Out there: It's our final frontier

Last updated 11:55 29/08/2012
STAR STRUCK: Ian Cooper at the Anzac Hill observatory. He is the Palmerston North Astronomical Society’s president.

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He might spend his working days looking at sewer pipes and footpaths, but he spends his nights checking out the stars.

President of the Palmerston North Astronomical Society, Ian Cooper, is a contract manager for Palmerston North City Council, but there isn't a place in the sky he doesn't know.

The society has a 12-inch (30cm - they still talk in inches) Newtonian equatorial mounted telescope in its dome. It has a 13-inch Dobsonian telescope and it has a number of smaller telescopes which are often lent out to members.

It has 25 to 30 members, and a hard core of about 12, who attend every meeting and help drive the society.

Cooper has his own telescope, of course. It is an 18-inch Dobsonian, called the Tardis (it's a big blue box-shaped telescope painted to look like the Doctor's time-travelling machine).

Many members of the Palmerston North Astronomical Society specialise in astro-photography.

They like to take pictures through telescopes, of the solar system and deep space.

The group meets on the last Wednesday of every month, at the Manawatu Observatory in Anzac Park on the edge of Palmerston North.

That is, all months except December and January.

During those months daylight saving means there is little dark-sky time until late at night.

Cooper says there are often talks on the latest discoveries from deep space or favourite topics provided by members.

If the weather is good, then some observing through telescopes will ensue.

Often there is a visit around the favourite deep sky sites - the Jewel Box cluster near the Southern Cross, the great globular cluster Omega Centauri (a star cluster with more than a million stars), the open cluster the Pleiades, the Hamburger and Sombrero galaxies and the Orion Nebula, visible in the handle of the "Pot".

Talks use the projector, screen and laptop, which a grant from the Eastern and Central Trust helped the society to buy.

"There are often two types of people in astronomy. Those who like building and looking through telescopes they have built, and those that just like looking."

Peter Wilde, a member of the club, is happy to share his years of mirror-making experience.

But Cooper says there are fewer people making telescopes these days.

"The computerised telescopes are more affordable now. It is easy to find your way around the sky with one of these "Go To" telescopes as opposed to a manual one where the operator has to know their way around the sky."

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He started off with a manual, and says that you can often learn your way around the sky better with a telescope that needs to be swung around.

"Many older people learnt from old-fashioned books. That has gone now.

"There are sophisticated apps that are available on your iPad, or iPhone. Someone had paid $50 for a download, and found the free one was better."

The club also has some open nights for groups, through Cooper. There have been some open nights at the observatory and a few in Palmerston North's Square - but they are all weather-dependent.

What may appear on weather maps to be a fine night can end up clouding over.

"In the past we have set up telescopes in The Square for a total lunar eclipse.

"If it is in the evening, that's OK for kids. But if it is something happening at 3am - then that is not so good."

Keen astronomers stay up most of the night (if it is good viewing), watching and recording.

Cooper says there is a partial eclipse of the Sun coming in November, and the society is likely to set up telescopes to watch that, weather permitting.

The society is helpful for any members who are thinking about buying a telescope.

"No one telescope does everything. You can get one for looking at the planets, or one for looking at the deep space. And sometimes binoculars are best."

Cooper says there are people at the club who can help others make the best decision. "Don't just buy something because it looks good in a magazine, or in a shop."

There is a website, which is being updated.

The society welcomes new members and Cooper can be contacted during evenings at 329 7829.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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