Astronomy is looking up
PUBLISHED: 12:28 29 September 2015 | UPDATED: 12:28 29 September 2015
Stargazing has never been so popular and Suffolk is a great place to study the sky at night, as Catherine Larner learns
Long, dark, frosty nights aren’t usually a thrilling prospect as we approach winter, but for stargazing they’re perfect.
Suffolk has particularly wide open skies, a good climate and few street lights, ideal place for what is claimed to be the UK’s fastest growing hobby.
They’ve called it ‘the Brian Cox effect’ after the pop star turned professor of physics who fronts TV programmes such as Stargazing Live and Wonders of the Universe. His wide-ranging appeal has prompted an increase in students, especially young women, taking physics degrees, GCSEs and A-Levels, and Amazon reported a 500% increase in telescope sales after this year’s programmes.
Pictures of the surface of Pluto this summer, the accessibility of viewing the Northern Lights at locations around the UK recently, and the partial eclipse in the spring have all raised interest, contributing to a boost in membership numbers of astronomy groups.
“There had been a lull,” says Annaliese Matheron from Darsham Astronomical Society (DASH). “Some societies like Cambridge were faced with closure years ago, but now have hundreds of members.”
The Orwell Astronomical Society in Ipswich (OASI) is also thriving. It has 180 members, making it one of the largest groups in the country, and holds regular events for different sectors of its membership. Twice a month there are meetings at a dark site at Newbourne Village Hall, but people can also access the spectacular Tomline refractor, housed in the Orwell Park school observatory. There are regular talks by guest speakers and this autumn, treasurer Paul Whiting is giving an introductory course on astronomy, a series of eight lectures, at the Ipswich Institute.
“The group is a wonderful place to meet new people with the same hobby but with different paths in life – there is always something interesting to talk about,” says Abigail Lee, who is in the middle of a degree in astronomy, space science and astrophysics at the University of Kent.
“I first became interested in astronomy at school at about 13. I am fascinated by every aspect, from closer objects like the moon to deep space astronomy looking at the life and death of far away stars.” In addition to regular stargazing evenings, even the smaller groups are very active with talks and events.
“We want to share knowledge,” says Annaliese Matheron from DASH. “We have an agreement that if a member learns something then they are to show it to someone else. There is a chain of learning and development, moving it forward.”
DASH is a new group, which Annaliese founded in June 2013.
“I don’t drive,” she says. “I wanted to join an astronomical society, but the nearest was in Ipswich or in Lowestoft.” Now up to 35 members gather, near her home, on Westleton Common each week, to share equipment and expertise.
For others who might find travelling to and from a meeting difficult, there are Star Parties taking place in the spring and autumn each year at Haw Wood Farm Caravan Park near Saxmundham, which has been named a Dark Sky Discovery Site. Organised by Breckland Astronomical Society, this event gives people the opportunity to observe the sky throughout the night, and they can stay for several days meeting up with beginners and enthusiasts to explore their interest in astronomy. Annaliese remembers clearly what first sparked her interest.
“I remember visiting my grandparents, when I was very little. I was walking down a lane holding my grandpa’s hand looking at the sky and the Milky Way. It was full of stars and I felt so small and insignificant.”
The magic of the night time is also celebrated with annual events – a 115-mile overnight cycle ride from London to Dunwich on the Saturday nearest to the July full moon, and moon walks each autumn at Ivy Grange Farm, Westhall near Southwold, led by travel journalist Dixe Wills whose latest book At Night celebrates the ‘other worldliness’ of being awake when everyone else is asleep.
Children are particularly fascinated by the wonder of the universe – natural scientists according to Annaliese – and groups are always investigating new ways of reaching younger people. Members of Lowestoft & Yarmouth Regional Astronomers (LYRA) regularly visit schools with an orrery (a mechanical model of the solar system) made by one of their members.
“It brings astronomy alive,” says Richard Chilvers, secretary of the association. “We hope it will encourage astronomers of the future.” Being taken to the Norwich Astronomical Society when he was a child, sparked an interest in astronomy for Mark Thompson, now a respected author and TV presenter on the subject.
“I can remember seeing Saturn through the society’s 10 inch reflecting telescope,” he says. “It was stunning and ignited a spark in me that has burned ever since.”
“Everyone finds it thrilling looking through a telescope for the first time,” says Paul Whiting from OASI. “Getting a sense of the 3D shape of a planet, seeing the rings of Saturn or the spots of Jupiter is a special moment.”
“My husband, a keen astronomer, showed me Saturn through his telescope,” says Lynn Gwynn, a member of DASH. “It was so beautiful I was hooked. I now have my own telescope with a solar filter.” Fourteen-year-old Matthew Challis was introduced to astronomy by his grandfather.
“The most exciting thing is how the sky changes throughout the year, the way the stars in the night sky in the autumn are different in the spring. I tell my friends that astronomy is fun, and that they should have a go.”
Orwell Astronomical Society www.oasi.org.uk
Lowestoft & Yarmouth Regional Astronomers (LYRA) https://sites.google.com/site/lyrasociety
Stour Valley Astronomical Society www.stourastro.org.uk
Darsham Astronomical Society www.dash.moonfruit.co.uk