Eclipsed by Cornish youth

30th July 1999 at 01:00
Star-gazing pupils will be taking part in ground-breaking experiments. Nicolas Barnard reports.

Leading science laboratories are beating a path to Cornish schools for the total eclipse of the sun next month, giving pupils a chance to take part in ground-breaking physics experiments.

Solar physicists from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire will be at one school which boasts its own observatory. Sheffield Hallam and other universities have made links with other schools across the county.

Roseland school, in Tregawny near Truro, houses five telescopes owned by Cornish stargazing group Astronomics 2000 for two years. The observatory is widely used by the public and will be open for three weeks around August 11, when the first total eclipse will be visible in mainland Britain since 1927. Radio Cornwall will broadcast a running commentary from the school on the day.

The observatory includes a coelostat - designed for observing the sun- which will project an image of the eclipse on to a screen.

Further equipment, from the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, will enable scientists to observe the sun's corona - the supercharged gas cloud that envelopes the sun and which is only visible during a total eclipse.

It provides one of the sun's enduring mysteries: why, at more than one million degrees kelvin, is the corona so much hotter than the sun's surface which registers a comparatively chilly 6,000 degrees? Scientists will use spectrometers to determine which elements make up the corona.

Enthusiasm for the total eclipse among Cornish pupils has been so great that next term will see the start of extra-curricular GCSE astronomy classes. Schools have been gearing up for the eclipse for months - many will be open on the day - and the event has consumed most of Cornwall science adviser Ray Jardine's year.

A training day was provided for more than 100 primary and secondary schools, run by scientists from Sheffield Hallam. Websites have proliferated through BT and Tesco's SchoolNet 2000 project, and curriculum materials have gone out to every school.

"It's a unique event for Cornish children and their parents, so we felt it was important that they got the most from it," Mr Jardine said.

Pupils at Roseland school, as well working in the observatory and putting a commentary on the web, will run experiments on nearby owl and bat sanctuaries to see if the sudden darkness tricks nocturnal animals into coming out before true dusk.

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