At last, after years of planning, fund-raising and hard work, the South Downs Planetarium is a reality. It will be one of the largest planetaria in the British Isles, and will be a properly scientific planetarium, not a peep-show. All the same, I have come across one or two people who say "Why create an artificial sky when the real one is there for our inspection?"
The Planetarium has seating for 96 people
There are quite a number of reasons - and one stands out at once. The real sky is not always available for inspection. We have better weather here than anywhere else in Britain (which, remember, is why King George V went to Bognor when he was recuperating, even if he did make that unfortunate remark about it!). But the skies are very often cloudy, even here, and usually clouds roll up at the wrong moment, making observers miss some unusual and important celestial event. In the planetarium, we can have clouds or not, as we wish!
The function of a planetarium is really twofold. First, it is an educational aid. This may conjure up the impression of something dull and old-fashioned, but this is not so, because of the second major function: entertainment.
A view from inside the Planetarium
A planetarium is fun, and at the South Downs we intend to combine both these functions in a way seldom carried out elsewhere. The success of our first Open Days showed that this can be done - and we have in John Mason, a presenter who is second to none. (I have done a great deal of planetarium lecturing myself and was the first Director at Armagh, but I am nowhere near John's standard, and I know it).
A planetarium sky can do things which the real sky does not, or does only very rarely. For example, would you like to see a brilliant comet? I certainly would. HaleBopp of a few years ago was spectacular, but no doubt many people missed it. When will the next comparable comet appear? It may be tomorrow; it may not be for decades. But come to the planetarium and we can show you a comet which will look very like the real thing.
We always hear a good deal about the Star of Bethlehem round about Christmas time, particularly when Venus is brilliant (as it is this year). Nobody is sure what the Star was, if anything. A planetary conjunction, as David Hughes thinks? A nova, as Mark Kidger believes? Or a couple of meteors?. In the planetarium we can (and will) demonstrate all these ideas in a way which cannot be done by any other method.
Or perhaps you would like to see a brilliant display of aurora, or Polar Lights - or perhaps an eclipse of the Moon? No problem. Then there are the southern stars, such as the clouds of Magellan, the great cluster Omega Centauri, and of course the Southern Cross. All these are waiting for you inside our dome. Enjoy the sky as you would see it from, say, Antarctica, or the hot deserts of Africa.
Of course, the projector itself is not the only instrument. We have a splendid range of slide projectors too, and we can show "movies" inside the dome, using video, DVD and video projectors. Come for a ride - along the vast Mariner valley on Mars, or swoop through the icy rings of Saturn. These are journeys you will not forget.
But on another tack, there are still people who know nothing about astronomy, and even (shame!) confuse it with astrology. In our dome we can show you the celestial sphere, with the constellation figures and demonstrate how the stars and planets move.
The auditorium before fitting the seats and projector
The planets shift against the starry background; for example Mars "loops the loop", taking many weeks to do so. In the planetarium Mars can perform the same manoeuvre in a couple of minutes, and the watcher will be able to see just what happens.
The first modem planetaria go back to around 1923 (the year I was born). There had been earlier attempts to show an "indoor sky", but these had not been successful because the skies were not sufficiently realistic. All this was altered with the initial Zeiss projector, which was in fact the same in principle as the very fine Japanese instrument we have at the South Downs. The effect is so realistic that when the lights have been lowered, and the star projector turned on, it is very difficult to believe that you are sitting in the open apart, of course, from that fact that you are comfortably warm, rather than shivering in a winter wind! And do you know your way around the night sky? In the dome we can show you the stars, and then identify them with our special pointers. It does not take long to learn your way around, and the stars become so much more interesting when you know which is which.
This wax work of Sir Patrick Moore was until recently on display at the London Planetarium, within the complex of Madame Tussauds
To set up what is one of the largest and, we feel, the best planetarium in Britain has been a long haul, but it will pay dividends. And here I must stress that although the building itself has been named after me (which was not my idea!) I have only been a backroom boy and 99 percent of the work has been by John Green, John Mason, Peter Fray and Roger Prout.
A collection of Sir Patrick's illustrations
A planetarium is a star theatre where the patterns of stars and other celestial bodies can be projected onto the inside of the dome