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Previous events > ScopeX 2003

Saturday 10 May 2003

A perspective by Chris Stewart  (Vice Chairman ASSA Johannesburg)

The second annual ScopeX telescope and astronomy exposition has now come and gone and begs the question, "What can one say about the day?" Well, there was a whole programme of lectures, as well as multitudinous telescope to inspect (these being of both home-made and commercial origins), friends to talk to, rocket launches, ATM demonstrations, never-ending questions to field from the public, etc. It was so full, that one person could not possibly hope to cover it all. Many of the participants found themselves so busy that they wished there had been time to catch a lecture, or even just walk about. Therefore, comment from other participants was solicited and follows my own. Hopefully it will give a flavour of the day, and encourage you to join in next year. But first,

Q: What were the main objectives of ScopeX?
A: To have a special day devoted to our hobby, in which we could…
Promote astronomy in general and telescope making in particular to the public;
Meet people who share our passion for these pursuits and promote friendship within this select community;
Show off our handiwork and exchange ideas, knowledge and experience;
Recruit new ASSA members.

In terms of these objectives, the first ScopeX succeeded to such an extent that we were encouraged to pursue our vision of an annual event. On balance, this year's event was similarly successful. While nothing can recapture the "vibe" that the first example of any event engenders, lessons learned last year stood us in good stead. Of course, we are still "experimenting" and - although we did learn even more this time round - we would certainly welcome feedback from participants and visitors alike, in order to ensure the continuation, growth and success of ScopeX.

How do we know it was successful? Apart from the many favourable comments at the time, and the generally mellow atmosphere on the day, the Johannesburg Centre had a sizeable influx of new visitors to the following monthly meeting. Similarly, the Telescope Making Class was literally inundated with new arrivals the following week. If the level of enthusiasm of the newcomers to the class can be sustained, we can expect many new instruments to be on display next year.

So what was different this time? Some of the more readily identifiable things would be…
The number of amateur telescope exhibitors grew from 27 to 43, which was excellent. Several of the exhibitors presented more than one item, and most brought friends and family too.
On the other hand, at 900+ we had slightly fewer public visitors, this being largely attributable to clashes with other events.
Participation from people outside the Johannesburg Centre increased notably. We were very pleased to have a greater presence from ASSA Pretoria. That exhibitors arrived from as far afield as Dundee and Durban, bodes very well for next year.
A reward system for the exhibitors was introduced (more on this below).
There were again 10 lectures, but with six professionals presenting talks compared to three last year. Feedback from attendees was very positive. However, we are still trying to work out a way for exhibitors to be in two places at the same time so that they too can attend all the lectures! It was a gruelling schedule for Dave Gordon, who did an excellent job as Master of Ceremonies.
The Telescope Making Demonstration was a vast improvement on last year and Vince Nettmann did brilliantly: he had a nice display and managed his team of helpers very well.  It was clearly popular with the public, who kept the team on their toes with endless streams of questions, many of which were answered by way of practical demonstrations.
Commercial telescope exhibitors increased from one to four this year and a popular science commercial component was introduced; this gave a total of seven commercial exhibitors.  The point is not to become a heavily commercialised venture, but rather to provide the public with a balanced mix of commercial and amateur-built astronomical equipment, as well as books and the like. This way, people can make comparisons, understand what is available or achievable and make informed decisions. Some commercial sponsorship is certainly necessary to make the venture economically possible.
The Information Desk had more staff this year and thus coped better.
Public viewing was encouraged, with a much larger presence later into the evening despite the colder temperatures that arrived as soon as the Sun approached the horison.
Many more telescope sported Solar filters, these no doubt being largely due to the December 2002 eclipse but perhaps also the Mercury transit earlier that week. A number of sunspot groups, including one rather large one, were visible. Hopefully this will lead to an increase in Solar viewing.
More people appear to be involved in electronic imaging, be it with dedicated CCD cameras, modified webcams, video cameras or straight digital cameras.  Apart from static displays of previously obtained images, the crowd was enthralled by daytime live video of the Sun and Moon, and evening views of the Moon and Jupiter. This enabled several people to view through an instrument simultaneously, with details (e.g. the Straight Wall and Alpine Valley on the Moon) easily being identified and pointed out to them by knowledgeable individuals.
The largest sized instrument this year was Tim Cooper's 16-inch, for which this was the first excursion from his observatory in 11 years. It's a monster that deservedly attracted considerable attention. Who will dare to top this next year?

The weather was again perfect - thank goodness.  Whereas last year it was rainy the week before and cleared for the day, this time a cold front rolled in the next day, bringing cloud and low temperatures.

We appreciate the effort it took for people to bring their precious (and sometimes physically challenging) equipment, risk putting it in front of the public, and manning their stations for the day. Similarly, there were a large number of unsung heroes who helped behind the scenes with organising and running the day. For many, this was second time round. In order for this event to continue to survive, it is necessary to encourage exhibitors to return, preferably with new items. This is quite a commitment, which raises the question of how to induce them to do it again (and again…)? Our answer was to introduce a 2-part reward system. This added some flavour and professionalism to the day and came as a pleasant surprise to many. We hope that it will give the amateur telescope makers / gadgeteers as well as those embarking on observing or imaging programs the incentive and motivation to continue with projects old and new, spur them on to greater heights, and ensure growing numbers of exhibitors. So how did this work?

Firstly, the judges inspected the amateur-built exhibits. On the basis of our deliberations, we were pleased to be able to hand out some quite substantial "merit awards" such as eyepieces, tools and book vouchers, for which we had obtained sponsorship. These awards were based on quality of workmanship and execution, innovation, ambitiousness of the project and practicality of the finished result.  Unfortunately we were only able to obtain eight prizes of sufficient worth to dish out. Certainly there were several more whom we considered deserving - a few of these we felt compelled to mention at the prize giving.

Secondly, there is the question of how to reward those who do not have the resources to excel at telescope making, or who took the trouble to bring equipment that they had bought? And what of the helpers? The presence and involvement of these participants is equally appreciated, but they cannot be "judged" or ranked in any way. Our solution was to have two "lucky draws", in which a number of prizes were randomly assigned. The one draw was for all exhibitors (except the winners of the merit awards), while the other draw was for the helpers. Again, we would have liked to give out more, but distributed the available items as fairly as possible.

Let's do it again next year!

Presentations in the Auditorium By Dave Gordon - Chairman ASSA JHB

The opening presentation was delivered by Jim Knight, former Director of the Solar Section of ASSA, with the topic "Solar Observing". The main structure of Jim's talk centred around the various forms of solar observing, beginning with observations without optical aid (as may be the case with solar eclipse viewing) to sunspot counting with the aid of a small telescope. The audience thoroughly enjoyed learning how to identify sunspot groupings, performing a count, recording the results and the submission thereof to the AAVSO. The actual process of counting sunspots was a popular topic during open question time.

Jim is a dedicated solar observer (and one of only a handful in the Southern Hemisphere) who maintains an average of 22 observing days per month - the envy of many amateur astronomers who are forced to practice their branches of astronomy at less than convenient times of the day.

The topic of "the H.E.S.S. Gamma Ray Telescopes of Namibia" was presented by Professor Okkie de Jager of the Department of Physics, Potchefstroom University. A fascinating insight into this exclusive and (currently) fairly restricted branch of astronomy. Professor de Jager started his presentation with a description of the electromagnetic spectrum and very succinctly explained the importance and relevance of gamma ray observations.

The H.E.S.S. project is an array of imaging atmospheric Cherenkov Telescopes used for the investigation of cosmic gamma rays in the 100 GeV energy range. The name H.E.S.S. stands for High Energy Stereoscopic System. H.E.S.S. is located in Namibia near the Gamsberg, an area well know for its excellent viewing conditions. The first of the four telescopes of Phase I of the H.E.S.S. project went into operation in 2002; all four should be complete by 2004.

Midday saw the much anticipated and well attended presentation by Dr Claire Flanagan, Director of the Johannesburg Planetarium, entitled "People In Space". Dr Flanagan's easy and conversational presentation style was a delight for her audience who interacted freely and delightedly with her. Her ability to "play with the numbers" created an entertaining and informative look into what it would be like to say, stand on the surface of a pulsar. It would take more than 40 years worth of accumulated human energy to lift one's foot just one centimetre from the surface of a pulsar.

Dr Flanagan also demonstrated, through numbers, the difficulty of reaching the next stellar system (alpha Centauri) and the amount of energy required to achieve 85% of the speed of light.

The lunch time presentation was conducted by Dr Matie Hoffman of the Department of Physics, University of the Free State. The title of his talk was "Recent and Future Developments for Optical astronomy in SA: Boyden and SALT". As the title suggests, the presentation was in two parts, the first being a type of progress report on the development of the SALT telescope at Sutherland. The sheer enormity of the project, and specifically the telescope structure, was extremely well explained and demonstrated through the use of excellent graphics.

Dr Hoffman's prowess with PowerPoint was demonstrated when he led his audience on a virtual reality tour of the Boyden Observatory and facilities near Bloemfontain. He simply clicked on key areas on an aerial photograph of the site which then drilled-down to that particular facility and its features. Thanks to the refurbishment of the 1,5m telescope, during the period leading to the Comet Shoemaker-Levy impact of Jupiter in mid-1994, this facility is very active and doing "useful science". Of particular note is the now very active solar observatory at the site.  

The following captive title ensured a strong audience contingent for Dr Mike Gaylard's presentation: "Is astronomy useless? No, it can tell you what the time is and where you are, courtesy of Space Geodesy at HartRao". If there was any doubt in the minds of the audience as to the importance and relevance of the Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory telescope, this was well and truly reversed by the end of the presentation. The work being performed at the site is diverse; from monitoring a plethora of blips from distant pulsars, measuring the speed at which the African Continent is drifting, to maintaining contact with and calibrating the swarm of global positioning satellites within the vast clutches of the radio telescope. Dr Gaylard ended his presentation by inviting any interested persons to tour the HartRAO observatory site - a visit which, if his talk was anything to go by, should prove fascinating and enlightening.

The presentation that many had been eagerly awaiting: Professor David Block, Director of the Cosmic Dust Research Laboratory, University of the Witwatersrand. The title: "Penetrating Masks of Cold Cosmic Dust". The moment Professor Block started addressing a capacity audience in the auditorium, one understood his popularity as a much sought after motivational speaker and public figure. His captivating style of delivery and clever manipulation of prose held an audience fascinated and enchanted for fully an hour.

Professor Block likened the masks of cosmic dust that populate galaxies to that of the obscuring effects of a dense aerosol spray. Outstanding graphics and photographs illustrated this pervasive material as being the main culprit for astronomers not being able to see the true features of a galaxy. His analogy of the wearer of a face mask powerfully punctuated his point that the true face of a galaxy cannot be predicted from the visual characteristics gleaned by optical telescopes operating in the visual spectrum. It is only when telescopes, operating in the infra-red part of the spectrum, strip away these masks of cosmic dust, that we begin to see the true structural characteristics of galaxies.

A very young member of the audience bravely asked Professor Block "Where does the dust come from". Only his years of oratory skill and knowledge could possibly do justice to that one from a pre-teenager.

Who possibly would be brave enough to follow on after a presentation of Professor Block's calibre? Sarah Buchner, astronomer at HartRAO, would. Her presentation was entitled "Interpreting the results from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP)". A stunningly prepared and well-researched insight into the period immediately following the big bang; specifically dealing with the cosmic background radiation currently being studied in the microwave segment of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Sarah proposed answers to such fetching questions as the age of the universe, the shape of the universe and the expansion rate of the universe (an updated and revised Hubble Constant). She also attracted some challenging questions from the audience, such as "Where, in fact, is the actual point of the big bang and why is it not possible to see it?" A fascinating, insightful and thought-provoking presentation.

Emmanuel Petrakakis, hotelier and restaurateur, is passionate about Mars. After presenting a paper at the founding convention of the Mars Society in Boulder, Colorado, Emmanuel returned to Southern Africa to form a branch of the Mars Society here. His polished and well rehearsed presentation started with a brief tour of the red planet followed by a history of unmanned flight to Mars. The final segment took the form of a practical and workable proposal for manned missions to the planet, complete with schematics of habitation modules and plans for extensive exploration and safe return. A delight to the audience, judging from the applause and enthusiastic post-presentation response.

The final presentation of the day was held at around 7pm, after the prize giving. I was unable to attend Richard Wade's talk entitled "Archaeo-astronomy of Great Zimbabwe". However, I was pleasantly surprised by the audience turnout, given the lateness of the hour. Richard is owner of the N'Kwe Ridge Observatory, near Pretoria. Given his present involvement with a TV series, a doctorate, palaeontology, astrobiology, archaeology, meteorites, crater, anthropology, and the writing of a book, his talk promised to be nothing short of enchanting. And he delivered on that promise. I spoke with a few audience members as they filed out of the auditorium at the conclusion and the responses were: "fantastic", "amazing", "interesting", and "I've got to visit N'Kwe Observatory and speak more with this man".

One of the main objectives of ScopeX is the education of the public in astronomy. Did we achieve that objective through the presentations. I propose a resounding "Yes!" and more. The presentations entertained, fascinated, enthralled and challenged audiences to THINK COSMIC THINGS.

Scopex 2003 by Brian Fraser

Astronomers gathered in Johannesburg on May 10th 2003 from as far afield as Durban and Dundee, in KZN, to attend the annual Scopex telescope and Astronomy day, organised again by the Johannesburg center of ASSA at the Military History Museum, next to the zoo.  Coincidentally this day had been selected as the international Astronomy Day. Various branches of ASSA elected to hold functions open to the public on this day.
Bigger and better than last year, it was a huge success and thoroughly enlightened and educated all who attended.  Around 1000 visitors enjoyed seeing some 40 (mainly) home-made telescopes with a vast display of commercial binoculars and telescopes of all designs, makes and sizes.  Some excellent talks were presented in the auditorium, but
more of this elsewhere.
Members of the Pretoria center once again joined in and had a very active section that attracted a lot of interest.  With various superb telescopes, a webcam, a CCD camera , and other gadgets, they certainly earned the interest of young and old.
This year prizes were awarded to some of the telescope makers who had produced something excellent, novel or noteworthy.  However the judges had a difficult time choosing between the exhibits and agreed that many of the telescopes that did not win an award, were also very good.  Two telescopes showing outstanding workmanship were those belonging to Jan Schut and Peter Baxter, the one a mechanical masterpiece and the other a beautiful wooden piece of art.
There was also lots of fun to be had for kids of all ages with all sorts of scientific toys being demonstrated by Experilab, including a number of rocket launches during the day. While none were seen to actually go into orbit, the heights reached by these little rockets were very impressive.
Exclusive books once again provided a book store, with double the amount of books that they had last year and enjoyed a brisk trade.  The Johannesburg planetarium also ran a table with lots of the interesting goodies that they stock, always of interest to the amateur astronomers.
The Alberton radio hams set up a station and demonstrated the tricks involved in making contact with like-minded fanatics all over the world.  Alongside their stand, a couple of the telescope-making enthusiasts set up a mirror grinding demonstration that seems to have attracted some 15 new members to the society's telescope making classes.
In the evening, thanks to wonderful clear skies organised by the weather man, it was possible to turn the telescopes to the heavens and show the visitors some of the interesting objects around.  Saturn was a wow! , the moons of Jupiter were interesting to watch, and the usual beautiful splendours of the southern skies had numerous people captivated.  Tim Cooper's 16-inch dob had an enormous queue all night long, but then so too did some of the other telescopes.
Lerika Cross, secretary at the Jhb center, did most of the organizing and deserves a gold medal for arranging such a successful day, enjoyed by so many.  Other members with their families and friends assisted in running the show, including Gill Stewart and Dave Gordon.

ScopeX 2003 - A couple of paragraphs by Chris Pemberthy

Lu and I arrived at about 10:30 visited the Info desk where we collected our Scope-X 2003 sweatshirts and then decided to do a quick dash around the exhibitors before starting our own stint tour of duty on said Info desk.

There seemed to be a lot more on view in the grounds this year, and a fair amount of thought must have gone into some of the exhibits.  We didn't get to see anyone sweating away at the mirror-grinding demo - I guess they also needed a bit of a break!  Some nice looking scopes both commercial and homemade were dotted about - some of the latter quite impressive and obviously "created" with a lot of sweat and tears.  We were suitably impressed with one that had a round wooden tube made of individual strips of wood - a beautiful 'scope this.  Eventually made our way to Bruce's setup with that great 12" LX200 (under cover) and a smaller ETX out in to open and tracking the Sun.  We peeked through the 'scope and viewed a couple of Sunspots one of which was quite sizable.  Lu's comment - "hmmm Bruce - looks like some dirt on your lens".

I snapped a few images as we went around including one of our colleagues from North of the Jukskei - always nice to see them.  As time was not too plentiful, we had to make a dash for the Info desk where we had to take over at 11:00.  On the way, we saw a Mirror making machine - quite interesting.

After a busy(ish) 2 hours, we handed over to our successors and had quick look at the exhibits we'd missed on the first tour - stopping off at Dave Hughes' DOB.  Also trained on the Sun ( and guess what - the same speck of dirt on the lens ).  Those Sunspots are very interesting and we speculated on their sizes relative to the Earth.

Our son and daughter-in-law arrived and after they signed up to join the society we took another cruise around the exhibitors.  This time we had a look at those inside the hall as well - a pity commercial 'scopes are still so darned expensive - they really do make it easy for the amateur but at a hefty price of course!

We also had an interesting chat to Emmanuel Petrakakis from Mozambique who runs a small hotel and restaurant on the coast and also has a small farm suitable for viewing.  Maybe we should organise a visit where we can Scuba diving during the day and view the stars at night ( and sleep when we get back to Gauteng!!!)

All-in-all a really good effort - I think overall it was better than last year - but without detracting from the excellence of our first Scope-X.

The ATM demonstrations, by Vincent Nettmann

"How did it go with the Amateur Telescope Making demo?" Well, it just didn't stop the whole day! Visitors were amazed to see what "scrounged" bits and pieces go into a homemade telescope. (Thanks to Mike Fletcher for his under-construction telescope.)  "How do you get the curve on the mirror?" was the most frequently asked question. We demonstrated the grinding technique on a 6-inch mirror, and then let our visitors have a hands-on go at it. "The answer to your question is, you are now making the curve yourself - that's how!"  
The next most frequently asked question was, "When can I start?"

Thanks to Peter Fyfe, Peter Fyfe Jnr., Scott Naughtin, Keith Lou, Trevor Troye, Dave Hughes and others for sharing their time and knowledge with our visitors. Why not join us?

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