Wishing all members of the Society a great New Year with lots of really clear skies!



There is a meeting of the Society's Committee at 2000 on Monday 8th January 2007 in the Abergaveny Arms in Frant.

There is an open invitation to any member of the Society to come along to meet the Committee and as always any suggestions are very welcome.  The direction of the Society depends on the views of its members and fresh ideas are always very welcome.


The Trials and Tribulations of an Amateur Astronomer

Illustrated talk by Phil Berry, a member of the Society

Most of us have experienced the trials and tribulations of the amateur astronomer, but in Phil's fascinating talk, he related many of the problems he has encountered and described how he developed his experience in resolving them.  He also talked about astronomy courses he had taken part in.

Phil began by describing his first telescope in the late 1960s - early 1970s, which was an 80 mm Achromatic Refractor accepting 0.965-inch eyepieces and the instrument had a manual equatorial mount.  He used Norton's Sky Atlas and pursued his interest in astro-photography.

The objects he observed were the Moon, the stars and planets.  The main difficulty with this telescope was the time it took to get up-and-running.  Another problem he found was actually locating objects, not helped by the quality of the optics, and the non-standard eyepieces.

In 1999 Phil saw his first "goto" telescope, which at one stroke cured most of his previous problems.  He purchased a Next-Star-5 that was quick to set up with built in star atlas; it had good optics, accepting standard 1.5-inch eyepieces, was easy to transport and could be battery or mains powered.

Then came WAS (The Wadhurst Astronomical Society) where Phil attended a talk given by George Sallet on Web-Cams, and a whole new universe opened up before him.

Phil got hold of a Philips Trucam Webcam with a 1.5-inch adaptor, enabling it to fit his Next-Star-5 telescope.  There was also free software available all for less than 100.  Using a AC378 adaptor and removing the webcam's own lens, the telescope focussed directly onto the CCD.

The free software was "Registax" and Phil uses version 3, although version 4 is now available.  Google Search took me to the website www.astronomie.be/registax/ to download either version, although there are many sites enabling free downloads of this software.  There are also tutorials available.

It was explained that the software picks out the best images from a set and then lines them up to produce the final processed image.

The next part of Phil's talk followed the route he has taken in learning more about astronomy starting with a free GCSE course offered a few years ago by Uplands College. A course, "Planet Earth", run for the Education Centre for Astronomy and costing around 150 plus the fee for the exam is available.  There is course work, a constructional project.  The exam is set by Edexcel.  We were shown part of Phil's "Lunar Photography" project which was very clear and was labelled using Photoshop.  We also saw a drawing of Lunar Craters where he began with an outline then dappled in graded shading.

Phil looked at a number of Internet sites in an attempt to discover what courses were available on line.  One site he visited was the Open University website at: www.open.ac.uk/science/  From here one is able to browse through the various courses and qualifications offered but the website that attracted him most was the Swinburne University Online Virtual Global Class based in Australia.  Information for this facility can be viewed by visiting: astronomy.swin.edu.au/sao/  (note: no "www")

The student becomes part of an online class, where they can ask and answer questions via the computer.  Bsc = 8 units;  Msc = 12 units where 1 unit lasts about 14 weeks.  The courses cost more than the Open University but they last longer.  The cost was 440, which Phil pointed out, worked at 31 per week.  The course material consisted of a CD - Internet environment - Reference book.  There were three online tests; class forums and an essay to submit.  The main project was selected from a list with assessment and feedback. 

The project chosen by Phil was Project 101 - Wide-angle mosaic.  The object he was given to observe was the Pelican Nebula close to the North American Nebula.  The Pelican covers about 1.5 degrees so is quite a wide field.

The problems were; clear nights, the moon, shortening nights at the time of the project, the trouble of focussing a 200 mm lens and then problems with the Field of View of an f7 scope.  With a non-permanent base the complex set-up took up a lot of time.

At least Phil managed to use WiFi to enable him to control everything from indoors, once set up!

One of the ladies on Phil's course was Anousheh Ansari who was to become the first female "space tourist" aboard a Soyuz flight to the International Space Station.

Finally, Phil talked a little about the Charged Coupled Device itself and its operation and began by saying that the definition obtainable with today's CCDs now exceeds that of film and can achieve 20 times more sensitivity.  To explain how the chip works, he used the analogy of buckets filling up to represent photons collected by each pixel.  At the end of an exposure the buckets then transfer their contents to the next row on command, stepping back until the edge of the chip is reached.  The line of buckets then transfer their contents along the line in steps and there, each bucket's contents are measured to represent the signal, rather like a TV signal.

Using exposures of several minutes can bring out faint objects and by using filter-wheels, certain features can be enhanced and the effects of things like light pollution can be considerably reduced.

Phil showed a photograph of his garden, showing where his ideal position for an observing dome should be and he promised to keep us informed of his progress.

An excellent talk containing lots of encouragement and advice, taking us in many directions.


Wednesday 17th January 2007  The talk is by Bob Seaney, one of our Society members and the title of his illustrated talk is "The Astronomical Art of Chesley Bonestell - Destination Moon (1953) Highlights".  Chesley Bonestell is regarded as the father of modern space art.

This will be followed by the Society's Annual General Meeting, which takes place in January for the first time.

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

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.




Subscriptions for the coming year become 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.


At the end of January, both Venus and Mercury are visible just after sunset.  Mercury is always quite elusive, but will be visible for a short time after the Sun has set with an apparent magnitude of -0.5 and 52% phase.  Beware the Sun!  6 degrees above Mercury will be Venus; much more easily spotted with a phase of 90% and magnitude -3.9.

Saturn will have a magnitude of -0.1 and is just 7 degrees west of Regulus at the bottom of the sickle in the constellation of Leo.  The rings of Saturn are still wide enough to be able to make out the Cassini gap towards the outer edge.  Titan, Saturn's largest moon will have a magnitude of +8 and should be seen quite easily through a small telescope, being obvious because of its daily motion through its orbit.

Always well worth observing at this time of year is the constellation of Orion, no matter whether seeing the contrast in colour temperature between the main stars with the naked eye, or looking at the Orion Nebula below the three stars forming his belt, even trying to locate the Horse Head nebula, 30 seconds below the left hand of the three stars, with a larger telescope.


Members may like to note that the European AstroFest takes place on the 9th and 10th of February at Kensington Town Hall, Horton Street, close to Kensington High Street tube station on the District and Circle lines in London.

Admission is 5 per day and 2 for children to see the exhibition that covers three floors.  There are many exhibitors covering computer software, many telescopes and attachments, books and Societies.  Doors open at 0900.

The latest information and advance tickets can be obtained by telephoning 01732 446106 or by checking out:



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   Tim Bance  01732 832745 timbance@hotmail.com

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 February Newsletter should be with the Editor by January 28th  2007