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17 April 2014
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Watch the show   Sir Patrick Moore   Programme History   Multimedia Tribute   Newsletter
Sir Patrick Moore

A HISTORY OF THE SKY AT NIGHT
By Sir Patrick Moore

In April 1957, I presented the very first Sky at Night programme. We were ushered in by a comet: Arend-Roland, which alas we will never see again because it has long since passed out of our range and is leaving the Solar System permanently. At that time I had no idea how long the programme would survive, but I do sincerely believe that it has played a part in promoting science.

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I became fascinated by astronomy at the age of six (in 1929!) when I picked up a small book belonging to my mother, who had more than a passing interest in the sky. Later I wrote books myself. It so happened that in 1957, Paul Johnstone, one of the BBC's senior producers, came across Sun, Myths and Men, dealing with various aspects of astronomy. Paul - who was not an astronomer but an archaeologist - had been looking out for someone to present a monthly astronomical programme, and he asked me to go and see him. After we had worked it out, the BBC said that they would put out the programme once every four weeks for three months, and see how it was received. Well - we are still going.

Sir Fred Hoyle  
Sir Fred Hoyle was a guest
 

Famous guests

Many of the world's leading astronomers have joined me from time to time - such as Harlow Shapley, who first measured the size of the Milky Way galaxy, Carl Sagan, of Cosmos fame, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, discover of pulsars, Fred Hoyle, Harold Spencer Jones, Martin Ryle, Bart Bok - a long list, and also the astronauts, headed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Read about the legendary people Patrick has met.

Over the years we have covered every aspect of astronomy, and we do our best to be topical. For example, when the lovely Hale Bopp comet appeared in 1997, we did a special programme about it. But we are also very careful to vary the technical content of our programmes. Some are very basic, while others go into much more detail. This means that we have viewers of all ages, and there is, we hope, "something for everybody". It is interesting to find that we are also watched by many professionals. Astronomy is such a vast subject that nobody can hope to cover it all. A researcher who is, for example, researching the spectra of stars many thousands of light years away may not necessarily know very much about the atmosphere of Mars!

the Moon, image taken by Lunik 3  
The far side of the Moon
 

Patrick's highlights

There have been many ‘highlights'. One of the first came in 1959, when the Russians obtained the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, which is always turned away from the Earth. The extreme edge of the Earth-turned hemisphere is always very foreshortened, and my particular research was in mapping these difficult regions. When the soviets sent their probe Lunik 3 on a round trip, and obtained images of the unknown regions, they used my charts to link their pictures to the familiar face. Their results came through when I was actually presenting a live programme (everything was live in those days). Later we reported the first controlled lunar landing by an unmanned space-craft, opening the way for the Apollo triumph of 1969.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope - Picture courtesy of Richard Wainscoat  
The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope
 

On location

Much further away in space, we gave early news of pulsars, possibly the most bizarre objects in the Universe. They were discovered by Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, working in Cambridge, and were first believed to be due to artificial transmissions by an alien race.

We have visited most of the world's great observatories, some of which are truly amazing places, and which are by no means easy to reach. Atop Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, there are several major telescopes, and we have been there several times. In the early days of the observatory, we had to drive up to 14,000 feet, along a road the last part of which was ominously narrow, with a sheer drop to either side. We went to a Gold mine in the black hills of South Dakota, to visit a very curious observatory; it is deep below ground level, and the ‘telescope' is a huge tank of cleaning fluid, designed to pick up special types of radiation from the Sun.

The 1999 eclipse - courtesy of Jean Pierre Klaus  
Total Solar Eclipse, 1999
 

Eclipse events

We have also made long journeys to observe total eclipses of the Sun. Nothing can match the brilliance of a total eclipse. As the brilliant Sun is covered by the Moon, the pearly corona flashes into view, the sky darkens, and all of nature seems to come to a halt. In general we have been successful, and one of my happiest memories is of the eclipse of 1998, which we saw from a ship, the Stella Solaris, in the Caribbean. We had to be in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and we had a Greek Captain who got everything right. My birthday fell during that week, and I was given a deck party, which provided, for me at least, the perfect culmination of the trip.

We were less fortunate with the eclipse of 11 August 1999, which ought to have been seen from Cornwall. With Iain Nicholson and Peter Cattermole and the Sky at Night team, we set up our station in Falmouth. The previous day was brilliantly clear, but at the time of the eclipse we were not only clouded out, but also drenched with rain. We sat under umbrellas saying things such as "Tut, tut!", "Dear me!", and "How annoying!". So far as England is concerned, we must now wait until 2090 for another opportunity.

See how solar eclipses happen with our animation.

Long-running series

I am often asked why The Sky at Night has lasted for so long, and will, we hope, last for a long time yet. There are, I think, several reasons. The most important is that the sky is all around us, and surely there can be nobody who can avoid taking at least a passing interest.

This has been particularly evident since the start of the Space Age, in October 1957. Before that, astronomy was always regarded as rather a remote subject, practised mainly by old men with long white beards sitting in lonely observatories through the nights, 'watching the stars'. All this was swept away with the ascent of Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite. Almost overnight, astronomy became headline news, and as such it has remained. Bear in mind, too, that astronomy is the basis of all timekeeping and navigation.

Explore the past, present and future of space exploration.

Secondly, astronomy is one of the few sciences in which the amateur can play a really useful role. Amateurs carry out work which professionals have no time to do, have no wish to do, or cannot do. For example, amateurs have always been to the fore in discovering comets and novae, hunting for supernovae, and monitoring events happening on the planets.

Today, the amateur can be surprisingly well-equipped, and there is full collaboration between amateurs and professionals. It is also true that amateurs know the skies much better than many of our most senior researchers, who depend entirely on complex electronic devices, and seldom look through their telescopes. Not long ago, I had a phone call from an eminent professional, who told me that he had identified a bright nova or exploding star. It turned out that he had made a completely independent discovery of the planet Saturn!

The third reason is that The Sky at Night is non-controversial, goes out late, is unlike any other regular programme, and has a faithful following. This means that as far as the BBC's planners are concerned, it is nobody's enemy.

Communicating astronomy

I do have a tremendous correspondence, and I answer all the letters as soon as I can. Many enquiries come from young enthusiasts, and it does give me immense pleasure to go round and find well-known amateurs, and also well-known professionals, who began by watching one of our programmes. My own research - mapping the Moon - now belongs to the past, and my role, if I have one, is to try and urge others to do things which I could never do myself.

Whether or not I have succeeded must be left for others to judge.









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