Stars in their eyes

24th September 2004 at 01:00
The solar system comes to life at Edinburgh's Royal Observatory.

Jane-Ann Purdy goes stargazing

Perched on top of Blackford Hill, the Royal Observatory is an easily identifiable structure on the Edinburgh skyline. Built in 1896, its twin towers are a tribute to late Victorian architecture. These two tall octagonal structures topped by cylindrical copper drums house impressively large telescopes which, at the time of their respective inaugurations, represented the ultimate in spectroscopy and wide-field astronomy.

More than a century after the observatory was built, it is still a thriving scientific centre housing the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Astronomy. It also offers school children a chance to see around the building and learn about the universe.

Today, our closest starry neighbour, the sun, is very much in evidence and the children from Craigentinny primary are basking in its rays as they wait for their tour to begin.

"That's great," says Jenny Dockett, the observatory's education officer .

"We'll be able to get some telescopes out and look at the sun."

Looking for sunspots from the roof is very popular but, given the Scottish weather, is not always possible. "That's why Scotland is a bad place for observing," explains Ms Dockett. "The astronomers here now use telescopes based in Australia and Hawaii for research purposes."

Linking to these remote sites via the internet means that they spend much of their time gazing at the heavens via computer screen, an experience that the observatory will soon be able to offer to secondary school children via the Faulkes Telescope Project.

Astronomy is not a subject that needs a lot of encouragement, says Ms Dockett, as most children are already fascinated by planets and stars and visiting the moon. As the Craigentinny Primary 6 pupils file up the stairs to one of the telescope domes, the excitement is palpable. Soon they are gazing in awe at a 36in telescope dating back to the early 20th century and learning how the roof moves to let the telescope follow stars in the sky at night.

After a look at the sun on the rooftop gallery the education officer introduces the children to the solar system through a game where each pupil plays the part of a heavenly body. Back inside the children get the chance to handle some meteorites and think about where they have come from. They are engrossed in tales of 26,000 meteorites hitting the earth every year when a visitor arrives.

The aptly named Professor Alan Heavens is an astronomer who gamely volunteers to answer questions, most of which seem more taxing than those posed by his PhD students.

The Craigentinny pupils want to know (among other things) how many kilometres it is from Mars to the sun, if there is any life on Mars, if any respectable astronomers have ever seen any unidentified flying objects, and how long it would take to get to Pluto. For the record, the answers are approximately 300 million, we don't know, no, and about 20 years respectively.

The tour lasted an hour, but it has been enough to feed the enthusiasm of these P6s. Most liked the big telescope best, and when asked what they had learnt, the replies came thick and fast. "I learnt who was the first female in space," says one budding astronaut (it was Valentina Tereshkova in 1963).

Another was amazed that it took "eight minutes for light to travel from the sun", and that many of the stars they see at night appear as they looked before they were born. One boy was surprised that there were orbiting objects beyond Pluto (Varuna, Ixion, Quaoar and Sedna). Most gratifyingly for the staff, one of the pupils expressed a desire to become an astronomer. Why? "Because you get to look at things that no one else gets to look at."

A bit like a visit to the Royal Observatory.

The Royal Observatory offers tours and programmes to suit all ages. Groups of 10 to 50 pupils. Price pound;2.50 for each pupil (one adult per 10 pupils admitted free; pound;3.50 for each additional adult). Starlab, a mobile planetarium, can be hired by schools within an hour's travel from Edinburgh: pound;150 per half day; pound;265 for a full day. For more information, tel: 0131 668 8404; email:; details of Faulkes project:


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