In the past the predictability of the sky meant that it was used as both a clock and a calendar. But there are random or infrequent events which generate special public interest. During these times the observatory is opened to help the public get a greater appreciation of the majesty of the heavens. In the past this has included comets, eclipses, transits and unusual planetary events.
In addition to these sky-driven concerns we also open the observatory for more human considerations. Science week is a good example of this.
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NEA (Near Earth Asteroid) 2012 DA14 Close approach to Earth
Near Earth Asteroid DA14 will be making a close approach to Earth on February 15 at 19:26 Hrs. UT. It is predicted to approach Earth to within a distance of just 35,000 Kilometres, which is closer than the Moon and within the orbital distance of geostationary satellites. DA14 is an irregular shaped asteroid approx. 140 metres across and weighing in at about 125,000 metric tonnes. If it were to strike our planet, it could make a nasty dent! but calculations indicate it will sail serenely by. It will approach Earth again in 2020 and again calculations indicate another near miss - Phew! At its closest distance it should attain a visual magnitude of +7 to +8, so it could be seen in binoculars, if you know exactly where to point them. On Feb 15th it will be travelling very rapidly across the sky from south to north but because of its speed and faintness, it will be very difficults to locate.
TWO NEW COMETS FOR 2013
Two new comets will grace the skies in 2013. They are: comet C/2011 1.4 pan-STARRS and comet ISON Comet pan-STARRS will be the first to appear and it has the potential to become a grand sight in the spring skies. pan-STARRS will approach the Sun to within 28 million miles in March 2013 and could attain mag.0 At which time it should be a naked eye object low on the western horizon after sunset.
But it is comet ISON that could become the brightest comet seen since the Great Daylight Comet of 1910. Early calculations suggest that ISON will approach the Sun to within just 2 million kilometres on November 28th 2013. If it survives its perihelion passage, comet ISON could attain a mag. between -11 to -16, the latter figure is 15 times the brightness of the full moon and it would be visible in daylight! Moreover, after perihelion it will be moving upwards into Hercules so it will be well placed for northern hemisphere observers. However, comets are very unpredictable beasts. At the present time it is a very faint object in Cancer and is still well beyond the orbit of Jupiter, but if all goes well, it could be the Comet of the Century and rest assured that the Observatory will be open to observe it.
TRANSIT OF VENUS JUNE 06 2012
On the morning of June 6th, Venus will be in transit against the disk of the rising Sun. Transits of Venus occur in pairs 8 years apart at intervals of 105 years. From our location, the last transit on June 8th 2004 was ideal. At the Observatory we witnessed the entire event under cloudless skies and over 800 or so visitors joined us to view it. I am afraid that this second transit will not be seen under such ideal conditions. From our latitude only the last hour of the transit can be observed as the Sun rises. Sunrise occurs at approx. 04:45 am and to hope to see any part of the transit will require a very low unobstructed north-eastern horizon. Even then, horizon haze and pollution may well conspire to spoil any chances of seeing the event. Our Observatory has no such horizon because of trees so we will not be opening for this event. To hope to see the last stages of the transit it would be best to seek out a sea horizon such as somewhere on the north Kent coast and hope that the weather co-operates. BUT REMEMBER: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN WITH ANY OPTICAL INSTRUMENT UNLESS IT IS ADEQUATELY FILTERED AS PERMANENT DAMAGE TO EYESIGHT CAN RESULT. This warning applies even if the Sun appears red and dull as infra-red radiation can still cause damage to eyesight!!! If you do not have the correct type of objective filter, it is safer to project the image with a telescope. If you are using Mylar filter foil, make sure there are no pinholes. For naked-eye observers, a dense welding glass is a fairly safe option. If you do decide to try - good luck as the next transit will not take place until 2117.
STARGAZING LIVE 2 Following last year's success (despite the poor weather). the BBC featured another Stargazing Live event in January 2012. Our Observatory participated in this event and was open on all nights from Jan. 13th - Jan. 22nd. between 8:00 -10:00 pm On Thursday Jan 19th we opened from 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm to observe Venus and this early opening was also for younger children to visit. In addition there was be an event held at Charlton House Greenwich on Tuesday Jan. 17th from 6pm - 9:30 pm, at which Simon Lang, Ennio Tabone, Cara Christie and Kevin McNulty put on demonstrations of telescope mirror grinding, making a simple spectroscope from a CD disk, making a solar projection box from a cereal packet and making craters in a tray of flour and cocoa. This year we were fortunate to have had several clear nights and over 500 visitors attended during the 10 day period. This made much extra work for our team of Demonstrators and Assistants to whom we say a special "Thank you". For details of the BBC programmes: Stargazing Live 2
SKY AT NIGHT VISITS THE OBSERVATORY
Towards the end of November 2011, the BBC Sky at Night Team visited the Hampstead Observatory as part of the November edition of the popular TV programme. The November programme featured discussion about the planet Mars following the recent successful launch of the space probe 'Curiousity' scheduled to put a 'lander' on the surface of Mars next summer. In his interview, Doug Daniels showed Paul Abel and Pete Lawrence the Society's Mars archive that contains drawings, images and reports made by members over the last century. We were very fortunate that the visit coincided with a clear night and later we were able to observe Jupiter and relay live images from the 6-inch Cooke. Other members including Simon Lang, Ennio Tabone and Kevin McNulty showed Paul Abel various interesting objects through a variety of instruments and John Durham demonstrated his beautifully made 6-inch Dobsonian, built by him at C.A.T.S. Throughout the evening member Jon Culshaw the TV impressionist was on hand to entertain us and talk about his astronomical interests. To view a clip of the programmeSky at NightAlso available on youtube:Hampstead Observatory
The Supermoon - Sheer Lunacy!
It has long been imagined that the Full Moon can in some way affect certain individuals - hence the expression 'Lunacy'' Well we had a perfect demonstration of this at the Observatory on Saturday 19th of March 2011.By chance, this clear open night coincided with a Full Moon at perigee (at its closest approach to the Earth) This causes the moon to appear very slightly larger than normal. The emphasis is on 'slightly', because to the untrained eye the increase in size is inperceptable. However, for some reason, this event seems to have caught the attention of the dreaded 'media' who dubbed it the 'SUPERMOON'. The result was that the observatory was besieged by upwards of 100 visitors wanting to experience this 'rare' event. By all accounts, the queue extended all the way down to the gate and beyond and by closing time it was not much reduced. The Demonstrator Ennio Tabone and his two able assistants Cara Christie and John Durham coped manfully with the crowds but regretably had to turn late arrivals away. Our apologies for this, but had they not done so, they would have been there all night - Sheer Lunacy! The best time to view a Full Moon at perigee is when it is just rising. A full moon close to the horizon always 'appears' larger than normal due to a psychological/optical illusion called 'the Moon Illusion' and a rising moon at perigee really does look big when it is close to the horizon. The observatory is not the best place to observe such a phenomenon because the surrounding trees obscure the eastern horizon.
The BBC (BBC2) produced a special astronomy event on January 3 - 5 2011 called "Stargazing Live" The event was intended to raise public awareness of astronomy. The programme was hosted by Prof. Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain. They asked local astronomy societies to participate and the dates were chosen to coincide with the partial Solar Eclipse on Jan 4, the Quadrantid meteors and the conjunction of Jupiter and Uranus. We agreed to participate and the arrangements were as follow:- The Observatory was opened from 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm from Monday 3rd to Thursday 6th of January to observe Jupiter and Uranus. As the solar eclipse occured at sunrise and required a low south eastern horizon, we observed this event from Parliament Hill NOT AT THE OBSERVATORY. Set up for the eclipse took place at 6:30 am in order to view Venus and Saturn before sunrise. The sun rose partially eclipsed and at maximum eclipse at 8:10 am 67% of the Sun was obscurred. Had we been fortunate to have had clear skies, the view of the partially eclipsed sun rising above the silhouette of the London skyline should have been highly photogenic. Accordingly members were asked to bring along portable instruments, telescopes with suitable solar filters and tripod mounted cameras. In the event, the sky was totally overcast and only a 5 second view of the sun was seen. The BBC sent along a camera crew and interviewed Simon Lang and Jim Brightwell who appeared on the London midday and 6 o'clock TV news. For more details:Stargazing Live
Jupiter Impact August 2009
Those of us with long enough memories will be casting them back to the glorious July 1994 event when the remains of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 ploughed into Jupiter, leaving little black marks across its disk. Unexpectly sometime in July this year an object did the same thing, and it has left a small black dot near the south pole of Jupiter. There is more information over here.
Lunar Occultation of the Pleiades: 27/10/07
In the constellation of Taurus is the Seven Sisters Cluster, as seen here on their own and with Comet Machholz over here. On Saturday 27th of October the Moon will pass in front of these stars and the observatory will be open until around midnight to cover this event. Mars will be handily placed at this time.
The observatory featured on the January 16 edition of ITV London's Disappearing London. Doug Daniels starred along with the Cooke telescope from 7:30pm.
There was a conjunction of Venus, Mercury and Uranus early in the evening of the 7th of February. Mercury and Venus were separated by about 5° and Uranus was only 30' from Venus! This made a good opportunity to see some of the less obvious planets as we can use the obvious sky mark of Venus to locate the mercurial Mercury and faint Uranus.
On Saturday 3rd March 2007 there was a total lunar eclipse and the observatory had extended hours to cover this lovely spectacle. About 100 members of the public took advantage of this and enjoyed an in-depth look at the Moon and Saturn.