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Highlands Astronomical Society

Mission Impossible?

Mission Impossible?

Added on 16 June 2023


Tomnacross outreach.

Friday 16th June.

'Mission Impossible'


"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to drive out to Tomnacross primary school and show 100 children and a bunch of teachers the Sun."

"This tape will self-destruct in 5 minutes."

Mission accepted.



So Pauline and I set off in her sporty little volkswagen armed with the solar telescope, an ETX 125, a crookes radiometer,

some photos and lots of bottled water. It was a hot day, maybe 25-26 degrees C. and the Sun blazed down upon us from a cloudless blue sky as we sped along the coast of the Beauly firth toward our meeting place at Tomnacross school.

We had a plan, we had the equipment, we were in good time, on schedule and we had a map. What could go wrong? Yep, you guessed it, we got hopelessly lost!!

We drove through Kiltarlity, round Kiltarlity, back on to the main road all the way to the Lovat bridge then headed back the way we came and all the while thinking this can't be happening! "Belladrum should be on our left" said Pauline. "Well Belladrum is on the right on this map" I said. "Wait, but maybe the map is upside down?". "Oh yeah maybe!". "You know what, let's stop and phone the school for directions".

The very helpful lady at the other end of the phone stayed on the line and took us step by step back to the village. On her instruction we went through the village AGAIN looking for the 'shinty pitch' which was to be our guide to the turn-off to the school. This didn't work as we never found the shinty pitch and were now on a trajectory for the Moon!! The lady on the phone then conceded that she was not from around Kiltarlity and so wasn't sure just where we were.


So back again through the village (still with me??) and then Pauline said "You know, that looks like a school up there on the hill". Sure enough and now with serendipity to help us we finally arrived. Oddly (perhaps) it was the first turn-off we had passed in the first place!

So with the 'Laurel and Hardy' episode behind us we set up our stall in the playground and began showing the kids what the Sun looks like; first in the white light and then in Hydrogen Alpha only. There were loads of sun-spots to see with the ETX and the sun obliged with prominences and bright swirls with in solar telescope. The kids just loved it and so many 'Wow's' were uttered as they gazed in wonder at the great red orb. Every child in the school and (nearly) all the teachers managed to see through the telescopes. That is about 107 individual viewings! In addition to looking at the sun we had lots of questions, we played with the 'radiometer' and pondered its mysterious reaction when exposed to sunlight, we saw some of the kids' art-work from their explorations of the solar system and generally bantered about the wonders of the universe.

Mid-morning the teachers stopped for a cup of tea and one of them kindly brought me a very refreshing cuppa just the way I like it, strong - no sugar. Here is an interesting thing that arose during the chat. Only one (slightly older) teacher had ever heard of Patrick Moore! That was quite a surprise. Pauline thought it might be a 'generational thing' and she is probably right although it did occur to me that everyone has heard of the guy who had the apple fall on his head. Who knows? But I did think of poor Patrick spinning in his grave for a moment. How many young people has he inspired to look into astronomy? Perhaps more than anyone he was the catalyst for amateurs and future professionals alike to delve into the hobby. It certainly was so for me. I was about nine when I bought a copy of 'The Observers guide' from Melven's bookshop in Inverness and the rest, as they say, is history. Generational or otherwise let's not forget the great man and his extraordinary contribution to astronomy.

So the day wore on and the mid-day sun continued to burn down on us until at last everyone had seen the sights and the mission was accomplished. We had a great time at Tomnacross today and the staff there were so excited with what we had to show them and the students. We had met one or two of them at a visit to the observatory earlier in the year but on that occasion it was daylight and cloudy (of course) so they didn't see anything. It was at that visit that I promised we would go to them when the conditions were right and today they were and we kept our promise.

Pauline is a great advocate of outreach and in particular school outreach and she never lets an opportunity like today go to waste. It is a great gift I think to all of society that there are people who are willing to spread the word about astronomy. The universe is our home and its goings-on affect all of us in so may ways so thank you Pauline for your tire-less contribution to science and understanding. 

Well that was it. We had an uneventful drive home and this time managed without the aid of maps and  navigational aids!

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