 2nd son), Alecia Roux, Henda Scott, Barry Shipman, Auke Slotegraaf, Corne van Dyk, and Chris Vermeulen, Alex Wright.
Some of the keen people pitched on Thursday and among them were Deon and Ronelle Begeman. Deon had, as promised at the previous SSP in Bonnievale, constructed two magnificent binocular viewing tripods for Auke and myself. This is really quite an ingenious device with many improvements over what is currently on the market and it is very reasonably priced too when compared to its competitors. I will do a separate post with pictures about it at a later stage.
On Thursday evening Paul and I went up Swartberg in his 4×4. It was a whole lot easier than walking up but also considerably more taxing on one’s nerves and I am not implying that Paul drove recklessly; quite the contrary. It is just that the vehicle adopts a wide variety of very unusual angles during both the ascent and descent and one has to trust the driver a whole lot more than when driving down a normal road.
TOP LEFT: We had some magnificent thunderclouds on Thursday. TOP RIGHT: Paul snapped his first lightning bolt from the top of Swartberg. BOTTOM LEFT: Paul’s night shot of the Leeuwenbosch complex from the top of Swartberg. BOTTOM RIGHT: Paul’s early morning shot of the hut and his pickup.
Arne and Alex had their vehicle expire on the R318 while on the way to the SSP, but they were picked up by Evan and brought to Leeuwenboschfontein. The two seemed pretty laid back about leaving the car at the side of the road until Monday when they would set about sorting it out from Cape Town.
The beginner’s session at the telescopes was quite successful on Friday as was the beginners talk on Saturday morning.
Jonathan had to leave suddenly on Saturday morning as he was needed to fly a plane somewhere. He promised he would flash his landing lights if his route took him over Leeuwenboschfontein which it apparently didn’t.
During my beginners’ session on Saturday morning, Jim Adams, retired Deputy Chief Technologist at NASA and Anja Bruton Science Engagement Coordinator at the SKA arrived. The problem was that Lorenzo Raynard Communications Manager at the SKA, who was due to give the first talk had not pitched and all efforts to contact him were unsuccessful. Jim, hearing of our predicament, very kindly agreed to give the talk he was scheduled to give that afternoon in Lorenzo’s slot. So we started off with “Spinoff: How investing in astronomy and space science changes life on Earth”. Jim proved to be every bit as good a speaker as Anja had said he was; relaxed, knowledgeable and very good at fielding questions too.
In the meantime, Lynnette and Anja were frantically trying to trace Lorenzo.
Martin Lyons and his wife Pat flew in (literally) especially for the social braai in the lapa at the campsite during lunchtime on Saturday. They stayed until after lunch and then flew home again. According to Paul and Louis, the takeoff was actually quite tense but Martin, during subsequent discussions, downplayed any suggestion of problems.
Just before the braai the Vito was attacked by a vicious tree and lost its back window.
By now Lorenzo had been traced and was on his way but would not make it in time for his time slot. We, or at least Anja, talked Jim into giving a second talk in Lorenzo’s slot. This talk “Robots in Space and Space Exploration; Past, Present and Future” went down very well with the audience. Lorenzo finally pitched later on Saturday afternoon. As his talk would cut into observing time we decided to rather have him give his talk on Sunday morning.
After Jim’s talk and the lively question session we took the usual group photograph and, as is usual, some people did not pitch up. People who were absent were Jonathan Balladon, Steyn & Samuel Botha, Dominique & Nellie Brink and Lorenzo Raynard.
The group photograph was followed by the Pub Quiz which, this year, was orchestrated the usual degree of malevolence and cunning by Auke. After several gruelling rounds the overall winner, by a very large margin was Alex. Well done Alex, you left several past winners staggering around in your slipstream’s dust.
The number of beginners at the telescopes on Saturday evening was disappointing but I am hoping it was the sudden drop in temperature that convinced them to stay indoors.
Lorenzo’s talk on Sunday morning. “The public face of SKA in South Africa” was reasonably well attended and, after some discussion, the great dispersal began and the site emptied fairly rapidly. This year, though, more people stayed on to observe the partial solar eclipse on Sunday afternoon.
Dwayne and Claire, who got engaged during the 11th SSP at Night Sky Caravan Farm, missed the 12th SSP because they were getting married. Now, while attending the 13th SSP, Mr and Mrs Engelbrecht announced they were expecting their first child. I suppose it will be too much to expect them to call the baby SSP, but it would be nice if they would.
On Monday morning we packed up and after Calla had very professionally helped close of and dust proof the gaping hole where the Vito’s rear window had been, Lynnette, Snorre and I also left for home.
Anton, Camilla and Viljé stayed on until early February after the rest of the group left on the 15th of January. They moved from Kolping guest house to our place in Brackenfell. Initially, we were a bit concerned because Camilla has a rather serious cat allergy. This was a serious for us too because it is, after all, is said and done, also Snorre’s home. Fortunately, Lynnette’s thorough cleaning coupled with a few restrictions on Snorre’s movements resulted in Camilla never experiencing any discomfort.
During the extended stay we visited several more wineries but, for Lynnette and I, the highlight of the visit was being able to take them to Leeuwenboschfontein ) for two days. Lynnette and I stayed in Bergzicht and Anton, Camilla, Birk and Viljé stayed next door in Dalzicht. Viljé absolutely loved the large lawn, the trampoline and the selection of climbing frames.
At Leeuwenboschfontein the highlight for me was walking up Swartberg to the hut and back with Anton, Camilla and Viljé. We started early at around 07:00 and the climb along the 4×4 track took just over two hours. The distance to walk is a little over 5.5 km during which one gains 300 metres in altitude. The road is very steep in sections and on the way down one has to take extra care not to slip and fall. A crucial point to remember is that there is no water en route and none at the top either.
On the way back we met Johan Roux, the owner of Leeuwenboschfontein, in his pickup taking guests up to the hut. He seemed as surprised to encounter us as I was to find him there on a weekday. He is, after all, based in Ceres and has a business to run. On the other hand if you are the boss you can pretty much do as you please I suppose.
During the climb up Swartberg Lynnette stayed at the guest house looking after Birk and Snorre. We stayed in contact with each other using our two-way radios just in case the climbing group had some sort of accident or she needed us back in hurry. The use of the radios was essential because mobile reception is very erratic at Leeuwenboschfontein and we were uncertain if there would be any reception at all while on the mountain.
When the climbing party got back to the guest house at around lunch time, Lynnette and Birk were relaxing on a blanket under one of the trees on the spacious lawn.
A slightly negative note in connection with Leeuwenboschfontein was the fact that Joan made us pay full price for Viljé. We subsequently discovered that children under the age of six, which Viljé was at the time, actually stay for free.
Without any further ado here are the pictures to tell the story of a memorable and very pleasant stay.
The day after Christmas we (Lynnette, Snorre and I) arrived at Leeuwenboschfontein just before lunch. We were followed later in the week by Iain Finlay – Willem stayed at home keeping their cats, Tiger and Aimé, company. Rob Bark with his wife Michelle and daughter Victoria were next in, followed, eventually, by Paul Kruger, with his famous breakfast. Dave, Spiro and Sharon were due to fly in from up north but eventually drove down due to thundery weather over the central parts of the country. Martin Lyons had plans to fly in as well but gave up on that idea as the altitude, heat and short runway made it unsafe for the plane he was going to use. Auke could not make it either because of last minute complications.
Monday evening was fine, Tuesday evening was completely clouded over and Wednesday evening was very windy in the early evening with a fair amount of cloud that cleared after midnight. Thursday night was a repeat of Wednesday and Friday was more of the same. Saturday was a near-perfect night to round off the weekend.
One thing that is a problem at Leeuwenbosch is the lighting along the entrance road and in the garden between the guest houses. They are all these horrible round white things that distribute light in all directions. Some sort of a cover that prevents light from escaping upward and horizontally, would solve the problem and the use of cooler bulbs would also help. I temporarily solved the problem by taking the bulbs out as soon as it looked as if all the folks in the houses had gone to bed and then replaced them when I was done observing. Johan Roux, however, has shown me where the light switches for these lights are and it is now a case of flicking two switches and seeing conditions around the guest houses and new chalets will improve by at least 200%.
The camp, however, was a bigger problem this time around. Because it was the holiday season and specifically the New Year’s weekend, the camp was full of revellers who switched on all possible lights including that infernal spotlight on the mast in the middle of the camp. Why get tipsy in the dark, after all? The light spill from this lot even affected the seeing down in the telescope area next to the runway, almost a kilometre away.
At least these light pollution problems will not be a problem during the SSP because we have Johan’s permission to switch everything off for that weekend.
On the subject of light pollution, I recorded a set of dark sky readings for those of the readers who might be interested.
I also recorded some weather data, using Hans van der Merwe’s clever data logger. Here are some results that might interest amateur astronomers.
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.
Klaas contacted us in May 2015 about the Summer Southern Star Party in 2016 (go here to read more about the event). Unfortunately the dates in February did not fit in with their travel plans so they could not attend and we decided to organize a mini-substitute for them at Leeuwenboschfontein instead.
Lynnette, Snorre and I left for Leeuwenboschfontein (LBF) (click here to read more about LBF or visit their Facebook page here) on Wednesday the 02nd of March and settled in. Iain and Willem arrived the following day, while Auke, Barry & Miemie, Alan & Rose, Louis and Corné & his family, all arrived on the Friday. Klaas & Wilma also arrived on Friday having driven 400km from Olive Grove (go here to read more about Olive Grove), just south of Beaufort West, where they had spent a few days stargazing.
Lynnette and I got in some valuable stargazing time on the Wednesday and Thursday evenings and on the Friday evening we all traipsed down to the stargazing enclosure as there were three non-astronomical groups camping as well, and we could not switch off the lights at the ablution block. Louis set up outside the enclosure because it was easier than carrying everything inside and he is used to working off the back of his pick-up. Inside the enclosure we had our 12”, Alan and Rose had their 12” and Corné had his 8” (all Dobbies). Auke hadn’t brought a telescope and set himself up to do binocular viewing while Klaas had his refractor. Klaas compiled an excellent time lapse of the activity inside the enclosure during the course of the evening.
We will at some stage have to do something about making the access from the runway to the enclosure smoother for transporting the telescopes as it is quite tricky, even with headlamps. The light colour of the vibracrete walls also acts as a reflective surface on the inside of the enclosure and significantly raises the ambient light levels. We will have to consider applying a matt black paint at some stage to solve that problem.
On Saturday the weather turned nasty. We had windy conditions with gusts that at times threatened to lift the roof off the shelter over our caravan. Thanks to Willem’s intervention and the quick reaction of the LBF’s staff the roof was nailed down properly before any damage was done. Poor Snorre was very upset, firstly by the clanging of the loose galvanized sheeting in the wind and then by the sound of hammering on the roof. Later on we also had some light rain and that evening we all got together in the lapa for a braai. Klaas was dying to show us his technique for photographing bright planets and stars during the daytime but there was never a long enough break in the weather to do that. At the Star Party in 2017 will be the ideal opportunity Klaas.
On Sunday Corné and Alan & Rose departed but the weather remained overcast. It eventually cleared by midnight for a short period till around 03:00 on Monday morning. On Monday everyone except Iain and Willem packed up and left for home.
Klaas and Wilma continued their South African trip and their next stop was Elgin Valley Inn in Grabouw. They had another stop in Tulbagh before departing for the Netherlands again on the 18th of March.
Thank you to everyone who attended the event but a special word of thanks to Klaas and Wilma. It was a pleasure to meet you and to share the night sky with you. Thank you especially Klaas for you astronomy input and we hope to see you at the Southern Star Party early in 2016. You might want to visit here or go here and possibly visit here to see some of the astronomy things Klaas does. His Leeuwenbosch material can be viewed here and he also produced a time-lapse video of the activity during an observing session in the “Sterretjieskraal”, which can be viewed here.
Snorre enjoyed the weekend as usual, except for the banging on the roof on Saturday.
On Wednesday the 09th we set off for Leeuwenboschfontein (visit their website to by clicking here) within minutes of our scheduled departure time. We were quite chuffed, as we do not often manage to meet our departure deadlines for trips like this. We stopped off at Die Veldskoen Padstal (visit their Facebook page by clicking here) about 4 km north of De Doorns for a light lunch, buying a few bottles of wine and a bag of fresh cherries. For good, friendly service and quality food, I can really recommend this place. We have been stopping off there since 2008 and not been disappointed once. At Leeuwenboschfontein we found that the permanent caravans had been nicely enclosed to afford privacy and protection against the wind which often becomes quite chilly in the evenings.
Willem and Iain were already camped on site, Alan and Rose arrived on Thursday and moved into the second permanent caravan, followed by Barry and Miemie who occupied Dalzicht guest house. Johan, Nellie, and Dominique moved into the third caravan on Friday and Auke, Chris, Lenelle and Susan, all camping, also arrived during the course of Friday. Joan, who runs the reception at Leeuwenboschfontein, was kind enough to lend us a deep freeze for the campers to use over the weekend, which was very useful.
Thursday evening everyone socialized at our caravan but the evening was also very good from an astronomy point of view with excellent seeing conditions. Rose and Lynnette went to bed shortly after midnight but Alan persevered until around 02:00. Barry also put in some time with the telescope and camera and, amongst other things produced a beautiful shot of the Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070 or 30 Doradus). I was up until just before 06:00.
Friday evening saw more socializing in the late afternoon and early evening with the telescope work taking place later on and after midnight. The seeing was very good. Early on Auke and Barry remarked that one could walk away from the group around the fires and, without too much effort and hardly any dark adaptation, see 47 Tucanae (NGC 104), Omega Centauri (NGC 5139), the Jewel Box (NGC 4755), Eta Carinae, the Southern Pleiades (IC 2602) and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31/NGC 224).
Readings were taken with the Unihedron Sky Quality Meter (visit their website by clicking here to find out more) on the 09th, 10th & 11th and the average of 20 readings on each night was 21.70, 21.69 & 21.58 (Magnitudes per Square Arc-Second or MSAS) respectively. This converts NELM (Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude) values of 6.4816, 6.4772 & 6.4168. Using the Loss of the Night application and viewing 30 stars, at the same time as taking the Sky Quality readings, gave a limiting magnitude of >5 ± 0.1 on all three occasions.
On Saturday the weather closed in and light rain fell so observing was out as was the customary braai under the stars. Fortunately, Leeuwenboschfontein has a very nice enclosed central lapa for just such occasions. We spent a pleasant evening there, out of the wind and rain and warmed by the braai fires. Alan opened a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate he and Rose’s wedding anniversary, which was the following day, so it really was a festive occasion. Later in the evening Snorre managed to attract a lot of attention by climbing a tree that proved difficult to get out of but, once everybody had stopped making a fuss, he did what cats normally do; climbed down on his own.
Sunday was overcast too, but most people had planned to leave on Sunday in any case. Chris left early, followed by Johan, Nellie and Dominique and then Lenelle and Susan. Alan and Rosemary left just after lunch and Auke, who had intended staying until Tuesday, also decided to leave because the weather forecast did not look promising, from an astronomical point of view, for the next two evenings. In any case, he had a pile of calendars to pack. Before Auke left we looked over the facilities being prepared in the large shed adjacent to De Oude Opstal guest house and they look very promising indeed. With only Willem, Iain, Lynnette, Snorre and I in the camp and Barry and Miemie in Dalzicht Leeuwenbosch was suddenly very quiet. On Monday Barry, Miemie and the Fosters packed up said goodbye to Joan and to Leeuwenboschfontein and left the camp to Iain and Willem.
We arrived home safely and started the dreaded unpacking and packing away to wrap up our final visit to Leeuwenboschfontein for 2015, but we will be back in 2016. We did not make use of the stargazing enclosure next to the runway this time because there were very few other people in the camp so we could control the lights. A problem with the water supply has also resulted in the grass dying inside the enclosure so it would have been very sandy and dusty in there. Johan snr has promised the grass will be back in 2016 and so will we, hopefully on a regular basis.