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“Spreading the word”…

I just had a FANTASTIC few of days telling and teaching people about astronomy, space exploration and the universe. This is now called “Outreach”, or “Outreach and Education”, but essentially it’s “Spreading The Word” about the wonders of the night sky, and the amazing things we’ve done, are doing and will do in space.

On Thursday morning I went through to the small Cumbrian village of Haversham, to talk to the Forum Group at the village’s popular and thriving Athenaeum Centre. The Forum Group are, I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, a group of retired people who are still very keen to learn, and do, new things, and last year – they plan early! – they generously/foolishly invited me to be the guest speaker at their March 2009 meeting. Of course I accepted – you know me, I’ll happily talk about space to a room with one person in it! – and on Thursday morning I gave my “Skywatching for Beginners” Powerpoint presentation to the 50 or so people who had, thankfully, decided not to spend their morning basking in the glorious Cumbrian Spring sunshine but listen to me blathering on about stars and planets and spacemen instead!

It was a very enjoyable morning, and the group made me feel very welcome, as groups like that (almost!) always do. And at the end of the talk there was half an hour of good questions from the floor, which a guest speaker relishes. All the “Space Station Visibility Times” information sheets I’d brought along vanished from their table very quickly, and lots of the Forum members came to see and hold the meteorites I’d taken along to show them. All were impressed by how heavy the piece of ‘Meteor Crater’ Canyon Diablo meteorite was – especially the members who had actually been to the crater itself – and there was a lot of excitement at being able to see and hold my small specimen of Mars rock, too. Luckily the sky stayed clear that evening, so I’m hoping that at least some of the people who attended my talk went out into their gardens after night, looked up at the starry sky, and understood and appreciated it a little better than they had that morning.

Then on Friday it was time to head north to the equally-small village of Irthington, just outside Carlisle, to give a talk to some of the pupils at Irthington Village School. I’d been contacted by the school after they decided to hold a “Sleepover” event – at which, as the name rather suggests, the pupils would be sleeping in the school overnight – and asked if I could come and give them a talk about astronomy and space, seeing as they’d been learning about that subject during the previous term. I said I’d be happy to, so on FridayStella and I arrived at the school to join in the fun!

After setting up my trusty 4.5″ reflector, it was time to give the kids, and there were around 25 of them I think, a Powerpoint (how did I manage before Powerpoint?!?!?!?!) “Tour of The Universe”, which they absolutely loved. It’s more than an hour long that talk – try as I might I simply cannot trim down a tour of the whole universe to less than an hour! I think an hour’s pretty good anyway! – and all the “Sleepyheads” were brilliantly behaved, considering how hot the classroom got with all of them crammed into it so closely! I had a simply **brilliant** assistant/volunteer/stooge/victim in Saffy, a young girl who had raced to the front as soon as she could, eager to grab a good view, and she let me use her to illustrate lots of ideas and concepts during the Tour; not only did she let me pick her up and bounce her across the classroom floor to illustrate the Moon’s low surtface gravity, but she let me kill her in many glorious ways, i.e. she suffocated and burned to death on Venus; froze to death on Pluto; fell to her death from the Verona Rupes cliffs on Miranda, and drowned in the poisonous lakes of Titan, and always with a huge smile on her face. What a trooper! Seriously, speakers like myself dream of having help like that.

More by good luck than good planning, my talk finished just minutes before the International Space Station was due to glide across the Cumbrian sky (hmmm, good name for a blog that!), so everyone raced for their coats, pulled them on, and piled outside. It was very cold out on the decking, but teh sky had stayed clear, and we were able to see Orion on one side of the school and the Plough on the other, and there was just enough time for me to point out some of the most obvious and interesting constellations and stars before the ISS appeared low in the west…

It was beautiful, it really was, and by the time the ISS was drifting through the stars of Orion it was wonderfully bright, and lots of the kids let out “wow!”s and “ooh!”s as it flew eastwards. I must admit I did too – it never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I look up at the ISS and think to myself “There are PEOPLE on that…!!”

Having seen the ISS we all piled back inside to warm up, and to look at the meteorites I’d brought along. Again, all the kids were fascinated to see the bits of space rock and metal, and again, many of them, for some bizarre reason, lifted it to their noses to see what it smelled like! Answer: IT SMELLS OF YOUR OWN SWEATY HANDS!!! 🙂

Finally, after handing out information sheets and NASA bookmarks we left the kids to their Sleepover, having had a thoroughly enjoyable and fun night. When they go well- when the kids are well behaved, the teachers supportive and the facilities good – a school talk is just wonderful fun, and I never get tired of doing them.

Finally, last night, I went with Stella to see a play at Cark – another small Cumbrian village, this time to the south of us, near Grange – and literally minutes before the play started we were able to watch the space station drifting across the sky again. But this time it was different. The ISS has just had some new solar panels fitted, giving it a much larger reflective surface, and the difference was very obvious – at its highest the ISS was as bright as a magnesium flare, simply stunningly bright, and we were both open-mouthed with appreciation and wonder as we watched it arc towards and then drop down through Leo. It’s easily brighter than Venus now, easily the brightest thing in the sky after the Sun and Moon.

The ISS orbit is essentially 90 minutes long, meaning passes are 90 minutes apart. And with absolutely fantastic and very unusual timing, the play had its intermission at just before 9pm, literally minutes before the next ISS pass was due, so we ran outside to watch it again. This time it was much lower, and nowhere near as bright as it had been the first time, but it still looked beautiful, and as we stood there, looking up at it, several people around us started to stare up at it too. When it became clear they didn’t know what it was I told them, and they were all absolutely thrilled, confirming again that most people have a tiny seed of interest in astronomy hidden away inside them, you just have to shine some light on it, feed it and encourage it to grow.

So, it was quite a few days! I reckon that by midnight last night I’d “Spread The Word” to almost a hundred people. Which doesn’t sound a lot, I know, but that’s a hundred people who now look at the night sky a little differently…. a hundred people who now know that it ISN’T “always the same up there”, that things happen, exciting things, increduible things! … a hundred people who will tell their own friends and family – maybe another hundred people? – about what they saw and encourage them to do the same…

And that, for me, is what Outreach is all about. 🙂


Following the recent fitting of a new pair of solar array “wings” to the ISS it is now magnificently bright in the night sky, far outshining Venus I thought last night, so I’ve decided to move all ISS visibility times to their own page, it just keeps things tidier. You can see a tab at the top right there which will take you to that page, but here’s a direct link if you want to copy it or email it to people.


The ISS was just fantastically bright the past couple of nights, so much brighter than it used to be, so I hope we get some more clear nights soon.