Jupiter, the Moon and Herstmonceux – tales from my ‘jolly’ part two
Part two of my birthday ‘jolly.’
Before I start let me assure you – I didn’t fall over again! No embarrassing views of me flat on my face – breathe easy.
I should point out that I am not posting these in any particular order. So the visits on my ‘jolly’ are not consecutive or in sequence. I thought I’d mention this in case my sister is reading this and it confirms what she is already thinking, but is too polite to articulate; her elder sister really is losing it!
Possibly the very best part of my week away and something I shall never forget.
The Open Evening at The Observatory Science Centre at Herstmonceux.
Nope we didn’t pop across to France, Herstmonceux was originally built as an Observatory in rural East Sussex – the site is a ‘hidden treasure,’ with few signs showing the way. There is a castle, Herstmonceux Castle, but we didn’t get to see it because our visit was in darkness (obviously) but I am told it is a splendid.
Herstmonceux Castle was once the headquarters of the Royal Observatory Greenwich and official residence of the Astronomer Royal and provided accommodation for staff and visitors.
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich moved to Herstmonceux (beginning of 1947) due to the expansion of London in the 20th century, the light and smoke pollution meant that astronomers could not study feint objects in the night sky and the rural Sussex countryside provided the answer. The move was completed in 1958 and the Royal Observatory Greenwich was fully up and running at Herstmonceux.
There will be castles later, I promise, in my next post.
In 1990 the Royal Greenwich Observatory moved to Cambridge, leaving its historic telescopes behind, and it was thought that Herstmonceux would be abandoned as a research centre. This has not happened and it is now an important science exhibition, second to none.
I was thrilled to be attending an Open Evening at the Observatory, not just because I love anything to do with Astronomy and Science, but because this is somewhere my hero, Sir Patrick Moore, spent a great deal of his time. Since a small child I have tuned in to his BBC2 Television programme ‘The Sky at Night,’ which is still running well over 50 years after the very first broadcast in black and white.
He presented the programme up until his death a couple of years ago but the programme lives on with new presenters, still following the same simple, informative manner so that anyone watching – even those with limited knowledge of Astronomy – can understand and follow what is being shown and explained.
My visit to Herstmonceux filled me with such excitement I cannot describe. They have historic telescopes at the Observatory in full operation, including the Thompson 26-inch Refractor which Patrick Moore used when undertaking his extensive mapping of the Moon – long before Neil Armstrong took his ‘one small step’ on the Sea of Tranquillity.
I could write lots about the Observatory and what they have achieved and about the 6 telescopes there; 3 reflecting and 3 refracting, in the 6 green domes known as the ‘Equatorial Group’ after the way they are mounted, but I don’t want to bog you down with the science. You can always visit their website for more information, photos and dates for more Open Events.
Herstmonceux, East Sussex BN27 1RN
(Wartling Road, Wartling – for your SatNav)
My sister shone a torch to help us avoid mud in the car park and potholes on the road. Her husband nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice from the darkness enquired if we were heading for the Open Evening. This dim figure waved its arms in a general direction to our right and disappeared suddenly.
We walked up to the Observatory along a rough road in the pitch black with only the dim red glow of the Observatory buildings to our right, once we had parked a little way from the main entrance.
I didn’t trip or fall over once.
The domes eventually loomed up out of the blackness like giant green ice-creams, slowly becoming larger and larger as we got closer to the main buildings.
The sky was clear of any light pollution. Only the odd screeching owl and other unidentifiable birds chirping happily somewhere in the darkness, along with the cries of foxes far off in the woods, was all we could hear.
Yep, it was eerie.
There were stars twinkling above our heads and the Moon was coming and going behind high fluffy clouds which could be seen drifting cross its face now and again.
I couldn’t help thinking what a great place for a murder! Murder in the Observatory – hmm, still thinking about that one.
I knew it was a mistake to mention it to them both as we crept along the road trying to find the way in to the main complex. For some reason they both shivered and walked faster, a little ahead of me!
Seriously, as if I would – well, really.
We headed for the presentation tent where a huge electric generator nearly drowned out the very eccentric looking young scientist welcoming an audience of about 30 – all ages and sexes, but a good many more women – as the machine valiantly tried to warm the freezing tent. His presentation was on Jupiter and with diagrams and slides he took us through everything we needed to know about the planet.
I was amazed to discover that there is not just one red spot but three and these change size and move around. The red spots are anti-cyclones.
Unable to take photos I’ve uploaded some which were sent to us by a family member back in the late 1970’s. I hope you like them. Of course today technology has meant that the photos taken by Hubble are much more detailed and clearer.
The lecture about Jupiter coincided with Jupiter being very close to the Earth on the night of 6th March and therefore easier to view. Unfortunately we missed the chance to see Jupiter as we arrived after the viewing and only just made the lecture. But it was a wonderful lecture full of new information and I am now sure where to find Jupiter in the night sky a lot faster than I have before.
Following the lecture we made our way to another tent. This time set up inside one of the classrooms and, I must say, I felt as if I were on a polar expedition.
The tent was one of the huge blow-up varieties which has an outer and inner opening through which you have to squeeze yourself. Think air-locks on a spaceship if trying to envision the narrow space and the close proximity of one slit opened into another. Squeeze being the word! It was really taxing and as we had huge quilted parkers on because of the freezing cold air outside, and having been warned to wear something warm, we came prepared; our coats kept sticking to the sides of the opening so it was a bit like trying to walk through treacle.
I didn’t fall over though I nearly disappeared forever in-between the two openings and I shall be eternally grateful to whomever it was gave my rear a hefty shove. I arrived inside the igloo in a most undignified manner – but I was not the only one!
Just thinking about a body wedged in-between the two openings – oh well…..
Luckily we were snug and warm in our polar outfits as it was freezing inside too.
Seated on the ground around the sides of the igloo about 20 of us sat and watched an amazing show of our night sky, the Universe and various planets which was projected by a new state-of-the-art gizmo on to the walls and ceiling of the tent so we felt as if we were in space and close enough to everything that we could set foot on them.
Oh and we were told that in the event of fire or an emergency not to bother trying to squeeze back out through the tight double entrance but to just lift up the sides of the igloo and wriggle out underneath. Yep! I can just see me doing that. I had a job getting in through the entrance, let alone scrabbling on my hands and knees under the damn thing.
We saw Saturn and its rings and went in close courtesy of the Hubble Telescope, to get an almost birds-eye view of the individual rings and the ice and dust which makes up the rings.
The young lady giving us our demonstration and talk answered questions and explained what we were seeing. She was very clear and concise and it made the whole event really pleasurable considering our cramped and rather basic seating arrangements. If you ever get the chance to attend an event I really urge you to jump at it.
We went all over the Universe, to the Milky Way and back again. She told us of the discoveries and research undertaken at Herstmonceux – measuring the ‘proper motion’ of the stars and for observations within the Solar System, principally brighter Asteroids – for example.
Following on from our presentation and talk about the Solar System and the possibility of life out there somewhere – apparently not frowned upon but embraced, though of course it is most likely going to be ‘a form of life Jim, but not as we know it,’ we made our way to one of the 6 telescopes housed in the green domes, thinking about her parting words, that some planets have water and ice and therefore it is possible there is something there.
I do hope I live long enough to find out.
Several of us climbed in the dark up steep metal stairs to the top of the dome and gathered around a telescope, barely able to make out the young man with wild hair who had enthusiastically battled the generators earlier when telling us all about Jupiter. He waited until we all settled down, trying not to trip over each other in the gloom.
He began telling us about the Moon ( his main area of expertise and fascination) and how Sir Patrick Moore had inspired him and generations of astronomers – professional and amateur – and how his mapping of the Moon is still used by NASA today.
One by one we got to look at the Moon through the huge telescope which I have since worked out is in Dome E on the site – the Thompson 26-inch Refracting Telescope. It was too dark to see if there were any notices etc.
Wow! It was amazing seeing the Lunar surface in such close-up detail and to be told what we were looking at and getting expert information with it.
Then we all went outside and with a laser pointer (green) he pointed to all the stars and planets visible above our heads with the naked eye; Sirius the brightest in the sky and then Mars – glowing a dim red above our heads. He pointed out Orion’s Belt and The Plough and many others too numerous to list here.
The Moon was partially covered by cloud and so we went back into the Dome and had another look at the Moon – this time a different area – and he answered the many questions we had regarding the Moon Landings and whether or not he thought there was life on other Planets; he, did but again, not as we might expect it to be.
I thought of an old friend of mine Barbara Jacques, sadly no longer with us, and how she nearly burst a gasket when she met Alan Shepherd following his Moon landing and when she related the meeting and her conversation with us much later, was still overcome by the whole experience, almost jumping up and down as she spoke.
What would she have made of all of this I wondered.
I said I thought it made us all look so insignificant and small and our young lecturer said he didn’t agree. He said that any civilization or life-form that could imagine, invent and create the technology we have done here on Earth, to do what we have done here and in Space, cannot possibly be small and insignificant and that we should rejoice in this.
Looking up at the Sky at Night, it feels proud to be part of it all – the most important and amazing part of it all; a human-being – without us Space would have remained a mystery and many discoveries in medicine and other areas would never have been possible without those who looked to the heavens and wondered and dared to dream.
Eventually the event closed and we walked back along the pitch black road to the car park all the time looking up at the heavens and trying to remember what we had been told.
It was one of the most enjoyable and exciting evenings I have ever spent and I am really grateful to my sister and her husband for taking me there for my birthday treat. I would not have missed it for anything and I really do hope that if you ever get the chance to attend one of their many Open Evenings/Events you jump at it. You won’t be disappointed.
I shall be back with more about my ‘jolly,’ soon and I promise there will be Castles and Seed Banks.
Meantime I do hope you enjoyed this and will investigate Herstmonceux and Sir Patrick Moore and his wonderful programmes, ‘The Sky at Night,’ on BBC2 if you get time. It is still running, monthly.
All photos used here (c) NASA 1969/1979 except the photo of The Observatory (c) Science Projects Group 2010