History of the GAS

What spawned astronomy in Gibraltar in the late sixties? One man made it possible and that was Jose Maria Reyes (Joe)After years trying to get a club dealing with a subject that was often mistaken with the fantastical astrology, Joe tried his utmost to demystify and promote what astronomy was all about. Although we had events planned and organised, we still found it difficult to do away with the orthodox “let us know our future” by looking at the stars. What Joe did years later defined astronomy in Gibraltar when there were still western cultures that were living in the dark ages of science.

Low and behold, in 1987, the Gibraltar Astronomical Society (GAS) was formally formed, although what is not generally known was that a year before, in 1986, Joe Reyes and I had tried to establish a club due to the fact that there was an increased interest in the subject. This was due to Halley’s Comet's return after 76 years and all the publicity this generated. Regrettably very few people attended and it never came into fruition because we did not have the quorum needed to form a legally constituted Society. Ironically it was a year later when we had a packed room at the John Mackintosh Hall with over 50 people attending when the GAS became formally established.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Society grew in stature and major events were held. We managed to attract famous personalities in this field from the UK. The likes of Sir Patrick Moore, Heather Cooper and Nigel Henbest - heavyweights in this science. In the late 1980s we also had two very successful Astroweeks, in which the guest speakers were Heather and Patrick respectively, and where we witnessed a packed John Mackintosh Hall on both occasions! We also held numerous fund raising activities and the Gibraltar Government formally recognised us as the official Astronomical Society in Gibraltar where we still retain this honour. We are regularly contacted by the Tourist Board and other organisations (the Duke Of Edinburgh Award Scheme, for example) for questions on the subject or outings by different groups, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Guides. We have been registered in the Ministry Of Culture since 1988 and have always been contacted by the media on anything related to astronomy.

In the early 1990s The Windmill Hill Observatory (Europe’s Most Southern Observatory) was constructed, which saw an increase in the participation from members of the public in astronomical events. The most popular at that time was the partial eclipse of the Sun, which saw a huge number of people attending (around 500). This was a front page story on the Chronicle and Panorama as well as top news in the GBC. Likewise in 1990 I attended and represented Gibraltar in the British Astronomical Association’s centenary and presented them with a memento of Gibraltar (a silver model of The Rock) and gave a short talk on the history of GAS and its affiliation to the BAA where we are well known in this prestigious association thanks to our links with them over the years.

In 1997 and after 10 years as President, Joe Reyes decided to call it a day and did not present his candidature at our Annual General Meeting. It was a sad day for me and for the GAS. Subsequently in that meeting I was elected as President in which I have held the post ever since. In the 2000s we had the Venus transit of the Sun, which was held at the Caleta Hotel and data collated from Gibraltar was transmitted via the Internet to the UK. We had cameras and photographs monitoring the occasion. Something which was unheard of at the time and which saw the advent of the Internet at the time.

Sadly Joe passed away in 2013 and with him the man who had a vision and who transformed astronomy into awareness for the general public of this interesting subject. Joe had been at the forefront since the early 1960s in which he had a TV program on the GBC, which he hosted every week. His friends fondly called him “el hombre de las estrellas” (translation: "the man of the stars") and which he privately liked. For me he was my mentor and also a father and a friend and for that reason I have promised myself not to let his legacy die. 

Although Joe was the driving force in all of this there was a team of members that made it work. We had Leslie Lester, then the Director of Education, with his background in Physics and which he fought to have Astronomy in the curriculum as an O-Level subject and succeeded. His lectures on the subject for those who wanted to take the exam were incredible. Charlie Beanland, who loved astrophotography and helped beginners find their way across the heavens. Ana Russo, with her vast knowledge of comets and her incredible enthusiasm. Also Ian Bishop, who always helped us get the talks working by organising the allocation of the Charles Hunt Room and setting the overhead projector and video. Since then and until now; Christian Limacher whose graphic and computer expertise lights up the meetings and since the age of 10 has been a member and helped immensely. Joe Gonzalez, who was our Treasurer, and webmaster and always keen to roll up his sleeves and get working for the betterment of this hobby that he loves. Last but by no means least, Kevin Desoisa, another strong participant and one of the most important players in this Society who has always been there promoting the GAS and as Secretary, getting the contacts and organising the meetings. Without him the GAS would not exist.

Recently we have had the help of new up and coming members. Kayron Mercieca, whose incredible work in astrophotography is unrivaled here in Gibraltar and may I add, in a few other places on Earth (Kayron was a finalist in Astrophotographer of the Year 2013). Tom Toughill, whose educational aspect of Astronomy will help the youth and members alike. Also a young Einstein, Mark Montegriffo, who was co-opted as Junior President of GAS and I am sure will be an asset for us and a torch bearer for astronomy in general now and in the near future.

In 2013 we have had three successful outings. From Comet PanSTARRS to the Near-Earth Object which was advertised in the media and proved a much hyped and talked about event locally and internationally. In August we had the annual Perseids Meteor Shower, that although due to adverse weather conditions proved to be a non-event, but still we had over 300 people attending at the Catalan Bay car park, and which the Gibraltar Government kindly switched off the Northern Rock face lights to minimise the effects of light pollution and give us a dark sky.

What are our targets? First and foremost the main aims of the GAS are the promotion and dissemination of Astronomy in Gibraltar. That must always be kept in mind. On the educational aspect, try to have GCSE astronomy re-introduced into our curriculum at the boys' and girls' Comprehensive Schools and have lectures for the same. Moreover, maintain an Astrophotography section at beginner and experienced levels and provide general lectures on Astronomy once a month and outings based of the same theme of the talk the next day. 

In conclusion I would like to welcome all those of you interested in the subject to contribute on any topic related to the science and happily have you participate in any event dealing with astronomy. You are all welcome to have an impetus into our Society because in reality it is the science of all of us. Please feel free to constructively have a direct say on our matters and join in the ever-lasting debate of the origins of the Universe.

On behalf of my team, I welcome you all to the Gibraltar Astronomical Society. Clear skies to all. 

William Recagno
Gibraltar Astronomical Society

March 2014