Reaching for the stars: Our region's experts on the cosmos
Over the last few months, the proverbial ‘final frontier’ has very much been in the headlines.
In mid-autumn, NASA achieved a big success with its DART programme – successfully changing the motion of an asteroid by purposefully crashing a spacecraft into it, and thus making a leap forward in defence against near-Earth object (NEO) collision.
More recently, the Artemis 1 mission was finally launched, marking an exciting stage in a space programme that, by 2025, will hopefully see human beings return to the surface of the Moon.
And though the recent Virgin Orbit rocket launch from Spaceport Cornwall did not go as planned, it still marked an important step in the UK putting its foot forward to be more heavily involved in global space developments and mankind’s pursuit of the cosmos.
Alongside these headlines, big name entrepreneurs are continuing to develop space tourism, and astrophysicists such as Professor Brian Cox are keeping TV viewers enchanted by the wonders of the stars.
Excitement and enthusiasm for all things interstellar is at a high, and in our region it is being championed by those for whom space is a passion, a calling, and even a serious duty.
Part of the local furniture for four decades, the Shropshire Astronomical Society (SAS) is a volunteer-run group for anyone interested in astronomy, star-gazing or space exploration.
A member for the last 20 years, Steve Szwajkun has spent the last two as chairman, and has been proud to see the society’s membership grow. “At the moment we’re at around 100 members,” he said. “We’re a keen society, and we do a tremendous amount of outreach work.”
With this ‘Astronomy in the Community’ initiative, Steve and his cohort lead the charge in inspiring both the young and the old in the region to look up at the stars.
“It doesn’t matter what age people are,” Steve said. “We’ve done talks and visits with Brownies and Beavers, and then townswomen guilds. We spend a lot of time out there trying to promote all things space, and most of the time people really enjoy it. We do mobile planetariums and in the summer we had a fantastic session in a school where we had the lunar rocks from NASA. The children in particular always love it – any mention of space or dinosaurs though and I suppose you’ve got them!”
Fellow astronomy enthusiasts Cath Adams and Doug Bickley from Wolverhampton Astronomical Society share Steve’s passion.
“I have been interested in space all my life, and for me there is nothing better than sitting out under a starry sky, especially during predicted meteor showers,” said Cath. “I joined Wolverhampton Astronomical Society around ten years ago to follow my passion and further my knowledge”.
“There’s a feeling of humbleness when gazing at the vastness of space, and effectively looking back in time,” added Doug. “ It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, a beginner or more experienced, there is always something to learn.”
And as Mike Lewis, chairman of Walsall Astronomical Society, points out, stargazing is not only good for the nourishment of the intellect, but also for the wellbeing of the mind.
“Everyone is aware of the mental health benefits of being in nature,” he said. “The universe is one of the greatest expanses of nature on everyone’s door step – you just have to step outside at night. Even in light-polluted skies, what you thought was a star you can find out is a planet. It is a world of discovery and with current phone apps it has become easy to tour the night sky.
“Spend some time getting to know the neighbourhood above your head – this can be as peaceful as sitting by a lake and observing everything around you.”
In digging into the mysteries of the stars, Steve, Cath, Doug, Mike and their fellow astronomers have found a calling that ignites a fire within them. Yet they are far from the region’s only ambassadors for the importance of looking up toward the heavens, and, indeed, the dangers they can pose.
Almost three decades ago, the life of Royal Artillery Instructor Gunnery Jay Tate was changed when fragments from the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted our solar system’s largest planet. It was an event that would set him on an incredible journey.
“Back in the summer of 1994, some fairly hefty chunks of that comet hit Jupiter,” said Jay. “It was a big, big deal at the time. Everybody was watching – we could actually see the scars on the planet where these things had hit. And it just occurred to me to wonder what we had in place in terms of defence in case something similar were to happen to Earth.”
After months of researching and writing to experts, Jay got his answer.
“Essentially, nothing,” he said. “The Americans were beginning to wind up their programme but, in the UK, absolute diddly-squat.”
With this, a determined Jay took up the cause.
“Twenty-five years ago I started an organisation called Spaceguard UK to generate interest in the subject of near-Earth object impact,” he said.
“That took off quite dramatically, and actually became the biggest national space guard organisation in the world. It was also picked up in Parliament by Lembit Öpik. His grandfather – Ernst Julius Öpik – was probably the most eminent planetary scientist in the UK of the 20th century.
“Once it had been through Parliament, a taskforce was set up and they produced a very fine report. Fourteen recommendations were all accepted, but not a single one was actioned.”
Jay’s role, it would seem, was destined to be hands-on.
“It became clear that if our organisation didn’t do something, then nobody was going to,” he said. “At about the same time it was apparent that the rest of my career in the Forces was going to be spent behind a desk. That didn’t fill one with unbridled joy so we looked around and found the Powys County Observatory was up for sale. Unfortunately when we made an offer we found it had been sold 20 minutes prior.”
Fate, however, was to intervene.
“Two days later I got an email from an individual I’d never heard of saying, ‘I like what you’re about, is there anything I can do to help? I’ve got this little observatory’. I emailed back saying, ‘you’re lucky – somebody’s just whipped the Powys County Observatory out from under our feet’. He rang up and said, ‘I think we need to talk. That was me’.
“We came to a deal where we would set The Spaceguard Centre up there as an observatory that would contribute to NEO defence. We opened in October 2001, and we’ve been here ever since.”
Since its establishment in Powys, The Spaceguard Centre has worked as one of the main sources of information about near-Earth objects in the UK.
Tracking objects deemed to be of importance by NASA and the European Space Agency, Jay and his team use their observatory to help calculate where near-Earth objects are headed and the danger they may pose.
“Once you’ve found something, that’s brilliant, but you need to know where it’s going,” said Jay. “So you have to track it for a period of time to allow the mathematicians to calculate an accurate trajectory. And it’s that tracking that we’re involved with.”
However, Jay and the Spaceguard team are looking to take their work to the next level.
While the centre already operates a telescope system that allows it to track previously discovered NEOs, a new system enabling a wider field of view is required for it to be able to help search for undiscovered objects.
The aim of Spaceguard’s Project DRAX is to install and operate a 24-inch Schmidt Camera that would allow it to do just that.
“We have the camera – all seven-and-a-half tonnes of it,” said Jay. “And we’ve got it installed in a new dome which we’ve built. But we still need more help and funding to get it up and running.
“The project has been funded over the last decade by a donation box in the shop. Once the camera is up and running then we will have a very credible NEO search capability. On our current forecast, about £35,000 would see us finished. We’ve got so far, and it will happen – one way or another.”
With DART and Artemis hitting the news towards the end of last year, all of our astronomers are delighted about the spotlight said programmes have shone on the importance of humanity’s continued investment in space technology.
“DART worked like a dream,” said Jay. “The asteroid shifted more than anticipated, and so for the first time on the planet, a species has the capability to defend itself from this kind of danger. That’s an incredible and important achievement.”
“DART is a valued experiment that one day could be crucial,” added Mike. “There is a comet that is about to pass Earth. The last time it did so it was during the Stone Age. This was only spotted in March last year. What if it was on a different trajectory and heading into us?”
“I think the fact that we’re going back to the moon with the Artemis missions is brilliant,” said Steve. “People say ‘we shouldn’t be wasting money on space’, but when you actually look at the numbers, the amount of money that’s spent on space is minimal. However, the everyday benefits that you eventually get from advancement in space exploration are phenomenal. You wouldn’t have had non-stick pans without the Apollo missions!”
“I enjoy observing the Moon and look forward to following the progress of missions that are aiming to return us to the Moon,” added Cath.
“Who doesn’t love a spacecraft launch?” Said Doug. “It’s not rocket science – well, actually it is! So much to learn.”
Reflecting on the recent failed launch from Spaceport Cornwall, Jay and Steve remain excited about the UK’s involvement in the planet’s spacefaring future.
“Bad luck that the Cornwall launch failed,” said Jay. “But, with systems as complex as spacecraft, it’s a miracle that most of them do work! However, a small setback like this won’t seriously dent the project which is a long overdue but exciting step for the UK space programme.”
“Behind every success there is a liturgy of failures – just reflect on the early Apollo missions,” added Steve. “We look forward to Virgin Orbit returning for additional launches to push this exciting UK venture forward.”
And as Mike sums up, the current trial-and-error push on space developments will surely contribute to feats now only dreamed of becoming a reality.
“Space exploration now will hopefully prepare us for off-planet existence and our future,” said Mike. “Telling someone from the 1800s that one day we could get to the other side of the globe in a day – they would have thought this impossible. The distances for travel in the universe are mind blowing but one day will be possible.”
For all our astronomers, the most important thing is that enthusiasm and support for all things ‘space’ continues to spread, and that more and more people become engaged with both the joy and the issues of the sky beyond our world.
“Anyone interested in volunteering can give me a call,” said Jay. “We have people up each weekend to help us with anything from painting to more intricate electronic work. It’s a great way to be a part of what we’re doing, and all help is greatly appreciated.”
“We just love promoting our passion for the subject,” added Steve. “It’s what it’s all about – promoting space to the masses – and we’re delighted to be a part of this.”