Activities of the Astronomical Society

Pretoria Centre of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa



From 29 March to 1 May 2011 some thirty amateur (some not so amateur) astronomers gathered at the Karoo Farm Stall, about 20 Km north of Britstown in the middle of the Karoo for the third National Karoo Star party. Astronomers were from as far afield as Durban, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Pretoria, Johannesburg and the West Rand.

The night sky was, as always, fabulous, the only problem being traffic on the N12 National Route, which passes right next to Kambro. However, this proved to be a minor inconvenience. This year, the sky offered fantastic viewing, since it was dry and clear, despite some adverse weather predictions. Absolutely no clouds were experienced and, apart from the night of the 29th of March, it was not too cold. Astronomers arriving on the 29th March reported freezing dew, with even ice on the telescopes in that night. The rest of the week-end offered fantastic, incredibly dew-free viewing and some very elusive deep-sky objects, such as the Galaxies in Leo, were even spotted with 6” telescopes. Saturn, especially, was magnificent and some of the best views of this planet were in the offering. The morning sky offered groupings of Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Mercury and the usual naked-eye visibility of the Magellan clouds, Coal Sack and rich star-fields and nebulosity in the Crux-Carina region was breathtaking. In the early evening, Orion and Canis Major was still reasonably high in the west and towards midnight, Scorpius and Sagittarius rose in the east, offering all the incredible sights in this area of the sky.

Percy Jacobs reports:

As to what we saw, pretty much everything in each constellation seen over the nights was observed. The highlight for me was the different nebula (faint planetary & diffuse nebula), the Markarian's Chain of Galaxies in Virgo (the face) and the two lobes on either side of the ETA Carina Star - clearly seen in Johan Moolman's 18" scope. Another highlight was the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) seen in its complete glory. What was interesting was the fact that through a 10" scope, we could see down to a 12 magnitude star. Even in a 6”, we could see down to mag 10.5. On the 1st night (Thurs), observing started at around 18:00 and ended at around 02:30. This ended then because of the ice on the scopes making things very cold and the fact that we were a bit tired as we arrived on the day. On the 2nd night, after some sleep during the day, observing started around 18:00 and ended at around 05:00 after seeing the planet alignment in the East. By then we were cold and tired. The 3rd night, we once again started at around 18:00 and then ended at around 02:00. By this time, we had pretty much seen all that was to see - all the dark sky objects not normally seen in the city areas. By the 4th night, some people had left and others continued to observe to early hrs of the morning.

Johan Moolman reports:

A very rewarding experience indeed. The company was good - even given the occasional good humored slur from the ranks of the “purists” re. “There goes the computer again…” aimed at the GoTo/ tracking scope…!

Quite a number of targets on our “wish lists” were observed. Here are JUST SOME of the highlights:

Open clusters:
One of my favorites: M46 with its foreground planetary (NGC2438) - the “central star” is unfortunately only a back ground object in M46. Johan’s favorite, the “Heart cluster” (NGC 2547) – what else?!– was also visited.
Other stopovers were the Jewel box (NGC4755), Carina’s Gem cluster (NGC3293 - a worthy companion for the Jewel), NGC 3532 (the “Wow” cluster), and old favorites like the Beehive (M44 in Cancer) and M6 (Butterfly) and M7 (Ptolomeus) in Scorpius, M41 in CMA - to name but a few.

Old friends Omega Centauri and 47 Tuc didn’t cease to amaze. M22 (in Sagittarius and one of the finest for northerners), M5 in Serpens caput (2nd most impressive for our northern hemisphere colleagues), and one of my favorites, M4 with its spiral chains of stars, were also on the menu. Ophiuchius did not disappoint – offering a number of worthwhile globulars to explore.

Sombrero (M104) in Virgo and the Hamburger (NGC5128 in Centaurus) were probably the most visually pleasing of the galaxy targets – frequently revisited and lingered at! Interacting galaxies: the Antennae (NGC4038/9 in Corvus), Siamese twins (NGC 4567/8 in Virgo), and the Whirlpool (M51 in Canes Venatici) with interacting satellite NGC5195 - (latter LOW on the NE horizon) - were observed. The Southern Pinwheel (M83 in Hydra) entertained with the 3 arms of this face-on spiral JUST visible - seeing Hubble photographs, showing the 3 arms, probably lead to some bias in these observations….

Other entertainers were the Leo Triplet (M65/66 + NGC3628), our star party’s “Smiley face” - part of the Markarian chain in Virgo (just across the border from Coma) – with ellipticals M84 and 86 representing the “eyes”, NGC4387 (Mag.12.1) the nose and NGC4388 the mouth. (It can also look like an upside down pyramid – as Bosman sees it…).

The bright Sculptor starburts galaxy (NGC 253) or “Silver dollar” – although rising very late and visually impaired by the unstable eastern atmosphere – also appeared in the eyepiece. Quite a number of additional fainter galaxies were also tracked down.

Percy visited one of his favorites - M17, the Swan (Horseshoe or Omega nebula) - a few times and showed it to everybody who cared to look…! Orion’s M42/43, and the Eta carina nebula were among the favorites, and like NGC 2070 – well known Tarantula in the LMC - were truly amazing, with visitors and “party goers” alike appreciating these “eye candies”. The Homunculus – Eta’s bipolar nebulosity/ “lobes” - provided some interesting viewing. Dark skies made it impossible to miss the Coal sack!

Hubble’s variable nebula (NGC2261) in Monoceros, halfway between Betelgeus and Procyon) was looked at early evening. This “comet like”, fan shaped nebulosity clearly revealed its shape under the dark skies. No luck with the Horsehead nebula (despite dark skies, 18”, H-beta filter…). The Trifid nebula (M20), with loose open cluster M21 in the same field of view, and Lagoon nebulae (M8) in Sagittarius were also paid a rewarding visit.

As can be expected the “Rings” – M57 in Lyra and NGC3132 (“Southern ring or Eight burst nebula”) in Vela - were designated targets! (Some unresolved discussion re the true identity of the central star still remains though…?). The Retina (IC4406) in Lupus, although small, was clearly visible, revealing its rectangular shape. The Helix (NGC7293 in Aquarius) – stunning in photographs – was “not much” visually and this large (16’ x 12’), dim nebulosity can be missed easily. Its neighbor – Saturn nebula (NGC7009) is a more appealing target, with its shape true to its name. The Ghost of Jupiter (NGC3242) in Hydra, Eskimo or Clown face (NGC2392) in Gemini, the Blue planetary or “Southerner” (NGC3918: Centaurus) were all searched out. Truly amazing was the Dumbbell (M27) in Vulpecula and worth waiting for it to rise high enough to observe around 02h00- 03h00!

Saturn obviously a prime target and later Neptune appeared. The planetary alignment in the east also entertained.

Double stars/ Asterism:
A few “Albireo-likes” were truly showpieces: One of my favorites - X Velorum in Vela, sometimes called “the Southern Albireo, or Albireo Austarlis” (just across the “border” from the Gem cluster in Carina) and Danie’s favorite in CMA were quite pleasing to observe. Albireo himself (or herself?) obviously also warranted a peak! In retrospect I missed out on other alleged “Albireo-likes”: The “wider Albireo” (Omicron1) in Cygnus, Iota Cancri and 24 Coma Berenices) At one stage Johan Smit nearly went into low earth orbit – something about old “Longdrop” splitting Porrima…!

Gamma Velorum, a multiple star with a “T” arrangement was also glanced at, and the ever popular Coathanger was obviously not forgotten.

There were also some visitors. A group of ladies planned their vacation to attend the Star Party on Saturday night. These ladies kept us quite busy and showed a remarkably amount of enthusiasm. Johan Smit remarked that it was some of the most enthusiastic visitors we ever had. On Sunday evening we had a group of visitors from Vereeniging, who attended a show in Sutherland the previous night. They remarked that the seeing at Kambro was equal to that they experienced in Sutherland.

During the day we entertained ourselves looking at the sun with a 120mm refractor with a hydrogen alpha filter. We clearly saw the prominences, granulations and sunspots of the sun with the different settings possible with this filter.

As always, the hospitality of the owners of Kambro, Wilma and Gerhard Strauss was superb and the facilities were spotless, with the usual warm, home-baked bread loaf delivered every afternoon. The Farm Stall (recently voted the second best farm stall in South Africa) offered superb dinners every evening and the fresh Karoo lamb kebabs and meat were superb.

All-in-all a very enjoyable week-end of stargazing, well worth all the effort to get there. We are already looking forward to the 2012 National Karoo Star Party!

Slideshow of photos taken during the event

Download This report in pdf format (with a few photographs - filesize: 2.9Mb)