December Day Session Report

ASV Day Sessions are held on the third Tuesday each month, in the Lodge at 109 Parer St. Burwood. These sessions provide a convenient way for people, who (for one reason or another) may be unable or unwilling to attend General Meeting nights, to keep up to date with ASV activities and become involved in group discussions on current astronomical phenomena. Short talks by guest speakers add variety to the programs. Ted and Ann Bouchier have been the coordinators for the sessions for the past seven-and-a-half years, and, having made the decision to retire, have now found in Pat Larkin and Edna Nelva two worthy people to take over the job in 2004.
On the 16 December it was my privilege as guest speaker to give a short talk on the overseas trip my wife Ursula and I took recently to our son Mark’s wedding in San Francisco. I had offered to give a PowerPoint Presentation about our visits to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington and the Deutsche Museum in Munich, with specific reference to astronomy. As it turned out we talked about a number of other things on the way, gave a fond farewell to Ted and Ann (who passed the baton on to Pat and Edna), and had a celebration luncheon to see out 2003. Nelson Cooke, a gentleman here on a visit from America, presented Barry Cleeland with a book “Astronomy in the Suburbs” for the ASV library, written by his amateur astronomer son, Antony Cooke. Here is a short report and a couple of pictures on the morning’s session:

At 10:30 sharp Ann welcomed the group of 20some members and visitors and outlined proceedings. The AstroVic Night-Sky for the Month was the first subject, and discussions on this month’s constellation Fornax and the December Deep Sky Objects were expertly outlined by Dr Harry Watts. It seems discrepancies in the charts were not limited to the furtive inclusion of a Santa Reindeer Sledge constellation on the hand-outs (to be followed up). The computer/projector set-up for the presentation provided some anxious moments, but with the help of Perry Vlahos everything came good and my talk started almost on time at 11:00.

To begin we had a few introductory pictures of notable sites we visited in Washington DC (DC by the way stands for District of Columbia). Best known of more than one hundred national cemeteries in the United States, the Arlington Cemetery’s green slopes shelter veterans from every war that ever involved the nation. Over 275,000 servicemen and their families rest on the 624 acres of Virginia land facing the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac River. – The majestic National Cathedral is the second biggest cathedral in America. From the top of its twin spires you have an unlimited view over the city. For a major city it is an amazing sight: There are no skyscrapers in Washington DC. In fact the size of all buildings is restricted by Act of Congress to not exceed in height the Capitol Building.– The magnificent National Mall, with the US Capitol Building at the East end and the Washington Monument at the West. From here you have vistas across the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial and to the White House in the North.
There are six Smithsonian Museums along the National Mall, covering Air & Space, History, Arts & Industry, Culture, and of course the Castle, the original Smithsonian Institute. Most of our time in Washington was spent at the National Air and Space Museum, looking at space and astronomy displays. There, a full-size replica of the Hubble Space Telescope dwarfs the visitors. The Lunar Landing Module looks eery with its reflective, yellow foil covering and fully suited astronauts descending the steps. You can walk through a second stage of the Saturn Rocket, fitted out as a space-station, with accommodation facilities and project instruments visible behind glass-panels. The Astronomy Section has lots of interactive displays to look at planets and planetary probes. There is even a Walk-to-the-Planets, a scaled-down journey through our solar system along the National Mall. Scaled down 1: 1,290,000,000 times, one step of the walk becomes equivalent to one million kilometres in space. The sun is about 1metre diameter and the Earth is like a 10mm marble some 116metres away. The attached table (from the Deutsche Museum Munich) gives the figures for the rest of the solar system. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was one of the earliest to practice the “new astronomy”, as astrophysics was known then. In 1955 the observatory was relocated from Washington to Cambridge, Massachusetts in a joint venture with Harvard University.
We took in a show in the Centre’s Planetarium and attended a lecture in the IMAX Theatre on progress with the Voyager 1 space probe. Having visited most major planets since their launch in 1977 the Voyagers, 1 and 2, are now nearing the edge of the solar system. Changes in the regular data received from Voyager 1 (who is ahead of 2) seems to indicate it having reached the vicinity of the “termination shock”, where the solar wind meets interstellar space, a new environment, the final frontier of the solar system. Travelling at 38,000mph the craft still sends its messages over 8billion miles to Earth, and will continue to do so (if nothing breaks down) for the next 20 years, when its power source is expected to die.

A number of the larger exhibits in the “Air & Space” Section of the museum are in the process of being relocated to a new, much larger, home near the Dulles Airport, called (after its major donor) the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. At a cost of over 300m US Dollars it houses some 300 large exhibits, including items such as a Space Shuttle, a Boeing 747, a Concorde, and historic milestones such as the Genola Gay Super Fortress. The Center had its official opening on 15th December, and will eventually have interactive access from the Internet for a virtual tour of the facility.

On the last stage of our 28 day round-the-world trip we visited the Deutsche Museum in Munich, which claims to have the world’s largest display of astronomical memorabilia. Amongst the ones that impressed me most was a Sundial Garden on the rooftop, with some 21 exhibits, set up to display their different principles and functions. And a Foucault Pendulum, suspended five storeys high in a stairwell, its heavy ball swinging stately over a 2metre compass rose. But the priced find was a group of “sun-mills”, little paddle wheels, sealed in glass bulbs, that rotate and keep on rotating whenever they are exposed to light. The fascinating thing about them is that the jury is still out on what exactly causes the wheels to rotate. Did Crookes get it wrong twice?