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North West Astronomy Festival 2014

To see all the photos from this event please see here

Following the success of the inaugural North West Astronomy Festival in 2013, the organisers, Andrew and Sue Davies put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to put on another event this year. Their aim was to make it even more fabulous by being bigger and better but without losing the great friendly and fun atmosphere that everyone enjoyed in 2013, quite an objective!

Andrew and Sue’s main calling is their ‘not for profit’ business ‘The Knowledge Observatory’. This is a learning program for disengaged young people who have left the main compulsory education system. Using astronomy as a hook they hope to gain interest and reawaken a passion for learning. Students are taught an accredited, comprehensive, multi-level astronomy course that is also combined with Maths, English, IT and life skills. They run events such as the North West Astronomy Festival in order to fund the education programme and all their profits from running such events are ploughed straight back into the business.

The North West Astronomy Festival is fairly unique amongst astronomy shows in that it is not just a trade show, nor a lecture program, nor an educational outreach event but rather a combination of all of them. It is very family friendly and has a fantastic atmosphere as Andrew and Sue have developed close friendships with exhibitors, speakers, trade partners and visitors so that even on this, the second ever event it felt like a very close knit and friendly Astro community.

The Knowledge Observatory's fantastic Astro Van
The Knowledge Observatory’s fantastic Astro Van

This year I was attending on my own to put on a display of meteorites on behalf of the British and Irish Meteorite Society (BIMS) as Graham Ensor and Luther Jackson, my usual companions at such events were both away on holiday. It is definitely harder to set up and man a display on your own but that wasn’t going to stop me and having set up and put down many similar displays in the past I was getting quite adept at it.  Most of the other exhibitors and trade stands had set up on the Friday evening but due to other commitments I couldn’t attend till early on the Saturday morning. On arrival I was met by Andrew for a man hug and a welcome mug of coffee. It was also the first time I had seen the Knowledge Observatory’s ‘Astro van’ in  the flesh and mighty impressive it was too. You are not going to miss this when you see it on the road! After being shown where our stand was going to be I began to unload the car at about 7.45am. The venue at ‘The Heath’ is superb with an excellent café (and bar :-)) and with very spacious and well lit exhibition spaces. They also had large metal high sided trolleys available which made unloading the car much easier rather than making numerous trips in and out of the venue.  The doors opened at 10am so I only had a couple of hours to get our stand ready. The first job was setting up the display boards and our new BIMS ‘Meteorites’ banner which was being used for the very first time (first taken to the Cheltenham Science Festival earlier this year but not able to be used) After mounting the posters I moved on to unpacking the space rocks.

From bare tables to meteorite display in around an hour :-)
From bare tables to meteorite display in around an hour 🙂

The more outreach events that I attend the more I find that I reach for certain specimens to illustrate a particular point so the specimens brought along this time were the same as at previous events. Two new specimens that I did bring along were a beautiful 95 gram oriented Gao with an amazing roll over lip and a large 224 gram impact melt Chelyabinsk individual. I also brought along for the first time a cast of the Middlesbrough meteorite impact pit to sit alongside the cast of the amazingly oriented Middlesbrough meteorite.

A cast of the amazing oriented Middlesbrough meteorite with a cast of the impact that it made in 1881 when it fell
A cast of the amazing oriented Middlesbrough meteorite with a cast of the impact that it made in 1881 when it fell

At about 9am I finished putting the last specimens out on display and took the opportunity to go and grab another coffee as I knew I wouldn’t get the chance later. How right I was as next time I looked at my watch it was 4.45pm! Due to having a large display area and being on my own,  Andrew and Sue had given me a ‘minder’ to help me keep an eye on the display. Neil Wilson kept a close watch all day and was a huge help, thanks Neil 🙂

Our BIMS display was situated in the main hall which also had stands from Astronomy Now and BBC sky at night magazines, as well as various trade stands from Tring Astronomy Centre, Astronomia, Peak2Valley, Dark sky jewellery and the Space Collective amongst others.

In other halls and corners of the venue were more space outreach displays with PHD students from Liverpool John Moores University, a planetarium,  and various North West astronomy groups as well as a display from the group ‘UK women in astronomy’.

Throughout the weekend there were a number of presentations from different invited speakers. Damien Peach, the renowned astro photographer  kicked off the talks on the Saturday with a presentation titled ‘The giant planet Jupiter’ . This was followed by Will Gater with ‘The secrets of celestial light’ and then ‘Astronomers question time’ where all of the invited presenters along with Dr. Paul Abel, Dr. Chris North and Dr. Chris Lintott from BBC Sky at Night had a lively Q&A session ably chaired by Helen Keen. Unfortunately I was unable to attend any of the talks during the day, much as I would have liked to but feedback from people who did attend was that they were all excellent and engaging presentations.

A full house :-) (copyright Nicolette Wells for the Knowledge Observatory)
A full house 🙂 (copyright Nicolette Wells for the Knowledge Observatory)

As usual we ran a competition to win a meteorite, this time the meteorite visitors had to guess the weight of was the prize itself, a nice hand sized partly fusion crusted NWA fragment. As always this proved a draw to our display (maybe the large ‘Win a meteorite’ poster had something to do with that!) and people young and old enjoyed trying to compare the weight of the meteorite with all sorts of different objects. In total we had over 185 entries.

It was great to meet up again with Nick Howes who I met at last year’s event and had become pals with since. Nick was due to give a talk on the Sunday but was there for the weekend as well. He had brought along a selection of space flown Apollo hardware and it was amazing to see and handle some of these fantastic pieces of space exploration history.

Nick Howes, David Galvin and Hayley Parr holding a circuit board from an Apollo Saturn V rocket
Nick Howes, David Galvin and Hayley Parr holding a circuit board from an Apollo Saturn V rocket

It was also great to meet Will Gater, Helen Keen, Paul Abel and Chris North who spent a bit of time talking space rocks and looking at the specimens displayed on our stand.

The Middlesbrough meteorite and impact pit casts were certainly a crowd pleaser and I will definitely be bringing the impact pit cast along to future displays. Being a UK meteorite fall in the North West meant visitors easily related to it as it was a location that was very close by. Along with the historic photos of the railway workers standing at the fall location it made for a very nice display.

The Chelyabinsk fireball was still very fresh in people’s minds and the specimens from my collection again proved to be a starting point for conversations and a hook that prompted further questions and engagement. It is obvious that this event resonated very much with people all over the world and will be a talking point for many years to come.

I gave away 85 small Campo Del Cielo specimens to interested visitors, they went down a storm! :-)
I gave away 85 small Campo Del Cielo specimens to interested visitors, they went down a storm! 🙂

I had brought along with me to the show 85 small Campo del Cielo iron meteorite fragments to give away to interested kids (and big kids too!) These were supplied packaged up with an id card and during the day I ran out as all 85 were given away. These were a real hit and it was obvious how pleased people were to receive such a meteoritic memento by the big smiles on their faces. One young lad in particular was extremely happy with his meteorite freebie and he returned to our stand quite a few times with more questions to ask. Thomas was the son of the owners of Tring Astronomy who were also exhibiting at the show and I was later informed that the very next day he had taken his Campo specimen into school for ‘show and tell’. Who knows what will spark off a child’s interest in meteorites but one thing is for sure an actual space rock given to them as a freebie certainly helps!  Who knows, such a gift could plant a seed and result in some future meteorite scientists. If such a single small action from me could possibly end in a result like that then my work is done and I am a happy man.

Thomas, who was a repeat visitor throughout the day :-)
Thomas, who was a repeat visitor throughout the day 🙂

I am not a meteorite expert but my knowledge has most certainly increased in the last few years. This has partly been fuelled by attending outreach events such as North West Astro Fest, as each and every time there are questions asked that I just can’t answer and I later find myself doing research for next time. That way my own knowledge is furthered, having been prompted by the enquiring minds of others. A lot of the time at events such as this visitors don’t actually get past the basic (but still amazing) reality of being able to hold a genuine piece of an asteroid, Moon or Mars. That is fine with me as I still get that shiver down my spine every single time I hold a meteorite. Looking at visitor’s faces as they cradle a chunk of Mars makes me smile just as much as it does them. To touch a chondrule or a Calcium Aluminium Inclusion (CAI) in a slice of Allende may be a simple act, it may be basic in terms of knowledge gained, but that feeling of awe and amazement at looking back in time billions of years ago in such a real and tangible way still blows my mind! The joy for me in these many interactions with visitors is in the huge variety, from children to octogenarians, from train drivers to Astro Physicists, all hopefully come away enriched and enthused. Be that enrichment from the simple experience of touching a piece of the Moon or a bit of extra knowledge that they didn’t have before, it’s all good with me and that enrichment definitely flows both ways. 🙂

On our stand, we also had for sale some copies of Russell Parry’s recently published book about the Appley Bridge Meteorite fall in 1914. These again proved popular as the Appley Bridge meteorite is the fall that is most local to the North West. Russell was giving a talk the day after the festival at the Museum of Wigan Life and that is when the book was going to be officially launched. Myself and Graham Ensor were also going to be in attendance to put on a small display of meteorites to accompany Russell’s talk. See HERE for a write up of that event.

Copies of Russell Parry's Appley Bridge meteorite book for sale on our stand
Copies of Russell Parry’s Appley Bridge meteorite book for sale on our stand

During the weekend Andrew and Sue held a raffle with some amazing prizes donated to the cause ranging from telescopes to signed books and NASA memorabilia. I had donated two meteorite specimens as a prize, a nice NWA stone and a Henbury iron specimen which I am sure ended up going to a great new home.

There were more talks scheduled for the Sunday from Professor Phillipa Browning with ‘Our active sun’ and Nick Howes presenting his talk titled ‘The greatest scope on Earth’. Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the Sunday due to family commitments (my daughter Phoebe would have been very upset if I had missed her birthday!) and so I had to pack up our stand on the Saturday evening. I did however stay for the Saturday evening do, and so after packing the car I headed for the lecture hall to catch Helen Keen’s presentation ‘ It IS rocket science’,  an original and very funny look at the history of space travel. This proved to be a great start to the evening which, after Helen’s show moved to the bar area for some food and drink and entertainment from Sue’s son Joe Woolf, a very talented musician and singer.

The finale to Helen's talk :-)
The finale to Helen’s talk 🙂

The evening then progressed with the Knowledge Observatory volunteers who had ably assisted during the weekend being deservedly presented with books signed by the BBC Sky at night team.  Andrew then did an amusing presentation to the invited presenters and special guests. They were given a selection of “Unique”,  “Hand made”  and “One of a kind” gifts all with space themes, these ranged from cushions to blankets and went down very well indeed. The highlight of the evening was Jon Culshaw, who along with Paul Abel presented a hilarious sketch which left many, myself included crying with laughter. This was a great end to the evening and for me an end to the festival and I was still laughing during my drive home.

There were tears flowing during their performance! (copyright Nicolette Wells for the Knowledge Observatory)
There were tears flowing during their performance! (copyright Nicolette Wells for the Knowledge Observatory)

In the days following the festival I drew out a winner for our ‘Guess the weight of the meteorite’ competition. The person whose guess was closest to the actual weight of 160.6 grams was Stacey Habergham with a guess of 158 grams. There were actually two guesses of 158 grams but after putting names in the hat Stacey was pulled out as the winner. Stacey is a post-doctoral researcher and science outreach officer at the Astrophysics  Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores University and is also heavily involved in the National Schools Observatory programme. I am sure our meteorite prize will be well used in her outreach efforts. Congratulations Stacey 🙂

Competition winner Dr. Stacey Habergham with her prize, an NWA crusted fragment weighing 160.g grams
Competition winner Dr. Stacey Habergham with her prize, an NWA crusted fragment weighing 160.g grams

It was very nice to get positive feedback about our display from Andrew and Sue who wrote to me after the festival had finished to say the following:

“We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your wonderful support once again at the North West Astronomy Festival this weekend. We are so appreciative of the generous contribution of your time and energy which helped to make a fantastic event for our audiences”

And also in their show report (see further reading section):

“Martin Goff produced a magnificent display again this year for the British and Irish Meteorite Society. This ever popular attraction proves fascinating for young and old alike as Martin’s incredible knowledge is willingly shared and he patiently answers every question from our visitors.”

Having such nice feedback is always great and adds to the warm glow of satisfaction from having seen visitors enjoying finding out about these amazing space rocks.

So the North West astronomy Festival 2014 was another great success and certainly achieved the goal of keeping the same fun, family friendly atmosphere, whilst being bigger and better than last year. Now what will Andrew and Sue do to continue this trend next year? I for one cannot wait to find out! 🙂 Unfortunately, the projected dates for NWAF 2015 clashed with those for the International astronomy Show (IAS) so it looks like NWAF 2015 will happen sometime in June instead. Dependant on the actual dates for the festival i will hopefully be back again for another superb event 🙂

A friend of mine Lisa mather from Tameside Astronomy took some video footage of the the festival and our display and together with a few bits of footage from myself I have edited together a video of the weekends activities.  For anyone who wasn’t there, I hope this gives a good flavour of the atmosphere throughout the event and for those that were,  invokes a few good memories 🙂

To see all the photos from this event please see here

Further reading 

British and Irish Meteorite Society

Festival report by Andrew & Sue Davies

Helen Keen

Will Gater

Phillipa Browning

Nick Howes

Stacey Habergham

National Schools Observatory