North Pennines Observatory

I went along to the last Members’ Evening of the season at the observatory up at Allenheads, housed in the premises of Allenheads Contemporary Arts (the old school) yesterday evening, courtesy of the organiser Chris Welton representing AVEL (Allen Valleys Enterprise Ltd) which manages the observatory and its programmes.

Seasons are not what you might expect –in observatory terms they’re built around socially convenient dark skies, of course, so that by 9pm in mid-March the stars are not yet obscured by the slowly fading sunlight and long enchanted evenings so beloved of tourists to our region. Rather, darkness encompasses the sky and the stars emerge early enough for optimal viewing before bed-time. Anyway, the flooding from Saturday’s deluge had largely dissipated on the road up from Sparty Lea, so the little trek was uneventful.

First we were meant to have been treated to a lecture on the origins of ‘Cosmology’ around the postulated ‘Big Bang’ as delivered by Dr. Fred Stevenson, renowned adult education teacher and astronomer. I wanted to know, like the tree falling in the forest, did the ‘big bang’ make a noise if nobody was there to hear it? Actually, I assumed that, erupting out of a hugely compressed ball of matter into a vacuum, no noise would have been possible (‘In space, no-one can hear you scream”), but probably I just wanted to sound philosophical, and no doubt too smart for my own good. But the clouds were moving quickly, and wanting to make some celestial observations on the big telescopes, we ourselves moved quickly out to the observatory, with its mechanical roof open to the skies.

The North Pennines Observatory was an extremely clever design developed by University of Northumbria Architecture students, to fulfill a brief envisaged by the North Pennines AONB-Landscape Partnership, and it works all around, in every way I could fathom.

On the telescope mounted in the upper room of the observatory, up the little stairs demarcated with tiny red lights, the focus was on the ‘terminator’ (the line between the moon’s ‘night’ and ‘day’) so that the craters’ shadows could be seen thrown into dark relief. By the time I had moved over to the deck-mounted telescope that was focussed on Orion, the cloud cover obscured the image, so I’m not quite sure whether we were meant to be looking at the three star belt, or the nebula! Never mind, it was the first time I’ve ever looked through such amazing telescopes — it was a rare thrill!

The lecture room was comfortably full with about 40 members and supporting members there for the lecture. I didn’t recognise a single one! This is a group of individuals who I’ve never encountered before, and all apparently with a burning desire to know more about the study of the universe as a whole, ie, cosmology.

I couldn’t stay for the lecture, which I’m sure was fascinating, and I never did get my smarty-pants question answered, but to flesh out this report I’ve been interrogating Wikipedia about the Big Bang in the warmth of our living room. The Big Bang model supposes that “the universe expanded from a very high-density and high-temperature state . . . If the observed conditions are extrapolated backwards in time using the known laws of physics, the prediction is that just before a period of very high density there was a singularity which is typically associated with the Big Bang. Physicists are undecided whether this means the universe began from a singularity, or that current knowledge is insufficient to describe the universe at that time.” I’d guess that means more information is needed about the singularity, or the state of the universe at that point, before rapid expansion began.

As expansion proceeded, thereafter, of course, cooling also occurred, so that the universe began to coalesce into particles, larger and larger until reaching the size of galaxies. It’s actually expanding faster and faster as time goes on, and that acceleration is attributed to the effects of dark matter, about which little is known. I hope that’s about where the lecture finished, since the subject matter is so fascinating, and it’s easier to get the idea from a teacherly sort than from the arcania of Wikipedia, but still, we sometimes have to make do.

It was well worth making the little trek up to the North Pennines Observatory, to appreciate the enthusiasm of so many members of the community who love our dark skies that, when cloud-free, facilitate the observation of the cosmos, and to be enthused myself at the ingenuity of scientists in developing models of the universe, as well as the artistic and engineer types who designed the amazing little observatory tucked away in a safe corner in Allenheads.

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