Sunday, May 12, 2013

Local astronomical observatories in the news

It is not often we read about the local astronomy scene in the mainstream media in Singapore. So I am quite happy to see not one but two reports about local astronomical observatories in today's The Sunday Times (12 May 2013).

Firstly, the observatory at Woodlands Galaxy Community Club on page 6 titled "Go star-gazing at Woodlands CC". Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was there last night to celebrate the community club's official opening and looked through the telescope at the observatory.

Saw the news on TV last night and that's why I bought the papers today. Happy to see JP on TV and in this newspaper report! He was in charge of "explaining the workings" of the observatory to our PM. As usual, sent JP a few whatsapp messages last night to congratulate him on a job well done!

Perhaps due to time and space constraints, a pity the club's website and observatory opening hours were not mentioned in greater detail in both the TV and newspaper report. So here they are:

Free Public Stargazing session at the Woodlands Galaxy Community Club:
- Every Friday & Saturday evening.
- Located near Admiralty MRT Station
- Weather permitting. Please check their Twitter or Facebook for latest updates.
- $1 charge for public. Free for PASSION card members.
- Website -->
- FaceBook -->
- Twitter -->

This is great publicity for spreading more stargazing awareness in Singapore. Do visit them if you have not done so. According to their Facebook page, there may be an open house event on Monday, 20 May 2013.


The other local observatory news is on page 24 titled "Gaze at real stars at NJC (National Junior College)". Found this report online yesterday via a Straits Times tweet. You can read a segment of the report here online.

First of all, congratulations to NJC Astronomy Club for their official opening of their observatory! Equally important, for offering research electives such as astrophysics, astrochemistry and astrobiology from this year  onwards!

Every now and then, we will come across students in our free public stargazing sessions who are interested in astronomy and its related sciences but are disappointed by the limited options to study them and pursue a related career in Singapore. In fact, a 13-year old student was asking about this at the singastro forum recently. So this is definitely good news for those who are keen in such subjects. How I wish these electives were offered during my schooling days many moons ago!

As a promoter of stargazing as an affordable hobby for the general public, I would like to correct a few inaccuracies and potential mis-reading of this article by newcomers like what I did for the Stargazing in New Zealand blog.

(1) $70,000 Telescope

I guess this amount is either a typo error or the cost of the whole observatory rather than just the telescope.

Base on the photos in NJC's Astronomy Club Facebook page and this YouTube video, the telescope should be a 11-inch or 14-inch diameter Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope (SCT) which should only cost about $4,200 or $7,200 respectively before shipping - no where near the $70,000 figure.

This is an important issue to clarify as very frequently during our free public stargazing sessions, we have members of public consistently over-estimating the cost of our telescopes. Our telescopes cost from about $500 to $2000. The public usually assume they cost $20,000 or more and that is precisely the this-hobby-is-too-expensive-for-me mindset that is preventing them enjoying the wonders of the universe. There isn't enough public awareness that prices of telescope has dropped quite a lot in the past decade and it is possible to buy an affordable decent beginner telescope locally that cost only about $400+ brand new - or even lower if you don't mind buying used telescopes, e.g. from the SINGASTRO buy-and-sell forum.

(2) Takahashi EM-500 Temma II is a mount, not a telescope.

This may be a typo error or mis-communication between the teacher-in-charge and the reporter. A telescopic mount is a device which holds a telescope. The mount facilitates the moving of the telescope - it is not an optical instrument. Thus, it cannot provide any clear or wider field-of-views.

Takahashi manufactures premium telescopes and mounts among other things. Perhaps in the NJC observatory, there is a Takahashi refractor telescope mounted together with the main SCT telescope as hinted in the above-mentioned YouTube video of NJC's observatory. A refractor telescope generally gives a wider field-of-view than a telescope of SCT design. Maybe this is where the confusion came in during the explanation.

A 4-inch Takahashi refractor costs about $4,000 before shipping. Again, even together with the cost of the main SCT telescope, still way under the reported $70,000.

(3) Saturn

"With the new telescope, we can see the rings of Saturn clearly. Previously, (Saturn) was just a dot in the sky."

Since the main focus of this article is about an expensive state-of-the-art observatory-class telescope and "previously" was not further elaborated, this sentence may be mis-interpreted by readers who are new to stargazing as the rings and features of Saturn can only be seen in such a big telescope and looking through any telescope that is smaller, you will only see a dot.

So here's some explanation to clear up such potential misunderstandings:

- Looking at Saturn directly with naked eyes (i.e. without looking through any optical instrument), Saturn does indeed look like a dot of light in the sky like a star.

- As long the sky is clear enough, Saturn and its rings can be seen even through small beginner telescope - e.g. a telescope with a 3-inch diameter lens that cost under $400. The rings may look small in the view, but visible as a ring structure nonetheless.

- Comparing between telescopes, a telescope with a bigger diameter lens/mirror will give a clearer view (more contrast, brighter, higher resolution) than one with a smaller diameter lens/mirror.

(4) Astrophotography on portable telescopes

"We can also take astrophotographs now We couldn't fix a camera to the portable telescopes."

Having access to an observatory and observatory-grade equipment like a heavy-duty highly precise tracking mount no doubt makes astrophotography much easier and enjoyable. But for newcomers who are keen to get started in astrophotography, it can still be done in relatively "portable" setups.

What is portable can be quite subjective depending on the physical built/strength of the person, whether he/she has access to private transport or a very good nearby location to do astrophotography.

Mounting cameras to telescopes should not be a big issue with the proper adapters unless the visual back of the telescopes does not follow the usual standard opening sizes. The main issues with very portable telescopes is usually weight related - the weight of the camera may cause telescope balancing issues or create too much tracking errors on a weaker telescope mount designed more for portability and visual astronomy.

Amateur astronomers globally have consistently produced great astrophotos using relatively portable setups. For example, a 3-inch refractor with a short body and an equatorial tracking mount that can be packed into medium size luggage bag. Some of them have even further optimise their astrophotography setups and made them airline portable so that they can travel to locations with darker clearer skies and take better astrophotos.


Wish there was more elaboration of the astro related electives in the report but I guess those who are interested can contact National Junior College directly to find out more info. Hopefully, other educational institutions without an astronomy club can start one soon and offer their students an opportunity to study astronomy related sciences after reading such reports.

Having an observatory is great when starting an astronomy club but should not be perceived as a compulsory requirement. With proper research, fund-raising and planning, a few decent amateur-size and relatively portable telescopes will be sufficient to start the ball rolling. Just like how Woodlands Galaxy Community Club and NJC astronomy club started years ago.

Update (20/5/2013):

It was reported in the Chinese ZaoBao newspaper published on the same day that the telescope is a 14-inch SCT. News of the observatories were also published in the Malay newspaper Berita Harian and the evening chinese papers.


  1. Hi

    Talking about the electives available, I think the A Level syllabus already had an astrophysics option for GCE A Level physics. Just that I am not too sure if such as option is still available or not. It is not popular as it does not have much direct application in real life with regards to Singapore. As such, it is not frequently taken up as compared to say fluid dynamics, quantum physics... etc.,.

    1. Thanks for the interesting info! Will find out more about it.

  2. I thought they got chop-carrot-head too by the contractor when I saw the 70k pricetag.
    Meade 14 inch SCT with alt-az computerized fork mount and pier cost 16k USD only.
    Surely it won't require 50k to build 4 walls and a roof.

    Wonder if light pollution is a problem for that location since it's located at the heart of urban Singapore.

  3. Addon link to previous comment, one of the biggest "money can buy" choices that can be easily found on the internet.