On Saturday, 6th April I visited the Norman Lockyer Observatory near Sidmouth for an “Introduction to Astronomy”.
This was a daytime course from 10am to 5pm centred in the lecture theatre and planetarium. The idea is to pique your interest or develop an existing hobby, perhaps with the hope you will join as a member and attend their observation nights. At the very least the aim is to get more people interested and talking about astronomy and our place in the universe.
Mum bought the ticket for me for Christmas and she also managed to get a ticket herself. The family had previously got me a telescope, though I must admit I have struggled to work out what I’m doing.
We didn’t know what to expect – we both imagined it could be a dry and dusty lecture to an audience of six elderly, scholarly men looking down their noses at us!
It wasn’t that at all. There must have been 40 people and the course sold out a month ago. There were a mix of ages from children to pensioners, almost as many women as men, including people with physical impairments. Probably some of the demographic wouldn’t have attended such an event 30 years ago, if one existed.
There was a BBC Stargazing banner on the fence as we drove in and the open approach of that scheme was carried into the course. Every session ended with a Q&A where even the most simple question was answered, the course attracting a mix of people with knowledge as well as those with absolutely none at all.
The friendly and approachable volunteer members presenting each segment took the approach of ‘no stupid questions’ – we all have to start somewhere!
First it was off to the Planetarium.
Now this was no whizz-bang thrill ride with digital effects to make you ride from planet to planet, star to star, as modern Planetariums are today. This was old school and frankly it was pretty good for it. It used a projector that was 50 years old, formerly at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Essentially it was a light source inside a small ball, this had pin pricks in it which let spots of light shine into the large white dome over our heads, once the house lights were down and we were sent into darkness (gradually so our eyes could adjust).
It’s more complicated than that of course, each pin prick had to represent the true position of the stars. The ball would spin under the control of the operator so the stars would move over your head exactly as they would if you were outside overnight – and in the right place for the time of year.
Must’ve been one hell of a job to build accurately. This is a piece of real workmanship.
Because of the whiteness of the dome it wasn’t possible to get a great picture, but hopefully this gives an impression.
This was a great introduction. The presenter was open and friendly and didn’t overwhelm us with names and technical terms. As he said, it’s more important to learn the principals and the important ‘landmarks’, rather than all the constellation names.
He showed us how to identify the most prominent and easy to spot constellation, The Plough or Big Dipper, the three bright stars in a row as the handle. Then use this to locate the Pole Star which, at the UK’s location, will always be at true North. This and the rest of this hour was the sort of thing I was hoping to learn.
The next 45 minutes in the lecture theatre was on using star maps and something called a Planisphere. This is two plastic discs put together, the bottom one is the star map, the upper one partly obscures it and partly is a window. Simply spin the upper disc to the date and time marked on the rim and it’ll show you what you can see that night! Amazing!
Obviously I bought one in the shop. You can get the same one here.
They also showed us software for PC and more interestingly apps for smartphones, which use GPS to find your location and accelerometers in the phone. Just move the phone around and the star map will move with you, showing the constellations right in front of you, or over your head, exactly at that moment!
People were asking about free ones but that’s gotta be worth £5 for the paid app!
After tea & biscuits we had a lecture on the planets of the solar system. When I saw this on the itinerary I was thinking, “OK, I know all this”. But it turns out I didn’t. Science has moved on since I was at school as a teenager in the mid-90s.
They showed us the latest images of Mars, both from recent landers and images of the planet include the polar caps. Images of Mercury and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. And of course those great shots of Pluto when all we previously had was a smudge. Some I had picked up on TV and online over the years, seeing it all at once was fantastic.
And when you see the relative scale and distance from anything else of Pluto, only the size of our moon but so far away, it’s absolutely amazing a probe got out to it at all!
Always been interested in the planets and a good way to get up speed.
At lunch there was time to wander the grounds. Bit cold in the building and the place has no heating, it wasn’t much different outside, so we sat in the car for a bit.
After warming up we had a potter about. Despite being quite old now everything looks so well maintained.
Sun & Moon
Before getting back indoors a member came up to us with a viewer, just a simple piece of film we could look through to see the sun directly. Without the glare it looked just like a planet!
He then led the next lecture and said you could even see sunspots with it, if there were any, but we’re in a solar minimum right now. About two years from now they’ll start increasing and you can see them with the naked eye protected by one of these. Or of course get something similar to protect your telescope and look that way, even take pictures.
He also pointed out places on the moon. That got me thinking… so far I’ve tried looking at stars with not much success, the obvious thing I’m missing with my ‘scope is our nearest neighbour. I’ll be trying that.
There was an explanation of the current science on the beginning of the universe – probably! – as well as how stars are formed and die.
And also the Hubble image of 1995 of the small patch of black sky… which turned out to have hundreds of galaxies in it. Mind blowing.
Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
At the end he alluded to the fact we’re all from star dust, nebulae, and one day – hopefully a long time from now – our planet and everything on it will be consumed by the stars. Personally I think he could’ve gone much heavier on that. The real circle of life. It beats any religion I know.
Some of the pictures here were fantastic too, the nebulae and galaxies. And many were taken by the very guys who were presenting the course. I know images are coloured to make them look pretty, I suppose that’s an aesthetic because they have to be light-shifted to something to make them visible so you might as well make them look nice. There’s no ‘how they are meant to look’ when they’re outside the spectrum of the human eye.
Explaining different types and how pricey it can get. This was probably the only bit it got truly ‘nerdy’. Not that I’m against nerdy whatsoever, but time and place. In the Q&A an enthusiast in the audience sort of took over. Which is fine, it happens in every single special-interest group that exists on any topic, but maybe that person could’ve broken off for a discussion afterwards.
Although my telescope isn’t bargain basement, at about £150, it certainly wasn’t in the budgets they were talking about of £800 upwards, so I felt put off from asking anything. And to be honest, for my needs right now, I don’t need to spend that kind of money. They were very careful to mention that spending the money isn’t for everyone and plenty of people – like me – just want to observe the night sky and that’s perfectly fine.
I must say some of the kit was fantastic. Computer controlled tracking, just type in what you want to see and it spins it around and points it for you! If I were getting into serious imaging and observation that’s what I would get. The old tech geek side of me wants to do it. But I really don’t want to get into such an expensive hobby. It was pretty cool to learn what’s available and how far you can go.
We were taken up to the telescope in the Connaught Dome. It looks brand new but is decades old.
Then across to the telescope Sir Norman Lockyer used to discover helium on the Sun. This was a beautiful piece, really could be stored away in a museum for safekeeping or as a piece of art, yet is used every Friday night in their open evenings and works perfectly after 120 years. They even fixed a motor to it. I’m so glad they use it, absolutely brilliant!
It was a pretty full on day and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Even though I was tired from the sheer amount of information, the day flew by and I could’ve stayed longer. (Always leave them wanting more!) It covered more aspects of general astronomy and cosmology than I was expecting, a great way to teach the subject to those with a burgeoning interest and those just tagging along with those who do.
I really do believe more people should understand where we fit into the universe, for one thing I think the political landscape would look very different if they did, for another I suspect more money would be invested in science for the good of humankind, and less in petty political squabbling over fake lines in the ground that we invented.
Am I member now? No I’m not. I want to get some practice in and see what I can do before I decide whether to take it further. Who knows, maybe in five years I will be one of those people geeking out about the latest motorised ‘scopes and software and capturing some great images of my own! But right now I’m perfectly content to navigate the stars and have a go at looking at the moon and the planets.
I highly recommend this course whether you know about space or not.
I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts from Carl Sagan and a link to the course.
“Introduction to Astronomy” Itinerary
- 10:15am: Looking at the night sky. Using the Planetarium to locate interesting objects and orientate yourself with Polaris, the pole star.
- 11:00am: How to use star maps and a planisphere, including planetarium apps.
- 11:45am: Tea break.
- Midday: The planets. Current understanding of the solar system and latest imaging.
- 12:45pm: Lunch. Grounds open to walk around.
- 1:45pm: The sun and moon. How to observe the sun safely.
- 2:30pm: Stars, nebulae, galaxies. Current understanding of the formation of the universe, along with imaging of galaxies and nebulae taken by members.
- 3:15pm: Tea break.
- 3:30pm: Telescopes. Types of telescopes and binoculars available.
- 4:15pm: Tour the Observatory.
Course price: £20.00 (or £15.00 for NLO members)