James Smith remembers when the universe really came alive for him – when, as a boy growing up in South Africa, he saw Halley’s Comet.
The comet was last visible from Earth in 1986 and is projected to return in 2061. James remembers thinking how amazing it was that seeing that comet was probably a one off and he may not be alive to see it again.
From then on, the night sky became a source of fascination. James is involved with the Auckland Astronomical Society and the Hibiscus Coast Radio Society, experimenting with things like looking for meteor pings, listening to the storms on Jupiter and bouncing signals off the moon as a way of communicating with other enthusiasts worldwide.
A popular pastime for astronomers at present is detecting pulsars – stars that flash out very high-energy beams.
“That used to be something only for people with access to very big satellite dishes, but the way technology is moving, it’s easier now for anyone to do it,” he says.
He also has a long-term fascination with communicating with other countries via meteor scatters – this requires incredible precision and involves bouncing a radio signal off a meteor trail as it enters the atmosphere.
“We’re trying to use meteor scatter to communicate with others on the east coast of Australia,” he says. “People might wonder why we just don’t use the internet – but this is a challenge and it becomes a bit like gaming. There’s a real sense of achievement when you’ve worked hard and found a way to successfully complete a complex task like that.”
Along with a small group of locals, James is keen to start up a Hibiscus Coast Astronomy Club, based at the Radio Society’s clubrooms in Whangaparaoa.
The first meeting, to get the ball rolling, is this month and anyone with an interest in the universe can come along.
“Many people look up at the night sky and don’t really know what they are seeing – but there is a wealth of information you can get by looking at the stars,” James says.
He says you don’t need any equipment, such as telescopes, to join the club and beginners are welcome – the club will hold separate meetings for beginners and those with more experience in the field.
“At the moment, you can observe Jupiter and three of its bigger moons just with a reasonable set of binoculars,” he says.
He says the group is working closely with the Auckland Astronomical Society and hopes that in time the local club can become a ‘satellite’ of that organisation.
The first meeting is on Thursday, June 21 at the Radio Society rooms, 479/1 Whangaparaoa Road and all are welcome.
Info: phone James on 021 164 8787 or look for Hibiscus Coast Astronomy on Facebook.