Stargazing with the National Trust

The man from Bristol Astronomical Society was explaining the concept of relative sizes and distances. The Moon, he said, was much smaller than the Sun but just happened to be close enough to cover it up during an eclipse. A lady in front of me was clearly impressed. "We didn’t get that from the trendy professor," she remarked, adding "It was all very morose…"

The ‘trendy professor’ was, of course, Brian Cox, and the previous night’s episode of Wonders of the Universe had indeed been a bit depressing. Tackling the slow, inevitable heat death of the Universe, Cox would have needed to burst into song to make it any cheerier. Things can only get better? Not exactly...

But while episode 1 was a downer, Brian Cox was the reason many had come to this micro star party at Tyntesfield, a National Trust estate 20 minutes’ drive from central Bristol. Tonight’s event, the first since January’s Stargazing Live, attracted around 50 people, including several children. Only around 30 had attended the previous one.

Those who’d arrived a few minutes before the official start time of 7.30pm had been in for a treat. Even for experienced astronomers, it was something special: a pass of the International Space Station in convoy with Space Shuttle Discovery on the spacecraft’s very last flight. We’ll never again see Discovery’s light in the sky.

 

Will Gater's photo of the ISS and Shuttle Discovery passing overhead The Space Station and Shuttle Discovery pass overhead, as captured by Will Gater

 

The event proper kicked off with a whistle-stop tour of the constellations. Green laser pointers were wielded with surgical precision by members of Bristol AS and absolutely nobody else, which was a relief. With Bristol International Airport nearby, I wouldn’t have entirely trusted an over-enthusiastic 10-year-old not to bring down a plane by accident.

After that, it was over to the telescopes to view a selection of objects including the Orion Nebula, the crescent Moon, the Eskimo Nebula and several star clusters from the Messier catalogue. There were long queues, but no complaints. In fact, queuing here was an unusually sociable activity, heightening the sense of anticipation and creating a desire to savour the view when your moment came.

Beginners, though, are unused to the customary deprivations of battle-hardened amateur astronomers. The National Trust toilets were brightly lit for business, which had an unfortunate side effect. The building’s glass skylights did nothing for the already light-polluted area of sky above them.

This was a star party with creature comforts: at one stage, the smell of hot malted milk wafted across the car park from a couple’s picnic flask. Had the cafeteria been open, I swear they’d have done a roaring trade in cream teas.

Many of the star party-goers had drifted away before 9.30pm, but nobody seemed disappointed. In fact, quite the reverse. Asked if he could make out Mizar’s faint companion star, a young boy virtually jumped off the ground in delight when he spotted it. And one woman was so enthralled by her first view of Saturn she repeatedly re-joined the queue, desperate for “one more look”. They might just have caught the astronomy bug.

 

Click here for upcoming star parties at National Trust Tyntesfield

 

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