The GAIA Mission

November 21st 2014 gave us meeting number 919 of The York Astronomical Society and a very interesting talk by Dr Elme Breedt, from the Physics Department of the University of Warwick.

Dr Elme Breedt, speaking at The York AS.Dr Breedt is one of the end users of the data that is currently being generated by the GAIA satellite, which resides at Lagrangian Point L2, about one million miles from Earth on the opposite side to the Sun. It is on a five and a half year mission to scan the Milky Way galaxy in unprecedented, three dimensional detail. It will do this by repeatedly imaging and performing astrometric measurements on the whole sky many times over using a one billion pixel CCD camera.

Elme’s speciality is Cataclysmic Variables, a type of star that is actually a pair of stars consisting of a smaller, denser white dwarf star and a larger, lower density red star which has its material gravitationally “sucked” from it by the smaller star.  The smaller star then collects the material in an accretion disk until such time as the disc becomes unstable and collapses in on to the star’s surface, causing a huge outburst of energy.

The society members were encouraged to try to help the professional astronomers by signing up to the GAIA mission alerts pages on the internet, and submitting variable star measurements to a central database.  In the coming years it is hoped that by doing this, our understanding of these peculiar stars, along with many other objects will become far clearer.

If you’d like to know more about the GAIA mission to map our Milky Way, click HERE.

AGM & The Science of the Northern Lights

On October 3rd, the York AS will be hosting its annual general meeting.  This is the one meeting in the year where reports are presented about lectures, finances, and the general health of the society.  It’s also the meeting where new members can be elected on to the society’s committee, so if you are interested in becoming a York AS committee member, then please come along and make your presence and intentions known.

The AGM will only take up half the of the evening.  The other half will be a lecture by Mr Alan Pounder of the York AS who was fortunate enough to be on an Aurora-hunting holiday in Iceland earlier this year just at the time that a major solar storm hit the Earth.

Alan will be talking to us about the science of how the aurora occurs, what to look out for in the published predictions, and will be showing us just a few very VERY pretty pictures along the way.  Everyone is welcome.

Star Party and New Season Kickoff

Now that we are in to September, and the Summer break is behind us, we are getting right back in to things with not one but two events this week.

Firstly, on Wednesday Sept 3rd at 7pm onwards we will have the first public star party of the new season on the York Knavesmire.  Come along to the small carpark half way along Knavesmire Road and we’ll be there with a scope or two.  The Moon will be nicely placed for viewing.

And our first formal meeting for the 2014-2015 season is this coming Friday, Sept 5th.  It is an informal evening, so if any members or anyone else wants to stand up and do a short piece for a few minutes, then you are more than welcome to do so.  The more the merrier.

We hope to see you at these events.

The York AS committee.

York AS Summer Barbecue THIS SATURDAY!

We hope you are all enjoying the gorgeous weather at the moment.  And we’re hoping that it will continue in to this weekend and beyond for the annual York AS barbecue and Perseid meteor watch.

As usual, we will be hosting the event at the society observatory from about 4pm, this coming Saturday August 9th.  Bring your own food and drink, and we’ll provide the gas, coals and condiments.

If any of you are unsure how to get to the observatory, or are unsure of the VERY IMPORTANT safety rules when you  get there, then please get in touch by replying to this post

Hope to see you there!

BAA Radio Astronomers Group


As some of you may know the YAS RAG (Radio Astronomy Group) attended the recent BAA RAG event at the National Space Centre in Leicester. There were a number of speakers, both amateur and professional from the world of radio astronomy. The talks covered a wide range of radio astronomy from simple and easy projects to detect Galactic Hydrogen, to recent professional discoveries of transient radio phenomena. Some of the findings only a few days old. More interestingly is that nobody as yet knows what they are, or where they come from?! Could they be ET?? 

radioYAS RAG from left to right – Steve Cooper, Paul Buglass, Alan Pounder, Simon Howard and Roo Powell

YASRAG also exhibited their work-in-progress of the renovation and upgrading of the recently acquired radio telescope kindly donated by Leeds University. This is a 2.3m dish and will be used to detect Hydrogen emissions in the 21cm band. This will allow us to map the spiral arms (and core) of the Milky Way. The telescope will hopefully be sited at the YAS Observatory and be connected to the internet so that YAS members can all get access to it to have a go at this exciting field of astronomy…which can be done when it’s cloudy or daytime! The project drew a great deal of interest from other astronomers, including a Professor from Manchester University who is keen to replicate our work at their Jodrell Bank facility for use by undergraduates in Astrophysics. (no – it wasn’t Brian Cox.) 

Also at the event were a number of other BAA RAG members and groups showing off their equipment and projects, as well as vendors selling RA equipment and books.

We all agreed that it was an excellent and informative day and a fantastic opportunity to meet other like minded astronomers in this rapidly growing areas of astronomy. Hopefully by next year the YAS RAG will have increased in numbers and we can make an even bigger representation at the event. As it was we were the largest group from any one astronomy society. YAS – from strength to strength!

Colin Pillinger. 1943 – 2014

The morning of the 25 December, 2003 was just like any other, children falling out of bed to find presents, parents moaning and grandparents fawning. And yet across the gulf of space, millions of miles from the affairs of normal man a small spacecraft was struggling for life on that red, forbidding and inhospitable planet we call Mars. It seems appropriate to me that in this year of 2014 when Mars is to be seen at its brightest in the night skies of Earth, a number of spacecraft – some rovers on the surface and some in orbit – the result of several nations collaboration to study and contribute to human knowledge should witness the passing of one of the UK’s greatest planetary scientists, Prof Colin Pillinger.

Colin Pillinger with York AS Members in 2002

Colin Pillinger with York AS Members in 2002

Colin visited The York Astronomical Society on 5th April 2002 and gave an excellent presentation telling us about his plans and ideas to get a small scientific laboratory, Beagle 2 to the surface of Mars. Launched on 2nd June 2003 as part of the Mars Express mission which in turn was on a Russian rocket, a Soyuz-Fregat. For us at the time having Colin talk to us was something special and although we did not get as many in the audience as we would have liked, those of us who attended certainly took away with us the memory of an excellent evening. Afterwards Colin joined in the spirit of YAS and signed postcards which he gave away as well as giving us copies of ‘Beagle 2 Bulletin’. The Bulletin’s could be sent to interested parties – for free – and kept us up to date of the latest happenings. This was just on the cusp of the dominance of the www and the internet that today dominates all news outlets. We won’t see a postal Bulletin like this again and I for one have mine filed away in my library. It was all very British and a welcome breath of fresh air after years of ‘NASA roger-bleeps/ESA gobbledy-gook/Soviet Commie-propaganda’ and with Colin’s appearance of a Victorian Scientist and his amazing sideburns and hobby of farming cows it was something that captured the imagination of the public. Sadly, Beagle 2 died on Mars but it did get there which was more than some other more expensive spacecraft did and perhaps one day we will see a Beagle 3 find life on Mars.

Colin, the universe is dimmer for your passing but the memories you gave us in 2002-3 will never leave us, thank you for inspiring and encouraging a younger generation that was your real success. But Colin can we have  bigger parachute next time…

Upgrade on Deck at the Observatory

In 2004, the National Lottery “Awards for All” scheme granted The York AS funds to purchase a 12″ Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope to use for public observing events. In the decade that has followed, through various means, we have collected a further two of these telescopes; a 10″ one and an 8″ one.  We have always found that the Meade LX200 is a nice optical instrument.  However, we have found in all three of these telescopes that the forked mounts that they come attached to can be less than trustworthy.  In a nutshell – we’ve had a lot of bother with them all.

Because of this bother we’ve only had one working telescope on the observing deck at our observatory for the last couple of years. So, a few months ago it was decided that something needed to be done.  We decided to remove the 10″ tube assembly from its fork mount, and re-mount it on something more suitable for the purpose.  We chose a Skywatcher NEQ6-PRO mount.  This mount is strong enough to hold either the 8″ or the 10″, but sadly not the 12″ tube assembly. That would have to wait until we can raise more funds for an even stronger mount.

The Owl Nest AdaptorBecause the old Meade fork mount was attached to an equatorial wedge, we were presented with a small engineering challenge when we purchased the new mount.  The flat bottom of the base of the mount needed to marry up to the flat top of the pillar, but both are solid, and thus can’t be bolted from the inside.  The solution was to manufacture an adaptor.  On old friend of the Society, Emil Fernandes from Greenhey Industrial and Marine Engineering Ltd. in Skelmersdale made up this lovely adaptor, to a design by York AS member John Roberts. This was just the job, allowing both sides of the mount to be securely fastened together.  Because it resembles a hollowed out tree trunk, the adapter became known as the “Owl Nest”.  York AS member Glen Berry then painted it up and it was attached to the base of the EQ6 mount.  Glen and Chairman Martin Dawson then bolted the whole lot on to the top of the pier.

After a little bit of drift aligning, the scope is now ready to rock and roll.  We once again have a full complement of working telescopes on our observing deck, and don’t they just look the part?  All we need now is clear, dark skies to make the most of them.  Roll on Winter!

Both Scopes on Deck

This picture shows the 10″ Meade LX200 donated by York AS member Martin Lunn mounted on the new EQ6 and pillar.  In the background is the 12″ Fork mounted AE Luton Newtonian which was given to us by the Sunderland AS.  The AE has also recently undergone some more upgrades, with the addition of a large-gauge declination wheel and clutch.  This has made the telescope very easy to use.  It now feels like you are using a push-to Dobsonian, but with the benefit that when you let it go, it continues to track the object you are looking at.  Thanks to Roo for that upgrade!

National Astronomy Week

March 1st to 8th is the UK’s National Astronomy Week, where Astronomical Societies up and down the country will be organising events to promote the study and enjoyment of the night skies.

At The York Astronomical Society we will be holding two events, both of which are open to the public.

The first is on Wednesday March 5th,  which is a public observing session on the concrete hardstanding half way along Knavesmire Road, opposite the end of Queen Victoria Street.  We will be there from 7pm onwards with a range of telescopes for the public to observe the night sky.  Given good weather, the Moon and Jupiter will be well placed to observe, along with many fainter objects such as the star clusters and the Great Orion Nebula. There is no charge for this event.

The second NAW event is one of our regular formal meetings, which will be held on Friday March 7th at 8pm in the Main Hall of the Priory Street Centre, off Micklegate.  The guest speaker is one of our own members, Mr Dave Armeson and he will be talking about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission to the Moon.  York AS members pay £1 at the door, and non members pay £2.50, with under 16’s going free.

We hope that you will be able to come along and join us at either, or both of these events.

The Square Kilometre Array

Professor Melvin Hoare, Leeds University Department of Physics

Professor Hoare is one of the science advisors to possibly the most innovative astronomical instrument ever built.  The SKA, or Square Kilometre Array, is just that. It is a HUGE array of radio telescopes distributed over multiple countries, with the principal sites in South Africa and Australia, but involving nations representing 40% of the world’s population. The collecting area of the instrument is ultimately going to be equivalent to 1 square kilometre, but with a resolution of a telescope thousands of miles across. This will give it a resolution of 1arc second. 10 times the resolution of any such device currently in operation. The telescope may at first not look like the ones you are used to seeing, however its uses are endless and with applications in a vast and varied number of applications, from seeing way beyond the currently observable universe to detecting proto-planetary discs around neighbouring solar systems in our own galaxy. The latter is the principal area of research that Professor Hoare is leading up on the SKA. The SKA will be able to operate at a huge range of radio frequencies, from as low as 50 MHz right up to tens of GHz, which has a wavelength of only a few millimetres. It is these very short wavelengths that will allow Professor Hoare to detect dust and clumps of material ranging from pea-sized particles, rocks and boulders, right up to full-sized exoplanets. This will allow us to further develop our understanding of how the solar system and Earth were formed, as well as identify more potentially inhabitable planets in our galaxy. Some of his colleagues will also be able to detect organic materials in or around the galaxy, including amino acids, thought to be the principal building block for life. If we do indeed detect the presence of such organic compounds elsewhere in the universe then we can say that life is unlikely to be unique to us here on Earth.

One of the key challenges for the project is the immense amount of data generated from the thousands of linked-up (correlated, to give it its proper name) telescopes from around the world. When the telescope is running at full speed it will generate roughly 10 times the data that is currently generated by the entire internet!  Although the data will mostly be processed in real time, with the use of supercomputer technology archives will also be made. This is a huge technical challenge as even if most of the data is destroyed following real-time processing, there will still be hundreds of Petabytes of data generated every day the telescope is in operation. (1 Petabyte = 1015 Bytes, or One Thousand Terabytes) The supercomputer to process this will have the power of 1000 Million modern PCs.

As the Professor pointed out, this isn’t just a big telescope, it is one of the world’s largest engineering achievements that will undoubtedly produce some of the most ground-breaking discoveries in astronomy and physics in the 21st century.

Melvin Hoare at the York AS

We were privileged to have the Professor come and talk to us about this amazing project and hope he will return to keep us abreast of the telescope’s progress and, ultimately, the fruits of his labours.

For more information about Professor Hoare’s work and the SKA, visit: and if you would like to contact the Professor:

m.g.hoare @