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!!


  1. I'm impressed by your passion and enthusiasm to share your knowledge! Please keep it up!

  2. Thanks for your encouragement! :)