Astronomical Report

The Astronomical Section was formed at the 1972 Annual general meeting of La Société. For some time before then it had been apparent that there would be sufficient support for the formation of a Guernsey amateur astronomical group, a preliminary meeting of potential members had already been held. The Secretary is grateful to the former President of La Société, Jurat J. Le Pelley, and to the Hon. Secretary, Mr R.W.J. Payne, for their encouragement in this venture, and for their suggestion that the astronomical group should become a Section of La Société.

During its first year the Section has gained eleven members, about seven of whom were not already members of La Société. Invitations to attend our meetings have until now been made quite general, with the result that numbers attending have ranged from fifteen to over twenty. We have been pleased to welcome all our regular participants, amongst whom are several members of the Elizabeth College Astronomical Society.

Our meetings during this first year have been held quarterly, with the intention of having more frequent meetings in the future if the demand is sufficient. At the first three meetings of 1972, members of the Section gave the following talks, on widely differing aspects of astronomy:

  • "Man’s View of the Universe: a survey of modern astronomy" by the Secretary.
  • "Finding One’s Way around the Sky" by Mr. R.W.J. Payne.
  • "The Planet Mars" by Mr. F.W. Dowding
  • "Sunspots" by Mr. R. Edmondson.
  • "Meteors" by Mr. D. Waugh

At our fourth meeting we showed two films, obtained on loan from the Central Film Library, entitled “Universe” and “Seeds of Discovery”, the latter being on the subject of space research during the current decade.

It was recently decided to form a small committee to consider the possibilities of setting up a telescope for the use of the Section. A site has already been suggested, and has been viewed by interested members; the practical problems of acquiring or constructing a suitable instrument are being discussed.

We hope that the Section, equipped with a telescope of adequate size, will be able to engage upon some practical “field work”. While the field work of other Sections of La Société is concerned with more local matters, The Astronomical section will be studying fields which, although in some ways more remote, are as much a part of our environment as those fields than are closer to home.

D.F. Falla (Secretary)

From Transactions of La Société Guernesiaise 1972

During the first year the Section gathered eleven members, and quarterly meetings were held. The first public meeting, held at the OGH Hotel on April 6th included a talk by Dr David Falla FRAS as Secretary of the Section, on “Man’s view of the universe, a survey of modern astronomy”, and there was further discussion of a future programme based on a questionnaire which had been circulated. Other founder members attending the first meetings included Frank Dowding (the present Section Secretary), Geoff Falla, Richard Edmondson, David Waugh, John de Garis, John Upham, and Elizabeth MacPhail. Other talks given included “Finding One’s Way around the Sky” by Société Secretary Reginald Payne, and “The Planet Mars” by founder member Frank Dowding, with short talks also on the subject of Sunspots, by Richard Edmondson, and Meteors by David Waugh. Talks were given at the OGH or at the Guille Alles Library’s Société room. It was also decided to investigate the possibility of setting up a telescope for the use of the Astronomy Section at a suitable site.

With the encouraging success of the Section’s first year, quarterly meetings were continued in 1973, with a talk on Nebulae given by the Section Secretary David Falla, and in September there was a first observational meeting, held at St Martin’s Point with the loan of David Waugh’s six-inch reflector telescope. Very good views were obtained of the Andromeda Nebula and Jupiter with its moons.

A suitable site for observing was also found at the lower part of Fort Saumarez, L’Eree, with the permission of Mr H. Dessau. With the Section’s grant from the Société in 1973, a number of books were purchased, including the 1973 edition of Norton’s Star Atlas and the Handbook of the British Astronomical Association, with subscriptions also for regular issues of “The Astronomer” and “Hermes”, the journal of the Junior Astronomical Society, these also being added to the Société Library.

In 1974 the Section obtained the use of an 8.5-inch Newtonian Reflector telescope from Mr R. Higgs, on permanent loan. The telescope was renovated by several members of the Section, with mirrors and optical accessories cleaned professionally, or replaced where necessary. The quarterly programme of meetings and talks was continued, with further reference books and periodicals added to the Library.

Work was completed in 1975 on the assembly and testing of the Newtonian reflector, with the valued help of David Waugh, and John Upham at his engineering workshop - this also being used for temporary storage of the telescope. A heavy-duty steel tripod stand for the telescope mounting was purchased from Astronomical Equipment Ltd. The Newtonian reflector was then able to be used by members of the Section on many occasions, at several locations, and in 1977 the Section was also grateful to Reginald Payne for donating his 3.25-inch refractor telescope, made by Troughton and Simms in the late 19th century. This telescope, when fitted with a more suitable mounting, was expected to be particularly useful for lunar and planetary observing. The problem of finding a permanent home for the Section and equipment continued, however, but in the meantime, Derek Johnson had offered space at his Vale home for temporary storage and use of the telescopes.

In 1978 a Zenit-E single lens reflex camera with an adapter for a telescope was used to gain some experience in astrophotography, with quite satisfactory photographs of the Moon obtained. The Section also welcomed Mr and Mrs David Le Conte, Mr Le Conte having had a distinguished career in astronomy, including his scientific work as an administrator at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, and with NASA in the work of tracking satellites and spacecraft. By the end of 1978 the Astronomy Section had expanded to around twenty members.

The 1980 Report of the Section recorded that although fewer than usual meetings had been arranged, observations with the Newtonian telescope and astrophotography had continued when the opportunity and weather conditions had allowed. The programme of occasional talks continued with two given during the year, by David Le Conte on the subject of “Time and the Celestial Sphere”, and by the Section Secretary on the subject of “Exotic Stars and Black Holes”. The Section still remained in need of a satisfactory base for future activities, with storage space for its equipment and an expanding library including charts and periodicals.

In 1981 the Council of La Société decided to build an extension to the Guernsey Museum, for a permanent headquarters. This was welcomed as it would provide better opportunities for the Société’s Section activities including the Astronomy Section. During the year the Section’s Newtonian telescope was fitted with setting circles, to allow celestial coordinates, as given by standard catalogues, to be set for viewing any object.

The Section’s Spring 1983 lecture at the Candie Museum Lecture Room was given by Frank Dowding, on the subject of “Jupiter encountered by Voyager”. This provided an up to date account of this space probe mission, with slides showing remarkably detailed features of Jupiter and its moons for the first time. The Section was offered during the year a good observing site at the home of new member John Taylor. The site, having an elevated position adjacent to L’Ancresse Common, had a specially constructed observation platform with good views of the sky in all directions, electricity supply and storage facilities. This seemed excellent in every way, and the Section’s main telescope was moved to the new site. Geoff Falla had also devised simplified charts based on the constellations, and listing particular Messier and NGC objects, nebulae and star clusters which could be observed with the telescopes available.

Later in the year the Section was dismayed when it was announced that the Newtonian telescope, originally made available by the owner in 1974 on a permanent loan basis, had been reclaimed for family use.

In March 1985 David Le Conte became Secretary of the Astronomy Section, acknowledging the work previously done by David Falla as founder Secretary, in setting up and running the Section, with a core of enthusiastic members, even though he was based in Wales for much of the time. The return of periodic Comet Halley after around 75 years was a main topic of the year, with exhibits and displays set up at Candie Museum and the Guille Alles Library during November and December, with publicity in the Guernsey Evening Press and considerable public interest. The Section organized a “Halley Watch” evening in the playground of Les Beaucamps School on 12th November, with several hundred members of the public attending, and using eight telescopes provided by Section members for viewing the comet and other celestial objects. A small group of members, consisting of Frank Dowding, Geoff Falla, John Taylor and the Section Secretary, and with the help of Dr Lawrence Pilkington was set up to guide the Section’s programme. It was agreed that more should be done to stimulate interest in the subject of astronomy, in particular through education to young people.

During the year the Section also launched an Appeal to fund a major new telescope for the island, and this made a good start with £1,000 donated by the end of the year. Observing activities continued, led by John Taylor and based at his home, using his 4 inch refractor telescope. The programme of lectures continued, by David Falla and by the Section Secretary on the subject of comets, in particular the return of Halley’s Comet, and with the Section Secretary giving a talk at the Teachers’ Centre on the value of Astronomy teaching in schools.

In April 1986 a lecture by Section Secretary David Le Conte was given in the newly completed Société headquarters at Candie Gardens. The lecture was on the subject of “Celestial Objects for amateur observers”. The Section had made good use of the new facility for meetings at Candie, but other activities during the year were rather sporadic because of limitations in observing facilities and weather conditions. Several observation and slide show evenings were held, however, for groups of scouts and guides.

The most important news for 1987 was the acquisition of the Section’s own telescope, an 11-inch Celestron reflector, obtained as a second-hand instrument complete with drives and accessories. Testing and adjustment showed that the telescope was in good order, and would be a considerable asset for the Section’s future observing programme. With the increased possibilities for observing, meetings were held to discuss the various objects visible at different seasons of the year. The meetings were led by Geoff Falla, combined with observing when possible. Observations were still hindered, however, by the lack of a more suitable base, and in the meantime financial support was still needed to meet the full £3,000 cost of the telescope. It had been acquired with financial assistance, in particular from the late Mr Harold de C. Harston, OBE who was very interested in the Section’s activities, and had been shown a view of Comet Halley - which he had also seen in 1910!

During 1988 a good observing site was found at Les Tielles, Torteval, which was used on a number of occasions, but as it was not available as a permanent site the search for a suitable location continued.

Regular meetings were held as usual and the Section’s library was expanded, with the donation of British Astronomical Association books from Doug Walton, and with a quantity of astronomy books from the Grammar School.

In 1989 the Section’s Celestron 11 inch telescope was moved during the year to a vacant cottage at Les Vauxbelets College premises, and observations from there included a good view of a total eclipse of the Moon on 17th August. A photograph of this was published on the front page of the Guernsey Evening Press, there was a broadcast of the night’s observing on Radio Guernsey, and Frank Dowding made a video recording of the eclipse which was shown on Channel Television - also earning a fee for Section funds.

On January 25th, 1990 there was a near disaster when the whole of the corrugated roof and frame on the cottage at Les Vauxbe1ets was blown off in a severe gale, and was found in the driveway. There was a successful rescue of the telescopes which were being stored there, but the activities of the Section were affected by this incident for several months. The Astronomy Section was able to have some observations and several meetings resumed at Les Vauxbelets later in the year.

The major event of the year, however, was in obtaining the Société tenancy of an excellent observing site at La Pointe, St Peter’s, with existing buildings, electricity and water supply, parking space, and very good views of the sky. This was the culmination of a search lasting over a period of several years. The Société Council agreed a lease, and following a meeting in October, Section members started a programme of refurbishment and preparation of the site for use as an observatory. Considerable work was needed on the main building, including the repair of floorboards, replacement of windows, and work to improve the ceiling, repainting, and the clearance of brambles and undergrowth in some of the surrounding area. In the meanwhile, it was still necessary to use the Société headquarters at Candie with meetings also at Les Vauxbelets. The highlight of 1991 was the official opening of the observatory on 18th April, by two well-known personalities, the astronomers Heather Cooper and Nigel Henbest, both also writers and broadcasters on the subject of astronomy.

The conversion of the site into a base for meetings and observing was not achieved without a great deal of work by members of the Section, considerable assistance from a number of local businesses, and from landlord Hugh Lenfestey. There was space in the main building for use as a meeting room and library, and there was just enough room also to keep the main Celestron C-11 telescope and several smaller ones. Section member Lawrence Guilbert had made a wheeled trolley and ramp, and a concrete pad with power connection point was built so that the main telescope could be rolled out of the building when needed. During the year there was observation of one of the best planetary conjunctions of recent years, of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, and at the Section’s annual business meeting Geoff Falla was elected as Assistant Secretary.

With the completion of the Astronomy Section’s first 20 years there was still a need, however, for a purpose-built observatory. With plans in mind for this and for a larger telescope, work on this new facility began in 1992. The Section had increased to around 40 members, and David Le Conte’s Newsletter sheets of Section activities were soon to be expanded and relaunched, as “Sagittarius”.

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