Astronomers in for a treat

Prague Stefanik Observatory

The month of May seems to have put everyone in a better mood but more than anyone astronomers have reason to celebrate. This month will bring three important celestial phenomena - a very rare occurrence according to those in the know. And such events always create a stir in a country that has more than its fair share of astronomer enthusiasts. I talked to Martin Fuchs, an astronomer at the Prague Stefanik Observatory to find out more about what exactly is happening -and why so many Czechs are searching the skies these days.

"The first phenomenon took place this Wednesday, May 7th - the transit of planet Mercury across the sun - a relatively rare event that happens several times in a century and we shall also have an eclipse of the sun and moon all in the month of May."

A total eclipse?

"The eclipse of the sun will not be total. It is called a ring eclipse. The full eclipse will occur somewhere near the North Pole. So we will see only part of the sun covered by the moon - just over 80% I should say. The eclipse of the moon will be total."

Is it rare to have these three phenomena take place within such a short space of time?

"Yes, it is exceptional. To see three such phenomena in one month is certainly a rare event. I'd say it is abnormal."

The Prague Observatory has invited the public to come and have a look /hundreds of people came to observe the Mercury phenomenon on Wednesday/ Is there a great interest in astronomy in the Czech Republic?

"Yes, astronomy is very popular here. We have many public observatories. Every big city like Prague, Brno or Ostrava has a big observatory open to the public so anyone can come and observe the planets."

Do you give them some sort of guidance when they come and they are amateurs? Do you walk around and point things out and help them to recognize what is what in the sky?

"Yes, we have guides. They are students of astronomy or astronomy enthusiasts who are educated in astronomy. They offer guidance to those who want it and answer any questions that visitors may have."

What is it like at the observatory when there's an eclipse of the sun or moon?

"Well, it depends a lot on the time at which the given phenomenon takes place. The two eclipses we are expecting this month will happen in the early morning hours so we expect only the real enthusiasts to come. But when there was a total eclipse of the sun in 1999 it happened around noon and the place was packed with tourists and Czech visitors. We were really overcrowded and everyone seemed to be on Petrin Hill waiting for it to happen. But now, as I said, we expect only people who are really interested.

The Czech Republic has a vast number of observatories. Why do you think that is so - who built all these observatories and when?

Many of the smaller observatories were built by individuals and amateurs. These are not all observatories built by institutions - like the Academy of Sciences or various universities but by enthusiasts or groups of people interested in astronomy who pooled their resources in order to have an observatory of their own. That is certainly unusual - in most other countries you will only find observatories built by institutions."

What about people who would like to see these phenomena from their own home - can they watch them on computer?

"Not directly. Our web pages offer a simulation of the given phenomena. So they do not see the real picture from the sky. But people can observe these phenomena from their homes directly. The eclipse of the moon you can watch directly and I think that is the best way to see it. For the solar eclipse you need a special telescope or special sunglasses which are sold at all observatories."

To go back to the interest that Czechs have in astronomy. Where are its roots ? What maintains that interest and how far back does it go?

"It is hard to say. But it goes back a long way. The Czech Astronomical Society was founded at the beginning of the last century and our many observatories were built in the course of that century. I think to a great extent it is their good work that maintains a high level of public interest in astronomy. These observatories are all open to the public, to schools so the interest can be sparked at an early age."

So you get children coming over on school outings, you have special projects for them?

"Yes, we have special programs and classes are invited to visit us. We show them the planets, there are multi-media programs showing how the universe works ...I myself organize many events for children and amateur astronomers. Just next Wednesday we are leaving on an expedition to neighbouring Germany in search of a meteorite."

In search of a meteorite? Tell me a little more about it...

"Last year -in April I think - astronomers observed a very bright meteorite which fell on German territory. It was recorded on film. We have a fair idea of its whereabouts so we are going to try and find it."

What kind of people can go along on such an expedition - is it purely professional or can anyone interested join?

"No, no, no. I will be the only professional there. The search party is made up of amateur astronomers, children, students, whoever wants to come. We will make the trip and search...."

How long does it take to locate a meteorite? You have been on previous expeditions .....

"The chances of actually finding it are about ten percent or less. We are going there for the search and all it involves not for the meteorite itself. It's like a lottery you know."

So the calculations are not as accurate as we would imagine?

"No, because you cannot always predict things like the exact wind force in that moment -and there are many, many other factors that you need to consider in such calculations that could lead you astray."

So it is, more or less, plain fun -like a gold digging expedition....

"Yes, yes, it is."

Can you tell me what moment brought you the most fulfillment or joy in your professional life - a moment when you witnessed some wondrous celestial phenomenon, for instance?

"I must say that I am not so much a scientist as a teacher. So I think for me the most wondrous sight is a group of school kids who are really enthralled by it all and interested and I feel that I helped to spark their interest and helped them to understand the universe and the stars."

Do you think that astronomy and observatories will become even more popular as we get to know more about celestial phenomena - or do you think people will just want to observe them on computer?

"Yes, I'm afraid that's how it looks. Many people seem to be loosing interest in the real things and watching everything on TV or computers. But hopefully not all. "

Is there anything big coming up in our lifetime that we should look forward to?

"Nothing that we know about now. There can always be a new comet for instance but at this point we don't know about it. So from what we know now - there is nothing really big to anticipate."

But also nothing to fear....

"Yes, nothing to fear or anticipate but the fact is that we don't know everything about the solar system and the universe and you never know what may come. "

Well, two things we can tell you for sure. The eclipse of the moon is to take place on May 16th at around 5. 14 am local time. The ring eclipse of the sun is to take place on May 31st at 5.24 am. So look out for them.