Astronomers of the Future Club Write-up, January 25th 2018

by Duncan Lunan - 11:45 on 09 February 2018




Astronomers of the Future Club Write-up, January 25th 2018


by Duncan Lunan



At the Astronomers of the Future Club meeting on January 25th in Troon, Dr. Alan Cayless, lecturer and tutor at the Open University, spoke on 'Astronomy in the Sun – the Open University's Observatories on Teneriffe'. The University has two observatories there, on the ridge of an old volcanic crater overlooking the cone of the Mt. Tiede volcano. The last major eruption was 200 years ago, though there has been a more recent one through a side vent on the cone.


The two OU observatories were built in 2016 and inaugurated in July 2017. The telescopes are PIRATE and COAST, acronyms for names which Dr. Cayless said are completely forgettable. The higher site, now an international cluster of observatories, was first used for astronomy by Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer-Royal for Scotland in 1856; access now is by cable car. Although the talk began with spectacular images of rainbows and lenticular cloud over the mountain, seeing is generally much better than in the UK (comparison images of the star Alpha Piscium from Edinburgh and Teneriffe proved the point). The upper PIRATE site with its better 'seeing' at 8500 feet is mostly used by professional astronomers, but both telescopes have remote access and the lower one, particularly, is also for use by the public, including schools, individuals and groups like ours. Both observatories have clamshell domes which open for a 360-degree view of the sky; observations can be pre-booked or in real time, and a weather mast and an all-sky camera provide information on weather conditions. Among the ongoing research, there is a direct link to the GAIA satellite's search for planets of other stars, with positive results already in following up GAIA alerts.


PIRATE has a 17-inch catadioptric telescope (combining lenses and mirrors). COAST has a 14-inch Celestron telescope with a big CCD camera taking black and white images through red, green, blue and narrow-band Hydrogen-alpha filters, which can then be combined on computer into colour or false-colour images. By 2017 COAST's filters needed repositioning, and PIRATE's camera shutter was sticking while closing, so last year Dr. Cayless led teams of students on two visits for maintenance, and filming for educational purposes. Both were conducted during the week of the Full Moon, when professional demand for telescope time was less, and the students had the opportunity to use the telescopes hands-on – once a prerequisite of professional training and now a rare privilege, thanks to remote access. Graduate work included the study of hydrogen in stellar clusters, while undergraduate assignments in spectroscopy included "the discovery of oxygen".


Describing the dramatic landscape of volcanic rock underfoot and pitch-black sky above, Dr. Cayless showed general images of Orion rising (on his back, nearer the Equator at 28 degrees north) and moonset over Mt. Tiede, along with well-known observational targets such as the Sagittarius 'Teapot' and 'Coathanger', the Pleiades and the Perseus Double Cluster. Images of the Flame Nebula, the Great Nebula and the Horseshoe Nebula, all in Orion, illustrated the use of the 'Hubble Palette' where red light is replaced by green, to which the eye is more sensitive.


A long period of questions was followed by a vote of thanks and adjournment to McKay's Bar for further discussions. The next Astronomers of the Future Club lecture will be on Thursday, February 22nd at 7.15 p.m., at the R.S.A.S. Barassie Works Club on Shore Road, off West Portland Street in Troon, KA10 6AG. The speaker, financed by the Club's grant from South Ayrshire Council, will be Club Treasurer Duncan Lunan, speaking on ‘The Earth from Space’, as viewed by different spacecraft at increasing distances.