Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Comets and curry

Sounds like a weird combination, doesn't it?  But actually, it was the highlight of a weekend away to celebrate Dave's upcoming ::ahem::ieth birthday.

Dave has always been a huge fan of astronomy and all things 'space' oriented, so as a special treat I booked two nights in a local hotel and two tickets for a special event at Herstmonceaux Observatory science centre in Sussex.  It meant another almighty drive (the third to the south-east corner in a couple of months) but boy, was it worth it. 

The hotel wasn't up to much, mind you - booking over the internet can be a hit-and-miss affair - but it was cheap, reasonably comfortable and only a couple of miles down the road. 

We had the opportunity to explore the area on Saturday, having never visited East Sussex before.  Hastings turned out to be a big disappointment (although I think we might have missed the more insteresting Old Town) but both Eastbourne and Lewes were amazing.  So much so that we've said we must come back, have a holiday in the area, and trawl through the sights at our leisure.

The crowning event, though, was the Comets and Curry night at the Observatory.  We rolled up just before 7pm, had some time to look round the exhibits (mostly in the form of child-friendly experiments but still great fun), then trooped into a geodesic dome in the grounds for our plate of curry and complimentary glass of wine, followed by a fascinating talk about the origins of comets and meteorites by one of the Observatory staff.

After that, we were let loose on the telescopes.  Herstmonceaux was used as the Royal Observatory for a period after the second world war, and has six separate observatory domes as a result, each housing an amazing and (in several cases) very old telescope.  As part of the evening, we went into four of the domes, not all of which are open on a regular basis.  We saw the copper-clad roofs rotating to line the telescopes up with different areas of sky.  We saw one dome raise its own floor so we could reach the huge telescope which is so heavy it's easier to move everyone up to it, than to move it down to ground level.  We looked through three different telescopes and were able to see Jupiter and four of its moons, Uranus (not visible with the naked eye), and even the Andromeda galaxy.  We talked to members of both a local astronomy society and a local amateur radio society.  And we saw several shooting stars - the result of the annual Taurid meteor shower.

Remarkably, since it had been raining all day, the skies cleared and everything was pin sharp, and because the Observatory is sited out in the countryside there are fewer lights around to cast everything into an orange glow.  I was delighted to be able to see the Milky Way, and individual stars in the Pleiades cluster, both for the first time.  And Dave was like a small boy in a sweet shop the entire evening and enjoyed every second.  Which, after all, is why I did it in the first place!

We're back at home again now, tired from the travelling, heartily sick of motorway service stations, but very, very happy that we made the effort.

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