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Visitors to Eldon House 19th century stargazing night treated to planetary delights

19th Century Stargazing at Eldon House

[view slideshow] [images on Flickr]

There exist some of those occasions when, both literally and figuratively, all of the planets align.

The 19th Century stargazing night held at Eldon House on Sunday evening, April 12, 2015, was blessed with such timing, or what some would call very good planning.

The night was hosted by Eldon House, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's (RASC) London Centre, The Department of Physics and Astronomy's Exploring the Stars program, and The Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at Western.

Eldon House board and RASC member Mark Tovey was the mastermind behind this coming together of several worldy and other-worldly events, all of which were orchestrated for the eyes of a group of approximately 50 lucky registered visitors.

April 12, 2015 was Yuri's Night, a night of worldwide celebration of humankind's accomplishments in space, named for the famed Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person is space. This was the seed for the occasion. In addition, this Eldon House event is one of many that celebrate its 180th birthday.

Mark and Tricia as John and Amelia HarrisMark Tovey and fellow RASC member Tricia Colvin dressed as John and Amelia Harris.  Eldon House was built for John Harris in 1834 after he had become Treasurer for London District. Harris, a veteran sailor in the War of 1812, had been asked to help survey the Great Lakes after the war.  Thus, historic navigation would be the evening's theme.  In addition, the recently discovered telescope of John Harris was on display in the lecture hall.

Paul as James Bayfield

Mark began things with a slide presentation. He described how, in John Harris' survey work, there was a need to determine latitude and longitude by the observation of heavenly bodies. On this very evening there would indeed be such a fortuitous occultation of Jupiter's moon Io. An event such as this occultation would have been observed and timed by sailors like Harris for the purpose of finding their east-west location on the globe, namely their longitude. On this particular April evening, the visitors would themselves be able to witness such an occultation through telescopes on the back lawn of the Eldon house.

Mark also descibed how the sextant was used to find the navigator's north-south position on the globe, in other words their latitude. Mark relived some wonderful historic quotes by navigator Henry Bayfield who was also a member of the Great Lakes survey.  Bayfield's records show us that navigating by the stars on a frigid, windy, winter night is romantic only in history books. Professor Paul Wiegert, dressed smartly as Bayfield himself, would later show visitors how to use a sextant in much more benign conditions.

After the talk, the visitors were free to wander the grounds and take in the displays.

CPSX members Haley Sapers, Bianca D'Aoust, and Professor Phil McCausland, all dressed in period garb, showed off a large array of planetary items, maps, and models, along with real meteorites, including rare ones of the Martian and Lunar variety.  Phil is Western's meteorite curator, while Haley is CPSX's outreach co-ordinator.

Outside, along the sidewalk on Ridout St., Haley took visitors on a planet walk, demonstrating the relative distances between the planets.

On the back lawn of the house, nine telescopes were set up for various views of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which were shining brightly through the haze of an approaching frontal system.

Tony as Galileo GalileiA model of Galileo Galilei's first telescope, built by RASC member Dave McCarter was displayed by Physics and Astronomy PhD student Tony Martinez, who was dressed splendidly as Galileo himself. A few guests actually saw Jupiter and one of its moons through this telescope, which is quite a feat, given its poor field of view.

A 1920's era brass refractor provided by Physics and Astronomy, and operated by RASC members Steve Gauthier and Peter Jedicke, provided an interesting historical perspective, giving better views than the telescope of Galileo.

A replica brass spyglass, not unlike the one used by John Harris, and a 40mm Tasco refractor from the 1960s, both supplied by RASC member Patrick Whelan, were also available. The remaining complement of telescopes were of the modern variety.

Emily McCullough and scopePhysics and Astronomy PhD student Emily McCullough, in period dress, and using a Celestron 20cm scope, showed visitors Jupiter through both the eyepiece and through an imaging camera on a laptop computer. Emily also gave a sky tour with a laser pointer.

Bob Duff and scopeRASC member Bob Duff used his Meade scope on Dobsonian mount to view Jupiter, while Roman Dubinski pointed at Venus with his 127mm Maksutov scope. Prior to bringing out his 80mm refracting scope, RASC member Joseph O'Neil took some drone videos of the site. RASC member Patrick Whelan, in bright military red-coat, brought his 4.5 inch Bushnell Voyageur scope.

The clouds held off beautifully, and the backyard of Eldon House was filled with sky watchers. The evening was pleasant, but a bit of dampness cooled things off. Much hot chocolate was consumed.

During the course of the evening, Rogers TV came out for an interview with Mark Tovey.

At approximately 9:12pm local time, some of the visitors were fortunate enough to view the moon Io reappear from eclipse by the Jupiter's shadow, just as surveyors John Harris or Henry Bayfield could have done 200 years ago. Thus the evening's theme on navigation by the stars and planets came full circle.

The dedicated group of Eldon House volunteers worked along with the astronomers and planetary scientists to make the evening a resounding success.

19th Century Stargazing at Eldon House