Heavens above

30th June 1995 at 01:00
Trisha Walters goes stargazing at a purpose-built observatory in Wales. High on a hill above the Welsh Marches town of Knighton stands the Powys County Observatory, one of the few resources in the British Isles that is totally dedicated to the teaching of astronomy and scientific investigation. It has been masterminded by Cheryl Power and Brian Williams, and is the result of their life-long fascination for the stars.

Four years ago they gave up their jobs, Brian as a civil servant and Cheryl as a personal assistant, and sold everything they owned to finance, build and equip an observatory. Because they couldn't afford a builder, they did all the work themselves, living in a caravan until the building, which is also their home, was habitable.

It had always been their intention to encourage school parties to visit the observatory, but they were nonetheless rather overwhelmed by the response. The local bush telegraph worked overtime and word of their exploits quickly spread along the Shropshire Powys border. Even before the building was completed, Cheryl and Brian were inundated with requests for adult evening classes, and so they quickly organised an "Introduction to Astronomy" course.

Before there was time to mailshot the local schools, several teachers who were attending the evening classes asked if they could bring school parties round. The first group was given the grand tour on January 12, and since then the phone has hardly stopped ringing. Charges are kept down to a minimum (Pounds 1 per head for school parties) because, as Brian emphasises, "we needed to make sure that everybody who wants to come can afford it".

A tour of the observatory can take just over an hour and begins at the meteorological station. This links into US, Russian, Japanese and European satellites, and the European Space Agency's Meteosat satellites, which are in geostationary orbit, are constantly monitored. Appearing on the computer screens are images to intrigue children (and adults) of all ages, with animated sequences of weather systems and reflections of the sun on the Atlantic Ocean.

The equipment in the seismological station has been set up by Liverpool University, who then use the information for their own research. It is programmed to pick up earthquakes, which are more common in Britain than many people realise. "There are probably about 100 or so minor quakes a year, " Cheryl points out. "You won't always feel them, but we can pick them up. " The Camera Obscura picks up images of the surrounding countryside, and while it has proved particularly popular with the children, it has also made a hit with the neighbouring sheep farmers. "You'd think they'd be fed up with the sight of sheep," Cheryl smiles, "but when they see them on the screen, they get quite excited!" Upstairs a rotating tower houses the main refractor telescope, a solar telescope and a 6.5-inch tracking telescope. The tower is completely enclosed, so that the sky can be viewed in comfort through optical glass.

But as far as most school parties are concerned the highlight of the tour is a visit to the Planetarium, which depicts the night sky, showing the position and brightness of the stars and the way they move across the sky at any time of the year.Cheryl and Brian have financed the whole venture, with the help of over 30 sponsors. "We've never asked for money," Cheryl stresses. "We asked only for goods and expertise. Pilkingtons supplied the raw materials for the lenses, and then we ground and polished them to the right sizes. And we had help from British Aerospace, as it was then known, when their chief optical engineer Dr Richard Scaddon tweaked up our design for the optics."

Their enthusiasm is infectious, and Brian believes that there's an amateur astronomer in us all. "Anybody who has ever looked up at the night sky and wondered about it is a potential astronomer. The object is to understand what you are looking at; once you realise what you're looking for, the sky takes on a different meaning. You become slightly excited about it and you want to move on and learn a bit more."

The Observatory will be officially opened by Patrick Moore on July 6, and from July 8 until September 3 there will be daily tours at 11.00am, 2.00pm and 7.00pm. Further details from telfax 01547 520247

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