SPA Convention 2007 - A Short Report

It's been almost a year and a half of waiting but, finally, last Saturday arrived and it was time for the second Society for Popular Astronomy convention.

The day was laid out similar to that of the first convention with various talks during the day, the main talk being The Planet Venus and the Venus Express Mission by Professor Fred Taylor. Alongside all the talks were various stands by the sections of the SPA and also various stalls hosted by a number of vendors of items relating to astronomy.

The doors opened around 09:30 and the main reception area seemed to fill up very quickly – for a short while there was even a queue to get in. Around 10:00, after people had had a chance to get in, get a drink (drink and food was available for sale all day) and have a look around some of the displays and stalls, the bell was rung and people filed into the lecture theatre to hear Dr Ian Crawford deliver the welcome and then hand over to Nik Szymanek for the first talk of the day.

The talk was mostly for beginners and provided plenty of information on how to get started photographing the night sky. Nik also went on to relate some of his experiences photographing from the top of La Palma while showing us some of the results acquired during such trips (including some excellent images of daytime atmospheric phenomena).

A tea break followed and I joined a guided tour of the Thorrowgood and Northumberland telescopes. The Thorrowgood telescope had been set up to track and project the Sun (and, as you'd expect, this happened to be a day with no sunspots visible) while the Northumberland had been set up to track Venus. Sadly, during the tour I was on (there were many such tours available during the day), there was just enough cloud cover to make such an observation impossible.

When I got back from the tour it was time for Nik's second talk of the day, this time an interactive question and answer session dealing with all aspects of astronomical imaging. Given that I'm not that interested in imaging at the moment I decided to skip this and, instead, have a wander around the stalls. I had a chat with Greenwitch — mostly about last year's and this year's Astroblast (the good news is that this time round there will be catering!) – and I also had a good look around the stall run by Astronomica (while there I picked up an affordable 2x barlow to replace the rather terrible one that came with my Explorer 130M – I'm hoping it should do a better job and I'll report on that when I get the chance to try it out).

The next talk was in two parts, the first was about the Terran Planets and was delivered by Michael Hezzlewood; the second part was about observing Saturn and was delivered by Ian Phelps. The talks were slightly delayed due to problems with the projection system and part of the talk was slightly marred by the lack of a microphone (leading to the occasional shout of "speak up!" from the back of the room). Despite the technical problems both parts of the talk turned out to be interesting and informative.

After that talk I spent some time wandering around some more before having lunch. Around this time it was pointed out to me that Martin Rees was wandering around (given that we'd taken over his place of work for the day I guess it was no surprise) and he was kind enough to pose for some photographs.

Finally it was time for the main event: Professor Fred Taylor's talk about Venus and the Venus Express mission. It was great to see that the talk itself had been over-subscribed and that the lecture hall was packed out (despite having a ticket I ended up sitting on the floor at the front, although that was because I'd been helping out checking tickets on the door).

Professor Taylor started out with a background of Venus, paying particular attention to those questions that Venus Express was designed to answer. I found this pretty fascinating given that I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about Venus (at least, things that would be interesting to and understandable by an amateur with a layman's interest). I was particularly fascinated to learn about the Venus Polar dipole.

Professor Taylor then went on to explain some of the background and design of Venus Express, following up with an explanation of what it would be doing for the duration of the mission and also telling us about some of the results that have been acquired so far. He then finished off with a really fascinating sequence of slides that illustrated a visual connection he'd made between the latest images of the polar dipole and the Lorenz attractor.

Another tea break followed and after that was a quick talk about Comet McNaught followed by a talk entitled Instruments for Planetary Observing. I skipped these while I took the opportunity to have another look around the various stands (and to also start helping with a bit of tidying up). The day then finished off with the raffle (I didn't win anything, Paul Sutherland, on the other hand, managed to win twice – grrrrr!).

In conclusion, from my point of view, the day was an incredible success. I spoke to many people during the day and every one of them said they they were really enjoying themselves – this included people who weren't members of the SPA (but, fingers crossed, will be some time soon). I really enjoyed it. The talks were interesting, entertaining and informative. The atmosphere of the whole day was friendly and welcoming. It was great to meet up with various names from the SPA again. It also felt like it was all over far too quickly.

It now looks like the convention will be held every other year and the next one, in 2009, promises to be extra special.

I can't wait.


Paul Sutherland said...

What a great report on a splendid day out, Dave. Yes, I did win twice on the raffle, but you forgot to point out that I returned my second prize (the MP3 player) for it to be drawn again. :-) I'm very glad I kept my other prize - three course text books for the Open University.

mark_smith said...

Great report Dave

Hope to get to one myself one day hopefully 2009.


Dave Pearson said...

It's true, Paul was kind enough to hand one of his prizes back to be drawn for again.

Doesn't mean I'm not jealous about his amazing luck though. ;)