Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


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


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


Astronomers can’t guarantee quality of celestial show

October 19, 1985

THE QUESTION THAT EVERYONE at the Manitoba Planetarium must answer several times every day is, “will I be able to see Halley’s Comet from Canada?”

THE COMET'S COURSE - image from Winnipeg Free Press 1985 Oct 19

THE COMET'S COURSE - image from Winnipeg Free Press 1985 Oct 19, click for full image

The best that we can promise is probably. Since we do not know exactly what is going to happen in the next few months let me share with you some of the drama that we are experiencing with the comet.

“Is it going to be another Kohoutek?” I am asked accusingly. Do you remember Kohoutek? In 1973 the media got hold of the idea that it could be the great comet of the century, but it didn’t turn out that way.

When scientists attempt to predict the performance of something like a comet, they will also express their margin of error. They did that with Comet Kohoutek. And the comet always remained within that margin.

Unfortunately, everyone was interested only in its potential to be spectacular. Actually it was a fine comet, easy for an amateur astronomer to observe, and well studied, even from Skylab. From the public’s point of view, it was almost impossible to find in the sky, and was therefore a fizzle.

So, now what about Halley? Here Is my prediction. From Manitoba, Comet Halley should be fairly easy to see In the western sky, at the end of evening twilight, in January. To be fair, it may be visible only with telescopes and binoculars. However, with three months to go, I am optimistic that you will be able to view it easily just by going outside and looking in the right direction.

This is what is happening. Since 1948, comet Halley has been falling towards the sun. From the outer part of the solar system, the Earth and sun seem very close together. In effect, the comet has been falling almost directly towards us.

That means that, from our point of view, the position of the comet has been almost stationary in the sky.

Knew location

Although we could not observe It — it was too far away, and too tiny — we knew that it was up there more or less between the constellations of Orion and Gemini. Each year, as we go around the sun, the comet seems to make a small loop in the sky. This little circle is due to our own movement. Each year the comet has come a little closer, and each loop is a little bigger.

Last August, as the Earth swung out from behind the sun, we headed toward the incoming comet for the first time. The earth circles the sun counter-clockwise, the comet goes clockwise. We pass Comet Halley on Nov. 27. Although this is one of our two close approaches to the comet, it is still small and quite far from us — more than half the distance to the sun.

Early this month the lazy loops of Halley’s path in the sky ended abruptly; the comet has begun a dash that will take it from the eastern sky, at dawn, to the western sky at twilight.

Now it is high in the sky, and well placed to observe. It is also so faint that you need a telescope of at least eight inches aperture (diameter of the main lens) just to glimpse it.

Here is the drama. It will continue to become brighter as it slides closer and closer to the sun. About Jan. 20 it will be so close to the sun that it merges with the evening twilight, and vanishes until it has gone around the sun. When it re-emerges, it will be too low in the sky to be seen from Canada.

The question is: will it be bright enough before that to be seen by naked eye?

Astronomers use a quaint method of measuring the brightness of an object with a system that has changed little since the days of ancient Greece. The brightest stars are called first magnitude, and the faintest that can be seen by the human eye are sixth magnitude.

The only real improvement is the agreement on the mathematical relationship between magnitudes. Each Increase in magnitude means the object is 2.512 times fainter. You might be interested to know that, although no one really likes the system, there is no discussion about making this awkward system metric.

When the Planetarium staff first observed the comet in August it was around 14th magnitude, and seemed a little dim compared to predictions.

This is when we decided that it was prudent to make no extravagant promises about the performance of Comet Halley. Recent observations have made us more optimistic.

Getting brighter

Right now, the comet Is still around 10th to 11th magnitude. It is still too early to judge when it will reach fifth magnitude, the point when we can all see it without binoculars.

Our best guess is that that should occur about Jan. 10. Therefore, we have a 10-day window, Jan. 10 to Jan. 20, to observe the comet without telescopes.

To complicate matters, there will be a waxing moon in the sky after Jan. 13. Its light will make it harder to see the comet.

So, this is our early prediction. We will revise it in about one month’s time. We are looking forward to observations in mid-November, when the comet is around ninth magnitude. At that time we should be able to have a much more accurate estimate.

We may be lucky. In January, we may be able to go outside see Comet Halley as a little wisp of light in the evening twilight. If not, and you still want to be sure to see the comet, you will have to learn how to use a pair of binoculars, or a telescope, and how to find faint things in the sky.

To develop those skills the Planetarium is running a lecture series called Comet Halley and the Universe. On Oct. 29 I will present the session on observing the comet. For details please contact the planetarium office.

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


Amateur star-gazers aid science

October 12, 1985
comet Ikeya-Seki 196

During October and November of 1965, the comet Ikeya-Seki made a hairpin turn around the sun and treated "star-gazers" to the most spectacular celestial sight within last 20 years.

THE TERM amateur astronomer is usually used to refer to someone who has the hobby of studying the sky. It also suggests a lack of professionalism, and that makes it somewhat insulting. And the reference to star-gazing seems like a trivial name for contemplating the cosmos.

Every night, all around the world, whenever the sky is clear, there is a legion of people who set up their telescopes and make careful observations of the wonders of the universe. Most of the time they look at things that have been viewed before, but sometimes they contribute to the science of astronomy by seeing something for the first time.

Many new comets are discovered by these people. I have known only one.

I remember David Levy as a young, intense teenager, back In the late ’60s when we both were members of the Montreal Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He was one of the few people who were prepared to take this comet and nova search business seriously. It meant that each night, as part of his observing program, he would undertake to carefully sweep through specific areas of the sky, looking for the glimmer of a new star or the hazy spot of a comet. This exactng work meant that he had to become completely familiar with his areas. In addition to the chance of making a real astronomical discovery, he really enjoyed becoming this attached to the sky.

Brlef fame

There is a small reward for all of this work. If you find a comet, it will bear your name. Since most comets vanish into oblivion after afew weeks or months, the fame is brief.

Accurate observations usually mean keeping good records, even negative records. Those records can help suggest how quickly a comet is becoming brighter when one is spotted some hours after a negative report was made. When David and I went to seek our fortunes in different cities, he had accumulated about 250 hours of comet and nova reports. (A nova is a new star — actually one that is exploding.) All were negative.

At the Manitoba Planetarium, we hear about comets by receiving postcards from the International Astrophysical Union. Whenever there is a new comet, a card arrives announcing it, and providing some sparse details. Last November the IAU card for Comet Levy appeared on my desk. A couple of weeks ago, in preparation for the new planetarium program, The Comet Adventure, Planetarium Producer, Bill Peters visited David Levy. He is now associated with International Halley Watch, and is working at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory on the University of Arizona campus. Bill asked David what It felt like to find a new comet.

“I feel that my ambition to become an astronaut has been totally achieved at the moment of discovery of a comet. I feel that I have been given a gift from nature. I feel that the sky has been looking at me for 25 years and saying for most of the time ‘It’s been a pretty boring relationship. I’ve put up with all of your telescopes and everything that you’ve tried to do. But tonight, for once, you have done good, and so here is a comet for yourself.'”

David talked about his 25-year love affair with the night sky.

“I searched for 917 hours and 28 minutes (to find the comet). I like to keep a record, not just for the statistical reason of finding out how long it has been since the last time I found something cometary, but because I catalogue all the other things that the sky presents to me in a night, or a year of comet hunting.”

Personal relationship

He spoke as if he was having a personal relationship with the sky.

“The telescope is pointing at something like the moon or the Ring Nebula, and you look up at the sky and say ‘okay sky tonight we’re going to begin with the Ring Nebula.’ Well the sky comes back to you and says, ‘All right, if you want to look at the Ring Nebula, I’ll show it to you if you I can find it.'” The Ring is a bubble of gas around a star in the constellation of Lyra

“When I hunt for comets it’s a different game. I define a large area of the sky through which I want to search. As I uncover the telescope I imagine saying to the sky, ‘okay sky, it’s up to you what you want to show me. You may show me a galaxy, a red star, a cluster of stars, or some recently discovered comet. You may even show me a new comet. I don’t know what you are going to show me, but whatever it is, I want to see It.’ When the covers are taken off the telescope, and I am just about to put my eye to the eyepiece to begin my night of sweeping, I look back at that sky and say, ‘Okay sky, it’s your show. Make my night.'”

Every amateur astronomer has a different reason for looking at the sky, it is filled with so many unfathomable mysteries. AIthough David now works in the field of astronomy, I do not think that his affinity with the heavens has changed because he Is no longer an amateur.

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


Tips assist choice of telescopes

October 5, 1985

Light-gathering lens sets quality;
learning before buying recommended

COMET HALLEY IS IN THE SKY NOW, AND DURING THE next four months those of us in Manitoba will have our best opportunity to see it. It never will be easy to observe, and if you are going to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime event, now is the time to begin to plan.

There is no doubt about it, the best way to have a good view of Comet Halley from these latitudes is with a telescope. In addition to taking courses, and reading up on the subject, many people are considering the purchase of a telescope. I think this is wonderful, and my only caution is that you learn about telescopes before you buy, and that you plan to use the telescope to study all aspects of the cosmos, in addition to the famous comet.

Telescopes do two somewhat different things. Everyone knows they make big ones out of little ones. Magnification is only half of the story. Many of the things in the sky are not particularly small, but they are faint. Some telescopes are very good at making bright ones out of faint ones. Much of the business of choosing a telescope is deciding which of these features is more important to you, and how much of one or the other you can afford. Most people try to compromise between cost, convenience and performance.

A telescope is basically a simple device. First, there is a lens to collect light and focus it. This lens actually forms an image of the object that it is pointed at. The quality of that prime-focus image determines the overall optical quality of the instrument. Second, there is a magnifier, called an eyepiece, to allow you to look at the prime-focus image. It is this eyepiece that determines the power of the telescope. Do not be fooled by someone telling you about high powers — if you select the right eyepiece any telescope can be any power. Finally there is a mount to support the telescope looking at the right part of the sky.

The nature and quality of the telescope is determined by the big lens that collects the light. When people compare telescopes, the first measurement they will tell you is the diameter of the lens. The rule here is to buy the telescope with the biggest collecting lens that you can afford, or that you are willing to lug around.

A few years ago, some friends of mine conducted an interesting experiment that demonstrates that bigger is better. They compared a seven-inch (remember, that is the diameter of the collecting lens) Questar with a 14-inch Celestron. The Questar is an exquisite little telescope made to such high standards that the manufacturer claims no amount of money could improve the product. The Celestron was much bigger; both cost (at the time) about the same. It was not a comparison of equal telescopes. It was a comparison of value for equal money spent.

Magnification is expensive

A 14-inch telescope is very large by amateur standards, and the big lens easily out performed the Questar in light gathering ability. Remote cities of stars called galaxies, and glowing patches of interstellar gas called nebulae, were much brighter and easier to see with the Celestron.

The place where the Questar is at its best is demonstrating high resolution of very small objects. Here is where a high quality is required to see fine detail on the surface of the planet Jupiter, to glimpse the dark gaps is the rings of Saturn, and to see that a close pair of stars is really two separate spots of light.

There is a limit to how well a telescope can resolve small objects, and, in addition to general quality, the main factor is the size of the collecting-lens. Although the Questar can out-perform almost all telescopes its own size, and even those a bit larger, the sheer size of the Celestron made it the winner in resolution too. ‘

So, why does anyone buy the smaller, very expensive, telescope? Because its perfection makes it beautiful, and its small size makes it portable and convenient to transport and use. The Celestron-l4 is almost a two-person job to move and operate.

The next thing to decide is what you want the telescope to do. Most people who are new to astronomy want a telescope that can do everything. Magnification is expensive; it requires costly precision optics, and a very sturdy support for the telescope. Often the support costs as much as the tube with glass in it.

The main problem in viewing the comet is its faintness. A telescope that solves the problem by simply collecting lots of light and funneling it into your eye is called a rich-field telescope. It is characterized by its short length for the diameter of the collecting-lens, and the fact that it works best with low powers. The low power means that the optics need not be very expensive, and, in the case of the small ones, a heavy mount is not required. Because of the portability and low cost, these telescopes are popular, and well used.

So what ts the bottom line? Rich-field telescopes include binoculars. A good 7×50 pair will cost $100-$250. (The collecting-lens is two inches in diameter.) A small rich-field, with a 5-1/2 inch diameter lens is about $500. You will need a good camera tripod for it. A compromise telescope (one that does everything: good light grasp, capable of high magnification, and is easily portable), with an eight-inch lens and a heavy mount runs about $1,700. I don’t know many people who can afford a Questar-7, or a Celestron-14, but they cost $11,000 (U.S.), and $8,500, respectively. The best time to observe the comet is around the dark of the new moon. The next new moon is Oct. 13. It’s time to stop dreaming and start observing.

One of the ways to learn all about the comet is to take a course. This fall the Manitoba Planetarium, with the support of the Scientific Research Society, Sigma Xi, is presenting an illustrated lecture series focusing on the return of Comet Halley. Here is the schedule. Oct. 10, Comets and the History of Astronomy, presented by Wm. Peters, Planetarium Producer. Oct. 29, Observing Comet Halley, presented by R.J. Ballantyne, Plantetarmm Director. Nov. 14, Comets, Meteoroids and the Formation of the Planets and Comets, presented, by G. Clark, department of earth studies, University of Manitoba. Nov. 21, The Modern Astronomy of Stars Planets and Comets, presented by R. Bochonko, professor, department of mathematics and astronomy. Dec. 5, Solar Systems Galaxies & the Universe, presented by M. Clutton-Brock, cosmologist, department of mathematics and astronomy. The sessions will be held in the Planetarium Auditorium, 190 Rupert Avenue, from 7:30 to 9:45 p.m. The cost is $6 a lecture, or $25 for the series. There is a family maximum of $60. To register, call the Planetarium.

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