H.S.S. ASTRONOMY SECTION REPORT 1999 - 2000 SESSION
The 1999-2000 session marked the Society's centenary, so it was fitting that this occasion coincided with a major astronomical event, the total Solar eclipse of August 11th. 1999. This eclipse had been on our "event horizon" for decades and 30 members and friends spent 5 days camping in Redruth School, hoping to observe it. I shall not go into details about this here, as it is covered in a separate report and a full length video. However, once again the British weather managed to ruin the spectacle. It was perfectly clear the day before and the day after the eclipse, but on eclipse day itself it was totally overcast and raining at times. Weather conditions were far better in Hampstead and Julia Daniels, Julie Atkinson and Geoff Shelley, opened the Observatory to members of the public, who were rewarded with fine projected views of the 97% eclipsed Sun.
The Astronomy Section held a special meeting in October to give members the opportunity to discuss the eclipse and show their observations. There were contributions from Gary Marriot, who was at the B.A.A. Camp in Truro, and from Martin Williams. Members were also able to see the video made by the Astro. Sec. and were able see some results obtained by B.A.A. members who were stationed on Alderney, where the Sun made a brief appearance at totality.
The weather front which ruined the eclipse, also prevented us from observing the Perseid Meteors, The maximum was due on August 12th. However, several early Perseids were observed from Redruth on the night of Aug 10 -11, before the cloud rolled in. One particularly bright one lit up the ground like a flash bulb and left a trail which persisted for several seconds! On the night of Aug. 10 many members of the eclipse party enjoyed the clear dark Cornish skies, which presented fine views of the Milky Way and in particular the star clouds in Sagittarius, such views are now denied to us from light polluted Hampstead.
Last year I reported on the damage to the Observatory caused by vandalism. The vandals had damaged the building, using materials left carelessly laying about the site by Thames Water and their contractors. After lengthy negotiations with Thames Water and their contractors, they agreed a degree of responsibility for the damage and made reparation by supplying and fitting security grills to the observatory windows, at their cost, and they also made an additional financial contribution to cover the costs already incurred by the Society.
The Observatory opened its doors to the public, as usual in mid September. Throughout the session, the sky was dominated by the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter came to opposition on October 23rd. This year the Great Red Spot was very pale with a darker centre and there was much detail to be seen in the equatorial zone with plumes and streamers much in evidence. A number of interesting CCD images of these details were obtained by the Astro. Sec. some of which are published on his website.
Saturn, which came to opposition on November 6th was well seen, the ring system now well open. It remains a favourite object with visitors.
The Society celebrated its centenary with a dinner held at University College School on the evening of November 13th, at which the Astronomy Section mounted two exhibits. They consisted of a history of the section designed by Julia Daniels and a revue of the section's work by the Astro. Sec.
The history exhibit was enriched by the discovery, made by Simon Lang, that there were two surviving relatives of one of our founders, still living in Hampstead.
These are the younger son and daughter-in-law of Patrick Hepburn. They were discovered at the same address in Hampstead which appeared on a letter written by Patrick Hepburn in 1927, concerning the total solar eclipse of that year. The letter was reproduced in the Journal of the B.A.A. Contact was made and we were given access to much information about Patrick and the circumstances surrounding his tragic death. Margaret and George Hepburn subsequently attended the centenary dinner as guests of the Society.
After last year's debacle with the Leonid meteors, when the maximum occurred 24 hours earlier than predicted, we began observations 2 days before this year's predicted maximum on Nov. 18th. On the night of 16th-17th of Nov. the sky was clear and Simon Lang and myself, joined Terry Pearce under the clearer skies of Weston Colville, Cambs. Only one or two bright Leonids were seen and only one photographed. Naturally on the night of predicted maximum, it was cloudy and raining! However reports from abroad indicate that this year's display mainly consisted of meteors of mag.+2 or less. Less than 5% were brighter than mag 0. So this year's display was far less spectacular than last year's.
As the session drew to a close in April, the planets moved ever westwards in the sky to present a fine multiple conjunction on the evening of April 6th, when Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and a thin crescent Moon hung together just 10 degrees above the western horizon after sunset.
The Sun itself has shown increased activity, as we approach Sunspot maximum. However, spot numbers do not seem very high. Nevertheless, there was quite an extensive Aurora, visible from London and much of the country on the night of April 6th. I do not wish to encroach upon the report of the Hon. Meteorological Secretary, but it has not gone unnoticed that clear nights in both April and May, have been rare and I can't help wondering if this could in any way be connected with the lack of Sunspots! Are we experiencing a lower than normal Solar maximum and could this influence the weather?
On the whole, the weather has proved very poor during the session, yet despite this, attendance at the Observatory has been good on nights that were clear and donations to the Observatory fund have been exceptional. I have also noticed an increase in telephone enquiries prompted by the Society's Website. Julie Atkinson is to be congratulated for producing this and for persuading "older generation" members, such as myself, to "get connected!" Some of the enquiries are coming from the "younger generation" - so perhaps the Website might indeed be the solution to our problem in recruiting younger members. We must publicise the address ( URL) wherever possible.
However, at the moment, the Observatory is still the prime interface between the Society and the public and it only functions satisfactorily due to the efforts of its small team of demonstrators and assistants. This year we welcomed two new assistants, Daniel Brennan and Gordon Harding, to the team. Daniel Brennan has recently been upgraded to demonstrator. On your behalf, I thank all demonstrators and assistants for their continued support in maintaining and operating the Observatory.
Compiled by Doug Daniels, Astronomy Secretary