Sunday, September 23, 2007

Irelands Twenty First Whirlpool Star Party 2006 by Deirdre Kelleghan

Published in Reflector

On September 29th,30,th and October 1st this year the provincial town of Birr will buzz with people whose common interest is the wonder of the night sky and a collective deep appreciation of the historic setting of Birr castle and Irish astronomy.

The cosmic wonder that is the Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venactici was observed in the 1840’s under the dark skies of Birr Castle in the midlands of Ireland. The instrument used was known as the Great Leviathan of Parsonstown. This 72-inch reflector was at that time, the largest telescope of its kind in the world. The light gathering abilities of its giant mirror enabled the 3rd Earl of Rosse, William Parsons to view and draw the spiral nature of M51 in the spring of 1845.

First discovered in October 1773 by Charles Messier, it took the Great Leviathan to bring to the worlds notice its spiral structure. The Earl captured this through an accurate rendition of its nebulous nature, in a painting of the Whirlpool which is much admired today. The Galaxy is also known as Rosse’s Nebula or Lord Rosse’s Question Mark. William Parsons is credited with assigning the name Whirlpool to this spiral Galaxy.

William Parsons, drawings of M51 in 1845 closely resemble some modern photographs. I like to think of the light from M51, thirty seven million light years away and sixty five thousand light years across, traveling down the wooden telescope tube in April 1845 to the eye of the beholder William Parsons and onto his page, a frozen moment in time. One has to ponder what William would say if he could view the Hubble images of this beautiful structure today.

William’s earlier drawings in 1844 using his 36 inch reflector of M1 did look a bit crab like and the name is now synonymous with this Messier object.

Birr Castle has been a home and a working place to many distinguished astronomers over the years. Some of the most interesting work I think was done by Otto Boeddicker who spent a lot of time observing and drawing the Milky Way from the grounds of the castle. His drawings are outstanding and if you take the time to really look at them and indeed to invert them in Photoshop you will be in awe of the detail and the quality of the skies Heir Boeddicker recorded with the assiduity of his eyes and his dexterity of his hand, a testament to the light pollution free and dark skies of nineteenth century Ireland.

The quality of the telescope and the appetite of for discovery and science placed Birr and Ireland at the center of the astronomical world. Every year for the past twenty years the world is reminded of Ireland's past and present involvement in the pursuit of celestial delights. Shannonside Astronomy Club has hosted the now world famous Whirlpool Star Party for the last two decades and in 2006 the twenty first occasion of this prestigious event is well on in the planning stages.

Over the years the Whirlpool has been a magnet for such luminaries as the John Dobson, David Levy, and Kelly Beatty to name but a few.

The twenty first Whirlpool Star Party, has its share of illustrious speakers lining up to make it one of the most interesting gathering of astronomers ever to grace its platform.

Special guests this year include the eminent American astronomer Jane Houston Jones, Senior Outreach Specialist for the Cassini Program at JPL. Morris Jones one of California’s most respected astronomers will also intrigue the attendees with his considerable knowledge and experience.

The Cassini mission to Saturn and the Saturnian system is one of the most visually breathtaking and scientifically rich space exploration missions of our time. The Saturn Observation Campaign is unique as it splices interest in robotic space exploration with amateur astronomy. This Cassini outreach program endeavors to educate at many levels in an eclectic manner to a global audience.

Jane and Morris have many awards for their astronomical achievements, including having a minor planet named in their honor (22338) Janemojo 1992 LE. This was for their work in bringing the wonder of the night sky to the public with their prolific outreach sidewalk astronomy sessions.

NASA research pilot Triple Nickel will tell Whirlpool attendees about his work training astronauts for weightlessness through stomach churning parabolic flight. Triple also helps shuttle pilots to feel like they have landed the Space Shuttle hundreds of times without even blasting off. He uses the Johnson Space Center Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) to accomplish this simulated experience which prepares the pilots for the real life achievement on their return from space.

The Great Leviathan is under repair and maintenance and it is hoped that it will rise to the occasion and thrill astronomers from around the world who will attend the twenty first Whirlpool Star party and who will enjoy the experience of observing in Birr Castle.

Just a little view of the presentations to come at Whirlpool 2006 in Ireland, more speaker confirmations and details will be available shortly

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