Observation – 4 September 2019

MMAO - Aligning the 12" Cave-Cassegrain telescope

On Wednesday, September 4, Zacharia and Pendaeli opened the observatory for a survey of four stars. The goal was to establish how far off the RA axis of rotation is due to the remaining, incomplete alignment of the telescope. If we had just one night with more than an hour of clear skies after sunset, we’d have this done and move on. But such is astronomy. For all the understanding of the workings of the world, we do not (yet) control the weather (which is probably a good thing).

I have included the observation notes (top), as an example of how important it is to record data points for every experiment, no matter how seemingly simple or irrelevant to the long-term goal, as that history helps us prepare for the future endeavors.

MMAO - Aligning the 12" Cave-Cassegrain telescope The starting position (not noted) was the star Antares. As such, the RA and Dec coordinates were a perfect match. They then moved the telescope through 3 other stars before returning to the Antares again, all remaining on the Home side of the pedestal.

Clearly, we have a misalignment for the RA values do not match. This is not a drift test, rather a pointing test, but it does give us clues. The smaller errors are within the expected tolerance of a hand-placed telescope before advanced alignment techniques. The substantial error on the final measurement is likely a misreading of the RA setting circle or the circle was not set tight and slipped.

When next we have a clear night for at least one hour, we’ll conduct our final drift test and then determine how to adjust the mount alignment accordingly.

I want to emphasize on behalf of my colleagues at MMAO that this represents their first scientific experiment of any kind outside of the classroom, perhaps at all. With my being half the African continent away, I am little more than a guide through email and instant messaging.

Therefore, I extend my pride in the instructors and students of Ailanga Secondary School who in just one month went from having used a relatively simple telescope (if at all) to operating a sophisticated instrument while working toward professional alignment in order to be more equipped to see deep sky objects such as distant nebulae and galaxies.

Great work!

Observation – 30 August 2019

MMAO - Establshing the home position for the 12" Cave-Cassegrain telescope

Last night Zacharia and Pendaeli attended the observatory in order to establish four stars in the “home” position of the 12″ telescope for both RA setting circle and drift alignment tests.The following is Zacharia’s summary of the observation session:

“Tonight Pendaeli and I found stars to locate at our home position in order to test properly our RA setting circle and compare the time difference between [the computer software] Stellarium and that of the RA setting circle, which we will do tomorrow. We learned that [the rotation of the] RA setting circle matches exactly to our clocks when we were tracking stars. That’s awesome for us because we didn’t know [this] before! And [as previously] noted … objects drift off the center … another test to be done soon.

MMAO - Establshing the home position for the 12" Cave-Cassegrain telescope We selected four stars: Antares, Acrab (a double star), Dschubba, and ‘pi Sco’. These will make the tasks of our RA setting circle tests and drift alignment much easier.

Most exciting for us, we viewed our first double star! Stellarium noted that Acrab should have two stars orbiting each other. While they were not clear through the 40mm eyepiece, when we inserted the higher power 32mm we were able to see a clear separation between the two stars. Amazing!

That’s what we accomplished. Ahsante sana!”

An Ambassador’s story, by Zacharia

From the airport in Nairobi, I reached out to the ambassadors asking for their experience in the thirty days working to bring our observatory to life.

This just in from Zacharia Mjungu, a teacher at Ailanga, one of the astronomy ambassadors. Edits are in [brackets], per his request.

“Here is my story I can tell, for the past one month working in the observatory. It has been a great opportunity to me that everyone was involved … given [a] chance no matter the background or whatever the case may be. I came to realize that learning is a process that need[s] to be practiced day by day as we have been doing under [Kai’s] guidance.

Through [his] perspective “we are all learning together, no one knows everything” especially [concerning the] universe, and the perspective of allowing anyone to ask questions. “No such a thing is a stupid question, only stupid people who don’t ask questions,” Kai would say.

At first it was hard for me (maybe for everyone else) to catch up with the process but as [the] days [went] by, I came to realize that it was a right thing to be involved fully, [for] no one else was to do it for us. Instead we were part of the process (we are still doing it) not just for Kai, but l felt it was our responsibility and everyone who is willing to learn, teachers and students all together.

This really opened up my mind to see things in different angles and realized that through astronomy we can build the best educational system in our country and make great critical thinkers and achieve more in everything. I have a lot to tell but this is what came to mind and I think the most important part of all we have accomplished in one month is “TEAMWORK SPIRIT”. We worked together as a team. (Pardon for my English) you can edit it. [Much] more to learn.”–Zacharia

Arm wrestling for a discount, dancing in the observatory, and my departure

Yesterday, Saturday, August 24 found us engaged from mid morning ’till 3 am when the taxi took me to the Kilimanjaro airport.

At 11 am Elineema, Thomas and I went to town to trade a like-new inkjet printer for a simpler, more robust laser. We have come to rely on the hilarious and incredibly engaging stationary shop owner Miqdad. During our prior visit (Thursday) we enjoyed fresh bananas and juice while his employee located a large plastic tarp, tool box, and RAM for Zacharia’s laptop. He saved us hours of time, which is greatly appreciated.

I had asked for a discount to support the project. He hesitated, wanting to but knowing it would cut into his margins. I challenged him to an arm wrestling match. I win–10%. He wins, full sticker price. He reluctantly agreed, both of us bragging a bit before we clasped hands. With employees and customers looking on, I got the discount!

I enjoyed a late lunch with the OSEO board of directors and then a return to the observatory yesterday evening after packing my bags at the lodge. Eineema remained with me until 3 am when he escorted me to the airport before returning to his home near Usa River.

Elineema and I worked with limited conversation, engaged in cleaning up one of the OSEO laptops, copying my full music library, collimating the AWB 5″ reflector telescope (again), fabricating the telescope cover, and a few odds and ends.

I have introduced my associates to Bach, Mozart, Dead Can Dance, Enya, Annie Lennox, Toto, Styx, and more. In turn they introduced me to the Observatory Shuffle, a dance one can enjoy while working on a telescope, tools in hand.

I have come to appreciate and thoroughly enjoy the kind of friendship the people of this region of the world provide. It is sincere, deep, and long-lasting. No social network can replace what we share in person, hand-in-hand working for a common goal.

I admit to feeling tremendously alone today, despite being surrounded by people at the Nairobi airport as I await my flight to Cape Town. I already look forward to my return to Tanzania, the observatory we have built, and the students who crave the knowledge and experience this project affords.

A time to reflect

Today (Friday) is my second to last day in Tanzania. Sunday morning I fly to Cape Town, South Africa where I will reside for ~2 weeks, working from an apartment and the South African Astronomical Observatory. I will miss this place like never before, for here at the base of Mt. Meru I have found a new home. Rev. Majola, Chairman Thomas Mbise, and astronomy ambassadors Elineema, Eliona, Pandaeli, Zacharia and Eliatosha have become good friends in addition to colleagues and conspirators in all that we do to improve science education in this country. We have become a team, accomplishing what was surely impossible in an impossibly brief twenty odd days.

Last night we stopped and looked around us at the elegant, functional, profoundly unique “spaceship of the imagination” we have created and realize that nothing like this exists anywhere in East Africa. The Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory is more than just a building, it is a place for exploration of the unknown. In the coming years we will say again and again “I don’t know!” and then work to find the answers together.

Asante sana to the late Chuck, Sue, Mponda and the OSEO board of directors for making this possible, to the students who delight us in their enthusiasm to learn and never stop asking questions, and to my new friends for welcoming me to your part of the world. This is just the beginning!

Reduced Play in the RA, Setting Circles Aligned, and Observation

MMAO - Eliatosha rebuilds a 5" reflector telescope

Yesterday was a whirlwind, go-go-go attempt to cross off as many final items from our TODO list.

We returned to the issue of “play” in the RA arm and axis of rotation, reducing it considerably with a tighter configuration of the friction clutch and application of nuts on the back of the rear plate. We yet need to return to the front plate and insert brass bushings, but this will require a proper mill and press, and more time. We will engage the Arusha Technical University for this endeavor later this year, perhaps when I return.

Zacharia and Elineema fabricated pointers for both the Dec and RA setting circles, mounting them using existing tapped holes while Eliatosha and I rebuilt his Celestron-AWB ‘One Sky’ 5″ reflector (the same model as the one I worked on a few days ago). We fully disassembled the entire instrument, cleaned it top to bottom and reassembled. We then tested and selected the two best eyepieces, a 25mm and 12mm Celestron. The end result brings this telescope nearly back to factory quality, only a few permanent, light mineral stains on the mirror without resolve.

I completed my review of all the eyepieces, packaging them for storage at the OSEO office as we simply do not need two dozen eyepieces at the observatory. Now, each telescope has color coded (using electrical tape) eyepieces and an associated tripod mount. We have six telescopes in all, the 12″ Cave-Cassegrain, Celestron-AWB 5″ telescoping reflector, 3″ Celestron spotting scope, a 2.5″ Meade refractor, and two small Galileo refractors which we have decided are best used without a tripod, just by hand for first time explorers of the night sky.

I was excited to find in one of the boxes a solar filter which I taped to the inside of a light reduction cover for the Celestron spotting scope. Now we have the ability to safely view the sun using our second highest quality telescope. It works beautifully!

We observed for roughly two hours, in and out of cloud cover and conducted our first “drift” test. Our setting circles were calibrated for the first time and they are spot-on. We can use the circles to bring the telescope to within the field of view of our spotting scope using, which is about all you can ask of these devices without an optical encoder and computer control. We are proud of our effort and know we have done well. With limited tools and our creativity for in-house fabrication, we have done fantastic, high-quality work.

I am proud of us all!

Ubuntu, the Moon at MMAO, and a Night of Observing

MMAO - Bringing the Moon to the observatory

Yesterday saw a whirlwind of activity, morning ’till night. Zacharia was successful in his first installation of Ubuntu and installation of the ExFAT ‘fuse’ driver. You know you have a true geek in the making when you get a high-five following first use of the command line! He then copied ~200GB of data from a shared backup drive and is up and running, with LibreOffice a welcomed replacement for Microsoft’s monopoly on this part of the world.

Thomas, Zacharia and I went to Arusha to purchase a plastic tarp to protect the telescope, magazine boxes for the library, two binders for our myriad NASA photos, user manuals, and info packets; double-sided foam tape to fix the massive 8 x 1.5 meter LROC print of Tycho Crater to the wall (thank you ASU SESE!), and a toolbox for our now substantial workshop. Eliona brought students from his school for a tour of the observatory and then sorted three years of New Scientist magazines into the new filing system–thank you!

We worked into the night, closed up shop after dark only to find the stars had come out. Eliona and Elineema departed (they live further away and must be certain to catch the last matatu) while Zacharia, Pendaeli and I remained. We were able to conduct an extensive test of the Orion 5MB CCD camera (and are quite disappointed) and our first drift test (results to be posted at another time, after confirmation of our findings).

Rebuilding telescopes, selecting eyepieces

MMAO - Rebuilding portable telescopes

Today Eliatosha, Eliona and I rebuilt the 3″ Celestron refractor and a smaller, longer focal length Meade refractor telescope. It took a few hours to fully disassemble, clean the lenses, and put them together again. But the end result, the Celestron in particular, is stunning. The quality of the image is simply magical.

Then we tested a dozen eye pieces in each telescope, finding the ideal combination. For the Celestron, in fact, the Celestron brand 25mm and 12mm eye pieces delivered the best image. In the Meade, with a noted lower quality we decided to retain the higher quality Meade eye pieces for other instruments.

The final assembles are now color coded with electrical tape such that if a part is misplaced it will readily find its home position.

It feels good to bring these instruments back to nearly factory conditions. They won’t be used if the images are not bright and crisp. Now, we have two dozen eye pieces to clean, test, sort, and store; some for use, others saved for future telescopes.

I am amazed by how many instruments we have in all, ten years of Chuck, Sue, and others bringing telescopes to this country. Thank you!

Spring Cleaning and Building a Reticle

MMAO - Home made reticle eyepiece

Today we completed the sorting of the Organization for Science Education and Observatory (OSEO) office at Ailanga Secondary School, taking all tripods, telescopes, and eye pieces to the observatory for cleaning and repair. There, we watched three videos on using the “drift method” to complete the alignment of our telescope, but were once again foiled with cloud cover this evening, only a few start pushing through from time to time. We cleaned and validated operation of all four OSEO laptops, and will tomorrow install Ubuntu Linux on one of them, one remaining with Windows, one with Eliona, and the fourth placed in storage in the office, as a backup.

While hoping for the clouds to clear, we built our own reticle eyepiece from a single strand of a plastic twine. It worked. Tomorrow we will superglue it such that we have this for alignment testing, in addition to use of the CCD camera and monitor.

The hi-light was when an elephant came into the compound this evening, just as a half dozen girls from the school were walking to the observatory. We heard both at the same time and raced outside with my headlamp to spot the elephant as it departed. The girls seated themselves on the floor and immediately dove into the library.

I feel I have accomplished something grand every time a student picks up a book and reads and then asks questions. Tonight, we discussed black holes, how they form and how they affect things around them. We used our bodies and a headlamp to demonstrate a gravitational lens and discussed how even light can be bent, or pulled totally in.

The Ambassadors Meeting and a Night of Observation

MMAO Ambassador meeting

Today was a big day, from sunrise to sunset. Eliona arrived to my lodge a bit past 7:00 am to engage in a review of the agenda for the ambassador meeting. We printed copies here at the lodge, and by 9:00 am were knee deep sifting through a half dozen suit cases in the OSEO office, the accumulation of years of donations to science education.

For me, it was the first time to witness the incredible array of chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy material that had been brought to this school, most of it untouched for quite some time, if ever. We focused on astronomy, bringing two dozen books to the new observatory library, eye pieces for our growing collection, and telescopes and tripods for testing, mending, and eventual use.
I know how much Chuck wanted for each and every one of these items to be used. He can smile in his ethereal state, knowing it is finally happening.

At 11:30 am Thomas and I went to town to purchase 10 plastic chairs, juice, and biscuits for the Astronomy Ambassadors seminar, and a few office related things. We raced back up the mountain to the observatory just as the first Ambassadors were arriving a few minutes past 1 pm.

The seminar went very well, the observatory the perfect building in which to house such a meeting. It will be impossible to retell all that we discussed and learned, but in general, the agenda was as follows:

  1) General introduction to all in the room by Elineema and Eliona, and a moment of prayer to honor Chuck.

  2) Introduction to Astronomy education by Kai.

  3) Watch a short film about the SALT education program in South Africa, and discuss.

  4) Watch the first 10 minutes of Episode 1 of the new COSMOS series, and discuss.

  5) Introduction to the telescope, with discussion of refractor vs reflector, Dobsonian, Newtonian, and Cassegrain, and the three axis for equatorial mounts. We then engaged in a hands-on effort using spotting scopes and moving the 12″ on its equatorial mount.

  6) We closed with questions and answers and a continued discussion about science education in the classroom.

To this final point, much of the afternoon (2-5:30 pm) was spent not on astronomy, but the challenges of education. I opened by stating that the hardest part of science education is for the teachers themselves to change how they engage the students. They must encourage and support the students asking questions they themselves cannot answer. They must celebrate every time a students raises their hand and baffles the instructor. This totally flips two centuries of colonial classrooms on their heads. Yet, it must happen for the next generation to rise up and do better than the one before.

These teachers are so strictly guided by the national examination review that they feel totally restricted by what is demanded. They have no time to be creative in the classroom, to do anything outside of the norm. Not a one of them has internet or a computer. Some of the schools have no computers at all. Lessons are recorded by hand, filling volumes of books with writing and sketches to copy what is in the shared text books or written on the board.

This is where Elineema stepped in and encouraged each of them to see their job in the classroom as extended by time with the students after class, teaching in a new way through engagement and interaction and collaborative learning.

I asked the question, “Would you rather have students ask questions that you can answer, or questions you have to answer together?” and “Which one of these is a sign of your success?”

Zacharia added a beautiful segment to support this, given what I had shared but more importantly, what he has experienced in the classroom too. He recognized the challenge that lay before them, but emphasized that we can make a change. Elineema provide a passionate plea for the ambassadors to return to their schools and take a new, personal approach to science education.

In my follow-up conversation with Mponda this evening, he said all classes much be taught as science classes, all subjects are a chance to explore and learn beyond the textbook, beyond the blackboard, notebook, and memorization. But without the internet, this is nearly impossible.

In closing, I shared a story I heard on NPR before coming here, that success in college entrance exams has almost no bearing on the success of an individual. In fact, successful entrepreneurs often did poorly on tests, entrance exams, and in traditional classrooms. I asked those present to take special care, to find alternatives for those students who struggle with the norm, for they are likely to become Tanzania’s leaders. Don’t punish them for not conforming to the rules, but help them to learn how they learn and then catapult forward.

The feedback for the day was positive across the board. These instructors had all met and worked with Chuck, Sue, and Mponda many years before, and had been waiting for this moment, for this reunion for as many as a half dozen years. Finally, we came together under the roll-off roof, in the company of a newly assembled library, new chairs, a 32″ TV, laptops, workstations of the likes they have never seen, and telescopes of several shapes and sizes.

For those that could stay, we enjoyed a brief view of the night sky over East Africa and together, we took our first step together toward a better Tanzania.