On the 18th of October 2013, three things came to pass over the darkened straits of Blackheath Common. Firstly, after a run of two perfectly clear nights and before another clear night, a pall of cloud descended on the location. Not so unusual, but rather frustrating as the second occurrence that night was to be a partial, or penumbral, eclipse of the Moon. The third was the arrival of a gaggle of astronomers and friends hoping to be a part of the filming of an episode of the Sky at Night. Broadcast from 1957 to the present day, the Sky at Night has always represented an amateur astronomer’s eye view of the world of astrophysics and the skies above, passing on news, tips and tricks to improve knowledge as well as the quality of time spent looking into space.
On this occasion, astronomers were donated to the cause by the nearby Flamsteed Astronomical Society as well as central London’s Baker Street Irregular Astronomers, of which I am a proud member. We were to gather on the heath near the parking area on Talbot Place at the appointed time of eight pm. News on the weather and whether or not we’d go ahead propagated through twitter from lunchtime with all groups saying ‘It looks bad, but not bad enough to cancel’. We had also heard that the Sky at Night team, fearful of being clouded and rained off were to film the majority of their program at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, with brief appearances to watch us set up at eight and a visitation after the eclipse started at eleven. But that turned out to be incorrect – they were with us all night, having visited ROG for a few hours earlier in the day.
On arrival, I proudly set up my own scope, a 130mm newtonian by Celestron; a reflecting telescope that uses a mirror to bring the rays of light to a focus, based on a design by Newton. I had entered the heath, trundling my cases of equipment, and joined a rather obvious crowd of people illuminated by a few floodlights. Not the most subtle gathering on a darkened common on an autumnal evening. I checked everything was ok on the telescope. Although the thing had joined me observing in crowds and on photoshoots in everything from art centre gardens to the grounds of ruined castles without problems, it always makes sense to ensure you can see something through it before inviting anyone else for a look. Fortunate that I did in this case as it appears the trundling of the case had loosened something – the primary mirror had seemingly slipped a little. No problem, just a quick twiddle with the collimation screws and it should realign into something like the right position. It didn’t. Instead there was a clunk as it choose to detach itself completely and have a rest in the body of the telescope. Somewhere in the darkness a spring also leapt to a new life in the grass of the common.
Ever stoic, I decided to find someone in the crowd I was familiar with to complain to. I found a few fellow irregulars holidaying in Blackheath away from our usual meeting place at the Hub in Regent’s Park. They included Paul Hill and Tom Kerrs of the ruling Unofficial Force as well as Eric Emms and a considerable number of others who’d ventured into the unfamiliar terrain of South East London. I hadn’t even made it halfway through the crowd before a few friendly Flamsteed faces struck up conversations as well. This was very much the tone of most of the evening, friendly conversations amongst the crowd while somewhere in the distance the Sky at Night team beavered away on the many shoots and reshoots required to get their scenes just so. At this point, interest at the back end of the crowd was more on what was happening above than the pieces to camera going on behind a dense wall of people in front.
A couple of brief glimpses of the Moon later, I returned to the stricken scope. With the use of gravity and the light of a phone shone by a kindly guy in the crowd, the mirror was rotated back in place and the screws found in the bag returned to their preferred positions. A second, more successful collimation was followed by the ceremonial laying of a pink blanket just in case anything else should choose to take in the event from the comfort of the grass. As I was beginning this, I was greeted by the presenter Chris Lintott, a former UCL student like myself.
I returned to the Irregulars in the crowd and we were soon joined by tonight’s Sky at Night special guest Katy Joy, another former UCL person. She brought with her a polished fragment from a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite as well as a tiny fragment of a Moon rock turned meteorite, kept in a protective plastic bottle. The meteorite was a survivor from the early solar system, containing materials that had never sat in an object so large as to differentiate the heavier from the lighter mass materials through the action of gravity. She spoke on the subject at length answering questions from the audience in depth, allowing us all time to hold the fragment and bottle and take our pictures while learning firsthand from a researcher in the area the meaning to science of these objects as well as their inherent interest on a more personal note. A very Sky at Night presentation and one she happily soldiered through repeatedly, going through the crowd bit by bit to get to as many people as possible.
By ten pm the crowd had begun to thin as some of those from farther afield parts of London had to return to family and normal life. We were boosted by the late night dog walkers and a few clubbers diverted by the crowds. I also took some time to walk outside of the illuminated area and get photos of those on camera from behind the filming area.
Back at my telescope to take advantage of some breaks in the crowd, I was joined again by Chris Lintott and Paul Hill for a more indepth chat while the cameras were working on scenes not requiring Chris’ input. At these moments, those not meant to be on camera are to remove themselves entirely – not to be seen or heard at all. I rather like the idea of the presenters and guests being seen to interact with the audience, but can see how it would be distracting. Other aspects of the filming process were also coming through as Pete Lawrence and Lucie Green attempted to demonstrate with models a lunar eclipse. The number of takes seemed to suggest this was being done on the actual timescale of planetary movements, but the result would be a minute or so, if that, of final screentime. Sounds coming from the presentation table included the presenters clapping before takes to give the soundman something to latch on to and the banging of a later crater creation demonstration.
As the evening turned to night, further people crumbled away, including my small group of Irregulars. The hardy few of us remaining were moulded into a crack team of audience members by Jane, who brought people and telescopes forward to cover the cameras’ fields of view. As my telescope and I were slotted into place, the team were in search of a balloon from a past demonstration. Another audience member and I caught sight of it making a bid for the busy road far in the distance. Too far to be saved, I’m afraid.
Two demonstrations remained to be filmed. The first was one I’d seen on a couple of documentaries recently, which was placing a few drops of milk in a tank of water to simulate particles in the atmosphere. When illuminated by a white light torch, these would then show how particles in our own atmosphere preferentially scatter bluer light, leaving the redder light of the Sun, as we see at sunset, or as is projected onto the Moon during more complete eclipses. Milk in tank, torched shines through sounds simple enough. However, a large group of people standing on Blackheath Common after a few hours near no public toilets while a tank is being ever so slowly filled with water can make things more complicated. Worse when the first attempt sees too much milk added and the tank has to be emptied and refilled. Eventually, under the careful gaze of researcher (and another UCL guy) Will Gater, the right amount of milk was added and (UCL researcher) Lucie Green was able to carry on. I also noticed during this time how active the impressionist Jon Culshaw, another presenter, was behind the camera; constantly scoping out angles and passing on findings. Seeing him present, it is perhaps easy to forget he had his own show with I’d assume far more control over how that was shot.
The second demonstration saw Lucie bring out a tangle of foil ribbon and a small portable Van der Graaf generator. To replicate the conditions seen by the Apollo astronauts when fountains of dust erupted from newly sunlit areas, the foil was to act as a particle of dust, become charged and levitate above the generator. One thing the Apollo astronauts didn’t encounter on the Moon was a strong gust of wind and I was soon handing an escaped tangle of foil back to Lucie. The next two attempts saw the tangle land in the hands of people either side of me, with the second one seeing the foil untangle and levitate for a short while before its bid for freedom. Just as they had decided to abandon the effort, with the first drops of rain starting to send astronomers heading for their lens caps, the wind dropped. Finally we saw the tangle of foil unravel itself into a three dimensional figure of eight shape and hover above the generator for an appreciable length of time before again making its way into the crowd, followed by Lucie and her wand like device. Those behind the camera thought all this amusing enough for the take to be declared done, for which a round of applause was given.
Finally, all the presenters were brought out of perdu for the final goodbye to camera. They were given their crib notes. final decisions on who was to say what made and final discussions on the script. Chris was a little reticent to state it was 1 am and the time of maximum eclipse as the intended audience would likely know maximum eclipse was ten minutes earlier. Outvoted, he used the version given to him and each presenter went through their bit. Then a few more takes and retakes before the cameras were turned on the crowd for our rictus grins. The smiles of people ignoring the rain beating down on equipment stretching from the hundreds to the thousands of pounds worth of telescope in support of a program that had probably sustained them through darker nights when developing their own love of what can be a very solitary hobby without the warmth of an observing group.
Rictus grins over the signal was given for us all to pack up and out of the rain. Pete came round to say thank you to everyone he could find and Will Gater also came over to say hello, recognising me from twitter. There had been another guy who recognised me from meeting at astrofest but it is quite a feat to recognise me from a twitter avatar even in daylight.
And with that, the night was over. The Sky at Night team had their hotel to return to whilst the rest of us tidied away our stuff and made our way back to our various homes. Happy to have given something back to a program that has given so much over the decades it has been broadcast while asking for little in return. Having survived graveyard slots and the loss of its iconic first presenter, Sir Patrick Moore, the Sky at Night faces review by the end of this year. Representing only 20 minutes a month (plus one repeat and a 30 minute special on BBC4), the Sky at Night bridges the gap between the more cerebral documentaries exploring the academic world of science and those aspects of astronomy available to the man in the street. At a time when interest in astronomy has never been greater, when the UK’s satellite information services sector remains the only sector to have not only grown but grown fast at every point in the economic downturn, now is not the time to switch off what for some may be the only thing nurturing the germ of an interest in the subject. There is no information on what the review may mean – it could well be a standard annual review of the program or it could be something more serious – but whatever the reasons, it doesn’t hurt to show an appreciation of the program by signing the online petition to keep it running. I wouldn’t like others to be denied the chance to experience a little bit of TV magic on a cold, blustery night on Blackheath Common.