Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Astrofest 2013

Astrofest 2013

Friday 8th February 2013
6:45am: the alarm clock rings. I don't do mornings. Groggy, I reach over, turn off the alarm and switch on the lamp. Yawning, I rub my eyes and slowly sit up. Then I remember why it is I am getting up at this ungodly hour - we are going to Astrofest! With a bit more spring in my step I get myself ready and we sit down to breakfast, excitedly talking about which talks we were most looking forward to and which things we might be tempted to buy this year! At 7:30am we left the house and headed to the station. We were greeted by a beautiful frosty sunrise which we could see from the station platform. The North Oxfordshire winter landscape looked stunning as our train headed to Oxford, where we would catch our connecting train to London.
We had a few issues getting my wheelchair onto the train (the fiasco on both legs of the journey is for another blog!) but we arrived at Paddington at 9:10am. I wrapped myself up in my space blanket (home made by my Mum) and we set off. Following a very chilly walk across a frozen Kensington Gardens we finally arrived at Kensington Town Hall and took our seats in The Great Hall at 9:50am ready for the 10am start of Session 1.

The first talk was by Steve Miller from UCL, titled "The Molecule That Made the Universe".  He discussed how hydrogen is the most abundant molecule in the universe as it was one of only 3 elements that were formed by the big bang, the other 2 being helium and lithium. Hydrogen exists in various forms, often found in its molecular form as HII clouds. It had been suggested that the  ion formed within these clouds but it took many years before spectral studies confirmed it. He talked about how this molecule played an important role in the cooling of gas after the big bang. Stars form following the contraction of an area of cool molecular hydrogen. Approximately 400,000 years after the big bang all the gas in the universe began to form clumps. In order for stars to form, the gas had to get cool enough for gravity to beat thermal expansion. Molecular hydrogen was responsible for some of this cooling but  whilst having a relatively low abundance compared do HII, was responsible for several percent of the overall cooling power. This allowed star formation to take place, the more massive of which were responsible for the formation of many more elements during their short lives.  also plays a role in the temperature regulation of the gas giants, and is responsible for the aurorae seen on Saturn. This was a really interesting talk and expanded on some of the information we had studied as part of our respective Open University courses.

The second talk of Session one was titled "Cracks in The Crust - Rift Valleys on The Earth and Planets" by Mike Kendall from University of Bristol, Geophysics Department. He mostly discussed the differences between Earth and Mars. He explained the active plate tectonics seen on Earth and how they form subductions where they join. He also explained how rift systems form and produce volcanic chains. Currently there are no plate tectonics on Mars. There are however many volcanoes, most notably Olympus Mons, the highest volcano in our solar system, and canyons many times larger than those found on Earth. Fieldwork on Mars has discovered the presence of rift systems similar to those on Earth and they vary in age. Some of these rifts show pronounced flank uplifts, which may be evidence that Mars may once have had plate tectonics even though it doesn't today.  He also explained that Mars may also have had a magnetic field in the past but it no longer has. He briefly went on to discuss Venus. Venus has a dense atmosphere and is highly volcanic. Its lack of surface impact features show that it is resurfaced by volcanic material approximately every half a million years! It is thought that Venus has plate tectonics but they are different to those seen on Earth.

At 11:10 we had a half hour coffee break; an excuse to eat a Twix! Then followed the final two talks of session 1. “From Dagurreotype to CCD – How Photography Changed Astronomy” by Craig Mackay, from the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge was a fascinating insight into the history and development of astrophotography.  Scientific studies require accurate data recording. Historically, astronomers used drawings to record their observations. He showed some examples of drawings made by different people of the same object and it highlighted just how different people’s interpretation of something can be. The first photographic plates were used in the mid 19th Century, and long exposures revealed many more stars than could be seen with the naked eye.  A major improvement to that technology came when George Eastman developed a machine that could pre-coat the plates with emulsion, and this improved the quality of the photographs. Glass plates gave much better results than film. They could integrate for several hours and their uniformity allowed all sky surveys to be done – to date, all of the all-sky surveys have done on photographic plates, and recently were digitised. For astronomy purposes, only black and white photography was used. The next major development was the invention of the CCD chip. They were efficient, robust, and matched really well with telescope optics. They could be used in arrays and have been used on space telescopes, where atmospheric turbulence can be avoided. Initially, space telescopes were able to give 5 – 6 times greater resolution than ground based telescopes.  The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image was a 22.5 day exposure of a piece of sky about the size of a grain of sand. It showed galaxies so distant that their light would have been 2 thirds of the way to Earth before the solar system was even formed!  He then discussed some new developments to ground based technology which are producing photographs which are more detailed than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.  A combination of “Lucky Cam”, a software package that will automatically choose the best quality image from a set of images, and adaptive optics which correct for atmospheric turbulence in real-time, all used on a set up which is based high up on the mountains on the Canary Islands, have produced the highest resolution images ever taken of faint objects.  He summarised by saying that the development of imaging technology has had more influence on astronomy than any other development.

Talk number 4 was a change to the one advertised. Lembit Opek was supposed to be talking about who discovered the Oort Cloud, rescheduled from when he was supposed to talk at Astrofest 2012. However, he cancelled again and instead we had a talk from Nils Anderson from the University of Southampton, called “Can you Hear Black Holes Collide?” In the past 40 years there have been enormous advances in radio and X-ray astronomy.  Black holes are notoriously difficult to find. We can see them if they are feeding off a binary companion star as this releases X-rays which we can observe. Most galaxies have a gigantic black hole at the centre, and they are often associated with powerful radio outflows which reach absolutely massive distances away from the host galaxy. One way of trying to find the black hole at the centre of our own galaxy, is to study the movement of stars near the galactic centre. The motions of these stars suggest the presence of an object which is 4 million times the mass of the sun.  He then went on to talk about gravity. Space and time are flexible. Einstein predicted that changes in gravity will propagate as waves, or tiny ripples travelling through space-time at the speed of light. Most of our current understanding of the universe is based on EM waves at various wavelengths. Gravitational waves can provide complimentary information.  When black holes collide they shake space-time and emit gravity waves. Some of these emissions are in the audible range, but other wavelengths are too large for visible observations.  30 years of work has gone into the new generation of gravitational wave detectors, which can pull out the audible signals from the background noise and allow us to actually listen to black hole collisions. He played some sound bytes for us to listen to. He concluded by saying that gravitational wave astronomy will revolutionise our understanding of the universe. It will allow more detailed study of black holes and shed new light on galaxy formation, and the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

12:50 – 2:30pm was lunch break, so it gave us plenty of time to grab a quick pub lunch then go back to Kensington Town Hall and have a look around some of the trade stands. There was everything an astronomer could want on those stands! Binoculars, telescopes of every shape and size, domes, posters, and on the Society for Popular Astronomy stand, as always there was a huge range of astronomy related products, from postcards to pens, jigsaws to jewellery. It took a lot of restraint on that stand! There were also stands selling just about every astronomy book published, another area that took a great deal of restraint! Coming away with a couple of posters and a pen with a red light on the end (very restrained!), we headed back into The Great Hall for Session 2.

The first talk of Session 2 was called, “An Astronomer’s Life: Trips to the Mountain Tops” by Brigette Hesman from University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.  She talked about CELESTE – the spectroscopic instrument that they built at the GSFC for use on the telescopes at Kitt Peak and Mauna Kea.  Whilst there are many branches of astronomy now where people work remotely, Brigette’s team are still very much hands-on and they regularly travel up to the mountain peaks to work. They have solar scopes as well as telescopes so they work in shifts to observe night and day.  She explained how working at altitude comes with a variety of problems; nausea, vomiting, sleeplessness, forgetfulness and even flatulence! It takes 2 days to reassemble CELESTE following a move, but the altitude affects their ability to think straight, so every single piece of the equipment has to be individually labelled to ensure they put it back together correctly. Once assembled, the instrument needs to be cooled down to 6K using liquid nitrogen and helium, and remain cooled during use. This means that the instrument is accompanied by a massive array of cooling tubes as well as data cables! She then played a very amusing video clip, where a team of fellow telescope trekkers had made a spoof music video to the tune of “Hotel California” by The Eagles.

The second talk of Session 2 was by the legendary Alan Bond, titled “SKYLON Space Plane Flying into Orbit”. He recapped the history of space planes, starting with the X-15 using the B-52 as a mother ship.  Because the Earth is so big, it is not possible to use an effective SSTO rocket so it is essential to make use of Earth’s lower atmosphere.  In the mid 1980s, the UK returned to higher & faster planes as a route to space in the form of HOTOL. It suffered from aerodynamic instabilities, but in the 1990s they developed SKYLON – he described it as “The Phoenix of HOTOL”. In order to keep costs down a successful space plane needs to be reusable, it needs to be single stage, and un-piloted.  It must also have abort capabilities, be user friendly and have re-entry cross-range.  From an environmental point of view it needs to have low engine noise, no use of propellants and no orbital debris.  Because SKYLON would be travelling at 5 x the speed of sound, the surrounding air would reach around 1000 C, therefore a lot of money has been spend on pre-cooling systems.  A recent audit has concluded that there are no impediments or critical items identified for SKYLON or the SABRE engine, so the future of this project is looking promising.  All the more impressive when you consider that only 10% of the funding for this entire project has come from the government!  It is hoped that SKYLON will extend the life of the ISS, provide a reusable space- orbit transfer vehicle, and perhaps assist with interplanetary travel.  There were some very impressive photos shown on the slides for this talk and I took photos of many of them (I will post a link to my Flickr album for this event at the end).

Following another half hour tea break, the final 2 talks of Session 2 commenced.  Talk number 3 was called, “Secrets of the Superstars” by Ian Bonnell from University of St. Andrews.  This talk focussed on high mass stars. Only 0.5% of all stars have a mass greater than 8 solar masses. Yet they are very important because they dominate the light from galaxies and also dominate the energetics within galaxies, in the form of strong stellar winds and ionising radiation from supernova explosions. They dominate the chemical enrichment of the interstellar medium by the formation of elements heavier than carbon within their cores.  Our sun converts hydrogen into helium via nuclear reactions in its core at a rate of 600 tonnes per second, and will do so for around 10 billion years. Stars with masses greater than 10 solar masses only live for a few million years.  He then gave an overview of how the masses of stars are determined. For stars in binary pairs, spectroscopic analysis of their Doppler shifts allows the measurement of velocity and period of orbit, and from these values the mass can be calculated.  For single stars the masses have to be estimated based on theory, the highest theoretical mass being approximately 300 solar masses.  In reality, anything greater than 150 solar masses has difficulty forming because their luminosity is heading towards the Edison Limit, the point at which the radiation pressure within the star can halt any further accretion of mass. Stars greater than 150 solar masses are thought to form from star mergers.  Such high mass stars often shed their outer layers via strong stellar winds, and these are called Wolf-Rayet stars. High mass stars are more commonly found in binary pairs or clusters.  Once the high mass stars begin to run out of hydrogen their core shrinks, and heavier elements are produced in layers around the core.  Once the star finally dies, it will explode in a supernova explosion which injects energy into the galaxy and blasts the heavy elements out into the inter-stellar medium.   The shockwave from a supernova explosion can trigger new star formation.  The death of rapidly rotating super-massive stars has been linked to gamma ray bursts.

The final talk of the day was called, “Galaxies in the Ultra Violet” by Barry Madore from Carnegie Observatories. This presentation contained some of the most impressive slides of the entire program!  He began by explaining that there are many sources of UV in space, but the UV waves cannot penetrate our atmosphere. Therefore we rely on space telescopes in order to carry out UV observations. He showed a photo of M31, the Andromeda galaxy, in visible and in UV. There are stark differences between the two. Most of the old objects within a galaxy do not emit in the UV region so they disappear; instead, lots of new star forming regions which do emit in UV will show up.  UV studies are showing up many new areas of star formation in unexpected places. They also show areas affected by shockwaves, and they show that most galaxies have an extended disc under UV.  Much of the UV light is coming from quite faint sources and would be impossible to detect from ground based telescopes.  Much of this talk was showing various targets in visible and UV side by side and the photographs were seriously impressive.  I took photos of many of these slides too!

We all filed out of Kensington Town Hall, and wrapped up again in my space blanket, we headed off to check in to our hotel, the Premier Inn Kensington Earls Court. Following a half hour rest, we went back out to meet up with some friends at the “Gastrofest” meal.  It was a great chance to meet up and chat with like minded friends from Twitter and Facebook, some old and some new.  It was a very pleasant evening, but once we’d finished eating we were both exhausted so we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep, ready to do it all again the following day!

Saturday 9th February, 2013
The alarm went off at 8am – a much more reasonable time than the previous day, especially after we’d both slept so well!  We got ourselves washed and dressed, had a fantastic breakfast, and headed back over to Kensington Town Hall.

Session 4 kicked of with a talk from Nick Risinger, “The Night Sky in 37,440 Exposures”.  Nick took us through his journey 60,000 miles across the globe during 2010, taking almost 37 and a half thousand photos which he stitched together to produce a final mosaic image which was a staggering 5000 megapixels in size.  In order to achieve this final result, he used 6 telephoto lensed cameras mounted on a long bracket on an equatorial mount. He mounted them this way so they would perfectly balance each other without the need for ballast, and therefore make it easier to transport the equipment from location to location. The cameras included one to capture luminosity, one each for red, green and blue, and the final 2 were capturing in hydrogen-alpha.  In addition to the many photos taken from the various locations, he took a series of darks and flats which he used to remove vignetting. One major problem he faced was aeroplanes, satellites and planets in the original images, so these either had to be corrected or re-shot.  Before stitching the final images together, they all had to be standardised otherwise the finished mosaic would have looked patchy due to variations in transparency or air vapour, etc., and also needed correcting for lens distortions.  Finally, he used astrometry to stitch the images together.  The finished product was truly breath-taking! For those wanting to go and see for yourselves, the image can be viewed in 2d or 3d at www.skysurvey.org  The images he took in hydrogen-alpha are not included in this final image, however, we were treated to an Astrofest exclusive – he showed us the newly produced final H-alpha images which picked out much more detail in the many nebulae scattered across the sky.  They left me and many others quite literally gaping! In a couple of months he is hoping to have these zoomable H-alpha images uploaded to the website too.

The 2nd talk of the day was by Professor Brad Gibson from UCLAN whose talk was titled, “Mining the Fossil Record of the Milky Way”.  He began with a couple of definitions. Archaeology – studies the history of human activity through the study of artefacts, using shape, migration and radio-dating. Galactic archaeology on the other hand studies the history of the Milky Way through the study of stellar dust and gas, using morphology, movement and spectroscopy.  In the same way that carbon dating can be used to age fossils found on Earth, the ratio of Carbon-12 vs Carbon-13 can give an indication about the lifetimes of low and high mass stars.  He provided a very entertaining comparison between Hollywood’s representation of the swash-buckling archaeologists such as Indiana Jones verses the more “nerdy” space scientists!  A lot of Brad’s work involves the use of computer simulations. By programming a set of initial conditions and inputting some physics into a supercomputer, simulations are produced. It sounds simple when it’s said in one sentence, but these simulations often take many years to create, and the most powerful supercomputers in the world are required to produce them.  The words “simulations” and “supercomputers” are words synonymous with modern day laboratories, but Brad talked us through how the very first stimulations were carried out back in 1941, using a complex array of light bulbs and a light sensor.  He showed us that this method, whilst painstakingly laborious, actually produced very accurate results. These days however, scientists will have 10s of millions of particles in one simulation rather than just 10s that were used in the 1940s.  Even modern supercomputers have resolution issues, but things are improving all the time. The GAIA space probe will provide us with the positions & velocities of billions of stars, and this will provide better boundary conditions for the simulations and continue to improve them.

At this point we had a short coffee break.  Brian Cox was due to be signing copies of his new book to accompany the Wonders of Life series during the lunch break, so we bought our lunch early so we could save time later. I also had the chance to say hello to a few Twitter friends who couldn’t make it the previous day, and I had the pleasure of meeting the very lovely Hanny Van Arckel for the first time (she of Hanny’s Voorwerp fame). Then it was time to resume our places ready for the next two talks.

“A Brief History of Stephen Hawking” by his daughter Lucy Hawking provided a very lovely insight in their family life. Starting with some photos of Stephen as a baby, she later quoted one of his very early school reports where his teacher said, “This boy will never amount to anything”! She took us through a photographic record of his life, talked about how he studied for his degree at Oxford, then went on to Cambridge where he was hoping to work with the esteemed Fred Hoyle, who apparently didn’t want him! She recounted how he had become very down following his being diagnosed with ALS, fully believing that he wouldn’t live long enough to complete his PhD. However, meeting his future wife at St. Alban’s Station changed his life around and gave him the drive and determination to continue.  Everybody was very amused hearing that Stephen and his now wife went to a physics conference as part of their honeymoon, and of how the children, believing they were going on a family holiday would suddenly start to recognize people and realise that they had been taken along to yet another physics conference! Stephen’s inability to speak resulted from an emergency tracheotomy which had to be performed when he was suffering from pneumonia.  It was after this that Stephen wrote “A Brief History of Time”. It was initially turned down by virtually every publisher, yet the first print run had completely sold out within one hour of going on sale! To conclude her presentation she played a recorded personal message from Stephen.

“Cox and Ince at Astrofest was the final slot of session 3. To begin with, Robin Ince and Brian Cox had a humorous discussion about the film Sunshine, which Brian was science co-ordinator on. Then on a more serious note, Brian went on to discuss the discovery of the Higgs particle. All the data is pointing towards the fact that the standard model for the Higgs Boson appears to have been correct, but it will take many more years of work before we can know this for certain.  They finished with a discussion about The Wonders of Life TV show, and what the pre-requisites for the existence of life actually are. One very funny moment was when discussing people who are convinced that Earth has been visited by aliens.  Mimicking that line of thought, they showed an ancient Aztec carving of a deity, and asked why this particular carving proved that aliens had visited us. The answer was in the loin cloth, which actually looked like the figure was wearing a pair of Speedos – of course aliens must have been here in ancient times because they had brought Lycra to the ancient Gods!

This took us up to lunch time, and I very excitedly set off to go and buy my copy of the book so I could join the queue to get Brian Cox to sign it.  A few minutes later I found out that Brian wasn’t able to stay after all, so the signing session was cancelled. I was so disappointed, especially having planned my entire day around waiting in the queue for it. It was with a heavy heart that I ate my now quite soggy panini which we’d bought earlier in the day, then went and had a look around the rest of the trade stands that we’d missed the previous day.  Particularly of interest were the zoomable models of the Milky Way and a dwarf galaxy that the guys from UCLAN allowed us to play with. On the back of their earlier talk about what exactly goes into making these models, I enjoyed looking them again with fresh eyes.  Then I looked at the schedule again and seeing what was still to come that afternoon I was in better spirits when we headed back into The Great Hall for the final session.

For the first talk of session 4 Brigette Hesman from University of Maryland & NASA GSFC returned to give a second talk, called “Storm Chasing on Saturn”.  She began by explaining that the surface of Saturn has a muted appearance when compared to planets like Jupiter. This is due to haze in the upper troposphere.  She gave us an overview of the Cassini space probe, which is approximately the size of a school bus and currently in orbit around Saturn. It is fitted with a composite infra-red spectrometer, which is able to detect temperatures and relative abundances of elements within the atmosphere. It is programmed 6 months in advance, so it is not possible to suddenly turn it around to look at any new and interesting occurrences. Therefore the professional astronomers are still very dependant on amateur astronomers to alert them to new events. Approximately every 30 years, Saturn will develop a great white spot, which is a massive storm system. They are unique to Saturn’s atmosphere.  In December 2010, amateur astronomers got the first pictures of a new great white spot. Luckily, Cassini happened to be pointing that way so there is a really good photographic record of this event from both amateurs and professionals, from December ’10 through ‘til August ’11. Cassini made 2 very important discoveries during this storm. First of all, it recorded a temperature difference of 80K within the storm system; the largest temperature difference ever recorded.  It also discovered the presence of ethylene for the first time ever. The levels of ethylene shot up to over 100 times greater than the levels recorded pre-storm. Ground based equipment is much further advanced than the instruments present on Cassini (because the probe was built back in the 1980s) and using this equipment enabled them to resolve the spectra much better, confirming the presence of ethylene.  One very interesting observation was that although the storm seemed to have dissipated in the optical wavelengths, the storm raged on in the near IR region, glowing like a beacon in the stratosphere.  There were some stunning images in this presentation, both in the optical and IR ranges, and once again I took lots of photos of these slides!
The second talk of session 4 was by Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, called “Do We Need The Moon?”  Once again there were some lovely images during this presentation.  She gave us a quick overview of how the moon was formed – a Mars-sized object collided with early Earth, causing a large amount of material to jettison out into orbit around the earth. The debris coalesced to form the Earth and its Moon.  The Moon acts as our protector.  It is thought that it may gravitationally attract debris which then impacts the moon rather than the Earth.  Retroreflectors left on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions show that the Moon is moving away from us. We are fortunate to live in a time when the Moon is in the perfect position to appear to be the same size as the Sun, allowing us to view eclipses.  Studies of fossilized coral samples show that there used to be 400 days in a year, and the days were only 21 hours and 55 minutes long. This is due to the fact that the Moon is acting like a brake, and gradually slowing down the Earth’s rotation. The faster something spins the more stable it is, so if Earth was to slow down too much, it will increase precession, or wobble on its axis.  This in turn will cause the poles to shift, leading to extreme seasons in habited areas which would make it difficult for life to continue living there. The moon is currently stabilising Earth and preventing this from happening.  The Moon is responsible for tides in the Earth’s oceans. It is thought that tidal movement in primordial rock pools may have played an important role in the beginning of life on Earth.  So it would seem that yes, we really do need the Moon!

There then followed a tea break, during which I was able to go and meet Brigette Hesman and Maggie Aderin-Pocock and got them to sign my program. They were both really lovely to chat to.
The penultimate talk of the day was by Barry Madore from Carnegie Observatories, titled, “The Hubble Constant: Measuring the Age and Size of the Universe”.   The debate about the actual value of the Hubble Constant has raged for decades and has at times been very acrimonious!  For many years, distances have been determined using “standard candles”, making use of the Inverse Square Law, for example, if you take something with a known luminosity at a distant point, you can measure how much that luminosity has reduced and therefore calculate exactly how far away it is.  In the past, these measurements have had an uncertainty factor of 2, but currently we are down to 3-5% uncertainty.  These uncertainties impact on other areas of cosmology and physics, so a higher precision is required.  Hubble Time is a measure of the age of the universe, based on very complex cosmological models.  The characteristic light curves of cephid variables in the optical range means they are often used as standard candles and are therefore used to measure distances.  However, if you study the light curves with filters, their characteristics change, for example, under infra-red, dust can interfere with the readings and make things appear as though they are further away than they really are.  The Spitzer telescope measures in the infra red region and has been used for measuring inter-galactic distances with no interference from dust.  The Hubble space telescope measured distances with an uncertainty of 10%; however Spitzer can measure within 2.6%, which is a huge improvement.  There is a problem with using Cepheid variables, and that is, we don’t know what we don’t know about them! At Carnegie they use RR Lyrae variables instead. There are several advantages to this. Cepheid variables are population I stars which are usually located on the spiral arms of galaxies where there is also a lot of gas and dust which can interfere with readings. RR Lyrae stars on the other hand are population II stars, which are much older and are usually located in the halo of the galaxy, away from interference. This is why measurements using these stars have yielded such an improvement in uncertainty.  He finished his presentation by talking about an alternative way of measuring the Hubble constant. The age of the universe is encoded in every rock and person in the universe. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) measured tiny fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation and by doing so has determined the universe to be 13.77 billion years old to within half a percent.  This was a tricky subject to be talking about towards the end of an afternoon, when people are beginning to feel tired, but he managed to keep the talk light hearted and very understandable.

The final presentation of the day wasn’t really a presentation as such. It was a very moving and very fitting tribute to the late Sir Patrick Moore. “Remembering Patrick Moore” included Allan Chapman, Jon Culshaw, Jane Fletcher, Chris Lintott, Brian May, and Robin Rees, chaired by Iain Nicholson.  Everybody sat around a table with a drink of whisky or gin and a pot of tea for Allan, so they could all drink to Patrick.  To begin, there was a recorded message from Peter Cattermole, who recalled how he had met Patrick and how he had encouraged Peter to pursue a career in geology.  Next, the esteemed Allan Chapman talked about Patrick Moore’s place in history, and how he will be remembered for centuries to come as one of the great science communicators. He compared him to the likes of Michael Faraday, Arthur Stanley Eddington, and others.  Next, Brian May talked about how Patrick has helped so many young people in Astronomy. He talked about Patrick the musician and his career as a xylophone player and composer.  He also talked about his love of animals and how he was a great campaigner, opposing badger culling and fox hunting. Brian spoke with such emotion about Patrick that it was difficult to hold back the tears whilst listening to him.  Chris Lintott then recounted their first meeting. He had exchanged a few letters with Patrick so when they met, he introduced himself, “Hello, I’m Chris!” Patrick had no idea who he was and simply replied, “Would you like a book?” However, they became firm friends and ended up working together on the Sky at Night. Chris remembered his humorous side and how it was always fun working with him even though be always maintained professionalism during the recording of the show. Next up was Robin Rees, Patrick’s publisher. He recalled what it was like working with Patrick. Drinks all round and working late into the night, working in a very unique way compared to his other authors!  They became more than just colleagues, and in the later years as Patrick was becoming increasingly frail, Robin would cook for him during his visits. He told the funny story of how they were to encourage Brian May to join them with writing the book “Bang”. Having set up a meal together, they had previously agreed to take a softly softly approach, however, Patrick just got straight to the point and asked him outright if he would write the book with them.  Of course Brian turned them down, to which Patrick replied, “Great, we’ll shake on that then!”  Jane Fletcher, from The Sky at Night, talked about how she was so pleased that technology had allowed them to “bring the world to him” at Farthings once he’d become too frail to travel to the TV studio to film the program. She also announced that as per Patrick’s wishes, The Sky at Night would continue to be made, much to everyone’s delight.  Iain Nicholson, in between chairing the session also spoke of his experiences working with Patrick. Finally was the impressionist John Culshaw.  Watching The Sky at Night as a boy got him hooked on astronomy, and Patrick Moore was one of the first people he began doing impressions of.  He broke into Patrick’s voice at various intervals and the accuracy was spooky! He concluded by reciting a very moving monologue, in Patrick’s voice, and I for one was moved to tears by it. I took a video recording of this monologue and you can view it by clicking on the link at the end of this blog.  They concluded by all standing up and raising their glasses to toast Sir Patrick Moore.

As Astrofest 2013 concluded, I dried my eyes and once again went to the front and managed to get an autograph and photograph taken with one of my heroes, Allan Chapman. So it was on this positive note that we left Kensington Town Hall for another year and headed back to the railway station.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable, although utterly exhausting 2 days, but I’m already looking forward to doing it all again next year!

If you want to look at my photographs from our weekend at Astrofest, please follow this link:

If you want to watch the video of Jon Culshaw's monologue, please follow this link:

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