Stardate 2010

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

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