Friday, 21 March 2014

The Spaceguard Centre

It's the first day of the Dark Skies Festival today. They started off by observing the sunrise on the Equinox Line at Tredustan Court, not far from Hay, and in an hour or so, some hardy souls are going to go up to the car park on Hay Bluff to observe the night sky, and there has been a planetarium set up at Hay School.
This afternoon there was a trip out in a minibus to the Spaceguard Centre near Knighton. I've been wanting to go there for a few years now, but it's fairly remote, needing to be well away from the glare of street lights, so not accessible without a car.
It's a fascinating place. What they do is a fairly new area of astronomy, which is to search for Near Earth Objects - the sort of thing that could smack into the Earth with devastating results. As we travel through space, we pass through all sorts of debris like the dust from the tails of comets (which make shooting stars), and asteroids and comets have orbits around the sun that pass through our orbit. It's a good idea to find out where they all are, so that we have some warning when one is likely to hit us, especially the big ones that could cause tsunamis or mass extinctions.
It's all done without any funding at all, apart from the visitors to the site, though they did win a prize recently that meant they could replace all their old computers. Jay Tate set the whole project up, with his wife - because it needed doing. He comes from a military background, which made sense to me when he told us, because everything seemed so well organised, and his talk was very clear.
They don't allow unaccompanied access to the site, because it's a working observatory, but they do guided tours from Wednesday to Sunday every week, and it really is fascinating. I have now been up close to a rock which had white flecks in it that were older than our sun, a piece of the moon and a piece of Mars, all of which fell to earth as meteorites. When I next look out at the constellation Orion, I will know where the nearest star nursery to Earth is, in the nebula that forms Orion's sword (only about 1300 light years away). He showed us the telescopes they use, and pointed out the half built new dome outside. This is Project Drax. Other people, he said dismissively, use acronyms to make themselves look clever. Spaceguard uses the names of Bond villains!
The University of Cambridge have given them a telescope/camera which is much bigger than the ones they are using at the moment. They haven't been able to use it properly for twenty five years because of light pollution as Cambridge has grown around them. It was built, solidly, in 1950, and is still fit for purpose today - except they will be linking it up with a modern computer camera system. It was designed to be used with glass plates! At present it's in storage, and the local Astronomy Society and other volunteers have been building the dome. That's what volunteering ought to be all about - people coming together on a project because they have a passion for it, rather than to plug inadequate provision by the State.
So of course I bought a few goodies in the shop to help them towards their goal. After all, their aim is to save the Earth! (with no help from the government, by the way - Mr Tate said that there is not a single civil servant with responsibility for astronomy or finding out about the threat from asteroids - which also means he's not answerable to anyone in government, which he seemed rather pleased about).
It's a fascinating tour, and a worthwhile project, and they have a website at

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