Armagh Planetarium Blasts off for a Year of Stargazing

Armagh Planetarium kicked off 2011 in style with some amazing astronomy-based events in association with the  BBC. Sinead McNicholl has a personal report of our part in the exciting Stargazing Live project.

Image of Andromeda galaxy M31

2.5 million light years from home: when we look at M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, we see it with light that left there when Australopithecus africanus was starting to notice the potential of rocks and bones. (Image credit: Boris Štromar)

BBC Stargazing Live was a three day live astronomy event broadcast on BBC2 and was presented by Professor Brian Cox alongside comedian (and physicist) Dara O’Briain. The show was a huge success with my personal favourite moment coming when astronomer Mark Thompson turned to the camera to complain about the lack of activity in the sky, only to miss a meteor shoot past in the background! Click on this link to see the report.

Back in Armagh, the Planetarium was buzzing with hundreds of people who had come along to see some of the wonderful digital theatre shows and join in with the workshops at our “Beginner’s Guide to Astronomy” event on 5 January. The BBC Events Team ran space-themed radio dramas and alien animation workshops which the children loved (and the adults too!). Hardy Memorial Primary School from Richhill also joined in on the fun, taking part in the workshops and even had the chance to make and launch their own rockets with a mad scientist who had come along to the Planetarium for the day!

image of NIAAS logo

Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy Society: this organisation and others like it are astronomy's heart and soul. (Image credit: NIAAS)

Joining us for the event we had the Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomical Society (NIAAS) who kindly came down and volunteered their time to display some of their amazing telescopes and what can be seen through them. Members of the public took the opportunity to chat with our NIAAS friends and get some advice on telescopes and observing. In fact many people even brought their own scopes along which they had received as Christmas presents to get some well-informed guidance on how to setup and operate them. One person in particular had just received a telescope as a gift and that was BBC reporter Gordon Adair. Gordon also took the opportunity to get some assistance operating his new present before presenting a live link to the Newline studio from the Planetarium. It was interesting to see how the link was put together and there were even a few familiar faces captured in the background! Click on this link to see the Newsline report.

As the evening progressed we all had our fingers crossed that there would be clear skies so the NIAAS could guide us through some of the interesting objects in our night sky using their telescopes outside. We weren’t disappointed, as in Armagh we had amazingly clear skies, and were even treated to an appearance of the International Space Station (ISS) passing overhead. The Planetarium building was desolate as Science Communicator Colin Johnston whisked us outside and predicted when the ISS would appear. On cue (almost) the ISS appeared and treated the crowd of astronomy hungry revellers to a four minute display as it moved across our night sky beneath the planet Jupiter. It truly was a breathtaking moment for anyone who had never viewed it before.

Image of Jupiter through small telescope

“The amazing giant planet Jupiter as seen through a telescope”: Image taken with a 10inch LX200 telescope coupled with a Meade Deep Sky Imager CCD camera. Image taken 27 May 2006. (Image credit: Julie Thompson, Armagh Planetarium)

As the ISS disappeared the crowds remained outside and the NIAAS gave us spectacular views of the planet Jupiter and four of its moons. This was my first glimpse of Jupiter through a telescope, I hasten to admit, and I was in awe of its beauty! If you ever get the opportunity to view this giant gas planet I would highly recommend it. The planet Uranus, which cannot be seen with the naked eye, was also on display and looked like a blue dot in the night sky through the telescopes. Not only did we observe planets and stars, we also looked at nebulas such as the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades star cluster and even a celestial object outside of our own Milky Way Galaxy; the Andromeda Galaxy which is an amazing 2.5 million light years away (that’s twenty quintillion kilometres in case you were wondering!).

It was time to warm ourselves up again and around 130 people made their way back inside for Colin Johnston’s “Beginners Guide to Astronomy” presentation. This was a great way to learn the basics about our Solar System with many enthusiastic questions coming at the end before we made our way upstairs for our digital theatre star show ‘Pole Position’. This show consists of a tour of the winter night sky, showing the constellations and how to locate them, which was perfect as we headed back outside to map the skies with the naked eye. Again the NIAAS had experts on hand to help members of the public and everyone had a chance to look through the telescopes once again. We all braved the chilly winter air until around 9.30pm when we made our way home feeling quite small in the larger scale of our Solar System and beyond.

Many thanks to the organisers at BBC NI and to the NIAAS for volunteering to travel down to Armagh and made the event such a success. In particular, thanks to Stephen, Mark, Neil, Brian and Simon from the NIAAS who were on hand for the whole day. Some photos are available to view of the event on the NIAAS website. Click here to view.

Image of Sinead McNicholl

Sinead McNicholl, Education Support Officer (Image credit: Armagh Planetarium)

Article by Sinead McNicholl.