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.