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BBC Stargazing LIVE at Leicester Racecourse 2015

To see all the photos from this event please see here


Every January since 2011 the BBC have broadcast ‘Stargazing Live’, a popular space and astronomy series shown over 3 or 4 consecutive nights. Primarily presented by Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain along with others and special guests and broadcast mostly live from Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. Amongst many others guests have included astronauts Gene Cernan, Walt Cunningham, Chris Hadfield and Buzz Aldrin, scientists Carolyn Porco, Caroline Smith, Richard Greenwood and Katie Joy as well as comedians (and amateur astronomers) Jon Culshaw and John Bishop. The programme has captivated and delighted audiences with viewing figures ranging from 1.5 million to over 5 million.


To coincide with every series, hundreds of ‘Stargazing Live’ events are held across the UK by Universities, Museums, amateur astronomy groups and other BBC partners. The outreach arm of the BBC ‘BBC Learning’ also puts on large ‘Stargazing’ outreach events every year. In 2013 one of these events was held at Tatton Park, Knutsford, Cheshire and the British and Irish Meteorite Society (BIMS) was asked if we wanted to put on a meteorite display there. This was the biggest event that we had put on a display at and it proved to be our busiest ever show. We had a fantastic evening and obviously wanted to repeat our attendance at a large BBC led event in future years. Unfortunately in 2014 we were not offered a stand and so when we were told the same thing in 2015 we were very disappointed. However, through a stroke of good luck and with Graham Ensor’s contacts with Leicester University we were asked if we would be happy to be a part of the University’s various displays at the event by Dr. John Bridges. We of course accepted and so through a rather circuitous route we ended up making plans to attend ‘BBC Stargazing Live 2015’ at Leicester Racecourse. The main TV programme was being shown in March rather than January to coincide with the partial solar eclipse on the 20th with a live show specially broadcast in the daytime as well as the usual run of evening shows.


After a 4am start and a drive down the unusually quiet M6 I met up with Graham Ensor and Luther Jackson along with Luther’s son Max in the car park of the Racecourse. After booking in and signing disclaimer/disclosure forms we headed over to a large marquee where we were going to be based for the day. The Racecourse was split into various zones with ours being ‘The Launch Pad’ Different activities and displays were spread around the site and there was also a stage area setup for various shows throughout the day. As we began unloading the cars going to and from our display the sun began peeking through the clouds boding well for a good view of the eclipse.


The view from outside our marquee before the beginning of the solar eclipse.
The view from outside our marquee before the beginning of the solar eclipse.


Max was obviously in charge and he directed us all as we began to setup our display area 😉 The ‘Meteorites’ banner and BIMS display boards first and then the unpacking of the space rocks themselves. I say it every time but as the three of us have done a number of such displays over the years we do really seem to get better and quicker at setting up each and every time. We were setup next to a University of Leicester stand with a life-size Mars Rover from the upcoming ESA ExoMars mission as well as a mock-up of the Martian surface with mini rovers for visitors to have a go at controlling. This display was overseen by John Holt, a researcher at the Space Research Centre at Leicester University who oversees the clean lab facilities there.


Graham, a chunk of Mars and the Exo Mars rover :-) The ExoMars rover has been designed and built in the UK and is due to be launched in 2018.
Graham, a chunk of Mars and the Exo Mars rover 🙂 The ExoMars rover has been designed and built in the UK and is due to be launched in 2018.


As usual we were just putting the finishing touches to our display when the visitors started coming in. There were lots and lots of school groups that were directed around the various areas in a very organised fashion by volunteers holding placards up high. Just as soon as one group had spent 5-10 minutes with us and moved on another group quickly took their place. Most were obviously in the middle of studying a school topic on space and so had some excellent and very intelligent questions for us. They were able to touch and hold examples of Stone meteorites as well as Iron and Stoney Irons. Graham had some of his amazing collection of Lunar and Martian specimens on display and if they were very careful and had steady hands we let visitors hold a piece of Mars in one hand and a piece of the Moon in the other. To say they were gobsmacked is an understatement. The teachers and adults accompanying the school groups were not left out either and they were also kept busy with request from the kids to take photos of them holding the meteorites.


If you get to hold a piece of the Moon or Mars then you must get a photo of it!
If you get to hold a piece of the Moon or Mars then you must get a photo of it!


The clouds continued to clear and the main event of the day, the partial solar eclipse was underway so we all managed to get outside and observe this magnificent spectacle of nature. Due to Jodrell Bank being cloudy the main footage of the eclipse as it happened was broadcast live on the main BBC show with commentary by Dr. Lucie Green who was at the Leicester event all day. The BBC had given everyone pairs of eclipse glasses and there were also solar viewers available. It was great to see everyone especially the school kids watching this awesome sight. I actually found it very moving indeed and another example of the amazing natural wonders of our world.


The partial solar eclipse as seen from outside our marquee.
The partial solar eclipse as seen from outside our marquee.


The school groups continued with no abatement throughout the day and even though we were well prepared with plenty of water all three of us suffered with broken and lost voices. All worth it though, and what better way to lose your voice than talking space rocks with people who stand open mouthed in awe when you show them a piece of the moon that they can actually hold in their hands! It put as big a smile on our faces as it did theirs.


That smile say's it all! :-)
That smile say’s it all! 🙂


As usual we ran a ‘Guess the weight of the meteorite’ competition and we had quite a few entries before being told very politely by one of the BBC staff that unfortunately we would have to stop as we were not permitted to run one. So apologies to everyone who entered before we closed it but we will certainly run another one at future events if we can. I also had lots of little Campo del Cielo iron meteorite specimens that we gave away. We didn’t make it easy and children had to answer some questions to see if they had listened to what we had said. If they answered correctly they got a free meteorite 🙂


The day was split into two sessions, the day time session ran from 9am to 3pm and the evening from 6pm to 9pm. The site was closed to the public between 3pm and 6pm and we could have a well deserved break. Although able to rest our legs and have a sit down, there was no chance to rest our voices as it was the first time we had a chance to catch up with each other and so the meteorite chat continued. There was food and drink provided by the BBC for exhibitors and we enjoyed a very nice Boeuf Bourguignon which helped perk us up before the evening session. Luther unfortunately had to leave during this break as although Max had been fantastic all day, he was getting tired and wouldn’t have lasted till 9pm. Thanks Max for keeping us entertained 🙂


Max having a break from meteorites - Copyright - Luther Jackson
Max having a break from meteorites – Copyright – Luther Jackson


During this quiet spell, myself and Graham took the opportunity to walk around the site and see some of what was on offer to visitors. It’s always great when events are busy but this also means that you rarely get the chance to see other exhibitor’s displays. There was a model of the Solar Orbiter from an upcoming ESA/NASA mission, astronaut suits, hands on experiments of all kinds and loads that we just didn’t get a chance to see.


An astronaut's space suit holding a piece of the Moon.
An astronaut’s space suit holding a piece of the Moon.


The evening session was soon upon us and after rearranging our display slightly with more space rocks to replace the gap left by Luther’s collection we manned our display again ready for the rush. Whereas the daytime session was mostly school groups, the evening was more family oriented and we were able to spend a bit more time with visitors. There were lots of families there who were obviously space mad, both parents and kids and it was really great to discuss many different aspects of meteorites with so many people excited and passionate about the subject. We gave away more meteorite freebies and were rewarded for doing so by beaming smiles from ear to ear, a fair, honest and certainly worthwhile exchange 🙂


Our re-arranged display ready for the evening session.
Our re-arranged display ready for the evening session.


I am sure that out of all these children who are so hooked on space that some will go on to choose their studies accordingly and subsequently enter careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and maths areas (STEM), maybe even in the field of Meteoritics. To think that we may play a small part in helping shape that path for some people is amazing and is one of the main reasons I do outreach like this. Attending events like this is time consuming, we have jobs and families and other commitments. We do these events on our days off, we travel all over the country with associated costs which we pay ourselves, we get up at silly o’clock to get there in time leaving family in bed and we return late after everyone is in bed. We do this because we are passionate about the subject and although I can’t speak for everyone, I certainly feel as a private meteorite collector a certain sense of responsibility to do outreach, to show my collection to others, to be able to inspire as I have been inspired, to give something back. If I can do this with children especially, who have yet to shape their paths in life, then they can make choices that with hindsight I would also have made. I am absolutely an amateur when it comes to the subject matter but I do have basic knowledge that is constantly increasing and I am passionate and that goes a long way. I always feel a great sense of achievement and satisfaction after doing events like this and love that my collection gets seen by so many. In many ways when doing this our collections get seen by many more members of the public than some meteorite specimens that are locked away un-displayed and unseen in museums all around the world.


Hands up who wants to hold a piece of Mars?
Hands up who wants to hold a piece of Mars?


The doors closed at 9pm and event staff were having to chivvy visitors along as many were still wanting to get their fix of all things ‘Space’. Then began the usual rush of having to pack up and take down the display. Cars and vans were trying to get as close as possible to reduce the distance to ferry everything and hand trucks and trolleys were loaded and trundled to and fro. The huge marquees were getting taken down first thing in the morning so everything had to be removed that night. So out came the bubble wrap and the meteorite wrapping began! Finally, tables were taken down, space rocks were securely stowed and posters were packed away and it was time to head off home. Graham had kindly offered for me to stay the night so I only had to face a 30 minute drive as opposed to a 3 hour one. Graham’s wife Manda was still up when we arrived and we enjoyed a brew and a biscuit whilst talking about the day’s activities. Once slouched on the sofa it was hard to move but as I was being given the futon to sleep on which was in Graham’s meteorite room I had to move eventually, well, after another biscuit anyway! 😉  Graham and Manda and their cats live in a fantastic barn conversion that they have not long finished work on. It is a stunning property and is a credit to them and their vision as to how it has turned out. Graham has recently completed furnishing his meteorite room with a huge antique display cabinet and large chest of drawers and is in the process of setting out his considerable collection in this new space. When I say huge, I do mean huge with the glass fronted display cabinet measuring 7 foot 4 inches high and 9 foot wide! I am looking forward to seeing the room when fully finished. Completely surrounded by meteorites I drifted off to sleep dreaming accordingly, I am not sure if that large lunar specimen actually did slip into my bag or if I only dreamt it……… 😉


A few days after returning home I received some very nice emails about our efforts on the day. It’s always nice to get thanks like this especially when it relates to how much fun a 6 year old had at our display and that they are still talking about it days later! 🙂


I went to Stargazing live in Leicester last week, and I just wanted to say a big Thank You to the two guys behind the meteorite stand: my son, who is 6, found it absolutely fascinating to see the meteorites, and was over the moon that he got to hold some too. He learned a lot about meteorites and the solar system from you – he can’t stop talking about it! We were very impressed with how you guys explained some difficult concepts (where meteorites come from, the formation of the planets and such) to kids his age.
Many thanks,
Klaas, Rhaana, Luuk Wiersema”


Both Dr. Klaas Wiersema and Dr. Rhaana Wiersema work at Leicester University Space Research Centre researching gamma ray bursts using the Swift satellite and also ground based observatories like the VLT (Very Large Telescope) so feedback like this from them was amazing.


The following was from one of the BBC Learning event team who did such a great job making the whole event run so smoothly.

“I wanted to send you and your team a big thank you for running activities at our Stargazing Live event last week………. the public were really excited and engaged………….. and I hope that you also enjoyed your time too!”

Nice knowing we played a small part in the event’s success. A huge thanks to BBC producer Andrew Fenner and his team for all their hard work. We will definitely want to get involved again and we are already looking forward to next year 🙂


To see all the photos from this event please see here


Links and further reading

Stargazing Live


Jodrell Bank


ESA Exo Mars mission


ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter mission


Leicester University Space Research Centre


BBC Stargazing Live 2013 at Tatton Park


VLT array