“Be a citizen scientist – How amateur astronomers contribute to science”, Mon 11 Sept 2023

A Cork Astronomy Club public lecture held in UCC’s Ashley Cummins Building

Not all science is done by scientists.  Amateur astronomers have made significant contributions to measuring light pollution and identifying best and worst localities, yielding results that sometimes contradict satellite data.  The science of Jupiter’s atmosphere has advanced as far as it has in large part by professional scientists having access to images uploaded by amateur observers to special websites.   

Outreach Officer at MTU’s Blackrock Castle Observatory, Frances McCarthy is one of our Club’s favourite speakers. We learnt about a wide variety of opportunities for amateur astronomers to make their mark,  with different sponsors, amongst them Exoplanet Watch, EU-Citizen.Science, Globe At Night, NASA citizen science, The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).  

And Frances revealed the first citizen science project – Haleys’5 1715 eclipse map, shown below with Frances inset. Halley made the map with help of a numerous crew of observers assembled by the following appeal: “A Request to the Curious to observe what they could about it, but more especially to note the Time of Continuance of total Darkness …”  More about this here: “How Edmond Halley kicked off the golden age of eclipse mapping” 

Frances McCarthy with Halley’s map of the 1715 eclipse

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Three short presentations from members, Mon 8 May 2023

A Cork Astronomy Club public lecture held in UCC’s Ashley Cummins Building

Eddie Lyons ─ “Exploring Jupiter: Past, Present, Future”

Dan McLoughlin ─ “3-D printing: how does it work, what can it do for amateur astronomy?”   

Geoffrey Eastaway ─ “Uni-verse:  Poetry and astronomy”

Left to right: Geoffrey, Eddie, Dan

This was “Members Night”.  At the last monthly meeting of the season we invite three members to each make a short presentation on a topic of their choice.  The result was varied menu and an enjoyable evening.

Bears hibernate in the winter and Cork Astronomy Club hibernates in the summer.  Our next public lecture will be in September 2023, probably Monday 11th.

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Dr Michael Tremmel, Creating the Universe on a Computer, Mon 17 April 2023, 8 pm

A Cork Astronomy Club public lecture held in UCC’s Civil Engineering (Ashley Cummins) Building

Not all astronomy is done with a telescope. Large-scale computer simulations, run with the help of high performance computing facilities around the world, provide a unique view of the cosmos as well as crucial theoretical predictions that inform astronomical observations. Dr Tremmel, a lecturer in UCC’s School of Physics, gave an overview of how astrophysicists utilize simulations and conduct numerical experiments to better understand the formation and evolution of galaxies and the supermassive black holes at their centres.

The title of the lecture was “Creating the Universe on a Computer ─ How simulations help us study galaxies”.   We look forward to seeing Dr Tremmel again.

Above: Dr Tremmel rescues Schrödinger’s cat

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James Quain, “The Sundial ─ the world’s oldest clock”. Mon 13 Mar 2023

A Cork Astronomy Club public lecture held in UCC’s Civil Engineering Building

Telling the time is one of the earliest applications of astronomy, and the sundial, the earliest device to tell time of day and divide daylight into hours. James Quain, a member of Cork Astronomy Club with a lifelong interest in sundials, told how these installations work and the astronomy they are based on.

James illustrated how time is depicted, and discussed the development of sundials from the earliest known examples. 

Above: James with his Armillary Dial.

A sundial we learnt, consists of two parts: a gnomon to cast a shadow, and a dial plate.  We found out things we didn’t know we didn’t know … the extraordinary variety of sundials … James brought his own replica of a portable wooden dial as used by shepherds in the Pyrenees, and a model of the earliest known sundial consisting of two stones ─ another portable device used by the Pharaohs in 1500 BC. 

For most sundials (but not the shepherd’s dial) you need to know north.  But a solar compass from 1835 works the other way round.  It uses two very different sundials (image below), you turn it till they both agree, and hey presto, it’s facing South. The world’s largest sundial is at Jaipur in India, and the smallest consist of two metal rings that those who were rich enough in the 18th century kept in their pocket.

Finally James took grave issue with Hilaire Belloc who wroteI am a Sundial and I make a botch, of what is done much better by a watch”

Workshop, April 15th

For Club members only, James followed this lecture up with a workshop. In small groups members made paper sundials, cutting out components and assembling, including set up & orientation.

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“Space flight, the human factor” – Cian O Regan, Mon 9 Jan 2023

A Cork Astronomy Club public lecture

Cian O Regan talked about human factors in space flight, problems that arise and what is being done to learn how best to cope with them. Cian is a PhD student at MTU, and his thesis will investigate these questions.

Cian wears a pilot’s cap in an aircraft cockpit, at left of lefthand photo.  The recorded behaviour of pilots in emergency situations provides useful data for his research.  Right: a hypothetical Mars astronaut controlling a drone.

Sending astronauts to the Moon and Mars will pose huge challenges for the astronauts both psychological and physical, challenges which far surpass what is encountered on the International Space Station.  How will astronauts respond and will their ability to perform their duties and to respond to emergencies be impaired?  What can be done to mitigate the ill effects?

The 5 hazards of human spaceflight are radiation, altered gravity fields, hostile and closed environments, distance from Earth, and isolation and confinement.   Human factors is a field of study to reduce error and increase productivity focussing on the interaction between the human and the machine.  

Avoid the Norman door!

We heard about a Norman door, all too common in public buildings – where the design tells you to do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, and there has to be a sign to correct it. Normanism is to be avoided at all cost in designing spacecraft.  

There’s an optimum level of arousal to maximise human performance.  Boredom at the low end (think of a 6-month journey to Mars) and strong anxiety at the high end both impair human performance.  So is it worth sending humans at all, why not just send robots?  Because humans are so much more productive than robots ─ for now, anyway.

Human factors is the field of study to reduce error and increase productivity focussing on the interaction between the human and the machine. For space agencies these are urgent questions and Cian described what has been done so far to address them, and his own research.

The lecture was live streamed over Zoom.

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“Tour of Duty in the High Desert at VERITAS”, Dr Josh Reynolds, 10 Oct 2022, 8 pm

Not all telescopes capture visible light. Dr Josh Reynolds, a lecturer in the Department of Physical Sciences in MTU, told us about VERITAS – a ground-based very high energy (VHE) gamma-ray instrument.  It operates at the basecamp of the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory 1.3 km above sea level in southern Arizona USA, and consists of four 12 m Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov Telescopes (IACT) which use Cherenkov shower imaging to detect gamma-ray photons with energies above 85 GeV. 

Josh covered the history and science of VERITAS along with a personal account of tours of duty to the observatory as a VERITAS collaborator, and didn’t neglect to tell us about the poisonous toads that inhabit the site. 

Mirrors on one of the VERITAS detectors, and right, Dr. Reynolds in the VERITAS control room
in the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory

The lecture wase live streamed over Zoom.

About Dr Josh Reynolds

Dr Reynolds has been a member of the VERITAS collaboration since its inception in 2003 (as well as being a member of it progenitor, the Whipple Observatory collaboration) and a co-author of the publication that announced the discovery the Atmospheric Cherenkov Imaging Technique in 1989. He also lectures in the Department of Physical Sciences in MTU.

More about VERITAS

Dr Reynolds took this picture of VERITAS on a research visit at the beginning of September 2022

VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) is an international astrophysics collaboration between the USA, Canada, Ireland and Germany, involving 9 founding institutions and 15 collaborating institutions (MTU is a collaborating institution). It operates a ground-based gamma-ray instrument at the Smithsonian Institution’s Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO) in southern Arizona, USA.  This is an array of four 12m optical reflectors that uses the Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov technique to perform gamma-ray astronomy in the GeV-TeV energy range. Very High-Energy gamma rays are associated with exotic cosmic objects such as supernovae, pulsars, quasars and black holes. Expensive, space-based observatories are normally required to detect gamma rays as they are absorbed in the atmosphere, but VERITAS is able to use the Atmospheric Cherenkov Imaging technique to observe them from the ground.  VERITAS has a prodigious research output, with 162 publications in peer-reviewed journals (44 over the last 5 years) including publications in Science, Nature and Nature Astronomy. 

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“JWST – what’s all the fuss?”, Dr Niall Smith, 12 Sept 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is on the lips of every astronomer.  Dr Niall Smith of MTU and the brains behind Cork’s Blackrock Castle Observatory told us why.  Launched on Christmas Day 2021 JWST is sending back images of the universe in previously unimaginable detail.  Crucially this telescope observes in the infrared, which is necessary when observing the early universe. Early means far away and moving fast from us, thus extremely red-shifted, hence undetectible in the visible spectrum where the Hubble Space Telescope operates. JWST will supply new information about the early universe, indeed already has done, which will change our knowledge of how it all began and where it’s headed.  

Left, the galaxy group Stephan’s Quintet captured by Webb in never-before-seen detail.
And right, Dr Naill Smith with his brainchild, Blackrock Castle Observatory

One of our favourite speakers,  we were delighted to welcome Niall to launch our new season of monthly lectures,  which after a long Covid-induced absence, will once again be held in our old home of University College Cork’s Civil Engineering building.   

The lecture was live streamed over Zoom.

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Sunspot outreach event, Sat 9th April 2022. Tramore Valley Park, 11 a.m.

About 20 visitors gathered with Club members on Saturday 9th April for a demonstration of how to view sunspots.  The Sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year cycle – although sadly today sunpsots were scarce … but that’s astronomy!

We brought specialist equipment, and showed how we observe and image solar spots and other features, and explained how they take 14 days to move across the face of the Sun.  Visitors saw how the Sun looks different in optical wavelengths or hydrogen-alpha.   The image above was taken by Club member Jan on 3rd April. 


The event lasted two hours, was was part of Cork’s Lifelong Learning Festival. 

Club members setting up solar observing equipment while visitors wait their turn to view sunspots. The event was blessed with fine sunshine. 

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“Eclipses, Transits and Occultations – Some Personal Experiences” – Paul Evans, 14 Feb 2022

Cork Astronomy Club welcomed prominent Northern Ireland amateur astronomer Paul Evans, maker of highly regarded monthly sky guide videos, and Chair of the Irish Federation of Astronomy Societies.  Paul spoke to us remotely by Zoom     

Paul Evans at Meteor Crater, Arizona

Since the Solar System is essentially flat, though crucially not quite flat, it does occasionally happen that viewed from Earth, one object will pass in front of or behind another. Some of these events are of technical interest while some are truly spectacular celestial events.

Paul described some personal experiences of past events and pinpointed some opportunities for events in the future to look forward to.

About Paul

Like many of his generation Paul was inspired by the Apollo Moon missions and it was Apollo 8 which really piqued his lifelong interest in space and astronomy.

Originally from England, though his mother is from Athlone, Paul has lived in Northern Ireland since 2003 during which time he has photographed auroras, noctilucent clouds and many sky objects. His photographs have been displayed in numerous exhibitions and publications in Britain and Ireland.

Paul is a past President of the Irish Astronomincal Association and has been Chair of the Irish Federation of Astronomy Societies (to which our Club is affiliated) since April 2019.

We recommend Paul’s monthly sky guide videos, this link is to the January 2022 edition.

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“No need for Planet 9”, Ann-Marie Madigan, public Zoom lecture, 8 Nov 2021

Cork Astronomy Club was honoured to welcome Dr Ann-Marie Madigan,    Assistant Professor of Astrophysics at University of Colorado, Boulder. There’s something odd going on in our solar system, and presence of a new planet (‘planet 9′) or a black hole have been proposed to account for it, but Dr Madigan has other ideas.        

Dr Ann-Marie Madigan

Prof Madigan’s favoured explanation is a new Kuiper belt, further out than the actual Kuiper belt, and containing about 10 Earth masses of material. If found, will it be called the Madigan Belt? You heard it here first.

Dr Madigan explained: While the planets move on nearly-circular orbits in a disk, the icy bodies beyond Neptune appear to cluster together in a highly-inclined and eccentric structure. Astronomers have invoked the presence of a new planet (‘planet 9′) or even a black hole in explanation!

In her talk she showed that these theories are unnecessary. In analogy with spiral arms and bars in galaxies, the collective gravity of individually small but collectively massive bodies can create such structure in the outer solar system. This explanation predicts that there is a (highly-inclined) disk of minor planets, more massive than the Kuiper Belt, awaiting discovery at the edge of our solar system. 

This lecture was held via Zoom.

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