Derby and District Astronomical Society
The Journal of the Derby and District Astronomical Society
To See or Not To See - An Introduction to Astronomy
By Tony Hubbard
I’m new to astronomy. That’s not to say I haven’t had an interest in astronomy before now – I just haven’t had time to indulge (now I’m retired - and have even less time!). But, of course, anything new is prime territory for ‘Sod’s Law’. For me ‘Sod’ is not an occasional visitor, it is a way of life. So much so that I have a formula (courtesy of a very bored US statistician) for calculating its likely effect on anything I do. If you are interested, here it is:
But I intend to persevere, nonetheless. The first thing I thought I would do, my knowledge of all things astronomical being somewhat sketchy, was to join a society. And so, I contacted the DDAS and was warmly invited to the next observing meeting at the Flamsteed Observatory. The website showed that the next session was on the 4th August at 7.30pm. Just my luck, and unfortunately custom made for the intervention of ‘Sod’, I had three and a half weeks to wait. I hadn’t expected a local club to have a large telescope in an observatory, so I was quite excited (yes, even we middle-agers can still get excited – well, at least ‘quite excited’, as I said) at the prospect of seeing sights in the heavens for real.
Well the day eventually came. The session seemed full of promise - the day was glorious, with not a cloud in the sky. So I set off early to allow plenty of time for mishaps. Although I had clear directions the ending seemed a bit uncertain – look for a 5 bar gate. I eventually arrived bang on time, having missed the gate on three ‘flybys’. But could this be it? A gate to a field, with no sign of life, not even a cow. And I’ve been in the scouts, so I was able to deduce that no vehicle had been through that gate for a while. I waited 15 minutes or so, but no one came near – “is it the right day, am I in the right place?” Well, I could always ring Dave Selfe and check, couldn’t I? Well no, I couldn’t because I couldn’t get a signal on either of my two mobiles!
Undaunted, I drove off toward Brailsford, risking death or injury as I negotiated the lanes with one eye on my mobile signals. Eventually, 200 meters from Brailsford, I got a signal. Emergency stop – ring Dave. He had left. His wife very kindly told me that the session was due to start at 9pm. Clearly, my time in the scouts had not taught me that it doesn’t get dark until after 9pm in early August – this obvious fact had just not occurred to me (and to enhance my embarrassment, had I checked the website before leaving, I would have seen the amended start time). To add further to my woes, the sky began to fill up with that nasty white stuff – it felt as if I had got to Xmas eve, and found that Xmas was going to be a day late!
As ever in times of crisis, I turned to my wife, Jane. Yes, she could meet with me at the Rose and Crown for a quick drink. After a very pleasant hour we parted, and I drove back to the observatory. By now there were car tracks through the gateway! I followed the tracks cautiously, but need not have worried – it was the right place, and the assembled members greeted me warmly. All troubles were forgotten as I looked forward to a look into the heavens. Even the cloud seemed to be forgotten as I was shown around the observatory, and introduced to various members. ‘Sod’, it seemed, had gone home.
Time enough, though for a look through the main telescope – why don’t I first have a look through the club’s new scope, at that moment being set up? Off I shot, in time to join an assembled group for an explanation of its many features, and to observe the process of alignment. We waited patiently, anticipation building, as options were considered, coordinates for some distant object entered. The telescope whirred and buzzed into action, tracking across the night sky, slowing as it refined its target, then coming to a silent, purposeful, halt. This was it. In fact I was so filled with anticipation that I did not notice that ‘Sod’ had come back from his tea break, and was now sitting under the telescope. Even so, my luck seemed to be in - I was closest to the viewfinder, so when it was all ready I was invited to have the first view. My heart was beating fast with anticipation. I knelt almost reverently and put my eye to the scope. What did I see?
‘Whoops’, well with this amount of cloud we didn’t have too many options. "Try for another break in the cloud", was the general consensus. Whir, buzz, whir, whir, buzz - the scope on another search. Again, anticipation builds. Again I get first look.
Again I look at a TREE!
OK, the cloud has beaten us - this time we look for the Moon. We can see that from here. Whir, buzz, whir, whir. This time we surely cannot miss. And lo and behold, the moon as I have never seen it before – through a TREE! It seemed as if this dammed tree had, Triffid like, walked the length of the field just to get in the way. Well, it was bad luck (thank you ‘Sod’) not to get a decent view, but we got a good run through of the scope’s capabilities – which had been the real purpose of the exercise.
Members get to grips with the control system on the Society's Meade LX-90 telescope at our observing session on Friday 4th August 2006. Picture Credit: Keith Plamping.
I wandered over to Dave who was setting up his own scope. After 20 minutes of adjustments it was ready to roll. Again the ‘whir, buzz’, and so on. “See that star up there, that pinprick of light?” says Dave, “Well, have a look through the scope”. I did, and what did I see – a slightly larger pinprick of light! Ummm. By now, after 2 hours, two stationary trees, a tree in transit over the moon and a pin prick of light, I was beginning to wonder if astronomy had a parallel with fishing – the real fun is sitting on the river bank. Dave, however, was undaunted. The coordinates, it seemed, were a little off, after the move from his garden to the Flamsteed site. This time he took matters into his own hands (literally) and physically moved the scope, aligning it with a small gap in the cloud. “Have a look”, he said. By this time I was a touch more casual about my expectations, and just took a glance through the scope.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. To the naked eye the sky appeared a bit starry (you know, nice to sing under), but through the scope a myriad of stars jumped into view – it seemed unbelievable. It was so incredible I had to keep switching between naked eye and scope to confirm what I could see! But there was more. Dave moved it to another spot in the sky, and there before me was my first ever view of a ring nebula– ok, not ‘Hubble’ quality, in fact quite small by comparison, but real. Pictures from Hubble can’t beat that.
It had all taken 2 hours, mostly standing around, and I hadn’t even had a go with the big scope. But I had learned a lot about the club’s LX90, and had seen things in the night sky I had never seen before – I was content. So ‘Sod’ hadn’t won after all.
At the risk of waxing too lyrical, I must include the sequel to this experience. Two months later my wife and I visited Australia. While in Sydney we attended an evening session at Sydney Observatory (if you are ever in Oz, this is a ‘must do’). It had been a cloudless day, but of course as the evening approached, so did the cloud. By 8pm there was nothing to see. Nonetheless, we had a great time – a super 3D show, and an incredible mini planetarium (actually, a large black golf umbrella, under which you lie, on bean bags – fatal if you are 'jet-lagged!). The main scope is a 16 inch Meade, and in spite of the cloud we were invited to have a look. What did I see? A flag – the Australian flag atop the harbour bridge. Well, at least it had stars on it!