Astronomy education milestone in Hermanus

posted: 2395 days ago, on Friday, 2010 Nov 05 at 00:15
tags: astronomy, outreach, ASSA Hermanus Centre, Hermanus.

Pierre de Villiers

Hermanus Astronomy Centre

A milestone in Astronomy Awareness and Education in South Africa was achieved during October when Hermanus Centre members, together with science teachers and learners from Hermanus High School and Qhayiya Secondary School, saw their "first light" on the 1.2-m MONET/North telescope at the McDonald Observatory via the internet from the Hermanus High School's computer room. This all happened under the capable, enthusiastic and patient guidance of MONET Project Leader Dr Frederic "Rick" Hessman of the University of Göttingen through a simple Skype link to his home in Germany.

The first session's main objective was to teach HAC members how to use this priceless educational resource "without breaking it" when using it without supervision, which was achieved in convincing fashion. Even though the "seeing" was not good - "pretty bad" in Rick Hessman's words - the experimental images recorded during the session are spectacular from an amateur's perspective. The photo of the tiny (56" x 48"), dim (12th magnitude) planetary nebula NGC 1501 in Camelopardis (a constellation not visible from South Africa!) illustrates the point.

A second session three weeks later provided proof positive of Murphy's Law that everything that can go wrong – will! No internet connection forced transfer from the first-choice school location to a member's business office where the requisite software (Firefox, ImageJ and Skype) had to be installed before being able to log in more than two hours later than planned. The important but time-consuming process of focusing via the FWHM ("Full Width at Half Maximum") parameter proved very successful. Seeing was better than during the first session and a series of 53 x 3s exposures of comet 103P Hartley 2, together with the requisite dark frames, was recorded. The next object was the planetary nebula NGC 2371. A clear filter 60s exposure looked quite good, but after 10 dark frames and before the colour filter exposures could be made the McDonald weather station link to the telescope was lost, which resulted in the telescope automatically closing down. End of session!

Sadly the only output from this truncated session are a movie clip of the comet moving through the background stars (on the website and the attached composite photograph showing the 14.5 magnitude comet's movement relative to the background. Disappointing but still spectacular for all involved – notably the learner "controlling" the professional instrument almost 14 000 kilometres away!

Several important lessons were learnt from the Centre's first experiences with what all participants regard as an awesome facility: Briefing the learners involved on what to expect from a session, preparing the control site in terms of requisite software (Firefox web browser, MONET's collection of important internet links, ImageJ image processing software), two projectors for the control PC and the one doing the image downloads and initial processing, delegating the various parallel responsibilities of telescope control, weather and webcam monitoring, object coordinate acquisition and semi-realtime image downloads and ImageJ processing to different PCs and rotating groups of scholars under the supervision of a Centre member. The learning curve for all involved has hardly flattened from the near-vertical!

It is the Hermanus Centre's intention to determine the most effective way of utilising such a priceless resource to foster an interest in astronomy in particular – and science in general – among typical South African learners. Once clarity on this has been obtained in the minds of the learners involved, this experience will be shared through the auspices of the SAAO and the ASSA to extend the benefits of this fantastic resource to as many secondary and tertiary education facilities in South Africa as is possible.

It is interesting to note that this whole initiative originated almost by chance from a comment by Dr Amanda Gulbis - after addressing a Hermanus Centre meeting on "Occultations of Pluto" - that she had used the MONET telescope in her research. Subsequent enquiries confirmed that the facility could be used by any school group – or, in this, case, a non-school organization assisting local schools.

The main credit for this amazing programme and facility is due to Dr Hessman and his team at the Georg-August Universität, Göttingen, as well as the Krupp Foundation for their foresight in recognizing the potential of such a facility, and the competent enthusiasm with which they are implementing their vision. Rick's team warrants salutation!

The effective use of such a powerful astronomy education resource makes input from all relevant parties in South Africa mandatory. The Hermanus Centre recognizes its pioneering experience in this regard and pledges its wholehearted support in ensuring that this wonderful resource is optimally utilized in the promotion of astronomy awareness and expertise in more South African schools.

As recently reported in MNASSA, the establishment in Cape Town of the IAU Office for Astronomy Development among disadvantaged learners could hardly have been timed more fortuitously than now! May both developments contribute significantly to fostering an interest in astronomy (in particular) and science (in general) in South Africa.

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