The Astronomical Art of Chesley Bonestall

Talk given by Bob Seaney at the January meeting

Bob Seaney took us a reminiscent tour of the early days of Space Art mainly referring to the huge contribution made by Chesley Bonestall.  Before the talk began, Bob had put up a number of prints around the wall showing some of Bonestall's work.  Many of these were recognised by several of us as imaginary scenes from other planets and the moon, but others were quite a surprise.

The Bonestall family moved to California from Holland during the Gold Rush, and Chesley Bonestall was born in San Francisco on January the first 1988 and soon showed an artistic talent as a schoolboy.  As a teenager, he paid a visit to Lick Observatory, which generated a lifelong interest in astronomy that spanned a considerable period of time since he lived to be 91.

After being trained as an architect at Columbia University, Chesley worked for a number of firms in New York but in 1920 moved to Britain and joined the London Illustrated News as an architectural illustrator.  It was here that he was inspired to paint astronomical subjects after seeing the work of fellow illustrator, Scriven Bolton.

After returning to the USA in 1926 he was subsequently recruited by RKO Pictures in 1938 to their Special Effects Department as a Matte Artist, painting background scenes for many films.

He had seen a book by a French artist-astronomer Lucien Rudaux and began to paint in the techniques learnt from Bolton in London.  In 1944 Time Magazine published a series of paintings made by Bonestall of Saturn viewed from several of its moons.  Bob showed a number of these paintings as slides and it was remarkable to see the care with which Bonestall had taken to show the relevant sizes of the planet and moons.  Also it was interesting to see how he had portrayed the moon's surfaces since it was to be many years before cameras aboard visiting spacecraft relayed their real "moonscapes".  Many of the jagged rocks shown in the paintings are now known to be a lot more weather-beaten.  But the paintings show the dramatic size of Saturn when viewed close by.

From these remarkable paintings, Chesley Bonestall began a now, well-known career as an astro-artist with many paintings depicting the surface of Mars, the Moon and even one from the surface of Pluto showing the Sun as a rather bright star in the distance.  He had also been invited to paint a mural of the lunar surface for the Griffiths Planetarium in Los Angeles.

Bob Seaney included a number of paintings showing the preparation and use of spaceships that Bonestall had been able to visualise from advice given him by William Ley and Wernher Von Braun.  One painting showed an orbiting space station which resembled the "wheel" used in the space station in "2001 - a Space Odyssey".  Bonestall had also included a "Space Telescope" not dissimilar to today's Hubble space telescope.

We were also shown paintings of scenes of the imagined exploration of the moon, although Bob felt that perhaps some of the rock formations shown on the moon were too jagged from what we know now.

The second part of Bob's talk was illustrated with excerpts from the film "Destination Moon" in which much of the artwork and backdrops were painted by Bonestall.  One huge backdrop panorama depicted the surface of the moon.  The actual surface was pretty accurate, considering that no one had seen photographs of the Moon's surface in 1950 when the film was made.  The stars in the backdrop were really car bulbs and the Earth was in fact a painted ping-pong ball.  The whole of the backdrop was towed across in front of the static film-camera rather panning across it.

The excerpts Bob chose from the film covered the planning of the mission including the method of raising the money for the operation, the training of the astronauts, the manufacture of the rocket (in an iron foundry!) and the last-minute interference by local politicians who wanted to stop the mission on grounds of conservation.  As Bob pointed out, the story reflected the feelings of 1950 during the "Cold War" when feelings ran high in respect of who got to the Moon first.  The Soviets believed that whoever got to the Moon first would dominate the Earth with their weapons.

The take-off showed some quite extraordinary distorted facial features on the astronaut's faces and one wondered if they had used a real centrifuge to obtain some of them.

One clip showed an exciting moment during a "space-walk" when one astronaut was successfully rescued by another, using the jet from an oxygen cylinder to propel them both through space and back to the ship.

The lunar landing in the film bore a number of similarities to the first actual landing in 1969 when the Lander almost ran out of enough fuel for the return journey to Earth.  Many of the movements of the actors were very similar to what we were to see later during the Apollo landings.

Finally the astronauts returned using a series of parachutes, landing safely on land.

Chesley Bonestall went on to work on other films such as When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (also 1953).

This was an excellent look at the prophetic art of one of the first true space artists.


Bob's talk was followed by the Annual General Meeting of the Society, chaired by Michael Harte.

The Treasurer, Mike Wyles, went through the accounts and explained that the Society's finances were healthy with total assets standing at 1697.52 and it was not necessary to change this year's subscriptions.  He handed out copies of the Treasurer's report and more will be available at the next meeting.  The Accounts were approved and have been forwarded to the Accountant.

Phil Berry has only three meetings left to arrange events for, towards the end of this year, but asked if there are any members that have a talk that would interest members.  He is also looking for some very short talks for the "Telescope Evening" in June.

John Vale-Taylor has kindly offered to be the Society's Chairman for the coming year and was duly elected.

It was announced that Ian Reeves's wife, Mavis, has very kindly donated Ian's 4-inch Konus refractor to the Society.  This is an excellent scope and will be available to members to borrow.

Another bit of good news is that we have been offered the use of a field fairly close to the Methodist Church for observation sessions.


Wednesday 21st February 2007  Ian King presents a talk he calls "The GranTeCan" which might have something to do with a trip he took recently.

The meeting takes place in the Upper Room of the Methodist Church at the end of Wadhurst High Street and opposite Uplands College and begins at 1930.


Wednesday 21st March 2007  Our guest speaker will be Dr. Stephen Serjeant and his talk is called "The Big Questions in Cosmology".

Wednesday 18th April 2007 Jerry Workman will return to update the Society with the progress of Mars Express.

Wednesday 16th May 2007   Nik Symanec will be talking about important basic facts in an introduction to CCD imaging.  He calls his talk "Pixel Magic".

Wednesday 20th June 2007   This will be an open Telescope Evening.  A number of telescopes will be at the meeting for discussion and demonstration.

Wednesday 18th July 2007   Gilbert Satterthwaite will be giving a talk about "George Airy and His Contribution to Positional Astronomy"




Subscriptions for the coming year became due on the 1st of January 2007.  Subscriptions remain the same as previous years at 15 per member and 20 for two members within the same family.  Cheques should be made payable to "Wadhurst Astronomical Society" and can be presented to the Treasurer, Mike Wyles at the next meeting or can be sent to him by post if that is more convenient.  Mike's address is: Mr. M. Wyles, 31 Rowan Tree Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.  TN2  5PZ.



Mercury is visible for the first part of the month and reaches eastern elongation (the point at which it is at it's most easterly) on the 7th. It can be seen low on the western horizon and at one point is only 7 degrees from Venus.

Venus is a bright evening object at magnitude -3.9 and is moving eastwards all the time so becoming easier to observe in the west after sunset.  It currently displays a gibbous phase.

Mars is a morning object only just visible in the east before sunrise.

Jupiter is a morning object at magnitude -2 and visible for around four hours before sunrise although it is always low in the sky.

Saturn in the constellation of Leo (not far from Regulus) is excellently placed for observation and is visible all night. Its rings are gradually moving to the "edge on" position, which will occur in 2009.

Uranus is occulted by a one-day-old moon on the 18th of this month at 17.56 hrs. This will be a challenge as the sun will only have set 40 minutes before the occultation occurs and the moon itself sets 40 minutes after the event. Uranus is at magnitude 5.9.

Lunar Occultations

For those with a small telescope there are 7 occultations of stars above magnitude 6.0 during February.






Mon 19th Feb


XZ Piscium



Tues 20th Feb


62 Piscium





Delta Piscium



Fri 23rd Feb


16 Tauri  *





19 Tauri  *





21 Tauri  *





20 Tauri  *



* Denotes stars in the Pleiades cluster. Note that the moon sets at 00.42 so it will be quite low in the sky for these events.

There are many more lunar occultations than those listed above (for example 21 events on 23rd Feb) but I have only included those above magnitude 6.0 in brightness that occurs before midnight where they disappear behind the dark limb of the moon (DD). These are by far the easiest occultations to observe and time. I'll talk about occultations in more depth next month.


There are plenty of opportunities to see the International Space Station (ISS) this month.




Max Altitude


17th Feb





18th Feb





19th Feb





20th Feb





21st Feb





22nd Feb





23rd Feb





25th Feb





The times I've chosen are for the passes when ISS is at its maximum brightness and elevation. For more details log on to the excellent web-site:-


Advance warning for March 2007

Fri 2nd March - Saturn occulted by the moon (02.43).

Sat 3rd March - Total lunar eclipse (21.30 to 01.12).

Brian Mills


Martian Devils

by Dr. Tony Phillips

Admit it. Whenever you see a new picture of Mars beamed back by Spirit or Opportunity, you scan the rocks to check for things peeking out of the shadows.  A pair of quivering green antennas, perhaps, or a little furry creature crouched on five legs...?  Looking for Martians is such a guilty pleasure.

Well, you can imagine the thrill in 2004 when scientists were checking some of those pictures and they did see something leap out.  It skittered across the rocky floor of Gusev Crater and quickly disappeared.  But it wasn't a Martian; Spirit had photographed a dust devil!

Dust devils are tornadoes of dust.  On a planet like Mars, which is literally covered with dust, and where it never rains, dust devils are an important form of weather.  Some Martian dust devils grow almost as tall as Mt. Everest, and researchers suspect they're crackling with static electricity-a form of "Martian lightning."

NASA is keen to learn more.  How strong are the winds?  Do dust devils carry a charge?  When does "devil season" begin-and end?  Astronauts are going to want to know the answers before they set foot on the red planet.

The problem is, these dusty twisters can be devilishly difficult to catch.  Most images of Martian dust devils have been taken by accident, while the rovers were looking for other things.  This catch-as-catch-can approach limits what researchers can learn.

No more!  The two rovers have just gotten a boost of artificial intelligence to help them recognize and photograph dust devils.  It comes in the form of new software, uploaded in July and activated in September 2006.

"This software is based on techniques developed and tested as part of the NASA New Millennium Program's Space Technology 6 project.   Testing was done in Earth orbit onboard the EO-1 (Earth Observing-1) satellite," says Steve Chien, supervisor of JPL's Artificial Intelligence Group.  Scientists using EO-1 data were especially interested in dynamic events such as volcanoes erupting or sea ice breaking apart.  So Chien and colleagues programmed the satellite to notice change.  It worked beautifully: "We measured a 100-fold increase in science results for transient events." 

Now that the techniques have been tested in Earth orbit, they are ready to help Spirit and Opportunity catch dust devils - or anything else that moves - on Mars.

"If we saw Martians, that would be great," laughs Chien.  Even scientists have their guilty pleasures.

Find out more about the Space Technology 6 "Autonomous Sciencecraft" technology experiment at:


and the use of the technology on the Mars Rovers at:


Kids can visit:


and do a New Millennium Program-like test at home to see if a familiar material would work well in space

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.



Chairman   John Vale-Taylor  pjvalet@tiscali.co.uk

Phil Berry  01892 783544 phil.berry@tiscali.co.uk

Treasurer  Mike Wyles  01892 542863 mikewyles@globalnet.co.uk

Publicity & Website  Michael Harte  01892 783292 michael@greenman.demon.co.uk

Newsletter Editor  Geoff Rathbone  01959 524727 Geoff@rathbone007.fsnet.co.uk

Any material for inclusion in the March Newsletter should be with the Editor by February 28th  2007