A blog from 1985 to 1987

April 8, 2010

The purpose of this blog is to reproduce, on the Internet, my weekly column written for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1985, 1986 and 1987. Each article is posted on the day it was first published. Details about this project in the About this site page listed in the sidebar.

Use the pulldown menu for Select Month under Jump to 1985 – 87 in the sidebar to find the posted material.


Winnipeg Trekkies are unabashed hams

September 20, 1986
William Shatner, centre, DeForest Kelly, left and Leonard Nimoy starred in Star Trek - series publicity photo used in Winnipeg Free Press article

William Shatner, centre, DeForest Kelly, left and Leonard Nimoy
starred in Star Trek

The subject of last week’s column gave science-fiction writers the latitude to send spacecraft from planet to planet because the indirect evidence suggested that there are a multitude of planets out there orbiting countless stars.

I discovered that on the day that I was writing, Sept. 8, “Trekkies” were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first television voyage of the Star Ship Enterprise.

In Winnipeg, this was an important day in the life of the local Star Trek club. To find out what Trekkies are all about I attended the opening meeting of the season last Wednesday night. It was a bit of a zoo, and the first-time visitor might be a little unnerved.

Most of the group are under 30 and are not old enough to have remembered Star Trek from its first run. I was fascinated by this group of young people who seem to have banded together to worship a space opera that survived only three television seasons in the mid-60s.

Club president and charter member, Barb Anderson, has a BA in sociology, with courses in social research. Last spring she conducted a comprehensive survey — an eight-page questionnaire — of their membership.

Anderson pointed out that it is really a social club, and most of the events are opportunities for the members to congregate, simply because they enjoy their own company. But there is more than that to being a Trekkie.

Many of the members were in costume, some wore the full Enterprise uniform, and others merely had objects of a science-fiction nature.

During the meeting several people had an opportunity to speak, and I was struck by how articulate they all seemed to be. I soon realized that it was a group with a strong sense of theatre. They were all unabashed hams.

Lights dimmed

The meeting began with the lights dimming suddenly. Astronomical slides appeared on the screen. I felt at home.

What followed was a surprisingly slick audio-visual presentation about the story of Star Trek and the activities of the local club members. The tape narration was delivered straight, but it was full of humor.

The audience whooped when candid pictures of acquaintances appeared. Russ Strong and a group of friends put in many loving hours preparing the music and slides for this one showing.

The principal speaker for the evening was Manitoba Planetarium producer Roger Woloshyn, who discussed the bleak scientific prospects for communication with alien species in our galaxy. Though I may have thought this group was not interested in reality, I found the question period that followed lively and imaginative.

“So, just to send a radio message to the nearest star, and get a reply would take a minimum of nine years,” Roger explained. “Communication, even at the speed of light, is very slow when you consider the great distances between stars.

“Under these circumstances, what kind of messages are possible?” He asked rhetorically.

“Galactic junk mail,” someone offered from the back of the room.

So what makes a Trekkie, and does it have anything to do with astronomy? Anderson was able to provide some insight.

On March 11, 1980, the Winnipeg club held its first meeting. They were swamped when 500 people turned up. Today membership has stabilized at about 100, with an active core of 25.

The surveys show that the club is made up mainly of educated young people, although there are members of all ages. Many are creative writers — the club regularly publishes their poetry and short stories.

Formed in isolation

This club formed in isolation from other Trek groups and is known as the clean Winnipeg group. They love socials, and look forward to any kind of opportunity to dance. Much of this may be due to the fact that when the club started, five years ago, many were still teenagers and could not go to licensed establishments.

It is a fan club. I discovered fans of any kind follow a definite pattern. Outside of the organization, many members of fan clubs consider themselves to be loners. This surprised me because of the boisterous, gregarious appearance of the assembly.

Anderson said many members had some connection with the military — personally, or perhaps their parent was in the service. “I only joined because I needed the job,” laughed a lad who overheard this part of the conversation.

The members like to find reasons to get together frequently. They hold many events throughout the year. I should have guessed that Halloween is a chance for everyone to be in costume, so that is an excuse for a major social. There is also a Christmas party, a spring social, and a summer picnic.

Each month there is a general meeting at the Planetarium Auditorium. The club also operates a series of “Starships” where the crews hold their own meetings.

When I was told there was a monthly newsletter called Short Treks, and the membership fee is only $10, I wondered how they could afford to keep the club in the black. The fee just covers printing and mailing of the newsletter. They need the socials and other events to fund anything else. Occasionally, their bigger publication, Event Horizon appears.

There are special rates for non-resident members, juniors, and families. Several book and hobby stores offer discounts to people with membership cards.

The next meeting is October 21 at 7 PM at the Planetarium Auditorium. It will be quite a show, this is their annual talent night.


Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, September 20, 1986 Page 79

In 1986 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley and astronomy.

© 1986 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Added to this blog on 2016 February 16

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press

Richard McKay has uploaded some digitized videos from Star Trek Winnipeg events taken during the years when this club was active. Click this link http://j.mp/trekwinnipeg


Uranus a riddle no more

January 25, 1986

Just hours ago, a significant cosmic moment

FOR ALL OF HISTORY, the world is unknown, and for years people speculated about its nature. Suddenly it is visited by a spacecraft, and it becomes a familiar object. Never again will it conjure up fantastic visions of endless possibilities.

Uranus is a giant planet that even in the smallest telescopes glows as a green disk in the constellation of Ophiuchus. A few hours ago, Voyager 2 flashed by the planet and through the system of nine moons that make up the Uranian system. In the history of astronomy, this will be remembered as a significant moment of discovery. Uranus will never seem the same.

It is suspected that the history of Uranus may be different and more violent than the other planets. Usually the axis of a planet is more or less perpendicular to the plane of the orbit. That means that the sun shines above the equatorial regions, as on earth. Uranus has its axis almost parallel to its orbit. This makes for strange seasons. During summer in the northern hemisphere, the North Pole points almost directly toward the sun, and the South Pole is in darkness for 42 years. Then the situation reverses. It is suspected that Uranus was once like the other planets, and some then great event, such as a collision, knocked the polls into the current alignment.

Now it is winter up north, and the South Pole is pointing toward the sun. From the point of view of the spacecraft, it approached from directly above the South Pole. The encounter period is from Nov. 4 to Feb. 25, with the closest point yesterday at noon. At last, we will have spectacular pictures of Uranus, it’s mysterious dark rings, and its nine moons.

Once everyone thought that rings around planets were very unusual, and we may see several solar systems before we find another planet with rings like Saturn. Then it was revealed the Jupiter has a faint ring system, and so does Uranus.

Because of its great distance from us and our telescopes, it is not even known how quickly Uranus rotates. Measurements seem to indicate either 16 or 24 hours. Because of the strange seasons, due to the tilt of its axis, weather on Uranus may be very different from other planets. (Orangeish clouds now have been spotted on the planet.) The other gas giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune — all have an internal heat source. They radiate more heat than they receive from the sun. Uranus, and convections in the atmosphere of Uranus, could be very different from those observed on Jupiter and Saturn.

Five of the moons — Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon — are all small, compared with our moon. When this week started neither their sizes norther masses were accurately known. They are also dark, and this is led to speculation that both the moons, and the dark material of the rings, is coated with the same substance; perhaps a carbon material. But, the newly discovered moons are much darker than the first-known moons.

As a result of all of the discoveries that are about to be revealed, it will seem as if we have all whole new solar system to explore.

Voyager 2 has more adventures ahead. With a gravitational assist from Uranus, it has been accelerated in the direction of the next planet in the solar system, Neptune. Since it will not have any future targets, it will recklessly dived to within 1,300 kilometres of the cloud tops of that planet. The encounter is scheduled for Aug. 25, 1989. As you read this, the first new Uranus pictures are being processed and those of us at the planetarium cannot wait to find out what is happening.

Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, January 25, 1986

In 1986 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley and astronomy.

© 1986 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Added to this blog on 2014 October 10

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press


Halley linked to sky disputes

January 4, 1986

Comet discovery overshadows other significant achievements

When the caller on a local open line radio show asked the expert guest (me), “can you tell us something about who this fellow Halley was?”, I could only talk about the Comet connection. Also, I did what you’re supposed to do when you don’t know the answer, I said that I did not know much about that.

I admit it, I do not find biographies of other people very interesting. It seems that many people do, and several kind folks have called me to fill me in on the life of Edmund Halley. So, for everyone who wants to know more about the man whose name pops into our minds every time we think of comets, here is some of the most interesting stuff I could find.

Neat time

Edmond Halley - famous for Comet Halley and many other achievements Halley lived from 1656 to 1742. Well, so far that’s pretty dull news. Actually it was a really neat time to be around if you’re interested in astronomy, especially if you lived in England. Halley was a colleague of Isaac Newton, who ranks with Einstein, Galileo, Planck, and a few others in developing the most significant concepts of how our universe works.

Almost all biographers point out that Halley’s many accomplishments are overshadowed by the single discovery that the comet he saw in 1682 was the same one that appeared in 1531 and 1607. It returned in 1758, as he predicted, and it has been called Halley’s comet ever since.

Two things about his life seem to be particularly interesting. First he was very enterprising, and this resulted in several successful exploits. Second, he was involved in some of the most famous disputes and astronomical history.

Halley seems to have a flair for doing things dramatically. In 1676, before he had a chance to gain his bachelor’s degree, he decided his astronomical career was not advancing quickly enough. He convinced John Flammsteed, the Astronomer Royal and founder of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, that there was a real need for a catalogue of the stars that can be observed only from the southern hemisphere, and that he was the person to do it. In addition he was able to obtain a letter from the King recommending that the East India Company provide him with a free round-trip to the island of St Helena. His wealthy dad gave him an allowance of £200 a year.

Two years later he was back in England, and soon published his catalogue. It made him immediately famous. The king commanded Oxford University to award him a master of arts degree, and the Royal Society elected at him a fellow. This was a class act.

When his father was murdered in 1684, things became tough for this privileged young astronomer. He was short of cash, and he was involved in litigation with his stepmother. In spite of the small annual salary of £30, he took the job of clerk of the Royal Society. In order to do this, he was required to resign his fellowship. This society sounds wonderful, but it was not well managed. They had chronic problems collecting membership fees, and they had just paid the bills to publish a book on the natural history of fish. Would you want to buy the book? No one else did. There was so little money left from that adventure that Edmund Halley had to accept copies of the book in lieu of part of his salary.

Halley was involved in several major disputes, all of which made astronomical history (or made it more interesting). Robert Hooke and Johannes Havelius were debating whether it was better to use telescopes for measuring stellar positions. Anyone can see that this is pretty exciting stuff. Anyhow, the Royal Society felt that the discussion was becoming so filled with acrimony that they dispatched Halley to spend some time observing with Havelius, and at the same time, find a way to smooth things over. The visit went well, but some years later we hear of Havelius claiming that Halley was sent to spy on his work. Imagine.

Isaac Newton’s great book the Principia, was edited by Halley. The Royal Society still had a large inventory of History of Fishes, and could not afford to publish Principia. Halley decided to finance the project himself. It seems that three people independently came to the same idea that is expressed in the book, the law of universal gravitation — Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, and Robert Hooke. When Hooke complained that he was not being recognized as the author of the idea, Newton decided not to proceed with writing. It was largely due to Halley’s efforts that these problems were sorted out and the book was finally finished and printed.

All of this makes Halley sound like a busy, but boring, academic. I was pleased to find the references said that he drank brandy like a sea captain, and swore like one. In 1698 he moved to London. Among his friends there was young Czar Peter of Russia (later to be called Peter the Great). One uninspired account said they often dined and discussed scientific matters long into the night. Another story has Pete in a wheelbarrow and Ed at the helm three sheets in the wind. It seems that the party wound through Deptford leaving a swath of broken hedges. Neither account is well documented.


In addition to his interest in comets, and his work with Newton on Principia, he made a number of significant contributions to astronomy and related disciplines. He described the universe that was infinite in extent, and suggested that some of a hazy patches in the sky were clouds of glowing gas. He also said that the so-called fixed stars actually were moving in space. Those were revolutionary ideas in those days.

For two years he was at sea plotting the variations of the magnetic field of the earth and producing a chart of the Atlantic Ocean. Not too surprisingly, he was able to talk the Admiralty into granting him the rank of captain, and giving him a ship. The job should have taken one year but things were delayed in the first year by a mutiny led by his first officer. After the court-martial, the second year was relatively uneventful.

His published works range from navigation, oceanography and under-sea diving, to astronomy, optics, archeology and statistical analysis. It is often suggested that if it were not for the comet, Halley would be as well remembered for his many other achievements. I am sure that he would be pleased that we hear his name and wonder about him every 75 years.

Sky Map 1986 January 8-14

First published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Saturday, January 4, 1986, page 27.

In 1986 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.

© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press


Versatile spacecraft took on rendezvous job

November 30, 1985

Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, November 30, 1985 page 63

FOR AMATEUR astronomers, this is a wonderful year for seeing comets. If it were not for Comet Halley, another comet would have been the most memorable astronomical object of the year. Comet Giacobini-Zinner was an easy object to see in a telescope, and it was the first comet ever to be visited by a spacecraft.

This August, as those of us in Manitoba were trying in vain to have our first glimpse of Comet Halley, the way to end a frustrating observing session was to look at Comet Giacobini-Zinner. It was an easy object in medium-size telescopes, it moved noticeably across the sky from night to night, and there was the knowledge that soon it was to be visited by a space probe.

Comet Giacobini-Zinner stays much closer to us, and the sun, than Comet Halley, and it returns every six and a half years. It has been observed 11 times since it was discovered by Michel Giacobini in 1900. At its closest point to the sun, it is just slightly beyond the orbit of the earth. This is ideal for an approach by a space vehicle.

Fleet of spacecraft

Although there is a small fleet of space craft heading for Comet Halley, none is from the United States. For those interested in the U.S. space program, this is a major disappointment. On Sept. 11, the U.S. probe ICE penetrated the head of comet Giacobini-Zinner, and beat all the other missions to a comet.

ICE began its existence as International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3), a little spacecraft that was designed to park itself in orbit around the earth, at an altitude of 120 times the diameter of the earth, in the direction of the sun. (The moon is only 30 earth diameters away.) It was supposed to quietly monitor the solar wind; its designers never thought about comets.

Fortunately, to stay in orbit, it required the use of onboard maneuvering thruster rockets. After three years ISEE-3 proved it was a versatile craft when it carried out a second mission. Using the thrusters, it journeyed to the other side of the earth to investigate activity in the other regions of the earth’s magnetic field. That was in 1982, and U.S. space planners had heard the final word that they would not have the budget for the Comet Halley mission. Now they had an alternate plan.

For the low cost of three million U.S. dollars, ISEE-3 became International Comet Explorer (ICE) and, on Feb. 8, 1983, It was on its way to rendezvous with Comet Giacobini-Zinner.

Success story

While It is a wonderful success story, those of us who work at a planetarium tend not to be as enthusiastic about ICE as the mission merits. Since it is designed to measure the activity of the solar wind, it contained no cameras. We have trouble showing people who visit the planetarium a lot of data — we prefer to show pictures. ICE is blind. Instead, ICE can measure magnetic fields, detect sub-atomic particles, and record the energy of radio waves. This instrumentation was well suited for a mission to a comet, and it produced some new information about comets, and the changes in space caused by their passage.

ICE roared into the tail of the comet at the meteor-like speed of 21 kilometres per second. Although the comet looked like a tiny wisp of light in our telescopes, and in spite of the fact that the lump of ice at the centre of the comet — the nucleus is only a kilometre in diameter, the atmosphere around the comet is vast. ICE spent two hours and 42 minutes traversing 204,000 kilometres of the interior of the comet. Scarcely a second passed when a particle of dust did not strike the antenna. There was some concern that, if any larger particles were encountered, the craft might be disabled.

Scientists are gloating over the fact that most of the new information confirms the current theories about how comets behave. They discovered that the most common molecule sublimating from the comet’s nucleus is water. This is consistent with our picture of a comet; that is, 85 per cent frozen water with ices of carbon monoxide, methane and ammonia, along with fine dust and perhaps some rocks.

Some of the surprises include the discovery that the interior of the comet’s tail is writhing with magnetic fields. It was thought that the interaction between the magnetic field of the comet and the solar wind would be similar to that which occurs around the earth and other planets. Here, the solar wind compresses the magnetic field of the earth, which can then effectively deflect much of the wind. ICE produced evidence of more complex processes.

Soon, the European Space Agencies’ space craft, Giotto, will plunge into the head of Comet Halley. It will fly so close to the nucleus of the comet that it will be destroyed by the density of material streaming away from the comet. It has a huge battery of scientific equipment on board, including a camera. Pictures!

With all of Giotto’s discoveries, it will be hard to remember this little craft that was the first to fly by a comet.

Valuable service

The ICE mission to Comet Giacobini-Zinner performed a very valuable service. In addition to providing information about the environment of the comet that will be useful in determining the best trajectory for Giotto, it gives us two comet examples to study. Although the U.S. did not manage a mission to Comet Halley, their clever use of ICE will contribute to our understanding of Halley, and all comets.


While posting this article to the blog, The Return of Comet Halley, I came across this account of the recent contacts with the spacecraft ICE called “IT’S ALIVE!” << Follow the link to read that article posted at The Planetary Society. If ICE is to have another comet mission after it returns to the Earth-Moon in 2014, the person who will likely make the proposal is Jim Slavin.

In 1985 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.

© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Added to this blog on 2010 April 18

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press


Big crowd disrupts schedule

November 23, 1985

Thousands see Halley, get a look at Jupiter

THE HEATER IN THE VAN DIDN’T work very well, and we thought that was an advantage for the big telescope in the back. Telescopes need to be the same temperature as the surrounding air to avoid air currents in the tube and the resulting degradation of the image. The cool air was relief. Bill Peters and I were over-dressed in anticipation of standing for hours in the cold. The newly-emerged stars were motionless above the speeding countryside. We were heading for Steinbach.

One sure way to guarantee a blizzard is to plan a public observing night. We were rejoicing: the sky was cloudless, and the temperature was unseasonably warm. Bill looked at the thin crescent moon about to set in the west. “That moon is like an advertisement,” he said, “lots of people will see it and think of Comet Halley Sky Watch No. 1. We could have a good turn out.”

It was Nov. 15, and we had announced that this would be the first chance for people to see Comet Halley. We wanted to be out of Winnipeg to avoid the light pollution, but l wondered how many people would drive to see a little fuzzy object in a telescope.

Excellent facilities

We thought we were well prepared. The Mennonite Village Museum was providing excellent facilities, including a heated restaurant and lecture room, and an adjacent lot with electricity for the telescopes. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Winnipeg Centre, and the Manitoba Astronomical Club were bringing a total of 14 telescopes. There would be a series of indoor lectures, and two television crews: Switchback and CBC 24 Hours Late Night News. All we needed was a few people to show up.

We arrived at 6:30 p.m., an hour before the public was invited. There already were a few dozen cars, and a fair crowd of people. Peter Goertzen, director of the Museum, said they had started to arrive at 5 p.m.

I began to wonder if we really were prepared. During the next hour the flow of cars arriving increased from about one a minute, to bumper-to-bumper. The large yard for telescopes was as crowded as cocktail party, and half of the telescopes hadn’t arrived. Many members of the committee were still in their cars, trying to drive into the site. The TV crews were showing up and some of the kids had discovered that Laurie Mustard was here! Now I was sure. We were not prepared for the crowds.

Winnipeg Free Press 1985nov23 Planetarium Sky Watch number 1

Comet watchers lined up at the Steinbach Mennonite Village Museum for a look through a telescope

The next hour-and-a-half was a blur of setting up telescopes, working with TV crews, giving astronomical talks to groups, and telling countless people where the comet was in the sky (at that time it was near the Pleiades), and that it was just possible to see it with 7 x 50 binoculars, but probably not in 7 x 30s. Some people wisely had brought their binoculars so they could learn how to find the comet, and then be able to follow it by themselves in the weeks to come. I remember everyone as being very friendly, patient, and in remarkably good spirits as we tried to get our act together. Someone estimated there were more than 2,000 visitors.

Although it looked like a clear evening, there were some ice crystals at low altitude and it made the comet, which was low in the east, hard to spot, even in the bigger telescopes.

Some time after 9 p.m., things calmed down. The telescopes had arrived, were set up, and cooled to air temperature. Comet Halley was high enough to be seen in even the smallest telescopes, and the lines of people were moving in an orderly fashion. It was hard to believe. Our carefully worked out schedule of who was supposed to be at what post was in a shambles, but it didn’t really matter. The evening was mild enough that the telescope operators agreed to stay outside for more than the planned 1/2 hour shifts.

“Look down into this plumbing,” I said for the, umpteenth time, referring to the eyepiece that was at right angles to the telescope, “and move your head until you see the stars. The comet is right in the centre of the field. It looks as if someone has erased some of the black of the sky.” Often, to make sure that people were actually seeing Comet Halley, I would ask them to describe what they saw. “A piece of lint” said Laurie Mustard.

Early in the evening, some of the telescopes were focused on the planet Jupiter, until it settled into the trees. Towards 11 p.m. people had a chance to see the Andromeda Galaxy, and the greenish fan-shaped Great Orion Nebula. By that time the sky was clear, the lines relatively short, and many folks looked at the comet several times through a variety of telescopes. One of the plans that had not materialized was to count the number of people who attended. Judging by the length of lines at telescopes, and the number of cars that had arrived, we estimated we had shown Comet Halley to about 4,000 people.

The comet was not impressive, but this was only the first look. Between now and January it will move rapidly from the eastern sky to the western sky at sunset. During this time, it will grow from a small, dim, hazy patch of light, to the traditional image of a comet — complete with a tail. If it continues to develop as we have predicted, by Jan. 10, everyone should he able to see it without the benefit of a telescope. It is my hope that some of the people who saw it at this early stage will be able to feel that they have personal sense of this astronomical object, hurtling through space and being transformed by its encounter with the sun.

Next viewing

On Monday I had a call from someone who wanted to know when Comet Halley Sky Watch No. 2 would be held. We are planning several programs including something for mid-December and at least one in January. Comet Halley Sky Watch No. 2 will be a more modest event at the Fort Whyte Centre for Environmental Education Dec. 8. The space for this one is limited and there is a charge. For information call, the Fort Whyte Centre

In 1985 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.

© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press


Understanding astronomy enhances stargazing

November 16, 1985

The caller on the phone had just spent more than $1,000 on a used telescope. He had no success finding comet Halley, and after viewing several stars at high magnifications, wondered why anyone would be interested in astronomy. “What do amateur astronomers do anyhow?” he asked

My mind raced over the past 23 years of sky watching: the adventures of chasing eclipses, the hours spent making observations of Jupiter and the sun, the excitement of an 18-person meteor shower observation team, the whole planetarium career, telescope making, countless friendships, and I did not have a ready answer. I think I mumbled something about trying to develop an appreciation for who we were in relationship to the universe in which we live. I felt the answer was inadequate.

At the Manitoba Astronomy Club, an organization for those under 18 years, and operated out of the Manitoba Planetarium, we are trying to find good answers to that question.

In spite of the troubles of the caller, astronomy is available to everyone. Nightly, when the sky darkens, the great wonders are displayed for us to appreciate, or ignore. No one needs a telescope to see evidence of the monthly orbiting of the Moon, or observe the zigzag motions of the planets due to the earth orbiting the sun, or watch the changing altitude of the sun that causes the seasons, or see meteor showers and eclipses.

What the caller lacked, and what remains a barrier for most people, is a basic understanding of what is going on in the sky. When I have begun courses in astronomy, I have said that, if the sky is a dazzling and incomprehensible view of creation, then remember that feeling, because it soon will be replaced by something else: a sense of familiarity. It is ironic that we are part of the most sophisticated civilization that has ever existed on earth, and yet, as individuals, we seem to have lost touch with the night sky. Now we are dazzled by bright city lights, and the universe seems to pale in comparison.

My point is that basic astronomy is easy, it is fun, and the subject matter is always at hand. This is what the amateur astronomer has discovered. Once past this barrier, the hobby allows for a multitude of activities and explorations.

At MAC, we run a basic astronomy course once or twice a year so that everyone there is able to pass that barrier and get on with the neat stuff. For instance, there is a lot of attention being given to Comet Halley right now. That is largely because of its celebrity status. While it will be a very good comet, for amateur astronomers it is the third or fourth comet that they have seen this year.

Astronomy is not just a nighttime affair. One of the most interesting celestial objects to observe is the sun. It is large and bright, and therefore easy to observe with the smallest of telescopes. It also is very active, with sunspots that appear and vanish. Because of the brilliance of the sun, it also requires some knowledge to observe — the sun’s rays can blind the careless, and damage the improperly used optical equipment.


Teaching introductory astronomy courses has made me aware of three things. First, how simple the concepts of astronomy are. The difficulty that some experience seems to be the fact that, for most of us, all of the information is completely new; it is removed from our previous experience. Second, much of the course consists of just becoming familiar with the constellations, and the catalogue of astronomical objects. Learning this leads to many other insights. And finally, familiarity with the cosmos does not breed contempt. It does enrich ones life, and allows the amateur astronomer to participate in the drama of a science that is always facing a new frontier of potential discoveries.

There is one sure way to pass through the initial barrier. Join one of the two local organizations of amateur astronomers: MAC or the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Winnipeg Centre; and make astronomy a hobby.

What you will find is that astronomy is not one hobby, it is a multitude of avocations.

Astronomy allows several hobbies and abilities to be combined. A knowledge of cameras and darkroom techniques is most useful if you decide to try astrophotography. A machinist can make every component and accessory for a telescope, and it is not uncommon to find a lathe in an astronomer’s basement. Every astronomy club needs people who have skills in accounting, organization, and teaching.

My telephone caller had expected the telescope to show him the universe. He had looked at some stars, and all he saw were some spots of light made brighter by the optics.

In case I have given the impression that observing plain stars is boring, I will admit that this is sometimes true.


But I would love to show you a certain star In the constellation of Cygnus, called Alberio. It looks like one star to the unaided eye. The telescope reveals it to be two stars. They are beautiful. This is really a solar system with two suns. One sun is shining with a golden light, and the other is a steely blue. The imagination can conjure up fantastic scenes of the interplay of light on a planet that might circle one of those stars.

In 1985 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.

© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press