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World Beat: The Heavens From a Watchtower  

Mercury, January/February 2000 Table of Contents

By Bill Almond

Oh, that is awesome. Look at those moons, they're like tiny diamonds. I never thought Jupiter would look like that!"

This enraptured visitor to my home observatory one beautiful evening in September is typical of so many others who have enjoyed their first views of planets and galaxies in all their glory. Place a solar filter on the 10-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, and their wonder on viewing close-ups of sunspots for the first time lets you know, without a word, that they will be telling their friends and relatives about their new-found discoveries for a long, long time. Such is the joy of letting people in, to view with their own eyes, a secret realm they know so little about.

As a teenager in Manchester, England, at the close of the Second World War, I and a friend bought a cheap 6-inch reflector to discover what planets looked like. At that time the blackout was still in effect, and the nighttime darkness was profound. Stars and the Milky Way splashed across the unpolluted blackness in glittering masses that provided enough light to find your way around.

First we found Saturn and marvelled at the rings. They were real. They were actually there. They were not just pictures in a book. And from then on we shared what we found with others who also appreciated the beauty of the night sky. My friend and I also attended meetings of the British Interplanetary Society and soaked up fledgling, rudimentary ideas of how space travel could be accomplished based on Wernher von Braun's infamous V2 rockets that pounded London towards the end of the War. Firmly hooked on astronomy, my interest never died but had to wait for its revival until long after my family had emigrated to Canada, and, at the age of 59, my business had been sold.

Now, with time to spare, I joined the Victoria center of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 1989 and immediately plunged into buying a telescope and CCD equipment and built an observatory to house it all. Accessible from my home's sundeck, the observatory was to be built about ten and a half meters high to clear the surrounding trees. City hall was tickled pink that something so novel was to be built in the district. Unfazed, they classified it as a watchtower, and I was handed my permit with so little fuss and bother I must confess to being both surprised and delighted.

RASC group photo
Last year's annual picnic for the Victoria center of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Photo courtesy of the author, who sits in the front (second from right).

My new-found friends in the RASC include professional astronomers from the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Victoria, and I revelled in the wealth of information they taught amateurs like myself at our regular monthly meetings. Many amateurs are capable of extraordinary accomplishments, considering their lack of funds and materials, and our members' nights frequently produced splendid examples of their expertise.

We were also fortunate that until 1998 the center enjoyed having Jack Newton as a member. Once a month we gathered at his home on top of Mount Matheson where he had a large observatory built into his house. Alice, Jack's wife, is a fun-loving hostess who made everyone welcome and kept the not-so-enthusiastic observers occupied with coffee, cookies, and conversation. The big attraction for most members was the never-ending stream of new products that manufacturers shipped to Jack for testing; everything from software to a 16-inch Meade LX200 telescope.

observatory
Lowering the dome onto the author's new observatory - a watchtower, according to the city. Photo courtesy of the author.

Many a night we stood around in the freezing cold watching Jack's computer monitors as his telescope and CCD cameras captured images of faint fuzzy galaxies whose light started the long reach through space when dinosaurs trampled the undergrowth looking for tasty tidbits. Then in 1998, he sold the house in Victoria and built two homes, one in Chiefland, Florida, and another in Osoyoos in British Columbia, spending six months at a time in each of them...Florida in winter, naturally. I recall one occasion, sometime around 1993, when Jack triumphantly showed me a device he had rigged up to take tri-color images through his ST4 CCD using gel RGB filters. It was the first time it had been attempted by anyone and his pioneering efforts led to the development of commercial software and equipment that have become a routine part of many an amateur astronomer's night life.

M33 galaxy
M33, a spiral galaxy in Triangulum, as captured by the author. Image courtesy of the author.

I was also one of the first to purchase an SBIG ST4, and I had a learning curve so steep that a military jet couldn't climb that straight up. Not only was I getting back into astronomy after many years of languishing, but I'd made a typical beginner's blunder of jumping into the pool at the deep end before I could swim. Jack came to my rescue many times, drawing on his years of experience and closeness with the CCD manufacturers to enable me to make my first image, the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula, M42. Since then, I've enjoyed showing guests to my home, especially children, some of the spectacular colors that can be captured by filtered long exposures. After looking at, say, the gray Lagoon Nebula through the eyepiece, they look bewildered when the Lagoon's glowing red image appears on the computer's monitor and it's necessary to explain to them that their eyes cannot see the beautiful colors because the light levels through the eyepiece are too low. The walls of my computer room are decorated with delightful pictures drawn by enthralled youngsters who got their first look at a "real" planet or the Andromeda Galaxy.

child's drawing
A child's drawing as "thank you" for a night of seeing the heavens. Illustration courtesy of the author.

Never being one to sit idly as a passive listener meant that before long I became a Victoria center council member, first as treasurer followed by the presidency. In 1998, during my two-year term as president, the center decided to host the RASC's annual general meeting, which would draw members from across Canada for the three-day assembly. As organizing chairman, part of my responsibility was to contact potential speakers and build a timeline for the event.

Fortunately for me, the University of Victoria was holding a conference on radial velocities at the same time as our meeting, and Dr. Geoff Marcy, of extrasolar-planet fame, was to attend. With the assistance of Dr. James Hesser, at the DAO, contact was made with Dr. Marcy, and he agreed to arrive a few days early to give a talk to our mostly amateur audience. Geoff received a standing ovation for announcing the discovery of a new extrasolar planet, days before the professionals were to hear of it. Also, with the assistance of Jean Godin at the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, in Victoria, I was able to contact Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, and to my astonishment she agreed to give an audio-visual presentation which she subsequently gave with extraordinary passion and energy. Consequently, we weren't in the least bit surprised that the Canadian Space Agency employed her as their public relations star following her trip to the International Space Station as mission specialist on STS-96 Discovery.

Since then my attention has been drawn towards the problems of preserving some semblence of dark sky for professional and amateur astronomers. The Victoria center has organized a light-pollution group, and we have discovered that very few municipalities on Vancouver Island have lighting-standard bylaws of any kind on their books. This must be a widespread discrepancy and one that should be addressed by all astronomy clubs around the world if anything at all is to be done to minimize the problem of stray, inefficient light. It may not be too difficult. Most mayors and councils are willing to listen to positive suggestions.

With good follow-through, bylaws can be amended and a dent can be made in the ever-encroaching light pollution of our precious night skies. We recently joined the International Dark Sky Association and have taken advantage of the voluminous literature and slides that they produce. Now we are hoping that the audio-visual presentations we make to mayors and councils on southern Vancouver Island will succeed in moderating the unthinking destruction of the dark night sky caused by uninformed authorities who believe light is good and dark is bad. Together, I'm sure we can make a difference.

A newspaper printer by profession, BILL ALMOND's working life has been spent entirely in daily newspapers both in England and Canada. He and his wife Janet raised four children and now have nine grandchildren. On 31 December 1999 he retired and will now spend more time with his family and in his observatory in Vancouver, British Columbia. Almond, a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada who has been recognized for his work in CCD imaging, can be reached via email at fwalmond@islandnet.com. And his thoughts of the future? "Here's to retirement and clear skies!"

 
 

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