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Caught up in the Whirlpool

…Star Party, that is. On the weekend of October 8 – 10, 2010, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time which means that I was in Birr, County Offaly, Ireland for a wonderful event called “The Whirlpool Star Party”. Now in its 24th year (not counting a 1-year break), this gathering of astronomers, both professional and amateur, from all over Ireland, the UK, and elsewhere, features informative talks, stargazing and of course, social gatherings.


The setting is a historic town and castle made famous for the great “Leviathan” telescope on its grounds, from which the 3rd Earl of Rosse made drawings of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) and was the first to discover the spiral nature of galaxies in the early 1840s. The telescope itself was recently restored, but due to health and safety concerns related to the observing platforms, people are not allowed to use it for observing anymore. We did get a good look at it and heard details of its history and operation from tour guide, John Joyce.  (You can read more about the castle, grounds, telescope, and science center here:

The talks were excellent. After an opening speech by the 7th Earl of Rosse, an inspiring talk entitled “The Role of Supernovae in Modern Cosmology” was given by Tom Boles, past President and current VP of the BAA. Using his three automated telescopes in the UK, he has discovered more supernovae than anyone in history. There was also a very entertaining presentation given by Prof. John Brown (Astronomer Royal for Scotland) who used magic tricks to illustrate the properties of black holes.

Probably the most interesting thing for me was learning just how much cutting-edge astronomy is taking place in Ireland right now. Dr. Niall Smith (head of research in the Department of Applied Physics and Technology at the Cork Institute of Technology) described his work and their group’s innovations in control systems for robotic telescopes, high-precision photometry, and the automated data pipeline. The telescope they use for studying blazers is located in the 16th century Blackrock Castle, in Cork. (read more)

There was also a talk by Dr. John Quinn (Senior Lecturer in the School of Cosmic Physics at University College – Dublin) who designed and implemented the data acquisition software for VERITAS a ground-based gamma-ray detection instrument operated in southern Arizona. His talk outlined some of the challenges and successes of the system. 

Of course, no castle is complete without its radio telescope, and Birr got its through the efforts of Trinity College researcher Dr. Peter Gallagher. He gave us a tour of the facility (which not so long ago was housing sheep!)  and told us about their research into the effects of solar flares and CMEs on terrestrial systems. (read more)

So if you happen to find yourself in this part of the world next year around this time next year, be sure to attend the 25th Whirlpool Star Party. You won’t be disappointed!

-Sara Beck, AAVSO Science Team

AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 617-354-0484