Teachers’ First Light at Mt. Meru Observatory 

Twelve teachers from Nshupu Secondary School in the Arusha region paid a visit to Mt. Meru Astronomy Observatory. It was the first visit of its kind with so many teachers at once observing the night sky at the observatory. 

The visit was organized, by the academic office of the Nshupu secondary school lead by Mr. Rashid Mkwinda. It was the first time the teachers closely observing the heavenly bodies using a  big telescope. 

The late Chuck Ruehle, the man behind the observatory establishment would be pleased to be there for this moment. Though we can’t fill his presence, we believe his spirit is cherishing this moment with us all.

It was his vision, for the observatory to be the center for science education and learning.  This day was for sure a starting point for that. 

Teachers’ first light experience was decorated with an observation of the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus using both big and small telescopes at the observatory. 

Craters of the moon and color patterns, Jupiter’s moons, and Saturn rings are some of the good memories of the day that will remain with teachers for long. It is certain, some of the experience will be used in the classrooms to foster learning. 

Discussion on their experience is already ongoing on Facebook where more teachers are inspired to visit the observatory to experience their first light. 

Useful suggestions were also provided by the teacher to enhance the observation experience. Being the first time the observatory receive that big number of teachers, it was recommended to connect the big telescope with the LCD screen in the observatory for easy observation.

This could also address the challenge for tall people who had squit to observe through the eyepiece for shorter ones not to reach the eyepiece.  We welcome experiences from other observatories on how they managed to address similar challenges. 



The Observatory is open for business!

students observing at MMAO students observing at MMAO Mbise and Nassary at MMAO

After a long, difficult year, the Mt. Meru Astronomical Observatory is once again open for business and inviting schools to attend.

Pendaeli Nassary writes, “We received 41 students and two teachers from the Akeri Secondary School.”

Ambassador Mbise writes, “I was very happy to visit the observatory for the first time with my friend Elineema Nassari. I wish not many days to visit there [again] with students from our school, [such] that they can see the good things that were done at the observatory.”

Viewing the Moon for the very first time

MMAO - observing session Astronomy Ambassador Zacharia Mujungu, instructor at Ailanga writes, “This past Saturday we enjoyed the first clear sky after an unusually long, long period of rainfall. I and Pendaeli hosted Form One students at the MMAO observatory. They were so excited to observe the Moon and Venus through the telescope for first time in their life. This big smiling faces is the indicator that this telescope is the cornerstone for science revolution in Tanzania. We feel indebted to do more and go extra miles to make it available to all students in the country, [working to] change the classroom learning environment by encouraging hands on activities (DIY), not just test scores.

Camera Test, Observation, Movie Night

MMAO - lunar photos

Yesterday afternoon I reinstalled Windows on the observatory laptop, as we had issues with a virus. It is working much better now. I also re-installed the Orion CCD camera software, then attached the camera to the Celestron spotting telescope for a test run. It is the first time we have been successful in getting quality images.

[The same night] we opened the observatory and we were able to observe the Moon, again testing our CCD camera. I was able to capture some decent images. Thereafter [we] hosted movie night with my students on the COSMOS series, with a reading session in our library. We enjoyed a good conversation about the Episode 6 story, especially [on] the issue of the photosynthesis process, and how it is important to our life on earth. The students [expressed] concern for the “Tardigrade” and its high survival rate, ability to live anywhere in any environment. The questions were How is that possible? How did it survive all five mass extinctions on Earth? This make them to be [a] very special species, among all living things ever existed in the universe.

Other topics of interest were the supernova explosions and the law of conservation of energy. In the students’ physics classes, they study only the theory, so they were so surprised to see the way Tyson bet his nose, just letting the hanging stone/ball go and swing back without hitting his face! Then, they could see that the law of conservation of energy and other scientific laws are real!

Observation – 28 September 2019

MMAO - Aligning the 12" Cave-Cassegrain telescope

Last night MMAO Astronomy Ambassadors Zacharia Mjungu and Pendael Nassary were successful in conducting a third drift test, this time noting all parameters to make certain we can effectively interpret the results and align the telescope more accurately.

In short summary, they selected a star almost directly overhead, which at MMAO is close to the celestial equator. They rotate the reticle eyepiece such that when slewing the telescope East and West the star tracked parallel to one of the two cross hairs. They then centered the star and with the RA motor engaged, allowed the star to drift from center to edge.

With a 25mm eyepiece, it took 23 minutes for the star to move past the edge. This is very good for a hand-aligned telescope and perfect for public star parties, but for astro-photography we want to do better.

Now, they will interpret the results using the guidance provided on this website for the Southern Hemisphere, and suggest how we can make very small adjustments to the polar and/or equatorial axis.

Stay tuned!

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!”

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).

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.