Tuesday, 29 December 2009

At Moniack Mhor with Dark Sky Scotland

I switched on my computer at 10am on Monday 23rd November and here was a message from Dave Chalton, Dark Sky Scotland Project Officer, asking if I could help out with an event starting that afternoon!!
Well I got on the phone, found out where I would have to go and for how long, then I had to get permission to go!
It turned out that the event was at a writers' retreat at Monaick Mhor, not far off the road from Beauly to Abriachan above Loch Ness. It was an event with a difference. We were to provide the inspiration for a group of Advanced Higher English pupils who were on a creative writing course.
It was just getting dark when I arrived and Jupiter was hanging in the sky just below a beautiful crescent Moon which was bathed in Earthshine. Naturally, by the time we had something to eat, heard the introduction to how the week was structured and Dave and I got my telescope and the DSS big binoculars set up, the wind was howling and vicious showers of rain were scudding through. It was really exposed on the top of that hill.
We waited for a while as Dave explained one of his tasks for the group, (14 girls), the skies cleared and the rain stopped. The wind was still howling and it was perishing cold but everyone came outside and we showed them around the sky using our green laser pointers. It was too windy for telescopes but we had a few pairs of binoculars to pass around and everyone was quite amazed with what they saw. At one point a long persistent meteor trailed across the northern sky, almost parallel to the horizon.
One or two of the girls stayed out longer than I could manage and everyone was there long enough to see Orion's Sword clear the horizon.
Dave and I headed off for our B&B and next morning, we met Hamish at Abriachan Village Hall. After a bit of a delay, we set up the inflatable StarLab in the freezing cold hall and soon after, the minibus with the girls and course tutors, Gerry Cambridge and Magi Gibson rolled in. Dave went through his StarLab show and we fielded a lot of questions then back to Moniack Mhor for some lunch.
In the afternoon, Dave explained how to use Stellarium and I talked to the girls about the Apollo programme.
After dinner, it was far too wet to do any observing so Dave and I hit the road to the hotel where we were staying the night for a few very well earned drams. We needed them, it had been a long day.
Next day, we set off on our separate ways, Dave on a horrendous journey back to Edinburgh in driving rain and a pretty bad gale, me back to Forres in time to pick up my mother in law from the station.
A very different kind of Dark Sky event but hopefully, we were able to provide some material for the rest of the week.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Talk to Rotary Club in October.

Earlier in the year, I was asked to talk to Forres Rotary Club at one of their lunchtime meetings at the Ramnee Hotel in Forres. October 29th seemed a long way away at the time and 2009 being the 40th anniversary of the the first Apollo landing on the Moon, I decided to talk about the Apollo programme.
The funny thing was, nobody could tell me how long the talk would last! I was told 15 minutes, but maybe just 10 minutes, depends how much business there was to go through. The only thing I was told was that I had to finish at 2pm. Now that's not a lot of help when you are trying to put a talk together.
As it turned out, I discovered that it was far more difficult to come up with a talk which lasts 15 minutes than it is to do a talk for 50 minutes with pictures and diagrams in a Power Point presentation. There was to be none of that modern rubbish in this talk, just me, talking.
I had no shortage of information, David Woods' book, "How Apollo Flew to the Moon", the "Jim Haynes Workshop Manual for Apollo 11" and Gene Kranz' autobiography. The problem was fitting the information into 15 minutes!
Anyway, I managed. I took just under 15 minutes and there was time for the inevitable "was it all a hoax" question. I got a few laughs, in the places I wanted them and it was great to see some old friends who came along just to hear me! A lot of people said complimentary things to me so I came away quite pleased with myself.
I talked about the the alarms as Apollo 11 approached the lunar surface, the overshoot to a flat landing ground and the lack of fuel, and about how flimsy the Lunar Module was.
I tried to explain why they couldn't just blast off and fly straight to the Moon like Dan Dare would have done. I used a pepper pot for a rocket and the secretary's baldy heid for the Moon, no vegetation, you see.
I told them why they had to have things like "launch windows", finished off by telling them that Armstrong and Aldrin would both be 80 years old in 2010, the final mission was just over 3 years after the first one, and nobody has been back since.
It was bloody hard work preparing for it and it could just be stretched into a longer talk one day.

Nothing since September??

Well there should have been.
Near the end of October, I did a short talk to Forres Rotary Club and in the last week in November I helped out at a Dark Sky Scotland event.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Making a comet.

The view from where Gordon was standing.

Sigma Fun Day at Craigellachie

Well the local school I was going to visit on Friday decided that they didn't have the time for me to visit them. That suited me just fine as I was pretty low on energy anyway. On top of that, we had minimum night time temperatures of 15deg C so the dry ice for the comet making demos on the Saturday was disappearing fast and our freezer was pretty full. I lost so much dry ice overnight on Thursday/Friday that I managed to cram what was left into the middle of the freezer so by Saturday morning I had enough left for one comet at least.
Saturday was a roasting hot day, for late September anyway so the brilliant weather, combined with a whisky festival in nearby Aberlour and the fun and games at the Dufftown Pipe Band's 60th birthday party just a few miles in the other direction meant that we didn't have much of a turnout for the afternoon session. Disappointing, especially for Karen who had put so much effort into the publicity of our event.
My comet making demo was a bit of a disaster as the comet wouldn't stick to make one big lump but the kids enjoyed it.
They certainly enjoyed the rocket workshop, most of them spent the afternoon launching, modifying and launching their rockets again and again.
I was totally exhausted so I had to go home at 6pm and missed the evening observing session. About 20 people turned up and all had a great time in clear skies...and it was warm!!

Pics from Pete.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

More outreach plans

We are having another Sigma Fun Day, this time at Craigellachie on Saturday 26th September.

Details are here,

That means I'll be making more comets but we will have far more dry ice than I will need. Rather than have it just sublime away, I've arranged to go to the Steiner School in Forres to do the solar system using IZAL toilet paper and Playdough, fire some rockets and make a comet for a couple of classes.

So it's going to be Friday morning, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening. Hope I have more energy than I have now. The last two nights have been incredibly clear with no Moon but I just can't drag myself out to hunt down any deep sky objects.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

North Ronaldsay Golf Club Clubhouse

I bet they didn't go scrounging to the HIE, the council and the breweries to build this club house!
The main room is the bar (see the empty bottle), the caddy car store and the locker room. Maybe even the office for the secretary and the treasurer, after all, it has a table.

North Ronaldsay Golf Club

The fees look very reasonable but ponder this. If you pay the deposit on a new ball and use that ball during your round, do you get a refund on a new ball or on a used ball?

The doorway doubles up as the greenkeepers' store and it's where they keep their supply of sand for the bunkers.

No flags out on the course so it doesn't look as if the hole cutter has been used for a while.

Would the sheep droppings be treated as casual water? These sheep eat seaweed so maybe they would look on a golf ball as a rare treat!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Back on the Orkney mainland.

Flew back to Kirkwall on Friday night, repacked all my stuff before setting off for the Family Day.
No room to launch rockets so I spent the day doing the mind-blowingly banal pinprick constellations, the kids enjoyed it though. The crowds were good but hard to compare with last year as we were in three separate rooms.
I was amazed when on little lad, about 7 or 8 years old, said to me, "You came to our school last year." Now had remembered me for the right reasons or the wrong reasons??

On Sunday, I went to visit my brother and his wife, hope you like the view from their front window. After that, I went up to the Brough of Birsay to visit an old friend I worked with in Hull almost 40 years ago. The view from his window is just as stunning but I didn't take any pictures!

On Monday, I spent most of the day trying to find the age of the universe with Hubble's original data. It didn't go too well, just one group found Hubble's constant but we didn't get any further. Not the kids' fault, I don't think I had as much time as when I did the same thing at Going Nova 2009.

Today, I did my talk on the Moon in the big cinema in Kirkwall, about 70 people there and a lot of questions afterwards, far more than last year. A lot of people said some very complimentary things about my images afterwards so I was quite pleased.
Off to Kirkwall later this afternoon for the Council Reception so maybe I will get a chance to see some people. I've been away doing things on my own all week and haven't been to any of the events apart from my own!

As I was driving back to Kirkwall, the Sun was setting behind me and I could see very faint anti-crepuscular rays in the east. I've been aware of them just once before.

Around the bird observatory

Too windy to see many birds but the views of the seals were great.
There were hundreds of Turnstones on the grassy area around the lighthouse. The stones along the shore were all flat discs, anything from 6 to 12" in diameter so they had no chance of turning them over! I did see one turning over a small stone on the grassy area.
As I was having breakfast in the bird observatory, three grey herons flew in. Must be quite unusual as they got a mention in the observatory blog.
I spent a while cowering down behind a wall beside Hooking Loch. Saw a Little Grebe, a Whooper Swan which had been there all summer with a damaged wing and quite a few Snipe flying around.
Pity it was so windy as we might have seen some mist netting if it had been calmer.
There were some large crows flying about but I could never see them well enough to say that they were Ravens. As I was driving out of the car park at Kirkwall Airport, a Raven flew right across in front of me. Bet you don't see that from many airport car parks.
I saw just one Hen Harrier, a female flew in front of the car as I was leaving an old friends house at the Brough of Birsay.

Spare time on N. Ronaldsay

Had a great time driving around the island, stopping off to walk around.
Very windy but got some good views of the "sights" of the island. The sheep are supposed to be held behind a wall which goes all the way round the island so they eat just seaweed.

Talk on N. Ronaldsay

Shocking day of driving rain on the day of my talk but 19 out of a total population of 60 turned out to hear my talk on binocular astronomy. I think they enjoyed it and a lot of people said they were looking forward to hunting down the objects I mentioned.
Everyone got a copy of the Dark Sky Scotland star charts and I left a stock behind at the bid observatory.

Visit to N.Ronaldsay PS

First wi-fi since I left North Ronaldsay.
Had a great time in the two-pupil Primary School, one made the scale of the Solar System on a roll of Izal toilet paper, the other made models of the planets using playdo, then we put the two together.
Finished off with pin prick constellations.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Some views of the plane passing over and coming in to land.

Some pictures of the Islander aircraft

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Had a pint last night with an old friend I hadn't seen for 40 years.
Talked about ailments, getting older and all the things we can't do any more!!!
Hope to meet another old friend on Monday, hope we talk about something else!

Had a fabulous drive from Forres to Gill's Bay in Caithness yesterday, then across the Pentland Firth in the new catamaran ferry, the Pentalina. Very comfortable and excellent bacon rolls, boat wallowed a bit as it came out into the Pentland Firth.
Orkney is famous for it's fish but last night, I had the worse fish and chips I have ever had, in an hotel in Kirkwall, better not say which one.
Flew across to North Ronaldsay this afternoon in a Britten Norman Islander, smallest plane I've ever been in but just like a trip in a bus to Orcadians. Surprised how noisy it was but I suppose I was only 5 feet away from two engines. Cloudy coming into N. Ronaldsay but good views for the first part of the trip to Papa Westray.
In Kirkwall, we sat on the runway while the pilot revved up the engines, then he let off the brakes and away we went. On Papa, he taxied up to the end of the runway, swung the plane round and just let rip!
Rain started about noon and it is here until the morning at least so no chance of a look at the sky after my talk on binocular astronomy tonight, what's new.
As I sat down on the plane, the lady behind me asked if I was doing the talk tonight, she had spotted the laptop!
Rain has suddenly got heavier and is lashing against the windows of the Bird Observatory conservatory. Really comfortable place with very friendly, helpful people.
Looks like it will be windy tomorrow so let's hope it is dry.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Off to Orkney for the Science Festival on Wednesday.
Looks like a busy week, talk on Binocular Astronomy in North Ronaldsay on Thursday night, visit to the primary school on Friday, then fly back to Kirkwall on Friday evening.
Looking forward to seeing some birds I've never seen before on their autumn migration. They have had orcas there for the last few days. they aren't birds though, they are killer whales.
Family Day in Kirkwall on Saturday then for most of the day on Monday, I'll be using Hubble's data from pre-war days to find the age of the universe.
On Tuesday, I'm doing a talk on the Moon at the Picky Centre in Kirkwall at 11am.
Hoping to see some of my old friends from my university days, guys I haven't seen for 40 years, should be interesting.
Home on the Thursday, hope the wind doesn't blow too hard.