Recent Friends Newsletters


Newsletter #40

January 2022

Dear Friend


Happy New Year!


I hope you are well and keeping safe. Thank you so much for all your support during another exceptional year in 2021. I am sad that so few of you have had a chance to visit the newly renovated Observatory, due to the poor weather and Covid restrictions. Fingers crossed for a change of fortune in 2022. The forecast for tomorrow’s Quadrantids observing sadly looks bleak, though the Radio meteor detection system (BORIS) should still record the peak, if you wish to watch the 24/7 stream on the website.


I would especially like to welcome the 22 new Friends who have joined since the Marlborough Dark Skies Festival in October, the feedback, from the several thousand visitors who attended, was superb and will certainly encourage a repeat in 2023.


We will hope to be running the annual Bring your own telescope/Binos on 22nd January, but if weather doesn’t allow, then there will be a cloudy alternative.


We have introduced an extra event on 12th February, ‘Lunar observing’, as many of you will not have looked at the Moon through the 10 inch (given we usually avoid moonlit nights), a truly amazing sight – This will also have a cloudy alternative.


My annual talk (near the Vernal Equinox), which started in 2004 as NASA/ESA Sun-Earth day in the run-up to the Transit of Venus that June, will be on Thursday 24th March in the Garnett Room at College. My title this year is ‘Illuminating the Dark Ages – the era of James Webb’

All best wishes and I hope to see you in person, as conditions allow, before too long

Newsletter #39

August 2021

Dear Friend


I hope you are well and keeping safe. Thank you so much for all your support during last exceptional year. I do hope that you have been able to join one or more of the Zoom sessions.


The call for 21-22 Membership is attached with this and the Diary for 21-22 is being put together as I write.


After 16 months of closure, we are at last going to open the Observatory to visitors. Mindful of both Government and College guidelines, we will be able to gather outside the Dome, though internal access will be restricted and masks will be mandatory.


For a second year we are unable to host the International Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad UK team for their summer observational training, though this is going ahead in Cambridge later this month and I will be going over there to assist. The IOAA this year is in Bogota, Columbia, but will take place on-line in November.


The first live event (weather permitting) will thus be the Perseid meteor shower observing scheduled for the night of Thursday 12th August. It is very favourable Moon-wise and I hope many of you will be able to join us from 10pm, warmly clad. Do feel able to bring a deck chair or similar. It may be a busy day, as the GCSE results are being released that day and are eagerly awaited by the 11 GCSE astronomers.


Marlborough’s inaugural Dark Skies Festival 29th – 31st October


Planning is well underway and the PR machine will start to ramp up. Fingers crossed that distancing rules in October will allow good attendance at the events.


As stated in the last Newsletter, two events particularly should be noted:


  1. Festival launch lecture (C. Barclay) – Friday 29th in Town Hall at 6pm
  2. Festival key-note lecture (Professor Chris Lintott) – Saturday 30th in Memorial Hall at 2.30pm (this will be ticketed)


In addition, the Museum of the Moon (a 6m diameter Moon exhibit) will be in the Marlborough College Chapel from Monday 25th October and there will be public access, in advertised slots, every day during the week.

Further timings and access arrangements will be confirmed and a full schedule of all planned events will be released shortly.

Newsletter #38

June 2021

Dear Friend


I apologise that there has not been a newsletter for some time. There are a number of events coming up and thus it seemed a good moment to update you all. Term has been incredibly hectic with the whole Teacher Assessed Grades palaver and the May weather has mitigated against time at the Dome, though we did get a few breaks, as some of you saw, for the Solar observing on 27th.


Annular Solar Eclipse – Thursday 10th June


This will be Partial from here (so MUST NOT be viewed without Solar goggles/filters) with, at maximum 21.4% of the Solar disc being covered. Gavin James will live stream (if clear) probably from his River Park Observatory, so we have a larger field of view (a link will be sent out on the day, if the weather is going to allow us to proceed), starting at 9.45am (BST), to await first contact just after 10.07am. Maximum eclipse will be around 11.10am and it will all be over by 12.22pm. You can drop in and out as you please.


Summer Solstice – Monday 21st June


There will be the annual Solstice observation from 10pm on Sunday 20th. We will live stream from the Dome (and hope for Noctilucent clouds again!) – a Zoom link will be sent out on the day. The National Schools’ Observatory in conjunction with the Royal Astronomical Society are again running a public outreach event (repetition of the famous Eratosthenes’ experiment to calculate the Earth’s circumference) and some of you might wish to take part (I know many of you were involved last year) The website with full explanation is very user friendly and been improved for this year. You can make measurements in the days surrounding the Solstice (19th – 23rd) and all you need is a stick (as long as possible and vertical – use a spirit level or plumb-line), a ruler/tape measure and a flat piece of ground and a shadow (ie sunshine) close to 1pm BST.


Marlborough’s Inaugural Dark Skies Festival –  29th – 31st October


For your diaries. We are pressing ahead with the Festival, postponed from last year. More details will emerge soon of all the many planned events around Town. For now, you might like to note


  1. Festival launch lecture (C. Barclay) – Friday 29th in Town Hall
  2. Festival key-note lecture (Professor Chris Lintott) – Saturday 30th in Memorial Hall


In addition, the Museum of the Moon (6m Moon exhibit) will be in the Marlborough College Chapel from Monday 25th October

Timings and access arrangements to be confirmed.

Newsletter #37

September 2020

Dear Friend


It has been an ‘eventful’ start to the academic year, in so many ways, and the discovery announcement yesterday of possible biomarkers in the atmosphere of Venus (Article in Nature:, has prompted me to write.


First, some exciting FoMT news:


Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has agreed to succeed Sir Patrick Moore as our nominal Patron/President. We could not be more honoured and, as an Honorary Friend from our foundation, I know she had followed our progress since then and will I hope one day be able to visit us at MCBO.


Second, I fear that the current Government Guidelines will not allow us to gather at the Dome,  probably for some time, thus, with our Astronomy Assistant Gavin James, we have been working on a scheme which will allow all our events to occur via on-line links and live-streaming, hopefully you will be able to see through the 10 inch from the comfort of your sitting room. Gavin has worked hard over the summer and the results are a considerable improvement on the, already enjoyed, Solstice evening in June.


The wide-angle views outside the Dome will be perfect for any meteor showers and tours of the sky and the imaging and live video attached to the 10 inch has already given super views of Jupiter, Mars, and Double Stars to name a few targets.


Our face to face social gathering, which has been such a part of our FoMT year cannot take place on Friday 25th. But, don’t worry, we will have a party as soon as conditions allow. We intend however to hold a Zoom gathering at exactly the same time and date (6.30pm Friday 25th September) where we can meet and chat (and ‘raise a glass’ at home perhaps) Gavin and I will be at the Dome and I will deliver my annual ‘State of the Nation’ speech! – though you can mute me this time…


In advance of this, we anticipate the ‘5 Planets’ evening on 21st September going ahead and a Zoom link will be provided on the day.


Many of you will be also aware that the First Marlborough Town Dark Skies Festival, planned for this October, has been postponed till next year; however we are launching a series of videos and talks this year, on 3rd October, to whet appetites for a big event in October 2021. Details will appear on the website.


Thank you so much for you continued support. Please let me know if you did not receive a Diary.

Newsletter #36

July 2020

Dear Friend


I hope this summer newsletter finds you well and slightly freer than when I last wrote. With two of my summer lecture tours sadly cancelled, I find myself here but with a super naked-eye comet to follow.


I sending with this the annual re-joining letter. I realise that next year may be rather different, but I am still hoping that some form of socially distanced gathering can take place for our 16th anniversary drinks and that, whether by Zoom or in person, observational evenings will still occur at the Dome. An events Diary 20-21 will be produced for you as usual.


College term (virtual) has now ended and GCSE Astronomy results are awaited, for the first time with no exam having been sat! I continue to work on GCSE Astronomy Exam papers for this November and next summer however, in the hope these will be sat in person. The International Olympiad in Colombia was cancelled, but having selected national teams, an online competition (Global e-Competition on Astronomy and Astrophysics), at the same academic level, will be run on-line in September. I am now on the International Organising Committee for this, so won’t take part in the summer 2020 UK Team training.


If you haven’t already picked this up, we have our first naked-eye comet NEOWISE, since comet McNaught in 2007 (and few in the Northern Hemisphere saw this) It is not another Hale-Bopp, but is very easily visible, and striking, by eye and super in any binoculars. It is also circumpolar, so visible after sunset and before dawn as long as it is dark enough. For observing details, see the Blackett Observatory website. Don’t miss the opportunity; you may not need to travel far, as long as you have a decent Northern horizon. There have also been many great sightings of Noctilucent clouds, so it is worth a late night if clear.


The amazing clear skies over lockdown gave some great evening viewing, it was just sad that the Observatory was closed. I hope that all who joined in found the live-streamed Zoom observing on the Summer Solstice did work and the appearance of Noctilucent clouds made this memorable.


The new Solar Cycle 25 has made a very slow start, with barely a sunspot visible over lockdown but there are three fine planets to view too in the South with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all visible over the summer.


Date for the Diaries: (both events are planned to be live but will be via Zoom, if the situation at the time dictates)


25th SeptemberFriends 16th anniversary drinks 6.30pm at Dome

17th NovemberBlackett Science Lecture 2020. ‘Gravitational Wave Astrophysics’ by Dr Samaya Nissanke, University of Amsterdam.

Newsletter #35

March 2020

Dear Friend


Most importantly I hope this letter finds you safe and well. Please do make contact if you are in difficulties. I feel so fortunate that despite our poor Autumn, Nicola and I are currently well and locked-down in Manton, with Bea. Sam, our eldest, who many of you will know, is very much front-line with a COVID team of 75, in Hillingdon hospital, near Heathrow.


It is odd to think that only 4 weeks ago a group of us were still planning to head out on Thursday to Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy…


The amazing clear skies last week, too late for my GCSE pupils, have given us beautiful sights of Venus and the Moon in the evening. If clear on Friday evening (3rd) Venus will actually move through the Pleiades open cluster. There is also a rare conjunction of the 3 naked-eye Superior Planets in the pre-dawn sky, where they will be joined on 15th April by the waning Moon. It is worth observing between 5.30 and 6.00 am BST, if you are an early riser! A similar conjunction in 1604 prompted Kepler to propose a Star of Bethlehem candidate. Astrologers used to consider such a Conjunction ‘in Sagittarius’ a bad omen…the virus is surely a coincidence.


More importantly congratulations to Messrs Genton and James for completing an amazing night of Messier Marathon, just before lock-down was imposed. Seeing 96 out of the 110 Messier objects in the one (long) night.


Of course the Equinox Sun-Earth lecture had to be cancelled, but there is a plan to re-stage this on-line next term. I will keep you posted. All other Friends events are postponed until June at least. It would be good to think that we might all still meet for the Solstice observing.


The new Solar Cycle 25 is slowly starting and I hope we will soon start to have some sunspot images on the website.


Do visit the Zooniverse ( site if you have time on your hands, there are still galaxies to classify or penguins to count, if you prefer.

All best wishes for Easter

Newsletter #34

January 2020

Dear Friend


Happy New Year! – Another time flies.


Hardly great weather at the end of last year, but at least we saw almost all of the (first half) of the transit of Mercury. The BBC Sky at Night team postponed once, due to poor forecasts, but managed to pick a second night where the small group of assembled Preshute Primary School pupils and their parents actually did get to see Saturn and Venus in the twilight and then the brighter stars as they appeared at the start of the evening. It was very cold and the expected 4 hours of filming became 9 ½. The programme is due to be aired on Sunday 12th January, 10pm on BBC Four (repeated on BBC Four on Thursday 16th at 7.30pm). I have also been asked to write a short piece for Sky at Night magazine (February edition).


The Quadrantids meteor shower is predicted to be good this year, given the lack of Moon on 3rd January, 8pm at Dome. The peak itself is at 9am on 4th. There are however normally a large number of fast meteors, so it is still worth coming up to the Dome, if clear.


I do hope that many of you will continue to support the Observatory this year. The major event will be the first Marlborough Dark Sky week-end, organised by the Council, for Friday 2nd to Sunday 4th October (actually Full Moon, so we are making it a lunar observing week-end) There will be a host of events, talks, exhibitions and the keynote lecture on 3rd October (morning) by Professor Chris Lintott (Oxford University). The Dome will be open on 2 of the nights.  The 2020 Sun-Earth lecture, ‘Stories in the stars’, will be on 19th March in Garnett Room at 6pm. The Friends trip to the Gran Sasso laboratory, l’Aquila is happening and 16 Friends will make the journey via Rome on 2nd April. It filled up within 24 hours, apologies to any who missed the ‘offer’ email.


Many of you will know Jonathan Genton (ex-Head of Science) and Gavin James (Astronomy Assistant); they will be launching their new book ‘In the Marlborough Night Garden – Volume 2’ at the White Horse Bookshop on the evening of Wednesday 5th February 2020, along with an exhibition of images in the bookshop gallery that will run to 23rd February.


FoMT member Robert Harvey has a photography exhibition in Wiltshire Museum, Devises, is hosting an exhibition of his landscape astrophotography.  It opens on 18 January with the Mayor, a reception and a lecture, and runs until 15 March. See below for the poster, which you can print or the museum can supply printed copies. and reception booking form:


I have stepped aside from my role as UK Team Leader for the 14th International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics, which will take place in Columbia this September. The UK Team will still however have their observational training with me at our Observatory in August. This year I also successfully launched of a new on-line Junior Olympiad for year 10 and below.


Many of you will be aware that last Autumn was not a highlight for me (or Nicola) health-wise and I would like to express my gratitude for all your good wishes and particularly to Gavin James for taking the reins at the Dome for both College and Outreach events. I am looking forward to getting back under, hopefully, clear winter skies. As ever, please do phone 07792311371 or my office 01672892349 at any time and if I am busy, leave a message and I will get back to you as soon as I can. Please note that the Observatory land-line x 218 is not in regular use.

All best wishes

Newsletter #33

July 2019

Dear Friend


Another Academic year is now over and this year’s College pupils again await GCSE Astronomy results (the first at 9-1). The Diary for 2019-20 is in production and will hopefully be with you in time for the start of Term in September.


The year has been a mix of weather as usual, but the Double Star evening and the Solstice observing were certainly highlights, with Noctilucent Clouds being seen at MCBO for the first time.


The Perseids meteor shower is predicted to be poor this year, given the Full Moon on 15th. There are however normally a number of bright meteors, so it is still worth looking out in the days leading up to the peak. Unfortunately, I am away on 12th and despite being in the Diary, the Observatory will not be opening this year, apologies.


I do hope that many of you will continue to support the Observatory next academic year. The predicted highlight, weather permitting, will be the next Transit of Mercury on Monday 11th November. The Transit will start just after 12.30pm and will be maximum at 3.20pm. The Sun will set before the transit has finished. The next will not be till 2032. The Dome will be open throughout, the Transit and you are all welcome to attend.


I am still hoping that an overseas trip will be able to take place next Easter, details to follow.


Dates for the diaries: The 15th annual drinks party will take place, as last year, in the Observatory on Friday 20th September at 6.30pm. The Blackett Science lecture this year will be on Tuesday 26th November at 7.30pm. This year we welcome Dr Payel Das from Oxford University. The talk is titled: ‘The Gaia Mission”


I was selected again (my 4th and last) for the role of UK Team Leader for the 13th International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics, which will take place in Keszthely, Hungary this August. The UK Team of 5 (4 boys and a girl) will be undergoing their observational training with me at our Observatory next week; we are grateful that the College are housing us again.


As ever, please do phone 07792311371 or my office 01672892349 at any time and if I am busy, leave a message and I will get back to you as soon as I can. Please note that the Observatory land-line x 218 is not in regular use.

All best wishes

For more information please email the Observatory Director, G. James, at