With media coverage of supermoons, exoplanets and water on Mars, interest in astronomy is booming. Reporter STUART ANDERSON put together this feature about the Hampshire Astronomical Group for The News’s Weekend magazine cover story
‘Astronomy has changed enormously in the time that I’ve been around,’ reflects Richard Judd, 71.
‘When I started you had to have a disk with a wheel which you could hold up to the sky if you wanted to identify which stars you were looking at.
‘Now you have children with apps on their iPhones which they can hold up and it’ll tell them all about the constellations just like that.’
It’s a crisp, clear night as we’re standing on a hill outside the village of Clanfield, north of Portsmouth.
Well away from any light pollution, the sky is lit up with scores of stars, planets and nebula that just get brighter the longer we look.
It’s a club night at the Hampshire Astronomical Group and there are a few dozen dedicated stargazers peering through telescopes and recording images of the wonders of the cosmos.
Richard, from Clanfield, is the president of the group, which was formed in 1960.
Like many of its 180 members, he says he has had a lifelong fascination with astronomy.
‘Many years ago I used to go up to a village in the summer holidays with my grandfather,’ he remembers.
Suddenly we’ve got loads of schools wanting to come up to the observatoryGraham Bryant
‘He was a gamekeeper – a great guy and he really knew the stars.
‘We used to go out at night to put some pheasants away and he’d say: “turn your back to me and tell me what’s behind you”, and I used to have to tell him the constellations that were there.
‘I’ve had the bug for astronomy ever since.
‘Once you’ve got it, it never leaves you.’
The club has become increasingly popular over the years to the point where there is now a waiting list to join.
Its facilities include five telescopes seated in domes at the Clanfield base, which Richard says are second to none.
‘With the equipment we have here we could hand-on-heart say this is the largest and best-equipped amateur observatory in the UK,’ he says.
The club’s chairman, Graham Bryant, shows me their new pride-and-joy, an ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ Ritchey-Chrétien telescope, which has the same optical configuration as the Hubble.
Installed just last year, the telescope is capable of seeing heavenly bodies in more detail than the group has ever been able to do before. It can also be used to take photos.
‘It’s a 24in in diameter,’ says Graham, 58, of the huge, barred device, which peers out through a narrow slit in the roof of its dome.
‘This is the original dome going back to 1972 and we’ve completely refurbished it.’
The group also has a 130-year-old Victorian telescope in a seperate dome which still provides a crystal clear view of the cosmos.
And there’s no shortage of people lining up to use it.
Graham says astronomy is becoming ever more popular, with groups including the Scouts and the U3A eager to visit the site.
‘It’s a very active group,’ he says.
‘Suddenly we’ve got loads of schools wanting to come up to the observatory.’
Graham says more media coverage of recent events such as the eerie blood-red ‘supermoon’ and the discovery of evidence of water on Mars showed how popular astronomy was becoming.
He says a focus on astronomy in schools, as well a certain celebrity physicist, had also boosted the its profile.
Graham says: ‘Astronomy is one of those sciences like dinosaurs that youngsters find fascinating.
‘If you can get them into it at a young age, then there’s a good chance they’re going to be hooked into science for a long period of time.
‘Then you’ve got the Brian Cox effect.
‘He’s cool, so astronomy went from being a kind of a geeky hobby to something that was acceptable.
‘Once that happened it seemed like the floodgates opened and every astronomical society I know of has a growing interest in people joining.’
The group runs astronomy courses for beginners, hosts public talks and has open days and evenings. Group members also work with University of Portsmouth astronomy and mathematics students, helping to piece together the mysteries of the universe.
Details at a glance..
WHERE: Hampshire Astronomical Group is based on a shared site with Portsmouth Water in Hinton Manor Lane, Clanfield.
WHEN: The group has open evenings on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights which need to be booked well in advance. They also organise school and club visits for a small fee on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. A beginner’s’ astronomy group meets on Mondays and regular club nights are on Wednesday and Friday evenings.
CONTACT: Call (023) 92 595 217 or e-mail Graham Bryant on email@example.com.
‘I’d like to fly people to the moon’
He spent many years with a front-row view of the stars, and he has never stopped looking towards the heavens.
Ray Howell, from Port Solent, is a retired British Airways pilot and keen member of the astronomical group.
Ray, 67, joined the group in the early 1980s.
He says: ‘Half of my working life was flying at night in the dark under the stars. You ask me if I want to go to the moon? Well, I’d like to fly people to the moon one day.’
Ray says he started off by doing a basic astronomy course, which fired his interest for more.
‘It’s something that gets your imagination going - when you start thinking of the distances involved and the sizes of stars and planets.
‘I think most people with a vaguely scientific leaning could easily get caught by astronomy and become addicted.’
Ray says many amateur astronomoers have a favourite subject and his is the moon.
‘It’s regarded as fairly boring by a lot of astronomers,’ he says.
‘But when you look at it, you can see individual mountains and the most extraordinary things. It makes you gasp, sometimes, with what you see.’
Ray says he’s ‘very proud’ of the group and the facilities they have built up over the years, including its ‘star’ Ritchey–Chrétien telescope.
‘It took a lot of work installing it, but we did it and we’re very proud of it.
‘It’s a great facility and what we we want to do at the club is really open it up to the public.’
Peering at exoplanets
He’s a member of a generation that has witnessed something unique in human history – the birth of space travel.
David Harris, 72, can remember when the Russians launched the very first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into space in 1957.
He remembers Yuri Gagarin making history as the first person in space and Neil Armstrong touching down on the surface of the moon.
David, from Purbrook, says he has been fascinated in astronomy since he was about 14.
He said: ‘I started to get actively engaged when the first Sputnik went up.
‘That was when I built my own telescope and learned to take images of Saturn.’
David keeps himself busy by helping to maintain the group’s telescopes and other equipment.
‘I tend to get involved in the technical stuff,’ he says.
‘I keep the kit correct, make sure the optics are all in line and so on, and that takes up a lot of time.’
He also has an interest in planets outside our solar system, and works with University of Portsmouth students to learn more about them.
David says: ‘I try to get the light curves for exoplanets which you can measure when the planet goes in front of its star.
‘That can give you the distance of that ex-planet from its star and also the diameter and density, so it gives you quite a lot of information.’
David says exploring, and one day colonising, the heavens is essential if humanity wants to survive.
‘The way we’re going we’re ruining this planet, so we will have to look for another one.’