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Star-gazers plan Halley night

November 9, 1985

COMET HALLEY IS IN THE sky. It is moving noticeably among the stars from night to night. Since we first saw it in August, local observers have watched it become transformed from something so faint that it was barely perceptible in the biggest telescopes, to a hazy ball of light that is visible in a midsized amateur telescope. One especially sharp-eyed person reports that she could easily see the beginnings of a tail on the comet.

If you do not have a telescope, you will have your first chance to see Comet Halley next Friday night.

Comet Halley Sky Watch #1 will take place at the Mennonite Village Museum, just north of Steinbach, between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. Admission is free.

Very often, when the public is invited to look through telescopes, they do not have the opportunity to learn exactly what it is that they are seeing. The wonder of the telescope is not that it shows beautiful views of the universe — often the objects seen are faint and indistinct, and certainly not self-explanatory — but that you can see real things that populate our galaxy. When we can understand what it is that we are seeing, we can begin to develop a sense of who we are, and how and where we fit into this universe. For this reason, Comet Halley Sky Watch #1 will have an indoor program to explain something about the telescopes, to give some background on Comet Halley, and to talk about some of the other interesting things in the sky. Because of the indoor program, Comet Halley Sky Watch #1 will take place even if there is a cloudy sky.

Several organizations are combining forces to give us this early look at Comet Halley: the Manitoba Planetarium of the Manitoba Museum of Man & Nature, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) — Winnipeg Centre, The Manitoba Astronomy Club (MAC), and the Mennonite Village Museum. Each is providing volunteers to make the event happen. For a long time we have known that Nov. 15 would be a special observing night for the comet. As you may know from reading these articles, the best time to view a faint object, like the comet, is when the moon is not around. Therefore we seem to have a series of good observations once a month during the dark of the moon, and then we have to wait while the moon goes by; and the next month we are back out to see what has happened.

Moon waning

This past week the moon had been waning away in the early morning sky. On Tuesday there is a new moon, which means that the moon is so close to the sun in the sky that you will not see it. For the next two weeks, the comet observers will be out with their telescopes.

Incidentally, and this has nothing to do with the comet, at the time of the new moon, there will be a total eclipse of the sun. If you want to see it, the best place for viewing will be north of the Ross Sea on the coast of Antarctica. I know that it will be spectacular, and I wish I could be there.

The other thing that makes next Friday special is that it is the first of three days during which Comet Halley will be sliding past a very prominent star cluster called The Seven Sisters or The Pleiades. This means it will be very easy for everyone to look up in the sky and know exactly where the telescopes are pointing.

In addition to observing the comet, Comet Halley Sky Watch #1 will have telescopes trained on a number of interesting astronomical objects. The Pleiades look stunning in small rich-field telescopes. It is a galactic star cluster, a group of stars which are all young and hot. They were born together from the same dust cloud and they are continuing to move together through space. There are several beautiful clusters in this part of the sky.

This is the best time of year to observe the Great Galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda. This vast whirlpool of stars is the giant in the local group of galaxies, and If you have good eyesight, it is the most distant thing you can see without a telescope. It is one of those objects that does not look impressive, but when you understand what you are seeing, it is awesome.

Jupiter is the brightest star-like object shining in the southwestern sky lately. Because of its churning atmosphere and its family of moons, it’s always an interesting sight in a telescope.

Astronomy buffs

Free Press caption: Powerful scope is essential for astronomer Ballantyne

Powerful scope is essential for astronomer Ballantyne

If you have ever thought you might be interested in astronomy as a hobby, or if you have been considering buying a telescope, Comet Halley Sky Watch #1 will, give you the chance to meet people who love the subject and have considerable experience. Both the Royal Astronomical Society and the Manitoba Astronomy Club will have tables set up to explain what they are all about. The RASC accepts membership from anyone with an interest in astronomy over the age of 16. MAC is associated with the Planetarium and its members are all under 18. In addition to looking through the telescopes, be sure to ask the operators about the size and nature of their ‘scopes, and then compare with the others. Consider cost and convenience as well as the optical excellence of each.

Folks in Thompson can see the comet Friday Nov. 15 if the sky is clear. Bill Taylor will have a program at Eastwood School, with a movie at 7 p.m., followed by viewing of the comet through an eight-inch (20.32-centimetre) telescope. If the weather is cloudy, the viewing may be rescheduled

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

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