Star Fest Offers A Chance To Explore Space From Near Shaftesbury This Weekend

You’ll be able to travel to Mars, get a sense of weightlessness and discover the stars this weekend as the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty hosts Star Fest at Sixpenny Handley.

It’s hoped that the AONB, which begins just one mile from Shaftesbury, will soon be awarded International Dark Skies status. This weekend’s events will explain why that designation is important.

Jo Richardson is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and she’s helping to arrange this weekend’s event. “I pride myself in being able to bring space alive,” said Jo. “I also work with the European Space Agency’s education team and we pride ourselves that we’re able to bring space and space outreach to the general public without making it too complicated or too academic. I have worked on some really high profile projects in the last four or five years, namely the Tim Peake primary project.”

Jo will be hosting a series of Space Detective workshops. You should book them in advance on 01725 517417. “I will be running a series of different workshops from Friday to Sunday. On Friday evening we’re going to have a look at the International Space Station. I’ll be doing a presentation from six o’clock all about that,” said Jo.

On Saturday there will be two sessions that will assess whether participants possess space explorer qualities. “The ‘So you want to be an astronaut?’ event will literally put people to the test to see if they are made of the right stuff,” said Jo. “Then on Sunday, ‘Blast Off One’ is a simple look at rocketry. We will be making some rockets, looking at the Apollo missions to the moon, and then hopefully, weather-permitting, we will fire those rockets from the site.”

There will be virtual reality workshops over the weekend and Jo says once you’ve donned the headset, the experience will be ‘out of this world’. “On Friday evening, we’re going to be taking a trip to the International Space Station, so participants will have a go at being there. It will place them in a 4D world so they’ll have sound, vision and feeling and movement. It will actually enable them to feel like they’re literally weightless on board the ISS,” said Jo.

There’s more virtual reality on Saturday. “This will be more based on going to Mars,” said Jo. “So we’ll be going into a spacecraft to zoom off to Mars. On Sunday, we’ll run it alongside the rocket workshop. We might place the participants in the Saturn-five rocket to the moon. It will enable people to feel like they really there.”

Clear skies are crucial for stargazing and Jo says the forecast is looking good. “It’s really quite promising. It’s meant to be warmer, brighter and hopefully with a few clear skies.”

Whatever the weather eventually does, the planetarium show will give people a chance to see what’s up there. “Bob Mizon from the Wessex Astronomical Society is coming along to run that. It will enable people to see the heavens as they should be, if it is cloudy,” said Jo.

During the weekend there’ll be a chance to tackle astrophotography. “It can be really easy for the amateur. A smartphone is adequate if you’re taking pictures of the moon,” Jo said. “If you’re aiming to take more detailed pictures of the planets or much further away distant galaxies, then you probably do need some specialist equipment but we have two astrophotographers on site this week. One of them specialises in SLR photography and the other specialise in CCD photography, which is the specialist equipment needed if you’re going to be doing some of the more deep sky and detailed planetary photographs. There’s lots of people to ask advice from.”

So why is Sixpenny Handley so good for stargazing? “Last night was lovely and clear. We’re a bit hampered for this week because we’ve got a relatively full Moon, which does blot out a lot of the stars that you would normally be able to see if it was a smaller or a new Moon,” said Jo.

The importance of having a dark sky is well known and artificial light can affect wildlife. “Street lights and light pollution all across the country are obliterating the night sky and it saddens me a great deal when I go into schools, particularly in city centres, where some children have never even seen any of the constellations because of the heavy amounts of light pollution,” said Jo. “I admire the Cranborne Chase AONB for trying to protect what they already have. That is lovely, clear, dark skies, enabling everybody to enjoy the wonder of what is above them and which is 50% of their environment.”

Star Fest is on this weekend. It starts on Friday at 6pm and runs over the weekend of February 22nd to 24th at Church Farm Caravan and Camping Park in Sixpenny Handley. Some events are free and others require a small admission charge. You can get information at the Star Fest website.