Hope is on the horizon as lifeline is thrown for astronomy club venue

Sheffield Astronomical Society Sungazing Day: Callum Bellhouse with the Mayfield Centre behind him
Sheffield Astronomical Society Sungazing Day: Callum Bellhouse with the Mayfield Centre behind him

Sheffield’s astronomers are used to the local weather’s reluctance to abide by their official timetables.

“The last time we came to look at the stars it was a bit overcast, but it’s been brilliant today,” said Mary Axelby. “The sun was lovely, so round, and we saw little threads coming off it. We learned a lot.”

The Sheffield Astronomical Society have met at the Mayfield Environmental Centre for 14 years, with talks by leading astronomers inside the old Victorian school house, and regular star and sun watching events in the car park outside.

“It’s nice to see stargazing on the telly, but it’s more exciting to go and see it first hand,” said Mary. “You can put your silly questions to the people here and they can explain it to you. They talked us through the different parts of the sun, its magnetic fields and how sunspots are formed. It’s a brilliant resource.”

The SAS have been holding sun gazing events for several years, using telescopes with special 
filters to show wavelengths of light often invisible to the naked eye. Looking at the sun through normal telescopes or other 
non-specialist media will probably result in severe damage or blindness, everyone was categorically warned.

“Looking through a hydrogen alpha telescope you see things you don’t normally see,” said SAS expert Darren Swindells. He casually pointed out that the little threadlike ‘prominences’ flaring along the sun’s edge are actually several times bigger than the Earth.

“Using these filters give you an appreciation of how horrible and hot and tumultuous the sun actually is.”

“The level of expertise is amazing, and it’s brilliant that it’s open to everybody,” said Richard Booth.

SAS president Steve Adams is used to these sorts of superlatives. He and his colleagues say they judge the effectiveness of a public event by the number of ‘wows’ they hear.

“We easily get 1,000 visits to talks and outside events a year,” he said.

Steve added that there has been a ‘spectacular change in public opinion’ following the popularity of TV science programmes fronted by physicist Brian Cox.

“Astronomy used to be seen as a bit geeky, but now there’s much more general interest and people really do enjoy it,” he said.

The closure of the Mayfield Centre to save council money has been strongly fought but now accepted by the society, who will hold their last events at Mayfield in August. After that, said Steve, indoor meetings will move to the Ranmoor Parish Centre every second Tuesday from September 10, where bus access may actually bring new people in, he noted.

Public observing will take a different course.

“We’ve tried ‘astronomy in the pub car park’ events which have been successful, so we may start that kind of thing in different places around Sheffield,” said Steve.

He added that all is not lost at Mayfield, however.

“The council have thrown us a life line because we’ve been going on for so long about how it’s such a lovely dark sky site. I was taken aback that we were still part of their plans, and very pleased that we’ve been given a chance to build a decent observatory for Sheffield in a place we know about.”

He cautioned that nothing was certain and much will depend on the Mayfield sale, but Steve has been 
told that the society will be given a segment of the Mayfield car park and the old World War Two bunker at the back of the site as a potential observatory and small meeting space.

At a smaller scale than previous public observatory ideas, he feels confident that local public funding can be found, and there’s a chance the new 
facilities could be in place by 2015.

“There’s lots to be decided, and we’ll have to raise funds, but it is a move forward. It was all doom and gloom a while ago but it seems now as if something positive may come out of this. A quality observatory within four miles of the Town Hall would be a real coup.”

For more information visit www.sheffieldastro.org.uk or call 07930 233475.