On holiday with a telescope

Andromeda galaxy

In the northern sky at one hour right ascension and 40 degrees north declination — the coordinate on the celestial sphere analogous to longitude on the Earth and the angular distance north of the celestial equator — lies Andromeda. After her death, the beautiful Ethiopian princess was placed there by Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, to shine for all eternity.

With the blessing of a new moon — and so, next to no moonlight — Andromeda was visible in her full glory these August summer nights, from high atop a wooded hill in the Czech village of Pivon, just a few kilometres from the German border.

Amateur Czech astronomer Josef Poznicek, aged 72, has been watching the heavens since he was a teenager. For the past decade, he has joined hundreds of other Czech stargazers for the "Holiday with a Telescope" summer camp.

"For me the most beautiful object in the heavens is the Andromeda but also the double stars of Perseus and Cassiopeia."

Now in its fifteenth year, the idea to establish the camp was born during a course on how to build telescopes held at the Rokycany observatory, which is about an hour outside of Prague.

Mr Poznicek says Andromeda remains among the most beautiful objects to be seen in the northern sky from a Czech vantage point, which he describes as "truly wonderful."

In the early years nearly everyone attending the camp built his or her own telescope, says observatory director and camp leader Karel Halir. This year, only about half of the 55 telescopes brought to the camp are entirely self-made creations — many are factory assembled — but participants continue to use their ingenuity, he explains.

"One has a base that was taken from a baby's pram. Another uses part of an old Dacia car. One participant uses a kind of special rotating chair that turns the whole telescope with it. So they really use all kinds of very clever ways to assemble or improve their telescopes. I can even remember one using tins from pickled cucumbers as tubes."

On a clear night, these amateur astronomers will stay up until three or four in the morning, comparing views of the heavens through their homemade apparatuses with their different filters. One such participant, Milan Antos, has constructed a collapsible or fold-up mirror telescope, completely free of screws or bolts because, he says, when you lose one in the grass in the middle of the night, you're lost. Just how long this labour of love took, he can't quite say.

"Well, it took about 300 hours of work — plus thinking about how to build it, which you don't really measure. In my case, I thought about it for about a year. So it's hard to calculate exactly but for sure at least 300 hours of manual labour."

The Milky Way is our home in the Universe on a grander scale than just our planet or solar system. Practically everything we see just looking up into the night sky is a part of it, except for a few visible extragalactic objects such as the Andromeda galaxy, or M31, the nearest spiral galaxy to Earth.

In the latitude of Central Europe, Cassiopeia — Andromeda's vain mother — appears nearly in the zenith. The new moon allowed this year's "Holiday with a Telescope" summer camp to focus on this remote universe, these deep sky objects.

Otakar Prochazka, a high school teacher from Prague, has his own private observatory which is home to a telescope that weighs some 500 kilos. He estimates he has seen most of the mapped stars of Andromeda, and her family.

But his fascination never fades. To Pivon, he brought his small, homemade telescope, which weighs a mere 20 kilos and which Mr Prochaska designed to function in all kinds of weather and climes.

"It has even experienced a sandstorm. It's been to Africa. Its last trip was to Hungary, where were observed the eclipse."

This week, he was more than content to observe and photograph the Milky Way in the company of his fellow stargazers on the sandstorm free slopes of Pivon.