Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Astronomy Workshop at Spastic Children Association

On 22 October 2010, there was a Astronomy Workshop conducted by HT and a few instructors for the Spastic Children Association of Singapore.

I saw HT for the first time during the Astronomy Conference organsied by AGASTRO. But I really get to know him better from my extremely memorable first stargazing trip in Punggai. Here is a man who is truly passionate about imparting his knowledge to others. Not just another school teacher but a true Educator.

Most Singaporeans like myself grew up watching plenty of fund-raising programs on TV. With just a simple phone call, we can make a donation. I have always wondered what it is like to volunteer time to help the less fortunate instead of just donating money. So when HT contacted me after the Punggai trip and asked if I was interested to volunteer with the stargazing part of the workshop, I was quite happy to jump at this opportunity.

But after a quick check on my schedule for that week, I know it was highly unlikely I can make it on that day. One of my family member is shifting house that very day and I need to attend a late dinner session with my client later in that evening. So I told HT I can't commit and advised him to contact JP and see if AGASTRO can help him out.

JP agreed to help despite manpower issues he was facing. Most of AGASTRO members are students and October is the month where the examinations are conducted. Moreover, I guess some of them are most probably suffering from astro-fatigue from the various Mooncake festival astro events in the previous month. October is also the time in Singapore where the sky begins to get more and more cloudy. A few days before the event, the unimaginable happened.

The HAZE is baaaaack!

This is the worst haze in Singapore since 2006. According to an online news report on the very day of the workshop, "Hazy conditions are expected over the next two days in the absence of heavy rains."

Spectacular view of the haze:

Parody of the haze:

Life, like the sky conditions in Singapore, can be very unpredictable. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the house-moving date was brought forward a couple of days. My client wanted to have an earlier dinner instead. And miracles of miracles, there was a light drizzle in the late afternoon and Moon and Jupiter were finally visible in the sky! Packed my C8 and PORTA mount tripod and took a cab down to the venue immediately after my dinner appointment.

I took the front seat in cab and at one point was starring at a clear Moon straight ahead. So happy to see it after days of hazy skies. Took out my phone and snapped some pictures and video. The driver must be thinking I am some country bumpkin living in a cave. Fortunately, my geekiness must have changed his mind when he need directions to reach the venue. I switched on my phone GPS and google map and gave him some precise instructions where and when to turn.

Upon reaching the venue at Pasir Ris Drive 1, was glad to see HT and he led me to the observation site. The site is actually in a semi-indoor running track facing East. The roof is actually many horizontal beams which I speculate is to let natural sunlight in without exposing the tracks to too much heat.

Fortunately, because it is a controlled environment, the surrounding lights can be switched off and it was pretty dark. While I was setting up, some of friendly instructors was trying to help and asked if I need more lighting. The first thought that came to my mind was SINGASTRO administrator's famous quote - "We do it in the dark....". As it wasn't that dark and my setup was pretty straightforward and thanks to the "training" during my previous sidewalk sessions, I did manage to setup without using a hand-powered torchlight which I brought along just in case. The instructors brought something really useful - chairs which made my setting up much more comfortable.

They were quite excited when my scope was finally ready for viewing and saw Jupiter for the first time. They also had fun trying to use the DIY telescope assembled during the workshop which HT was conducting (along with other interesting related topics) to look at the Moon. JP and JM arrived later with their refractors and we are all ready for business!

Horizontal beams at top left corner of this photo.

One of the questions JM had to answer was "What is a SkyPod?" I am glad "Celestron" was almost invisible against my black telescope tube. LOL
Because of the roof design, we can only view Jupiter and Moon in between these beams. Fortunately, our low-tech tripods allowed us to shift the whole telescope setup and "chase" Moon and Jupiter between the roof gaps. Some of the children are slightly physically challenged to position themselves in a comfortable viewing posture to view through the telescope. So everyone helped out in lowering or raising the tripod legs to a suitable height. The children came to view through the scopes in batches and it was very rewarding for us to see that sense of wonder, joy and amazement in their eyes.

One of the many reasons I really wanted to help out in this workshop is to show my appreciation for the instructors, volunteers and helpers for this workshop. Many people will think twice before sacrificing their precious Friday evening time to do volunteer work. Most, if not all of them, had not seen through anything through a telescope. Some of them were so eager to look through the telescopes that they wanted to look at the Moon through my 9x50 finder scope attached on my telescope while someone else was looking through the main telescope. All of them had fun trying to show each other where exactly Jupiter was in the sky. JM helped them out by laser pointing at Jupiter and needless to say, they were impressed by the laser technology too. :)

I was busy manning my station so did not have much time observing what was happening at the other two stations. But hearing the laughter coming from that direction, I am sure all of them had fun too. The instructors and volunteers also joked with the children what can and cannot be seen on the Moon. There were some occassional clouds blocking Jupiter and Moon. But everyone was patient and waited for the clouds to clear. Overall, we were extremely lucky and blessed to have seen anything at all considering the bad weather forecasts.

After the workshop, HT bought us herbal drinks at a nearby petrol station and I enjoyed hearing HT's and JP's interesting stories of their adventurous expeditions in Malaysia. I was reminded again you can never over-plan your trips. :)

A couple of days later, HT was asked me if I was interested to help out in 2-day workshop in a secondary school in November, which was even closer to the monsoon period. Will it be another stargazing miracle in the making? Stay tuned .... :)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Build A Model Solar System

Orrery. Say it 10 times quickly.

Electronic solar system models have always been associated with toys only for the rich and famous. I remember seeing one a few years ago when I walked past some shop selling antique clocks. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw this at Borders back in August:

I bought 2 copies of this issue and may give them away as prizes during sidewalk astronomy sessions.

Brings back wonderful memories of trying to collect something and then realised some parts are deliberately made rare to "encourage" more sales ( I still have an incomplete set of Superman movie cards :) ). But not this orrery. If you buy all 52 sets you will definitely get all the parts. This will add up to a few hundred dollars but still much cheaper than those sold at antique clock stores which costs a few thousand dollars at least.

Other than Borders, one should be able to find them at popular bookstores like Popular (sorry can't resist).

As a educational tool, it is fantastic. It will create a sense of wonder and excitement about our solar system that cannot be easily conveyed in words and two-dimensional diagrams. The only disadvantage (applies to almost all orrery) is that they do NOT scale the size of the planets and Sun and the distance among them accurately. If they did, generations of people will be very excited to observe and learn more about our Sun. Because the first comment almost everyone will make when they see such an orrery is "What is that gigantic "planet" in the middle?"

Bumped into Joo Beng own my way out of Borders and we joked that we should collect one full set soon and find a cheaper manufacturer in China (Don't worry Victor, it is a joke. :) )

After doing some online research back home, I was glad to know that we can buy the full complete set without waiting for 52 weeks. And that complete set is actually cheaper and comes with a few more goodies. The local distributor, Allscript Pte Ltd, found the Singastro forum and revealed more information about this complete package. I was keen to have a hands-on on the completed set and Victor from Allscript was very kind to recall back their only completed set which was on display at Prologue (bookstore at ION Ochard) for my evaluation at their office. He told me the set is not a fully working set as the adapter and some minor parts were missing. Still, I was keen to take a look.

Dropped by their office on 26 october and took some shots of the set.

It's all aligned! We are all going to dieeeeeee!

Beautiful gear teeth

3rd rock from the Sun

More teeth!

Where is Pluto?

I am impressed by the built of the model. Very sturdy and solid. Being a typical gadget guy, I had fun seeing big and small brass gears move when I manually rotate the planetary support arms. Considering the weight of the orrery, it is very reassuring for local buyers that the Allscript office is located in a convenient place and not in some far away feeder-bus-access-only industrial estates. It is just a short walking distance from Tai Seng MRT station (Circle Line).

Here's the company's contact info:

Allscript Establishment (Singapore) Pte Ltd

605A Macpherson Road, #04-04 Citimac Industrial Complex, Singapore 368240.
Tel: 65-62877090 Fax: 65-63833057 Email:

View Larger Map

For those who are thinking to purchase this orrery, do not just focus on the entertainment and educational benefits of the orrery alone. The magazines that comes with it are a rich and colourful source of information that will help one to appreciate the orrery better. Just like those who stargaze that appreciate what they are looking at better due to the understanding of the nature and characteristics of the celestial objects they are looking at. To the uninitated, Sirius may just look like boring bright point of light through a telescope. But if they knew that is the brightest star observable from Earth and the Egyptians once used it to predict the flooding of river Nile, that will create a greater appreciation, wonder and enjoyment of what they are looking at.

Another reassuring point about purchasing this product is that the full assembling instructions are available on YouTube.

I highly encourage all educational institutions to purchase at least one set for their Science/Astronomy clubs. Now if only someone can let me play with their fully assembled and working set. :)

For more infomation, visit the official website of Build A Model Solar System :

This is nice video review I found on YouTube. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Virtual Moon Atlas

This is a video animation I have created using Virtual Moon Atlas. For best experience, watch in full screen 1080p, buffer it until it is fully loaded (if you have slow internet connection) and make sure your computer volume is on.

Learning about the Moon is so easy and fun with Virtual Moon Atlas (VMA). You can download and install this free software at its official website. The textures add-ons found in the middle of the same download webpage are highly recommended.

I discovered VMA shortly after I started reading Starlight Nights. The timing could not have been better. The "Aha!" moment to create this Moon video came when I tried pressing and holding the step forward button in VMA's ephemeris tab. Moon's terminator (the line that separates the lit side and dark side) was moving across its surface. Five alphabets immediately flashes across my mind - FRAPS! This is a real-time video capturing software which I am familiar with due to my other favourite hobby - computer gaming.

My first attempt was just to leave the Moon libration option on (for more accurate representation) and capture a new moon to next new moon sequence with Moonlight Sonata as background music. The finished video looked a bit boring and Moon was "dancing" back and forth too quickly (due to libration) and thus visually distracting and out of sync with the slow tempo of the background music. Then, an idea hit me. What if I can create a Moon video that isn't just beautiful to looked at but could potential encourage the viewer to get hold of a telescope to look at it live? That's how the progressive zoom idea came about to simulate looking through the telescope at higher and higher magnification.

A few problems to solve before the video sequences could be captured. I wanted a high resolution full screen capture. But when you press ESC key to go into full screen mode, you cannot click on the time step forward button with your mouse. And there is no keyboard hotkey to do that. If you can't animate the sequence, FRAPS can't capture it as a video. Moreoever, even if you can animate the sequence in full screen mode, pressing F9 to activate the capture may disable the ability to continue to hold on to the step forward button via the mouse click.

If there is one thing my IT troubleshooting has taught me, it is to keep trying and never give up! Finally, I cracked the puzzle using my favourite tool - trial and error. I clicked and hold the step forward button, hit ESC key to go fullscreen. No go. Terminator was not moving. Tried a few times by varying the time delay before going full screen. Finally, SUCCESS!! It's moooovvvving! With a silent prayer, I hit the F9 video recording key and the frames-per-second counter turned red. It is recording!

So the success rate is about 1 in 6 tries which was good enough for me. Edited the video in Sony Vegas, uploaded it to YouTube and using YouTube Audioswap's feature to add Moonlight Sonata (the 5:31 minute version). Using Audioswap is the safest way to prevent YouTube from removing the audio due to potential copyright issues.

For those who are keen to do related videos, here are some more ideas. You can try picture-in-picture video to show phases of the moon from different viewpoints simultaneously, e.g. from north/south pole and the far side of the moon. Also try the "obit the moon" in Full Globe mode and play around with the different colorful overlays.

Since I enjoyed the writings of Mr Leslie Peltier and was inspired by the commitment of the authors of VMA,  Mr Christian Legrand and Mr Patrick Chevalley, the ending quote and credits was the most logically thing to add. Stay tuned for another Moon video in captured live through my telescope in a future blog. :)

Starlight Nights

Looks like cloudy/monsoon season is here. So it's time to blog more frequently to distract myself from the frustration of not being able to observe and do sidewalks. :)

The book is Starlight Nights by Leslie C. Peltier. A few weeks ago, while researching more about International Observe the Moon Night I came across the article How to Observe Moon this Saturday by Joe Rao. What caught my attention was the passage quoted by Joe.

"It reminds me of a passage written by Leslie Peltier (1900-1980) in his autobiography, "Starlight Nights" (Sky Publishing, 1965):
"Throughout these nights of discovery and exploration of the moon one question kept recurring to my mind.  Why had I been denied all this until my school years were so nearly spent? Why had it not been made a part of the growing up of every youth? I had been taught the rivers, the seas, the mountains of every continent on earth. I knew the capitals of every state and country in the world.  And all this time, right above me, the 'geography' of a whole new world had been turning, page by nightly page, and no one had opened up the book for me." "

It struck a chord deep inside me. I must get hold of this book and read it. Found one copy of this book in the National Library's Repository Used Book Collection which means you can only borrow it via online reservation only. It can be then be delivered to the nearest library for your collection. I have returned the book yesterday so it should available for loan very soon.

Finally the book arrived.

This is the very first hardcover edition of the book. Brought back lots of fond memories of visiting the library in the 80s when everything was manual. I can still remember the poor librarians manually searching through huge shelves of library cards and pasting due-date paper slips. At that time when I was still a young boy, my library cards are more valuable to me than my identity card. Losing them feels like getting a permanent ban from accessing the Internet in today's context. Reading a book that was published before you are born makes it even more exciting. I wondered how long this book was kept in the Repository and how many people actually knew books there can still be loaned out.

This book is a very interesting read indeed as mentioned by many reviewers in the latest edition available at Amazon. It gives you a glimpse of the amateur astronomy scene back in the early 1900s. Those who have stayed in kampung (malay villages) while growing up can definitely identify with the author's early life in the farms. It is yet another testimony to the fact that dark unpolluted skies will make even a small 2 inch telescope a joy to use for a very long time. Those of you who are into DIY will be impressed by the modifications done by the author to his telescopes to improve the stargazing experience. And there was no Internet back then so one has to rely a lot on his own creativity and engineering abilities.

On page 40, the author wrote, "To me, the least satisfactory way of all to learn the stars would be through the eyes of another. The organized "star-party," or the constellation study groups in which someone points out the various stars and constellations are pleasant social affairs but they make it all so effortless that the lesson seldom sticks. It is like taking a guided tour to see some wonder of nature when one could, just as well, have the incomparably greater thrill of being its discoverer."

I agree with him to a certain extent. I believe both methods of learning the stars are equally valid. As long as the learner enjoys learning through one method over another, it does not really matter which should be the best way to learn. In a typical star party, due to time constraints, it is not possible to teach everyone all the constellations at one session. Only the most interesting one or two could be "taught", which would then inspire the learners to discover the rest on their own. So it's the best of both worlds when it comes to learning about the stars. 

I remembered the first time I ran Stellarium on my computer many years ago and saw the constellation Scorpius on my monitor. When I went to the kitchen and look through my window, I identified it for the first time in the sky and it was extremely exhilarating as I had just discovered Scorpius on my own. A few months ago when my astro buddy Clifford showed me the Summer Triangle in the sky at East Coast Park via a green laser pointer, i.e. "through his eyes", it was still a very exciting moment of me to see the formation for the very first time. During my sidewalk sessions showing Jupiter to the general public, some of them have seen Jupiter in books and magazines but still find their first live view through a telescope very impressive and exhilarating. And a rare few who have not known anything about Jupiter before found the live view an unimpressive boring small yellow ball of light. So, discovering sometime for the very first time without someone to explain to you the context of what you are seeing may be a very unsatisfactory learning experience.

This also reminds me of a good friend who is a brilliant engineer who insist on not reading any material on solving a rubik cube but prefer to solve it himself without any assistance. To many, that is an exercise in frustration. But to him, it was pure fun and joy to discover the possible solutions on his own.

On page 235, there is another thought-provoking paragraph. "I know that someday man will reach the moon but I sincerely hope this will not happen for a long, long time. He has a lot of growing up to do before he will be ready for the moon. When he finally does set sails for a journey into space, may it be a voyage of the Beagle, not the Graf Spee. If man must meet a challenge he can find one here on earth. If he must conquer something let it be himself."

I think going to the moon and coming back is also a way of conquering oneself. Going to the moon and showing the world the stunning earth rise is also a very good way to get human beings to "grow up" faster. The moon trips also inspired a generation of scientists, engineers and dreamers without which there would probably be no International Space Station, Hubble Telescope and plans to set up bases in moon for future space exploration. Sure, there are egos involved, but not everyone involved are doing it for purely egoistical objectives.

After reading the whole book, the most inspiring paragraph to me was still the one about the lack of knowledge about the moon (on page 61). The rest of the paragraph which Joe Rao did not include in the above-mentioned article was even more upsetting and shocking. "This was not a negligence peculiar to those times - it still exists. In later years with other telescopes I was to show the moon to thousands of visitors of all ages and not one knew the name of a single mountain range or crater on the moon!". It is 2010 now. IT STILL EXISTS TODAY!! I look forward to the day when young children will  ask me to show them the Tycho crater and the Apennine mountain range through my telescope.

What is significance of seeing the Moon through the telescope for at least once in your lifetime? Ask the legendary John Dobson. When he saw the moon for the very first time through the telescope, he was utterly mesmerized by it. That one experience alone was all it takes to motivate him to start a huge movement that would inspire thousands upon thousands of amateur astronomers for decades to explore the universe with much more affordable do-it-yourself telescopes.

In conclusion, this is a must-read book for all astronomers. Definitely lived up to the perfect 5-stars customer reviews in Amazon.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Stephen Hawking's Story of Everything

Caught this two-hour episode on National Geographic channel last week. Absolutely fascinating storytelling using cutting edge computer animation. This is the best episode of the 3-part series titled "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking". I think even the normal DVD version does not do full justice to the incredible computer animations created for this series. Astronomy clubs and societies should grab a blu-ray version of this series when it is available for sale. This is the perfect documentary to psych up the general public just before the actual stargazing sessions.

You can watch some of the video clips of this episode here :

Sunday, October 3, 2010

8 inch refractor telescope in Singapore

A video is worth a thousand photos:

Due to recent feedback about the Toa Payoh Starparty Report, I will do a quick summary followed by a full report to satisfy two different types of readers.


Last Saturday evening, three telescopes pointed at Jupiter at Jurong West - 8 inch achromatic refractor, 6 inch apochromatic refractor and 8 inch catadioptric. Best view of Jupiter came from the 6", followed by the 8" SCT and followed very closely by the 8" refractor (very personal opinion). True potential of the 8" refractor could not be experienced due to light pollution, lack of clear skies and lack of time to pimp it - the telescope was delivered only a few hours earlier.

Full Report:

I met James during my second Punggai trip (Johor, Malaysia). He brought a Celestron C14 telescope along during that trip and we had some nice views through it though the skies were not completely clear. So I was quite excited when he informed me his new toy, an 8 inch achromatic refractor telescope, will be arriving in Singapore soon. We decided to conduct a mini first light star party on Saturday. Richard came with his 6 inch refractor (yellow submarine) and I brought my Celestron C8 along. I do not need to bring my alt-azimuth mount along as I will using James's CG5 tracking mount. Later in the evening, Mr Au, Carole, Jin Peng, Mooey, Junming and Mr Oo join us to observe through the telescopes.

I packed my C8 in my backpack and took a direct public bus to the venue. While on the bus, I managed to checked my emails, tweet about the event, invite more people to join the session and check the latest updates on the weather maps. All in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus. I have been using my android phone for a few months now but I am still amazed by what affordable technology can do today - especially for conducting or co-ordinating sidewalk sessions where the weather and people's schedule are so unpredictable.

From the earlier pictures posted by James in singastro, I do not have a sense of scale how big the telescope is. When I finally saw it with my own eyes with the telescope lying on the floor with James sitting beside it, that's when it hit me how massive this monster is! Fortunately, the lift is big enough to accomodate the telescope vertically, else we can't imagine carrying it down so many flight of stairs without breaking our backs - it weighs 21 kg!

We chose a grassy patch on a slope to deploy the telescopes. That was a good location to observe Jupiter for the rest of the night. As you can see from the video it took three person to mount the telescope. They have to be careful not to bang the tube into the mount and at the same time not to fall down the slope while executing the 360 degree turn!

It was quite impressive to see Richard load his 6" alone. You can now understand why it is rare to see 8" refractor telescopes. A difference of just 2 inches in lens diameter can make such a huge difference in total weight and bulk. As far as I know, I believe this 8" is the biggest achromatic refractor telescope in Singapore. If you know of anyone who has a bigger achromatic/apochromatic refractor, please inform me so that I can try to persuade the owner to do sidewalk astronomy with it! :)

We are very happy Mr Au found time to join us in this observation session. Mr Au is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 for his effort in promoting astronomy in Singapore for many many years. I remember meeting him for the first time in 2003 during Mars Watch. Seven years later, he is still so full of energy and his passion for astronomy is very contagious. I brought my videocam mainly to film the 8" telescope but I am very glad I can also get to film Mr Au and subsequently upload this video for all to see. This is my small tribute to his contributions and also to encourage other much more younger and stronger bodies to help promote astronomy in Singapore.

Back to the main star of the event. The telescope is manufactured by ISTA Optical. It is front heavy as the main lens is located there. The holes at the front end makes it easy to grip it. But at the same time, they allow stray light to hit the lens which will affect contrast of objects viewed through the eyepieces. We pointed the scope at Jupiter and everyone had a good look. Jupiter looked really bright. There were some chromatic aberration which is expected from all achromatic telescope but it is not obvious enough to bother me.

I was glad Richard brought his 6" apochromatic telescope along. I missed two opportunities to look this highly rated telescope. First was during the Bedok Reservoir Jupiter event (I was at Jalan Kayu event) and second was the Toa Payoh Starparty event (the queue was way too long, I was busying manning my scope and Richard had to leave early). So finally, I got my "revenge" for these lost opportunities. Through this telescope, I had the best view of Jupiter I have seen so far. The contrast was simply amazing. Jupiter cloud bands was well defined and the shadow transit looked really dark on Jupiter. Moreover, the eye relief for his eyepieces is really good. It was so comfortable to look at Jupiter. The view should be even more mind-blowing if Richard add a binoviewer to this scope in the future.

Both refractors have nice dual speed focuser. Till then, I have only manage to spend time with my Maskutov and SCT telescopes which involves moving the primary mirror with their default focuser. These superior refractor focuser is a real joy to use. Now I can fully understand why some SCT owners are willing to pay a premium to add such focuser to their telescope. It's very hard to go back to normal focusing once you have experienced dual speed focusing. For the more budget constrained telescope owners, there are other ways to "hack" the default focuser to improve focusing.

Mr Au and James helped me set up my C8 on the CG5 mount and showed my how to use the GOTO controller. It was my first full hands-on experience with an equatorial mount. I have always delayed learning how to use one since it looked complicated, less portable and more expensive then an alta-azimuth mount. After playing around with it for a few hours, I started to appreciate the benefits of a tracking mount - you see more details. When the object is stationary and centered in your field of view for relatively long period of time, it will be able to "send" more photons to your eyeball.

I got the best view of Jupiter from my C8 that night. I saw details inside Jupiter's northern equatorial belt. The cloud bands also looked more contrasty than before. The seeing for Jupiter that night was pretty good so we were quite fortunate. Now that the "too complicated" mindset of mine has been broken, I will be looking forward to the day I am able to afford an equatorial tracking mount. I have said it many times to many people before and I will say it many times more - nothing beats hands-on learning experience on telescopes during star parties. Don't you ever dare to buy your first telescope without attending one. :)

Towards the end of the session, I manage to take a look at the 8" through its 22mm eyepiece. The view was very wide and nice. Jupiter and its moons were framed nicely with pinpoint stars shining in the background. By then, Jupiter had risen so high up in the sky that we had to squat down to look through the eyepiece!

To fully realise the potential of this refractor (or any telescope for that matter), it needs a dark and clear sky. The views of Deep Sky Objects (DSOs) like galaxies and nebulas on this telescope will be truly astonishing.

Although one of the purpose for the event is to compare the views between the three telescopes, I think we are more interested to just having fun looking through each others setup and catch up with one another. If my memory serves me right, I don't recall see more details when observing Jupiter through the refractors compared to my scope but the contrast level in the 6" is definitely way higher.But the refractors are using premium grade accessories like 2 inch dielectric diagonals, dual speed focusers and very branded eyepieces. Whereas my C8 was using low-end third-party 1.25 inch diagonal, default focuser and entry-level plossl eyepieces. To make things worse for comparison purposes, I was too lazy to bring my DIY dew shield as I lost my tube rubber band during my last Punggai trip. There was a very bright sodium light shining at the observation area (can be seen in the video above the 8" telescope before it was lifted up from the floor). Ironically, if this very powerful source of light pollution is not there, my videos will turn out to be too dark and noisy.

Halfway through the event, Mrs James brought us delicious cold deserts. Yummy! Just in time for me after being "sun-baked" by the sodium light for a couple of hours.

James's friend came later in the evening with his Canon 7D to take some astrophotos. Unfortunately, there was battery leak issue his camera and we didn't manage to take any astrophotos. With Richard's help, we managed to mount the camera to his 6" telescope. We stacked two 2x barlows. It was quite fun to look at Jupiter through the camera's viewfinder.

Two passer-by came to look at Jupiter through our telescopes. For the 15 minutes they were there, you can see this permanent WOW look on their faces. Total state of shock for them.

We packed up shortly before midnight and were once again reminded of how massive the 8" is when we transported it back to base. :) Thanks to everyone who came for the event on such a short notice. Looking forward to see you guys again in future star parties.

I have done some videography work for my clients but this video is one of the most enjoyable one I have done to date. Had so much fun editing out the parts that are not meant for public consumption. Haha. :P

Two days after this event, I find my scratching my left knee profusely. This is how it looked like:

I wonder why just the left knee and where did I get this infection from. Then I realised I wore bermudas and was occasionally kneeling on my left knee on the grass patch while enjoying the views on my telescope. Applied Tiger Balm for a few days and the itch finally subsided. A very small price to pay for incredible views, the knowledge gained and the friendships made that evening.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Books and magazines on Astronomy

There are plenty of Astronomy-related books and magazines in Singapore. Seek and you shall find.

1. Public Libraries --> National Library Board Singapore

This is a wonderful resource that I recommend highly. Here's what you can do when you register as a library member:

- Borrow up to 6 books in any library
- Return your books in any library
- Renew borrowed books for free
- Reserve books ($1.55) and have them delivered to your nearest library for your collection
- Sms reminders (optional) to return your books before due date
- Online web interface to administer your library account

Read the library guide for more info on how to register as a member and membership fees (free or very affordable fees). Or just approach any librarian in any library.

To save time, you may search for the books online to ensure their availability for loan before visiting the library or reserve them directly if all copies are loaned out --> Easy Basic Search

A quick search on "astronomy" generates 2061 results. Now you understand what you have been missing out if you not a library member. :)

2. Kinokuniya Book Stores --> Kinokuniya Book Stores of Singapore

Kinokuniya's main store at Ngee Ann City Takashimaya Shopping Centre has the widest range of books on Astronomy (as of now). Again, to make good use of your precious time:

- Search online and check availability --> Kinokuniya Search
A quick search on "astronomy" generates 64 results.

- Call them (+65 6737 5021) to reserve the book(s) for up to 3 days to be 100% sure you don't waste your trip down especially if there is only one copy left.

But please don't abuse this phone reservation privilege if you absolutely have no intention of buying because it will deny other genuine buyers the opportunity. May the skies be always cloudy for such abusers and their telescopic optics deeply scratched and moldy. :)

3. Borders --> Borders Singapore

The outlet at Wheelock Place has the next widest range of astronomy-related books in Singapore. They have no online book search feature but you can call them to enquire and reserve books for up to 3 days - (+65 6235 7146).

Borders and Takashimaya have regular promotions for members and the general public (e.g. newspaper cutout coupons). These 2 outlets are located relatively near each other along Orchard Road so you may visit one after the other. And there is a very high chance for a new library to be built at Orchard area (there used to be one inside Ngee Ann City). This potential golden-triangle combo makes it hard to beat for people staying or working around this area.

I will continue to update this page when I have more time to explore the astronomy sections of other bookstores and telescope vendors - e.g. Harris, Page One, MPH, ...etc. Or better still, drop me a mail if you have better recommendations.

New Twitter uses Astronomy for promo video

Check out this video about the New Twitter. Bad astronomy as usual because Moon can't possibly looked that big to the naked eyes and 14th Sep is not a Full Moon day. Free bump for the book The Stargazer's Guide. But it only scored 3 stars in Amazon but I will give it 4.5 stars for book cover design which is more important from a video ad perspective. But hey, it's Twitter and not NASA. So Twitter should have the creative license to do whatever they want. I enjoyed watching it. At least the video achieves its objective - it caught my attention and I find the new Twitter better than the old and have switched over.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

S'porean astronomers too stressed to care?

Read the following article last week in ST dated 20 Sep 2010.

According to the World Giving Index 2010 report, Singapore is ranked 91. Not a ranking Singaporeans can be very proud of. Australia and New Zealand tops the list at No 1. Let's compare with our neighbouring countries. Thailand 25, Indonesia 50, Philippines 50, Malaysia 76 - all way above Singapore's ranking.

Telescope owners in Singapore need to volunteer some of their time to do sidewalk astronomy to push up our ranking! Let's aim to surpass at least Malaysia's ranking in next year's report! :)

Towards the end of the ST article, there is a very inspiring story of how a bookstore keeper volunteered at least 6 hours of his time to helped the reporter to cover the 2004 Tsunami in India without asking for anything in return and paid for his own midnight transport back home. How many of us have spent 5 minutes of our time in a park within walking distance and showed a curious passer-by how the Moon looked like through our telescope?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Toa Payoh Stargazing Party Report

This is the report of the Stargazing Party held at Toa Payoh Central last Saturday (25 Sep 2010) in conjunction with the Mid-Autumn Celebration 2010 organised by the Toa Payoh Central Zone 2 Residents' Committee.

The day started with cloudy skies in the morning and rain in the early afternoon which was great because it meant there was still a possibility of clear skies later in the evening. Twittered about the event, bump up the forum post at Singastro, did one final equipment check and started walking towards the event venue.

On my way to the venue, saw some clear blue skies and I felt a great sense of excitement and anticipation of how the evening will turn out to be. I felt more alive than normal. There was an extra bounce in my steps. My tripod and backpack somehow felt lighter.

Some blue skies in the East

Reached the venue at around 6:30pm. Greeted a few of the regular senior citizens who hang out at the area outside the library. They knew it was my big day as they have seen me observing at the same spot a few times in the months leading up to this event. While I was setting up my telescope, people started to gather around me asking questions about my telescope and what can be seen tonight which I gladly answered to the best of my knowledge.

Shameless ad for my website :)

Calm before the "storm"

At around 7:50 pm, Venus can be seen shining brightly in the west. The moment the MC mentioned on the PA system about the telescope viewing session, the crowd started queuing behind my telescope. Venus looked a like bright crescent moon in my telescope. I had great fun looking at the astonished and perplexed faces. Most, if not all of them, have not seen Venus through a telescope. The closest thing they can associate with what they saw was a crescent moon. But yet when they look up at the object the telescope was pointing at with naked eyes, they know it could not have been the moon because it looked like a bright star or soem sort of a man-made satellite.

Let the queuing begin!

Zong Yao arrived shortly and quickly deployed his 5-inch Maksutov telescope and just as quickly, a second queue was formed behind him. If his telescope could talk, it would have thanked me for organising this event which freed it and from its long confinement in a dry cabinet "prison". :)

"Freed" at last!

A few minutes later, a dim Jupiter can be seen rising in the east. So happened that Venus was then temporarily blocked by the clouds. Thanks to our push-to telescope set up, we quickly swung our telescopes to point at Jupiter. For the next 20 minutes or so, Jupiter and Venus was playing hide and seek alternately. Fortunately, Richard arrived with his 6 inch refractor telescope and that kept the queuing crowd entertained watching him setting up his huge yellow telescope - informally nicknamed the Yellow Submarine in Singastro. The third telescope queue started as many were curious how Jupiter looked like in that telescope.

"We all lived in a yellow submarine,  ... ..."

The stage performances started around 7:30 pm and it was really challenging for us to talk loud enough against the loud music when answering questions in front of our telescopes. I was expecting and prepared to lose my voice the next day. No music is loud enough to dissuade me from repeating Venus, Jupiter, Jin Xing (Venus in Chinese) and Mu Xing (Jupiter in Chinese) multiple times throughout the night. A rare opportunity like this to educate so many people in a relatively short of period of time does not come frequently.

Guang Wei finally arrived with his 80mm refractor telescope and I told him to set up further down towards the HDB Block 179 as the Moon would be rising soon. And his was the fourth and final queue for the night. With more telescopes, the queues should be getting shorter. But no. People just kept pouring in from all directions! By then, Venus has set below the horizon and all telescopes were pointed at Jupiter.

Come see the Moon!

"Carry me! I want to see!"

The Guest-of-Honour for the evening was Dr Ng Eng Hen - the Minister for Education and
Second Minister for Defence Minister. He gave a speech on stage and unfortunately I was too busy manning my telescope to hear its content. But I remember hearing him delivering part of his speech in Chinese which I thought was a good effort to engage some of the non-English speaking audience.

I was told by the RC that the Minister may be gracing the stargazing party after his speech. Towards the end of his speech, the unthinkable happened - Jupiter disappeared behind the clouds! What would I say to the Dr Ng if he arrived and saw 4 telescopes pointed at a patch of cloudy skies? At that point in time, I tried recalling all the instant cloud-clearing methodologies but remembered they were all jokes we astro guys made up to keep ourselves occupied and to lessen our suffering when observing under a cloudy sky. I immediately came out with a Plan B as I remembered the most high tech device I had with me was my Android phone. I quickly load up Google Sky Map and hope it will impress the Minister and the filming crew that will be following him.

Being the Minister for Education, it was extremely relevant for us to show Dr Ng a good view through our telescopes because amateur astronomers like us are trying to raise the awareness and profile of Astronomy as a Natural Science to be enjoyed by everyone in Singapore - academically and/or as a rewarding lifetime hobby. In a speech made on 23 Sept 2010 during the MOE Workplan Seminar 2010, Dr Ng said "But we also need to have lively and rich teaching sessions that can engage students. We will give more time for schools to do this—four periods or two hours each week, but schools will need to be creative and inventive to find the right platforms and methods to achieve the right learning outcomes. I hope younger teachers, being more in sync with today’s youth and how they communicate, can play a greater role here." I hope MOE and these teachers can also consider incorporating Stargazing sessions to engage our students in the study of physics, chemistry and other related sciences. After all, Astronomy is one of the oldest Sciences. I will share more of my thoughts on this issue in a future blog.

Coming back to the event. The Minister finished his speech and started interacting with the audience at the stage area. That's when Jupiter popped back into view again! The timing could not have been better. When I saw the Minister and Frankie (the RC chairman) walking towards me, I quickly looked through my eyepiece and adjusted my telescope slightly to make sure Jupiter will drift into a good view in my manual non-tracking setup. When the Minister arrived, I shook his hands and invited him to take a look through the telescope. He was happy to do so and I think I heard a "wow" from him and saw a smile on his face. This is definitely one of the highlight of my very short journey of being a sidewalk astronomer. He was glad to know I am a resident of Toa Payoh. He then proceeded to look at the telescopes manned by Richard and Guang Wei.

When the moon rose high enough to be seen, I shifted by telescope to a location nearer towards Guang Wei's queue. For the rest of the evening it was time for Moon and Jupiter to play hide and seek. Yuan Huan arrived and started taking some nice photographs of the event. He is one of the active members in Singastro and his contribution in the form of event photography is much appreciated by us. Jin Peng (AGASTRO) and Chris (MPASTRO) also came to lend support to the event.

Family bonding time

At around 10pm, most the skies were cloudy and we decided to call it a day and started packing up. We then went for a drink at the nearby coffee shop. After our drinking session, I brought them to visit the Sky Garden at Block 79. By then, around 11:15 pm, the sky was clear again and Moon and Jupiter were shining brilliantly above our heads. Such is the unpredictable nature of Singapore's weather. For the next 24 hours, my legs were aching from standing for a few hours during the event, even though I was wearing track shoes designed for my flat feet. But more importantly, my heart was filled with great joy that the event was successful beyond my wildest dream. The countless number of happy faces I have seen and all the sincere gratitude expressed. I have only just re-discovered the joys of visual astronomy a few months ago and this event was also a great opportunity to strengthen my new friendships with the current active Singastro members.

Out of curiosity, I tried to estimate how many people looked through my telescope that evening. The starparty started around 7:50 pm and ended at around 10 pm. There were about roughly 10 minutes in the early evening where both Venus and Jupiter were missing in action. That means about 2 hours of continuous observation. Let's assume each viewing takes about 20 seconds on average (15 to observe, 5 for me to adjust it again for the next person). That means about 360 people have looked through my telescope! Yippee! Hope to beat this record someday. :)

Another method is to see how much eyelash "juice" that was collected by my eyepiece which was the only one I used throughout the event. Warning: The following image may be highly disturbing to telescope owners!

There goes the resale value of my favourite eyepiece! :)

I would like to express my sincere thanks to the following people in no particular order.

The whole RC team for giving the go-ahead for the event and crowd control management. I hope you guys had a chance to look through the telescopes. If not, please contact me for a private viewing session.

To Dr Ng, thanks for gracing the event. You must have seen through some amazing military grade optics in the SAF and I hope my humble telescope didn't disappoint you. :) Your visit is the icing on the cake for the starparty event and made it extra memorable for the telescope volunteers.

To Zong Yao, thanks for finding time from your busy studying schedule to help out. You, together with Clifford (who unfortunately could not make it as he was overseas), Samuel, Richard and all those who have done sidewalk astronomy in Toa Payoh years before I started doing so are the pioneers and trailblazers. To Richard, thanks for driving all the way down to Toa Payoh to share your nice telescope with the public. It was really an eye-opening experience for many and helped to pull in the crowd. Too bad I didn't have a chance to look through it that day but I am glad many others did. To Guangwei, thanks for coming all the way from your place. For those who have attended my previous sidewalk sessions and enjoyed looking through my blue telescope, Guang Wei is the previous owner of that telescope and was very kind to let it go at a great secondhand price. If not for his selling of this telescope, it would not have triggered a chain of events that made this Toa Payoh starparty session a reality.

I would also like to thank Yuan Huan for coming down to do event photography even though he just went through an intense physical training session. If he is able to collect his new secondhand telescope earlier, I am sure he will be glad to set it up too. His photos are immensely meaningful to me as they will always bring a smile to my face and motivate me to do more sidewalk sessions. The sharp photos you see in this blog are taken by Yuan Huan with the exception of the eyepiece shot. The blurry and grainy ones are taken from my phone camera.

Sorry for sounding like a Grammy Award acceptance speech but it is important for my readers to realise how much effort these guys made and hope they will treasure and appreciate it even more in future stargazing sessions.

I would also like to thank Jin Peng and Chris for coming down to support the event despite their busy schedule. Jin Peng is the founder of AGASTRO and have been serving the residents of Admiral Gardens since 2008. These residents are very lucky indeed to have access to wonderful telescopes and they just had a very successful stargazing event on 22 Sept 2010. To Chris for carrying so much heavy equipment and taking time off from his A Levels preparation. All the best for your upcoming exams! In time to come, I am sure you will be making major contributions to raise the level of local amateur astronomy.

And to my new Malaysian friend whom I have just met a couple of days ago during a sidewalk session, thank you for helping to man my telescope while I take a took a short break and bought drinks for my astro buddies. I am glad I showed you how to operate my telescope when we first met and loved your Sabah hiking stories you shared with me that night. :)

To the person in the queue who told me you found out about this even from my Twitter, thanks for the encouragement! Still waiting for my first follower! LOL

Last but not least, I would like to thank the public for queuing orderly and waiting patiently for their turn to take a look. We all have seen much ungraciousness in our day-to-day living so it was nice see you guys following my telescope wherever it went in a nice orderly queue. :) I am sorry for not being able to answer all your questions in detail as I do not want to hold up the massive queues. I was also not able to show you higher magnifications of Jupiter and Moon for the same reason. But I will definitely be able to do so during my regular sidewalk sessions and hope you will be free to attend someday.

The night sky still holds much wonder waiting for us to discover. I can't wait to show you guys the stunning Orion Nebula in the weeks to come. So stay tuned!!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Toa Payoh Central Stargazing Party

There will a be Stargazing Party at Toa Payoh Central (open space in front of Toa Payoh Public Library) this coming Saturday 25th Sept 2010 at 7:30 pm. Admission is FREE and open to public! All are welcome!

Spent quite a bit of time designing the following stargazing poster but enjoyed the creative process. Glad it was approved by the Toa Payoh Central Community Centre and they printed in colour as advised. :)

As of now, there will be 4 telescopes deployed on that day - two 80mm apochromatic refractors, one 5 inch maksutov and one 8 inch SCT. The main objects of interest will be the Moon and Jupiter.

I would like to thank the Residents' Committee of Toa Payoh Central Zone 2 for organising and publicising this event - especially to the RC Chairman who spent time discussing this idea with me a few weeks ago and subsequently given me an opportunity to present my case in front of the rest of the committee members.

If you own a telescope and would like to bring it along to share with the public, please feel free to contact me so that I can make the necessary arrangement to ease your volunteering efforts on that day. The nearest carpark is just behind block 179 between 177 and 178 and trolley friendly (refer to map below). Drop me an email at gary [at] astro [dot] sg.

View Larger Map

This is Stargazing event will be held in conjunction with the Mid-Autumn Celebration 2010 event organised by the same RC.

This is the noticeboard of the 40-storey blocks in Toa Payoh. :)


Jalan Kayu Lantern Festival

Last Saturday evening (18 Sept),  there was a Lantern Festival organised by the Residents' Committee of Jalan Kayu Zone 2. I was invited by Admiral Gardens Astronomy Club (AGASTRO) to give a short astro talk there (thanks Jin Peng!) and I am glad I brought my telescope along.

Upon reaching the venue, I was warmly welcomed by the friendly RC members and they were very helpful throughout the night in helping me to set up my laptop and providing crowd control for the telescope viewing.

Due to the short notice for this event, I did not have much time to find out more about the target audience and the suitability of the venue for stargazing. It was cloudy for the past 2 days leading up this event. When I woke up in the morning, I quickly checked the skies and the online NEA satellite weather imagery. Looks good! It boosted my morale to a create an interesting multimedia presentation in the evening.

When I reached the venue, I was told the main audience are kids!! Haha. Fortunately, my powerpoint slides are related to very basic astronomy and stargazing stuff. I printed a few copies of SkyMaps as prizes for simple quizzes during the presentation. I think everyone enjoyed watching the video showing the sizes of planets and stars. Did a short live demo of Stellarium and hopefully the audience will be inspired enough to actually install Stellarium in their computers and start exploring the virtual night sky with it.

During the presentation, one kid sitting in the front row raised her hand. Finally! Someone paying attention to my presentation. When I approach her, she pointed at my projected powerpoint slide and said "Universe spelt wrongly." LOL! Everyone had a good laugh. I quickly took the opportunity and quiz the audience for the correct spelling and award another kid with the prize (because the kid who spotted the mistake already got her prize for answering correctly in an earlier quiz).

Though there were trees and high rise buildings, Moon and Jupiter was not blocked. Half-way through my presentation, Richard arrived and started setting up his scope. When both of our telescopes are set, the crowd started to pour in.

The most memorable moment for me was when a very senior citizen (at least late 70s I guess) look through the telescope at the Moon for the first time in her life. My Hokkien sucks but I guess she roughly understood what I was trying to explain to her. I will remember her smile for a long time.

The kids enjoyed what they saw and kids asked the most interesting and funny questions that I could not have possibly anticipate. Can see the evil monsters in Space? I wanna see the Heaven. How do you know this Jupiter is Jupiter? LOL.

Overall, it was a very memorable learning experience for me. One of reasons I took up this opportunity is to improve my sidewalk astronomy sessions especially the upcoming one at Toa Payoh Central this coming Saturday. So hopefully, no more occassional complains that Jupiter looked so small in my telescope. :P

Here are some of the photos of the event. Thanks to William for taking some of the photos!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reason To Blog

Have been deliberately ensuring I am un-googleable for all these years. I value my privacy highly. But one evening in Marine Parade changed all that - my first Sidewalk Astronomy session with my first telescope. Those astonished looks. Kids describing frantically to their parents what they just saw. Grown ups behaving as if they saw the Moon for the first time. "Wow!". "Oh!". "Awesome!". "Yaaar!". Pure Magic.