Astronomy Education Breakthrough for Hermanus

Hermanus experienced an Astronomy Awareness and Education breakthrough which was a first not only for South Africa, but for Africa, on Sunday 3rd October 2010.  Science teachers and learners from Hermanus High School and Qhayiya Secondary School, as well as members of the Hermanus Astronomy Centre (“HAC”) logged onto and controlled the 1,2m diameter MONET (“MOnitoring NEtwork of Telescopes”) North telescope based at the McDonald Observatory west of Austin, Texas via the internet from the Hermanus High School’s computer room.  All this happened under the capable, enthusiastic and patient guidance of Dr Rick Hessman, Director of the Institut für Astrophysik, Göttingen through a Skype link to his home in Göttingen, Germany.

The MONET South telescope at Sutherland

The four hour session’s main objective was to teach HAC members how to use this priceless educational resource “without breaking it” when using it without supervision.  This objective was achieved in spectacular fashion, even though the learning curve for all involved was extremely steep and left them with a sense of awe at being privileged to be part of such a momentous occasion.

The first photo shows the intense concentration from the participants during the session.

Even though the “seeing” was not good as result of clouds over the McDonald Observatoty – “pretty bad” in Rick Hessman’s words – the experimental images recorded during the session can only be described as mind-boggling from an amateur’s perspective.  The next photo is of the tiny planetary nebula NGC 1501 in the constellation of Camelopardis.  To put this image in perspective, it is more than two million times dimmer than Venus which is the bright “star” in the western evening sky, with an apparent diameter of less than  1 arcminute, 50 times smaller than Jupiter, the brightest image in the Northern sky.

Dr Hessman made the important point that learners exposed to the images of such large or professional telescopes must also experience the “emotional” (as opposed to “scientific”) viewing of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons or Saturn and its spectacular rings through and amateur telescope to achieve a balanced perspective.  The need for this was extremely evident to all participants in this milestone event.

Follow-up sessions, two scheduled for the next month, will focus more on interesting events such as comets (Hartley 103P), variable stars or eclipsing binary stars.

Hermanus is indeed privileged to be able to use such a priceless resource as a guinea pig for duplicating our uplifting experience at as many schools, tertiary educational institutions and Astronomy Centres/Clubs in South Africa as is possible.

The main credit for this FANTASTIC programme and facility is due to Dr Rick Hessman and his team at the Georg-August Universität, Göttingen for their foresight in recognizing the important potential of such a facility, and the competent enthusiasm with which they are implementing their vision.  Rick’s team warrants salutation!

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