Why are there 24 hours in a day?

Posted in News & Events, Tips & Hints with tags , , , on June 6, 2011 by astronomymike

To be honest, there are some things in this life that I have never given a second thought to…and this question was one of those things. At least, that was until our small astronomy group had the pleasure of hosting Wellington-based astronomer Frank Andrews at one of our monthly meetings!

Human beings are a remarkable species, but we also have an incredible ability to just accept everyday things, without question, just because “they are”. For me, having 24 hours in a day definitely fell into that category. It wasn’t until our esteemed presenter asked the question, “why?”, that I had to admit I hadn’t the slightest clue! Do you? Doesn’t 24 seem rather arbitrary when you think about it?

Well, you’ll have to forgive me if I get some of the finer detail wrong, but in truth I was more interested in the “why” than the “who”. Let’s just say it was in “ancient times”, perhaps the Sumerians or the Babylonians, and in those ages everything was related to “the gods”. The gods were perfect, they lived in the sky (represented by the stars) and passed overhead in an arc every night. So how does one represent the perfection of the gods watching over us during the cycle of day and night? Well, with a perfect circle of course! So, how do we divide up a 360° circle into even pieces? The most obvious is to divide it into half, making 2 x 180° pieces. Dividing each of those in half again gives 4 x 90° pieces, and again 8 x 45° chunks. But if we again try to divide the pieces, we end up with a non-whole (and therefore “imperfect”!) number – 22.5°. It also leaves us with a “clock” that represents an entire day/night cycle of only 8 evenly-divisible pieces – not particularly accurate at describing a time of day or night.

So, how else can we divide a perfect circle into “even” pieces of smaller size and whole (perfect) numbers? How about thirds? The first division give us 3 x 120° pieces, the second 6 x 60°, the third 12 x 30° and finally, the fourth division will give us 24 x 15° pieces. Nice! A further division will, of course, give us a non-whole and therefore imperfect number, but 24 pieces is a much more accurate way to be able describe a particular time than 8 pieces, don’t you think?

Oh, and one more thing – why do we call a “minute” a minute and a “second” a second? The first comes from the Latin word “minuta”, meaning “small”, and refers to the (first) minute (part) – in other words, it is the first minute part (or division) of the hour. Naturally the “second” refers to the second minute part, achieved by dividing the first minute part into smaller pieces.

I hope you learned something from that…I know I certainly did.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you clear skies!

30 Nights of StarPeace in NZ

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , , , on May 2, 2011 by astronomymike

New Zealand was one of the last countries in the world this year to hold its StarPeace event, and what a night we had!!!

Members of the Levin Stargazers, Sharing Space and StarWalker set up 2 telescopes, cameras and a webcast laptop right in the heart of the busiest downtown area of our capital city, Wellington, and wowed the crowds with spectacular views of Saturn. It was an utterly incredible night, and one I will personally never forget. There’s nothing like a crowd to draw a bigger crowd, and we had a constant stream of people lining up to have a look and, by the end of the night, around 500 people had stopped for a chat and a view of what is undoubtedly the public’s favorite planet.

The reactions and comments from people were priceless, and are the main reason why we keep doing what we are doing. The comments ranged from the simple “Wow!” to “Oh my God! Are you serious?!!!” and many other, sometimes expletive-laden, reactions. I lost count of the number of people who thought we were tricking them by sticking a photo in the eyepiece! Some couldn’t believe that we would just bring our scopes into town for people to look through for FREE!!! But every one of them was very grateful that we did, and I even had one man comment that “this alone made my trip into the city worthwhile!”. One of the nearby cafe’s even brought us out free drinks of hot chocolate for our efforts, which was very much appreciated!

We were kept busy on the telescopes all night, but did manage to get a few words in with China and Sri Lanka (Thilina!!!) via webcast. When the lines of people waiting started to get smaller, in true John Dobson style we would just call people over as they were passing by, and every one of them left with a smile on their face.

Many thanks to Paul Moss, Maria Heidemann (the StarWalker team) and Ray for the photos, webcast and video (see below). The other members of our team included Mike White (me), Mike Stapel and Ron Fisher. Looking forward to our next guerilla astronomy mission!

Ancient Skies – Join the Project!

Posted in News & Events with tags , on November 24, 2010 by astronomymike

This very special project aims to collect stories and cultural knowledge of the stars from all over the world and preserve them in a global database for all to see. If you can contribute stories or knowledge (especially from Maori or Polynesian cultures), then please read the following from the Ancient Skies Project…

“The relationship between humankind and the sky is as old as humankind itself. Human beings started to recognize and interpret the objects and events in the sky, as soon as they had fulfilled their basic needs.

The sky, our common and universal heritage, forms an integral part of all human cultures around the world.
The central theme of our project is, that all human beings live on one single planet and share the same sky. Knowing this, we created an infrastructure to preserve this global heritage in a web accessible knowledgebase.

The whole of these thoughts led us straight towards our overall vision:
One Planet
One Mankind
One Sky
One Knowledgebase

Ancient-Skies is a scientific project, which aims to collect, verify and publish available information about various human cultures and their astronomical knowledge in a single web accessible knowledgebase, celebrating not only 400 years, but 4000 years of Astronomy as a science.

Our aim is to rely on primary sources and verify them scientifically, so that the published information is valueable to the general public and scientists all over the world. Currently we are establishing a global network of specialists for various human cultures. This is critical to the project, as our general vision One planet – One Humankind – One Sky – One Knowledgebase is achievable only in a global network.

So if you feel that you might contribute to our project, you are very welcome to share your knowledge!

NOTE: To share your knowledge (link above), you must be a registered user – simply follow the link above to create an account. To find out how else you can contribute to the project, you can visit this page for more information.

International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN) is Coming!

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , , , , on August 7, 2010 by astronomymike

InOMN Logo

Mark your calendars folks, September 18 is International Observe the Moon Night!

Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) is partnering with NASA missions and centers, along with other institutions, to bring the excitement of observing and learning about Earth’s closest neighbor in space to the worldwide public.

Join professional and amateur astronomers, astronomy clubs, planetariums, science centers and astronomy enthusiasts around the world in celebrating our closest celestial companion, the Moon. If you belong to an astronomy club or society, start planning your events now and be a part of something very special! Most of us take the Moon for granted, I mean we see it almost every night (or day) don’t we? But the fact is that the Moon has special significance in almost every culture and society around the world, and not only that, but to see the surface of the Moon through a telescope is truly breathtaking!

For more information, resources and to register your InOMN events, visit http://www.astronomerswithoutborders.org/projects/intl-observe-moon-night.html.

So let’s get involved and get the world looking up again!

Clear skies!

Levin Stargazers & Foxton Beach Astro Society (NZ) Kick Off GAM 2010

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , , on April 11, 2010 by astronomymike

Sometimes the weather gods smile upon you, and last night was one of those evenings when they are not just smiling but grinning from ear to ear! What a fantastic night to kick off GAM for Levin Stargazers and Foxton Beach Astronomical Society, who combined forces to host our first GAM event, the “Telescope Hunt”. Admittedly, not as exciting as the name may suggest, but the idea was for the public to “hunt out” their old telescopes and bring them along for some pointers on how to use them and how to find good stuff in the sky to point them at, with a star party to follow.

As it turned out, only one family in Levin must have a telescope they don’t know how to use! In the picture below, you can just see the tripod leg and me showing them how to set it up.

Assembling a small telescope

Assembling a small telescope

However, about 20 members of the public joined us and the green laser pointers from our club members were soon flashing around the sky as we showed them where some of the best stuff was hiding. The young boy on the left in the photo above (it was his telescope I was assembling) even had a turn with my laser pointer and happily showed his sister and others the Southern Cross (Crux) and how to find the south celestial pole (SCP) after I had showed him only once!

Show me the Southern Cross young man

Show me the Southern Cross young man

Following the laser show we had a number of telescopes set up and showed many spectacular objects in our sky – the globular clusters 47 Tucanae and Omega Centauri, Eta Carina nebula, Great Orion nebula (of course!), Mars and Saturn to name a few. The seeing was so steady that even at 240x, Saturn was as steady as a rock and looked spectacular in the eyepiece, much to the delight of many! Here’s a selection of images from the event, and we look forward to our really big event on April 23, the “Worlds’ Largest Star Party II”, a follow-on from last years 100HA event where we had around 1000 people looking through telescopes in about 3 hours!

 Homemade dobsonian

Homemade dobsonian

Members setting up

Members setting up

Setting up a newtonian

Setting up a newtonian

Talking with the public

Talking with the public

Sharing a moment of fun

Sharing a moment of fun

The youngsters love it

The youngsters love it

Young girl lining up the next target

Young girl lining up the next target

Paul lines the refractor up

Paul lines the refractor up

Global Astronomy Month is coming!

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2010 by astronomymike
Global Astronomy Month logo

Global Astronomy Month logo

It’s nearly here people! April is Global Astronomy Month and it’s rolling around faster than you can say “Global Astronomy Month”!

Amateur astronomers, societies and groups worldwide are hard at work to bring some exciting astronomy events to a place near you, and the Astronomers Without Borders global team have been busy preparing global events that anyone from around the world can participate in, even some that you can do from home without a telescope! It’s going to be an action-packed month, but how can you be a part of all the excitement?

Firstly, keep an eye on your local newspapers and one ear on the radio for announcements on events that are being organised in your area. If you see or hear nothing, contact an astronomy club or group in your area to find out what they are doing for Global Astronomy Month. Secondly, you can search for events in your area on the Find Events webpage or check out what the Astronomers Without Borders team have prepared for you on the Global Programs webpage.

Some of the online global events on offer include:-

  • Living Legend Series – online live interviews with some of the most influential astronomers of our time.
  • Is Anybody Out There? – watch a planet outside our solar system dim the light of its parent star!
  • Write Your Name in the Sky! – hunt for asteroids in real time online and you might even get to name your own discovery!

If you are already an amateur astronomer or belong to an astronomy group/club and have not planned anything yet for Global Astronomy Month, it’s not too late!!! Have a look at the Program Ideas webpage and get creative! When you have decided on your events, register them online on the Register Events webpage, so everyone will know about it and people in your area can find it.

C’mon everyone, let’s be a part of something really big and very, very special!

Clear skies to all!
– Mike

How do you top IYA2009?

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , , , , , on February 1, 2010 by astronomymike

By all accounts, the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) was an outstanding worldwide success, with many hundreds of thousands of people looking through telescopes and being introduced to astronomy than ever before. In particular, the IYA2009 cornerstone project “100 Hours of Astronomy” (100HA) was the biggest global astronomy outreach event ever held.

I was one of those who truly took an interest in the subject early in 2009 and fell in love with the sky through being involved in the IYA2009 activities. In fact, the Levin Stargazers astronomy club that I joined hosted a hugely successful public star party as part of the 100HA events in April 2009, which led to us more than doubling our membership overnight and receiving an award from the IYA2009 organisers plus a SkyScout from one of the major sponsors, Celestron! It was incredibly rewarding to be involved in and to see the wonder and excitement (especially the kids) when people got to see the skies through our telescopes.

So now that 2009 is over, how do we keep that enthusiasm and public interest going? How can we possibly top that? Well, the Astronomers Without Borders group (who co-organized the 100HA events) may well have the answer – Global Astronomy Month (GAM)!

Global Astronomy Month logo
(Pictured above is the new Global Astronomy Month (GAM) logo based on an original concept by Azhy Hasan (Iraq) and was created by Jessi Kingan (USA/Thailand) with significant input from many AWB leaders from around the world.)

GAM aims to once again bring together amateur and professional astronomers from all over the globe to share the wonders of our sky in our communities, reinforcing the AWB motto “One People, One Sky”. But this is not just going to be a repeat of the 100HA project, oh no…this event (or series of events actually) will run for the entire month of April 2010, not just 100 hours! That is a HUGE challenge, and they will need everyone’s commitment to make it succeed. They are putting together a list of “Project Ideas” to be posted on the GAM website to give other individuals/groups some inspiration for what they can do in their own communities. If you are on Facebook, you can contribute your ideas on the Global Astronomy Month 2010 page, or for large projects email directly to “info at gam-awb dot org”. Put your thinking caps on people!

Clear skies!
– Mike

Discover the Virtual Telescope!

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , on January 30, 2010 by astronomymike

During a recent online astronomy event (see my One People, One Sky blog), I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to the wonderful world of remote telescope astrophotography. The northern hemisphere event (Big Dipper) was hosted by Dr. Gianluca Masi via his Virtual Telecope project from the Bellatrix Astronomical Observatory in Italy.

Following this event, I joined the Virtual Telescope Project Group on Facebook and was promptly invited to join their Discover The Virtual Telescope event on January 27th (28th here in NZ).

After logging in to the online event, I was delighted to see a number of familiar names from the Astronomers Without Borders and Sidewalk Astronomers groups already participating in the chat session with each other and Gianluca. These sort of events really show what a small world this really is! I’ve only been doing amateur astronomy for a year now, and already I have made numerous friends across the globe who share the same passion.

Anyway, back to the event. Unfortunately, Mother Nature struck again, and the skies above Bellatrix Observatory were cloudy. However, Gianluca is a wonderful presenter and did a number of demonstrations by webcam and screenshots of the software used to select targets for imaging, controlling the telescope and exposure settings for the camera to take your own images remotely from virtually anywhere in the world. What a great setup, and Gianluca deserves a lot of credit for what he has achieved in setting this all up.

The software to control the telescope (TheSky 6 Pro) is very easy to use, as is the camera control software (CCDSoft). The user (you!) gets exclusive, real-time remote control of everything, and there are options to use it by yourself or in ‘assisted’ mode where an astronomer will help you through the process of capturing and acquiring your images.

What really surprised me during the presentation was discovering that the Virtual Telescope project is a labour of love for Gianluca – this is not a huge profit-making venture, as a quick look at his pricing will confirm. He simply wants to give ordinary folks like you and me the opportunity to capture the beauty of the skies through a state-of-the-art observatory-grade telescope and camera. If your interests are more scientific (for example photometry), they cater for that too! If you compare pricing with other remote observatory facilities, such as LightBuckets, you’ll see that Virtual Telescope is not in it to get rich quick – they only want to cover fixed costs (such as broadband, electricity and equipment) and a little to put food on the table.

If you want to try this out for yourself, Gianluca has put together some extremely generous introductory prices, starting at 10 euros for 1.5 hours of telescope time!

Currently, they are planning to install another impressive telescope and camera system, which will make the facilities available to even more people without creating a strain on the professional activities of the observatory. Donations are very, very welcome!

If you missed the live “Discover the Virtual Telescope” event, don’t worry – there’s another one coming on February 4, 2010 from 8:30pm-10:30pm Universal Time (this is the same thing as GMT, so here in NZ it will be February 5, 2010 from 9:30am-11:30am). I thoroughly recommend that you join the event by visiting the Virtual Telescope website then and learn what it’s all about. You don’t have to participate in the chat session if you don’t want to – you can just sit back and watch Gianluca’s presentation if you prefer.

Clear skies!
– Mike

Stardate 2010

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , on January 29, 2010 by astronomymike

The annual Stardate events, held in the North and South Islands of NZ during January, are probably the most popular amateur astronomy get-togethers of the year, and this year was no exception, despite the lousy weather.

I attended the Stardate North Island event, run by the Phoenix Astronomical Society, which was held at a Christian camp in the Tukituki Valley, near Havelock North in Hawkes Bay on January 14-18th. Leading up to Stardate, the Hawkes Bay had been suffering drought conditions, with little rain for the previous 2 months, but a few days out from the event, the forecast was for rain over the entire 4 days! As I drove up from just south of Foxton on the Friday, the clouds got progressively thicker and darker…not a good sign. By Dannevirke the drizzly rain had definitely set in, and when I arrived at the camp it was obvious that none of the telescopes would be coming out to play tonight!

Fortunately the organisers always ensure there are a good selection of talks and presentations to attend, and this year was no exception. On Friday night John Drummond from Gisborne gave an eye-opening presentation on the ~270m asteroid ‘Apophis’ which astronomers had earlier predicted had a reasonably high chance of hitting Earth in 2029. Fortunately, following subsequent measurements, that threat has now been downgraded and is highly unlikely to occur. However, there is a small chance that during the 2029 encounter, the asteroid may pass through a small gravitational ‘keyhole’ close to Earth that will change its trajectory and place it on a direct impact path with Earth in 2036. Given that this keyhole is only 600m wide, this is unlikely to occur, and the chances of a 2036 impact are currently set at 1 in 250,000.

Following that, John then showed a slideshow of the first and second place-getters for the 2009 RASNZ Astrophotography Section images. Some great shots there, but a little disappointing that there were no entries for some of the divisions. Hopefully there will be renewed interest in 2010.

The remainder of Friday night was taken up with a choice of a late night movie (The Moon?), talking with friends or socialising at the “Hotel Manawatu”, run by Ian Cooper from Palmerston North, which was essentially 2 gazebos tied together and a large plastic table with camp chairs, but it certainly had some late closings over the weekend!

Dawn broke on Saturday to the sound of rain again. The telescope trail (where everyone gathers around the telescopes and the owners give a brief talk about them) was naturally postponed, but the Kids Astronomy session and all the afternoon presentations went ahead as planned. The talks included DSLR Astrophotography (Cameron Jack, Wellington), Film Astrophotography (aka ‘Is Film Really Dead?’ by Ian Cooper, Palmerston North), an update on what the various spacecraft out there are up to (Edwin Rod, Wellington), and a report from Gary Sparks, Napier on the NASA International Space Camp that he and young Rhiannon McNish attended.

Saturday night’s guest speaker was Dee Friesen from Albuquerque Astronomical Society, New Mexico. Apparently he talked about northern hemisphere observing, their IYA activities and educational outreach programs. I say ‘apparently’ because I never got to see the presentation…nor Cameron Jack’s Journey to the Centre of the Almanac and John Drummond’s The Dragon That Ate The Sun that followed it, as I went for a ‘short nap’ after dinner and didn’t wake up until about 10pm! Sad but true. Rain on a tin roof has always had that effect on me.

Sunday morning’s All Star Football match was postponed/cancelled due to the rain, as was the telescope trail again. An attempt to have the Kids Astronomy session outdoors with an interactive solar system during a ‘break in the rain’ resulted in kids and adults running for cover when the biggest deluge of the weekend hit.

Sunday afternoon included sessions from John Drummond and John Burt about the construction of their respective observatories. Some very useful tips and pointers in amongst all of that, and I was particularly interested in these presentations, as I intend building my own in the next wee while.

Unfortunately I had to head home on Sunday afternoon, and missed the remainder of the talks, as well as the sunshine that came out about half an hour before I left! Apparently it cleared quite nicely later and the telescope trail went ahead, and some viewing was even had during the evening! Never mind, you can’t control Mother Nature, and I had a great time anyway. I got to meet up with friends as well as meeting people that I only knew through email or the internet before, so it wasn’t a waste of time, that’s for sure!

Clear skies!
– Mike

One Sky, One People (Part 2)

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2010 by astronomymike


Well, last night was the second part of the two-part Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) project – Big Dipper to Southern Cross (you can read about Part One here), and it started at 1:30am NZ local time. I think I finally fell into bed at about 4am, but it was well worth the lack of beauty sleep (although my wife may disagree…I probably need as much as I can get!). This was the southern hemisphere event (my neck of the woods, so to speak), so I could hardly bail out early could I?!!! 🙂

Unlike the northern hemisphere event, the primary video server was up and running, which was thankfully one less drama for the team to have to deal with. Terry Bridges was the host astronomer/telescope operator and was operating the GRAS telescope in South Australia from Canada, whilst Gianluca Masi from Italy worked frantically in the background to download the telescope images, process them and post them onto the Virtual Telescope website for all participants to see. Quite mind-boggling the technology that must be involved in making all this happen, and the end result was a credit to all involved.

Live chat was working overtime and, as with the northern hemisphere event, everyone was made to feel welcome. What a fantastic display of ‘togetherness’ this whole event has been! True allegiance to the AWB catchphrase ‘One People, One Sky’. Here’s a prime example of it in action – when I logged into the live chat and introduced myself as being from Levin, NZ, Terry instantly welcomed me via the video feed and commented on our Levin StarGazers award for the IYA2009 100 Hours of Astronomy event we held back in April. How wonderful to be recognised from the other side of the world! I was blown away by that, as I had never met Terry before last night.

Terry was kept busy selecting targets and setting up the telescope remotely to take images, as well as keeping an eye on the live chat. Some of the wonderful objects imaged live last night were 47 Tuc (a fantastic southern hemisphere globular cluster), the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud and M42 (Orion Nebula) to name a few, and Gianluca was doing a fantastic job in the background getting the images processed and onto the Virtual Telescope website.

This was truly a fantastic worldwide event and I have made several new friends simply by joining in and participating. My hat is off to all involved in setting up and running the event – Thilina Heenatigala, Gianluca Masi, Terry Bridges and many others…you should be justifiably proud of what you have achieved!!! My sincerest thanks for inviting me to join you.

Incidentally, if you want to rent one of the GRAS remote telescopes for free to try your hand at imaging, there is a fantastic limited-time offer of free credit available through Astronomy.FM! Check it out.

Clear skies!
– Mike