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BBC Stargazing Live and the Hampstead Observatory

As is usually the case, one organises for people to watch the skies, only for the weather to close in and spoil the event. The BBC decided to try and get people more interested in astronomy and organised 'Stargazing Live' for the first two weeks of January 2011. The event relied on Astronomical Societies, up and down the land, to open their doors to the public to view the conjunction of Jupiter and Uranus, the Quadrantid Meteor Shower and the partial solar eclipse (75% at Sunrise) on the morning of the 4th January.

On BBC 2 from the 3rd – 5th January there were three 1 hour programs at 8pm each evening, to report on the apparitions and give basic advice to novice astronomers. The event was also organised to include local news reports, an events section on the 'Stargazing Live' website and to organise people sending in their photos from the various events and related material. Our Astronomical Secretary Doug Daniels was interviewed for the BBC London website and he made a large contribution to the Sky at Night images on Flickr (flickr.com/photos/doug_daniels). The BBC also produced some wonderful small Star Guides to hand out to the public with tiny compasses attached. A large banner was also supplied to hang up to advertise the event, and that alone attracted at least 10% of the visitors to the Observatory during the week.

We opened our doors every evening for the first week in the hope of observing the conjunction of Jupiter with Uranus. Despite the clouds we received around 60 visitors from Monday to Friday at the Observatory and around 40 people joined us up on Parliament Hill, on the Tuesday morning, to see the partial solar eclipse. At the Observatory we entertained people by telling them about our history and the telescope, we also took questions and expanded on their topics. Sadly not one thing was seen from Monday to Friday due to the stubborn thick cloud cover.

Grey skies marred the eclipse but not the mood - picture taken by Martin Williams

At the Eclipse Watch we all stood around getting cold whilst looking at broken cloud, sadly the holes in the cloud never made it to the Sun except for two momentary gaps. Intriguingly there were gasps and shouts of 'there it is' and an extremely amorphous eclipse could be seen, strangely the Sun's disc with the Moon on it appeared, but was at least twice as big as usual and not clear. On discussing this among ourselves we came to the conclusion that the eclipse had been projected onto low cloud from a small hole above, creating a 'Ghost Eclipse', have we seen an extremely rare event? Shortly after that the eclipse proper appeared through misty cloud for all of about 5 seconds. Fortunately we had Matthew Morris and a cameraman from BBC's London News, who were with us to cover the event. Fortunately the cameraman managed to get the sun in his sights and was poised to catch it. Although the eclipse was a non event for most of the assembled group, being a positive bunch most of us enjoyed trying anyway.

The bonus was BBC London deciding to make a long article on the Eclipse Watch, shown on all three main news programs on the Tuesday. After each, Peter Cockcroft the weatherman focussed on the Hampstead Observatory as part of the weather. Many visitors on the subsequent evenings came as a result of the news.

Copy this link into your browser to see the news report; http://cdnedge.bbc.co.uk/local/london/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_9337000/9337417.stm

Preparing for the 100+visitors the first clear night - picture taken by Ennio Tabone

The week was capped off with the first clear sky (corresponding with us opening of course) for a month. We received somewhere in the region of 100 visitors in two hours, fortunately I'd anticipated this and organised 6 staff to be on hand with additional equipment, at least everybody got to see one thing, or another, namely Jupiter or the Orion Nebula. On subsequent weekends the numbers remained high, peaking on the evening of the 'Super Full Moon' when we estimate somewhere between 150 to 200 visitors queued patiently in the freezing cold.

Our thanks go out to all our staff that went the extra mile, attending the extra events and bringing equipment, as well as Sara Lukic and Jim Webb from the Astronomical Society of Haringey. We also would like to thank Kathryn Morrison our Stargazing Live liaison at the BBC, for her sterling efforts in helping us maximise our profile throughout.

Assistant Secretary; Simon Lang


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Last modified: Mon May 20 22:59:28 2019