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Clouds part for the Earth & Space Week ‘Star Party’
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Arrow  On Valentine’s Night 2005, amateur astronomers and space enthusiasts braved harsh conditions to gaze at the night sky. The group dwindled as rain swept the grounds of the Cinquantenaire Park in Brussels, but hardier souls were rewarded when the lights went off on Brussels’ grand triumphal arch and the clouds parted.

Brussels’ Cinquantenaire
Brussels’ Cinquantenaire
Headlining the show on 14 February were the Moon, Saturn, the Pleiades, and the Big Dipper. They were joined by support acts Polaris and the Orion Nebula, along with other heavenly luminaries.

“A star party is when a bunch of people get together to look at the sky and compare telescopes,” explained Werner Hamelinck, member of the Flemish Popular Astronomy Club, or ‘Public Observatory’, as they prefer to be called. We get people with all kinds of telescopes. Some are bought, a lot of them are home-made.”

Amateur astronomers do ‘The Dipper’
Amateur astronomers do ‘The Dipper’
Joining Hamelinck was a rag-tag assortment of astronomy buffs, EU officials, members of the public and at least one wet EU Space Policy Website reporter. Within moments of the clouds’ breaking, car boots and lorry backs swung open and out were carted an even more striking assortment of optical contraptions, quickly assembled and stood up by their adept amateur operators.

The crowd drew together with anticipation as the first eyes went to eyepieces and the thoughtful exclamations came: “Hmm, that’s something,” and “Hey, get a look at this.”

The event was organised as part of Earth & Space Week, the joint EU-European Space Agency (ESA) initiative aimed at communicating the importance of space and Earth Observation (EO) technologies. As it happens, Earth Observation had something to do with the success of this star party. “We were watching the weather reports,” reveals Hamelinck. “The radar showed a big break in the clouds heading south from Antwerp. Otherwise we might have stayed home.”

“Earth & Space Week is great!”

“This is great!” said Hamelinck. “Earth & Space Week is just the kind of thing we need to show people what Europe can do. You, know, myself and some of my colleagues, we go to schools to talk to kids about astronomy and space, and we are always disappointed by how little they know about European space activities.

“These kids can tell you all about the Americans and the Russians, but when you explain to them that the Huygens probe that landed on Titan is a European project, that we have SMART-1 orbiting the Moon and Mars Express around Mars, well, they are surprised. They say, ‘Wow!’”

Earth & Space Week does aim to inspire young and old alike. Initial figures indicate heavy interest in the Earth & Space Expo, among both adults and children, with over 12 000 visitors passing through its doors in just the first three days. “We just wish it could go on for longer,” says Hamelinck. “We need this kind of information and promotion for space all year long!”

Earth & Space Week runs from 12-20 February 2005. The EU Space Policy Website and the European Space Agency Web Portal are open all year, providing news and information on European Space activities, including research, international agreements and important policy-related initiatives.

Amateur astronomy appeals to basic instincts
Amateur astronomy appeals to basic instincts

Love in the air

After all, it was Valentine’s Night, and the stars were out. Amateur astronomy is, as it turns out, a pastime to be shared. Many of our star partygoers were now paired up and the cool air and the bubbly drinks were providing ample cause for cuddling and ear warming.

As the lights went down on this show, figures moved off and silhouettes found ancient pathways leading through and away from the park. Perhaps they had found new love, or had old love rekindled; the spectacle of the heavens is thrilling. Go out and try it sometime. Amateur astronomy clubs are active in every European country and in every region, says Hamelinck. “And it’s a good way to meet women.”



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