ASE logo The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh


No 51 - December 2006

Observing from Edinburgh 1978-1984

I lived in Edinburgh for nearly six years - 4 years studying for a degree in Astrophysics at Edinburgh, followed by a year's teacher training and a year's teaching Mathematics at a school in Dunfermline. During the summer of 1981 I worked for several weeks as a vacation student at the Royal Observatory, debugging and developing a Fortran eclipsing binary analysis program for Bill Napier.

For the first 4 years I was a member of Edinburgh University Astronomical Society (EUAS), serving as its Observing Director from 1979-81. Through this membership I met Neil Bone, who was manning the society's stall at the Freshers' Fair and Dave Gavine, who moved to Edinburgh in early 1979.

When I joined the society it had access to a 10 inch refractor at the Royal Observatory. However, this was demolished in early 1979 to make way for new offices. Shortly afterwards, the society was given permission to use the 13 inch refractor at Calton Hill Observatory and I used this extensively in early 1979 to carry out transit timings on Jupiter - on one occasion timing over a hundred in one night - as part of the IJVTOP programme. IJVTOP - International Jupiter Voyager Telescopic Observation Project - was a programme to compare amateur observations of Jupiter with Voyager images.

Using the 13 inch telescope involved several challenges. It had a clockwork drive which had to be wound up - and then it only ran at half speed! In practice, it was necessary to become skilled at repeatedly gently nudging the telescope in order to keep Jupiter in the field of view. In addition, every so often it was necessary to manually rotate the dome so that the telescope continued to point through the slit in the dome.

Much of the EUAS observing effort was however directed towards meteor observing, at first from near the 10 inch dome within the Royal Observatory grounds, but from 1979 onwards watches were carried out elsewhere on Blackford Hill. The longest watch was for the 1979 Orionids which, despite an early interruption from the police, lasted for over 8 hours - six of the observers staying out all night - recording nearly 200 meteors. Another memorable watch was for the 1979 Geminids - a very windy night during which I was making use of some bushes near the car park for shelter. However, at around 5am a police car arrived in the car park and I was caught in its headlights - the policeman commented that initially he had thought I was a dead body (sat in a deck chair)!

I also observed the 1980 Perseid outburst from Blackford Hill - by now observing further from the observatory so as to reduce the risk of interruption from the police. A highlight, in addition to the unusually high rates, was two Perseid fireballs in quick succession in the northern sky - which Dave Gavine managed to photograph from his back garden.

Despite its city location, Blackford Hill was a good location for meteor observing, given its relatively dark southern horizon. Unfortunately observation became rather difficult due to the policy of floodlighting the Royal Observatory during the Edinburgh Festival each year.

My other main interest was variable stars. I observed them using 10x50 binoculars from Blackford Hill - since I was living over 30 minutes walk away, carrying a telescope wouldn't have been very practicable! The observation of aurorae was less straightforward with Edinburgh Castle and Princes Street being located to the north - Edinburgh Castle produced several convincing "rays". Nevertheless, a few aurorae were recorded. Other more occasional activities included observations of sunspots (you can project the Sun using 10x50 binoculars and see them) and timings of occultations of Aldebaran.

I was never a member of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh but did attend a few meetings, mostly during the summer months. I also had contact with the Scottish Astronomers Group, attending several meetings in Livingston and at the Calton Hill Observatory, giving talks on meteor observing at several and, along with Neil Bone, being part of the EUAS team that won the SAG quiz in November 1979 (are we still the reigning champions?). Other events during my stay in Edinburgh included the BAA Meteor Section meeting held at Calton Hill Observatory in 1981 and the 1982 BAA out of town meeting.

I 've been back to Edinburgh on several occasions since 1984 during short holidays. The most fortuitously timed was the single night of March 13 1989 spent in Edinburgh on my way to a stay in Fort William. Leaving the guest house at around 7:15pm I looked up at the sky to see some auroral rays and as the sky darkened it became apparent that a major auroral storm was taking place ...

Tony Markham


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Observing from Edinburgh 1978-1984

Solar global warming

Pluto and the planets

SAW 2006

Recent observations

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