On the morning of the 17th March 2012, Bristol waited with baited breath. Finally, a little before 11am on that fateful Saturday morning, the words every British astronomer longs to see came over email “clear skies tomorrow night – the star party at Tyntesfield is on”.
15 Bristol Astronomical Society members and 45 members of the public jumped in the air with joy.
The night itself started as so many of them do – cloudy. I arrived and set up the society’s 8inch Meade in the hopes of the clouds parting. Members were already setting up when I arrived and everyone was feeling enthusiastic for an interesting night ahead.
As the setting up progressed, it was clear to see there was a wide range of equipment for the public to see. The telescopes ranged from large 12 inch to the humble spotting scope and binoculars. We arranged them all in two long lines so the public could circle easily around them.
The members of the public turned up as expected – 15 minutes early. A member of BAS gave an introductory talk and explained some basic constellations. In fact, by the time they had reached me, I felt they knew more about the night sky than I did!
Fortunately the clouds had started to part and I successfully aligned the telescope. My first target was M37, an open cluster in Auriga (which most people were able to point out to me thanks to the excellent introduction).
The telescope arrangement worked well, with a steady stream of eager people coming to look at the telescope and ask interesting questions, which, thanks for a crib sheet and a red torch, I was able to answer smoothly.
My next object was M3, a globular cluster in Canis Venatici. The public were amazed when I explained it is almost 10 times further away from Earth than M37 and has 1000 times more stars.
I was able to briefly see what others were up to. Telescopes were trained on a myriad objects, from planets to galaxies. There was even a laptop set up to show live images through a telescope.
As the visitors were thinking of heading home to bed, one planet was only just rising – Saturn. A few stayed around to see this wonderful planet, with several delighted comments of “Wow”, “Oooh, you can actually see the rings” and “what are those three stars near it?”
Eventually we all had to pack away as the public left and the cold seeped through my shoes. Everyone had enjoyed themselves, public and volunteers alike.