A quick admission to make, due to the weather rather spoiling my plans, I never did a walkabout of the solar system scale model held in Kendal on Waterside. I did see bits of it getting set up, all the way up to Uranus – where I was stationed. I had decided I would go walkabout at around three o’clock, but part of my duties involved showing people the Sun through a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope, kindly donated for the day by Robin Leadbeater, and as luck would have it from about half two until half four (thirty minutes after the official end of the event) I was deluged with people either wanting to watch the Sun, or standing at the ready for when the next break in the clouds came.
Instead, my time was spent by the bridge over the Kent, next to the Abbot Hall playground alongside UnmannedSpaceflight.com volunteer Neil Wheeler and a sign indicating Uranus. As Neil took charge of delivering quick bursts of information on the planet formerly known as Neptune George III Great Britain (snappy, why did they ever rename it?) amongst other things, I stood forlornly by a telescope pointed at the clouds.
Then there was a small break – just enough for me to point the telescope towards a bright light not often seen. Then another crack in the clouds, just enough to tune the telescope to show the bright regions, granulation, prominences and a filament. Another crack and the focusing was adjusted.
One o’clock seemed to spark off the first real wave of people coming through, following the sporadics in the first hour. After this point, more and more people flowed steadily through, many stopping to try and catch the Sun in one of the rare breaks in the cloud. Eventually, larger areas of blue sky started to filter through and rather than taking a quick walk to Pluto, people elected to wait until one arrived, providing a good dozen or so people queuing at a time. Old hands, mothers with babes in sling (at least two of those), young children (for which the telescope was lowered) and everyone in between. Even a member of the Cumbrian Skies group of the Stargazer’s Lounge found time to drop by.
Several people had their fears about looking directly through a telescope at the Sun calmed with a quick chat about how the Coronado rejected 99.9% of the light coming into it and selected only a tiny fraction to see. As a result, they got their first views of the solar surface magnified by around 40x and for those who were able to focus on the detail (for some, it took some time, for others it was instant), the views were memorable. One young boy called the Sun ‘creepy’ when he saw the feathered edges and sinuous detail like the filament (called variously, ‘the tadpole’ and ‘the wiggly thing’) and the brighter glowing regions. The Sun is coming out of the deepest solar minimum for a century, making the views even more special. The reasons behind that apparently lie in a conveyor belt of plasma that has been spinning round faster than normal in recent years, but not stretching as far down in previous cycles as it does now. But the activity (measurable through new techniques such as using the polarisation of light to detect the magnetic field structure), and the resulting auroral signals, provided some talking points for visitors.
But dragging myself away from the solar viewing (by the shorn tips of my fingers), going both on the account of the happy faces arriving at Uranus and the official event write-up by organiser Stuart Atkinson, the day went well with people by the dozen flowing through and seeing just how big things in our tiny corner of the galaxy are and getting in most cases their first filtered look at the thing that holds the entire solar system together. The Sun.