South Cheshire Astronomical Society

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(Page Updated: 30/07/2016 18:57 )
 

History: 2006 - 2012

One of the pleasures of living in South Cheshire is the fact that you don't have to travel too far in order to have skies that are relatively dark and free from light pollution. This is one of the reasons why the founder of the society, William Stewart, decided to move to the area from his previous home in South Manchester. William was an active member of West Didsbury Astronomical Society when he lived there and was keen to participate in one close to his new home. What quickly became apparant however was the fact that the nearest societies were quite some distance away in either Chester, Macclesfield or North Staffordshire.

Confident that there was likely to be interest in the Crewe and Nantwich area, William got in touch with the Nantwich Chronicle. An article was published asking for interested parties to get in touch and on Wednesday 9th August 2006 the first meeting took place at the Farmer's Arms Public House in Ravensmoor. Initial feedback was very positive - there were certainly a lot of people who were interested in becoming members - however it was clear that the chosen venue wasn't quite big enough. In addition the initial suggestion for the name of the society (Crewe and Nantwich Astronomical Society, CANAS) was deemed too parochial and the name South Cheshire Astronomical Society (SCASTRO) was proposed and approved. The attendees also wanted to keep administration and costs to a minimum so a low cost (if not free) meeting venue was a priority. Colin Cook suggested the Cosey Club in Haslington as somewhere that had more space and was relatively quiet.

And so the society was born with our first full season running from August 2006 to August 2007, meeting once per month on a Wednesday. From the outset one of the key aims of the society was to " ... get out and do astronomy ... " as opposed to just sit and listen to someone else talk about it. However the weather did not always cooperate and meeting nights were often cloudy. Being confined to licensed premises discussing what could be seen (if it had been clear) was about all we could do and this of course led to the inevitable dwindling enthusiasm and drop off in the number of attendees.

For the following 2007 / 08 season we increased the frequency of our meetings from once per month to once per fortnight in order to increase our potential observing opportunities. By this time we had found a meeting venue close to a dark observing site (the hall adjacent to Ravensmoor Methodist Church) which, although not free and certainly not licensed, was adequate for our needs. The nearby dark observing site (kindly offered by a neighbour) allowed the Milky Way and other faint objects to be easily observed with the unaided eye. It also benifitted from reasonably clear horizons and a good flat area for setting up equipment. The Church Hall however was not free and that meant that we had to introduce subscriptions. Additional costs came from the launch of the society website in October 2006 and so to minimise expenditure we alternated between the Cosey Club and Ravensmoor depending on the weather forecast. Although we were able to get some observing done, particularly during our meetings in April, May & June (as well as launch a few rockets), the number of attendeess however continued to dwindle - the average was typically seven and there were times it was as low as four. By the end of the season it was becoming clear that we were at a cross-roads. Should we perservere or fold?

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Things came to a head at the last meeting of the season in August 2008 in the Cosey Club. The glasses on the table weren't half full - both literally and metephorically they were completely empty and morale was at an all time low. We decided to take a gamble ...

By sheer coincidence the Cosey Club ran a "Open the Box" competition on Wednesday nights. This involved selling tickets with the holder of the winning ticket being given the opportunity to select a single key from a a bag containing thirteen keys. If the key unlocked a padlocked box then the winner kept the money contained therein. If not then the money stayed in the box until the following week by which time the proceeds from another week's worth of ticket sales had been added and there was one less key in the bag. There hadn't been a winner for weeks so there was a substatntial amount of cash in the box and not many keys left in the bag ...

So that night we bought a ticket. Truth be told we actually bought serveral tickets. And one of our numbers came up! Colin stepped up to the breech and with the confidence of a man who just knows he's the one he thrust his hand into the bag, pulled out the key and with a flourish unlocked the case. The money was ours ... an uncharacteristic cheer erupted from the astronomers! And the club regulars swivelled in our direction ... were those astronomers paid up members of the Cosey Club?

We took it as a sign that maybe we should carry on - our luck had turned that night so it was worth perservering. We rounded out the season with our first Rocket Day in Wrenbury. This was an opportunity to have a more social event with a BBQ and model rockets though the high winds and an overly ambitious payload weight led to a sub-optimal flight profile during one of the missions:

At least the rocket was recovered and lived to fly another day. One other (on its maiden flight) was last seen drifting over the horizon.

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For the 2008 / 09 season we'd have to organise something. And so began the hybrid nature of our society whereby some meeting nights would have one or more structured events such as talks from members / visitors or training in the use of equipment. This approach had the caveat that in the event that clear skies prevailed, the scheduled event would be curtailed in order to allow attendees to go out to observe. We made life difficult for ourselves by operating a rather confusing period during the first few months when meeting nights switched between Tuesdays, Wednesdays & Thursdays. In retrospect this was madness but at the time it seemed to make sense.

To get the ball rolling on our new "event based" approach William gave a talk on "Observing Satellites" in December to a packed Cosey Club audience made up of society members and the general public. Colin oversaw the PA equipment and suspended a model of the ISS complete with somewhat flaccid solar panels (" ... it was never designed to operate in a 1G environment ... ") from the ceiling. Attendance mushroomed to well over twenty-five. William followed up with another public talk in the Cosey Club in February, this time discussing "The Size of Space". This again pulled in the crowds thanks in no small part to Colin arranging a plug for us on the morning of the talk from Ken Bruce on BBC Radio 2. In March we made the permanent move to Ravensmoor and we had a reasonable run of clear observing nights during Spring. Our membership was no longer in freefall ... but our overheads were exceeding our income so we still had work to do. We rounded out the season with a second successful Rocket Day in Wrenbury.

 

We needed to make some more changes and so for the 2009 / 10 season we decided at the end of October to change the meeting frequency back down to once per month. While this reduced our observing opportunities, it made more financial sense now that we were incurring costs. Nigel Ball became a key figure in the running of the society and inspired the incorporation of Stellarium to simulate the night sky on a large screen to explain what was currently visible in the night sky. This is now one of the most popular and productive aspects of our meetings. In June 2009 Jim Rankin very kindly donated an 8" Skywatcher Dobsonian to the society <check name / date> and this became a great asset to us during our observing sessions. Tom McCallister oversaw the refurbishment of this telescope and included some customisation to improve its useability. Average attendance was now treble what it had been in previous years and we were able to get out and observe on almost half of our meeting nights. Our attempt at a third Rocket Day was thwarted by the weather but we were able to hold a successful Star-B-Q. In the meantime we continued to see a steady stream of donations of astronomy related books and magazines to complement our library.

 

During the summer recess further work was done to formalise some of the society documentation and the approach to be adopted. We now had a a Welcome Pack for potential members as well as better visibility of scheduled events. As a consequence we really had a solid structure and plan as we entered the 2010 / 11 season, with talks from members and external speakers. The season kicked off in September with Yvonne Elsworth discussing "The Sun" which in turn led ultimately to our Solar Project. Additional presentations from both Nigel & William together with the "Night Sky" section from Tom, as well as talks from other speakers, helped to solidify the membership. The weather was also kind with observing being possible on almost half of the meeting nights. Attendance continued to grow to sustainable levels and the future of the society was placed on a much firmer footing.

Work commitments for both William & Nigel meant they had to hand over running the society to a group of members from the 2011-12 year. This committee considered the venue in Ravensmoor, which. although a good location for dark skies, was not easily accessible for those without cars nor ideal for public talks and indoor meetings. After reviewing a number of venues, we settled on the public talks programme being at South Cheshire College, a more central location; near bus routes and accessed from well-lit streets. It is an attractive new building with disability access, good IT & presentation facilities. With William's advice & booking of speakers, the society ran a programme of 3 talks by experts from Manchester University on Planetary Nebula, the Birth & Death of Stars and Meteorites and the Early Solar System. Observing nights were moved to St Pater's Church Hall at Bradfield Green where the sky is reasonably dark & the building is modern & enables comfortable indoor meetings on cloudy nights.

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