Eyes on the skies: a Kendal astronomer proves star-gazing is more than 'just boffins and telescopes'

Comet Ison was set to appear in our skies this month, until scientists said it had melted as it travelled around the sun. Now experts say some part of it may still be visible from mid-December. If you can get a glimpse of it and manage to take any photographs, please email them to mark.harrison2@nqnw.co.uk and we would be delighted to consider publishing them.

 

STUART Atkinson, it’s fair to say, is a man of many talents.

Not content with holding down a full-time ‘day job’ as a carer, he is also an astronomer, public speaker, children’s author, blogger, outreach leader and consultant for NASA.

He has written poetry about the things he has seen stargazing, is secretary of a South Lakeland astronomical society and has been consulted over the content of dozens of educational books about the night sky.

But the 48-year-old, of Kendal, who prefers to use nothing more than a simple telescope, says ‘anybody’ could do the same.

“People think astronomy is all boffins and expensive telescopes but it isn’t,” he says.

“I started like everyone else - with an interest in the skies and a willingness to learn.

“All people need is a beginners’ book and somewhere they can go where there’s no light pollution.

“You could stand in your own back garden and see some of the things I’ve seen.”

The ‘things he’s seen’ include a rare, red Aurora Borealis - or Northern Lights - over Cockermouth in 2001. They include a tour of NASA, including some behind-the-scenes areas closed to the public.

And not many of us have been asked to feature on a Discovery Channel programme about a comet tipped to be the best for ‘several generations’.

But what is clear is that Stuart - who says Mars is his ‘home planet’ - also has a dogged determination to see the wonders of the universe while the rest of us remain tucked up in bed.

“By its very nature it’s a night-time activity,” he says.

“You have to be prepared to put in some antisocial hours.

“But I just see it as more than a hobby.

“It’s a passion. It’s as simple as that.”

On the day I interview him, the Carlisle-born stargazer is preparing for the arrival of the aforementioned Comet Ison, and has been up since 5am monitoring the skies above Kendal Castle - which, with Stuart living on densely-built Highgate, acts as a stand-in ‘back yard’.

“It takes me 10 minutes to walk up there so I can’t be fussing with lots of equipment,” he says.

“It’s why I prefer to have the minimum.”

Ison, he explains, will be one of the very few that go through the corona of the sun, and he hopes it will be clearly visible in the sky before dawn by mid-December.

This means life is currently very busy for him, with events to organise in Kendal for those who want to see the spectacle but need a little guidance.

A keen blogger, he also has a website dedicated to the progress of the comet, which has received almost a million hits.

“People all over the world are being told horror stories about the comet - being told it is going to bring the end of the world,” he laughs.

“So I have a lot of people getting in touch to ask questions and find out more.”

But how does a carer from Kendal become such a revered astronomer?

Raised in Cockermouth, he says he was the child who ‘hid in the library’ and learnt who he was through books.

He was raised with a sister, who still lives in Cockermouth, and a brother who lives in Workington.

At school he enjoyed ‘sciencey’ subjects and ‘was slightly scared of football’.

Then, at junior school, he was shown the Apollo missions by a teacher.

“I found it fascinating,” he said. “It really sparked something in me.

“I’d not given it much thought until then but I thought it was incredibly interesting and I suppose it developed from there.”

He didn’t join an astronomical club until he was 15, but used books and the naked eye to learn about the universe.

As an adult he went on to found societies in Cockermouth and Workington, before moving to Kendal in 2005, shortly after the formation of the town’s Eddington Astronomical Society - named after esteemed cosmologist, Sir Arthur Eddington, who was the ‘Dr Brian Cox’ of his day.

The Eddington Astronomical Society, he says, is the largest and most active in the county, with around 70 members who meet monthly, arrange several events a year at the Brewery Arts Centre and ‘always’ participate in the BBC’s Stargazing Live programmes.

In his own time, Stuart has written more than a dozen children’s books about the night skies, has had articles published by major astronomy magazines and has become something of a dab hand at crafting ‘astropoetry’ - lyrics describing the sights he has seen since he began space-watching.

And all this while working full-time; previously as a ‘dipper’ at Lilliput Lane and for the last nine years as a support worker at the Riverside House Care Home.

He also enjoys science-fiction, reading, cinema, travel, camping and spending time with his girlfriend, who he met through his astronomical activities.

“There is more to me than just astronomy,” he adds. “But I’ll admit it’s something I give a lot of time to.

“I just think the night skies are amazing and I don’t want to miss anything.”

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