ASE logo The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh


No 59 - March 2009

Observing session at the dark sky site, Addiewell

The Bad Luck Fairy strikes again

On the 23rd January 2009, a rather iffy weather night, an intrepid few, Danny Gallacher, Horst Meyerdierks, Frank Howie, Peter Mullholland and Michael Dale braved a cold evening at the Addiewell dark sky site. The weather forecast had not been good, cold with rain showers, but we all decided to go along instead of sitting goggle eyed at the TV.

The 'Dark sky site' that ASE has the use of is wonderfully dark. This was obvious as we drove in with dipped headlights. We were in for a grand night of star gazing! We all turned up at virtually the same time and started to get wrapped up before getting our telescopes out. The tarmac runways were covered in ice so we decided to set up in the car park. The seeing was reasonably good, with a few patchy clouds but lots of stars visible.

I had brought along the society's 10" Meade LX200 Schmidt Cassegrain telescope. After nearly suffering a double hernia getting it out of the car (gratefully with help), I started setting it up. When I turned on the drive, it would start OK (you could hear the motor turning and the amp meter showed current flow). The Bad Luck Fairy was waking up! After about 20 seconds the motor would stop, the amp meter still showed it was drawing current. Turning it off and then back on, the motor would start again but then stop after 20 seconds, the amp meter still showing it was drawing current. I tried everything I could think of but could not get it to track at all, I considered kicking it or rolling it down a hill but since it belonged to the Society I thought "Better not". So, I concluded - no astrophotography for me tonight!! The Bad Luck Fairy wins round one. Horst thought it may be a repeat of the fault we had when we first got the telescope. The repair at that time was to replace a burned out capacitor.

The rest of the group was busy with their telescopes, binoculars and cameras. However I could hear mutterings from Peter Mullholland. On asking him what was wrong he told me his battery had run low and in replacing it, he had lost the springs washers from the retainer. He eventually got it fixed and was able to continue observing (lucky guy). A close call with the B.L.F.

observing at the dark site
Ursa Major before and after image processing. The top-left insert shows Mizar, Alcor and two field stars at about 4 times larger scale. Photograph by Frank Howie.

Frank Howie had not brought a telescope with him but was busy photographing using high ISO settings and short exposures. Frank's image shows 'The Plough', known in North America as 'The Big Dipper', as it does resemble a 'spoon' ... if you use your imagination! It's part of the constellation of 'Ursa Major', 'The Great Bear'. Once it's pointed out, most people would agree that there is an outline resemblance to a 'spoon' in this picture, with the handle pointing downwards - though a degree of imagination is necessary to 'visualise' these 'asterisms', most of which are effectively random patterns of stars, unconnected to each other.

In the centre of the 'handle' of the Plough, there are actually two close stars, Mizar and Alcor. If you look closely at the photograph you can see them both and if you go outside and can see the real thing, this is an indication that you have pretty good eyesight! With a telescope the star Mizar is revealed as being itself a double star! These two stars are, in fact, related to each other. Mizar was the first double star to be discovered, and the first to be photographed.

Frank opined that maybe the Ancient Greeks and other civilizations who named the constellations had better imaginations than us ... but then they probably had more time to just lie back and enjoy the view, rather than having to set up heavy telescopes and other gear in subzero temperatures.

Note that even at this distance from the nearest towns the night sky is far from 'velvety-dark'! The dreaded 'tangerine glow' of sodium lights gets everywhere! In fact, with care it is possible to 'digitally' replace this colour with a more 'natural-looking' dark blue night sky. For comparison purposes, both the original and a photoshop "enhanced" version are shown. Some astronomers would criticise this as unethical. What do you think?

Initially, Horst Meyerdierks was observing Messier objects through binoculars. The sky at that time was too patchy to do any astrophotography.

After a couple of hours we retired to the "hut" for a cup of coffee. The B.L.F. was at it again, I couldn't find my bag with flask, sandwiches and biscuits. I phoned my wife to discover I had left it lying in the hall. Fortunately, Horst had plenty of coffee in his flask so I didn't go without. Just then, Peter came in with his "goodies" - a Volcano kettle, water, coffee, sugar and milk. What is a volcano kettle I can hear you ask? I was wondering what it was myself. It looked like a miniature milk churn about 9" in diameter with a conical top which had a central opening on the top and another half way down the cone.

He set it up, first taking the bottom pan off. He then placed a couple of small chunks of fire lighter in the pan, added some screwed up newspaper and replaced the pan on the bottom of the main cylinder. Next some water was poured into the annular water jacket through the offset opening in the conical top. "Ready to go" he said and duly lit a match and set the firelighters ablaze. Within seconds we now knew why it was called a Volcano kettle. Flames belched out of the top central opening accompanied with a roar like a jet engine. Adding a few further pieces screwed up newspaper we had boiling water inside of 5 minutes!! Bubbling hot coffee all round - A truly wonderful gadget.

warming up in the hut
Warming up in the hut. Photograph by Frank Howie.

Eventually Horst and Michael Dale left Peter, Frank and me sitting in the "hut". Unfortunately the "hut" (and the whole site for that matter) is not blessed with an electricity supply. So, with no light in the hut, we were all sitting with our "head" torches on. Frank decided to take a picture of Peter and me. He wanted to take them without flash to catch the ectoplasmic effect of our steaming breath (his words, not mine). After a few tries, adjusting camera settings and the angle and position of our head torches he came up with this photograph. You may wish to send in some appropriate captions. We will publish the clean ones in the next Journal.

We soon ran out of stories and jokes, so back out to the cold again. The sky was now lovely and clear, but a bone chilling wind had got up. I swear I could hear some brass monkeys routing around in the darkness looking for their lost nether region appendages but I could have been mistaken. I spent the next couple of hours doing some general observing of Messier objects, Andromeda, Orion, Pleiades etc. I also piggybacked my Canon 400D with an EF 400 mm zoom lens stopped to f/5.6 on the Meade LX200 and tried some short exposures of Orion and the Pleiades. I checked them when I got home but there was slight star trailing on anything over 10 seconds exposure. At any lower exposure time, the stars were too dim. So I was right earlier when I said no astrophotography for me tonight!! Strike 3 to the B.L.F.

Horst was busy with his Canon EOS 400D (plus 135 mm lens stopped to f/4) taking trailed short exposures of the Messier objects he had been viewing earlier with his binoculars. He ran out of objects so he turned to trying to photograph some variables he was interested in. He got RZ Cas measured but found U Ori smeared with another star. He then tried for RT Aur but now the Bad Luck Fairy decided to sprinkle some of her magic dust on him as well - the battery ran out on his camera. That darned fairy kept pouring the bad luck as his camera lens started to dew up.

Just about 11:30 pm we had a light shower of rain but it did not last very long. However, the temperature seemed to be dropping further, making us wonder how the untreated roads would be affected by the shower. The B.L.F. was now on overtime. Midnight was approaching, with the biting wind, the dropping temperatures, the likely road conditions, notwithstanding the B.L.F. on double time, we decided to pack up and go our separate ways.

I was last to leave the site, so I duly re-chained and padlocked the gate. I had meant to collect the lantern I had left at the side of the track to guide those who had never been to the site before but I had forgotten. When I went to get it, it wasn't there! B.L.F. delivers her final blow! Someone travelling along the road must have spotted it and seeing no visible signs of anyone had "appropriated" it. Perhaps I should have activated the C4 anti-tamper bomb attachment when I left it. It might have done the B.L.F. some good as well.

Notwithstanding the bone chilling wind, the low temperature and the several visitations of you know who, the entire group enjoyed the evening and we all hope to repeat the exercise in the not too distant future. Watch the website or stay awake at the monthly meetings for the announcement. Thanks to Horst Meyerdierks and Frank Howie for their input to the text above. Clear skies!

Danny Gallacher


Cover page

Forthcoming events

Moonwatch in North Berwick

Observing session at the dark sky site, Addiewell

2009 A Space Odyssey

Annual General Meeting

Annual Report for 2008

Society news

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