The Francois Xavier Bagnoud Observatory - Sun Flares and Supernovae

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Saturday 27 September 2014

The Francois Xavier Bagnoud Observatory - Sun Flares and Supernovae

With heavier legs from the previous 2 days of hiking, we took things a little easier on Wednesday by taking another trip up the St Luc funicular to visit the Francois Xavier Bagnoud Observatory at 2100m. Created as the largest observatory in Switzerland that is open to the public and dedicated to public engagement, offering day time solar events and night-time stargazing, the altitude and clear skies make for some amazing astronomical sights.

Wednesday was scheduled for a solar presentation around midday and with another beautiful blue sky and the sun shining brightly we were looking forward to a good show. Beginning with a presentation by the resident astronomer Michael (who I think has one of the best jobs in the world) we learned about our solar system, sun spots, the electromagnetic spectrum and how it is used to work out the composition of the stars. Projecting an image of the the midday sun onto the wall we could clearly see the sun spots and learned about the 11 year cycle of activity. Then it was up onto the roof to take a closer look through the telescope (with suitable filters of course). Without a cloud in the sky the corona was glowing and the solar flares were stark against the blackness of space beyond. It was incredible and the hour just flew by.

Back in St Luc we immediately booked onto the night-time stargazing presentation for Saturday night. After a busy Saturday watching the cows coming off the mountain in Grimentz, we were a little tired for the 10pm start time which was way past our normal bed time. However, we were lucky to have a slightly warmer night after the bitter sub zero temperatures during the week and the cloudless sky was lit up by thousands of stars making for perfect viewing.

After a night time ride up the funicular the show started with a slideshow of images taken at the observatory, from stars to nebulae. The images were fantastic and whet our appetites for what was to come. Sadly the big telescope in the dome was out of action that night, but up on the roof Michael had set up his own new telescope which had just arrived and was almost as powerful that he had trained on various highlights in the sky.

Initially, for 15 minutes while our night vision sharpened, he spent the time pointing out some of the most important constellations and stars such as Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, the Pole Star etc. Then it was onto the telescope. We saw globular clusters, supernovae remnants and giant stars. The vastness of space and our own infinitesimally small size in the Universe was really hammered home.

After an hour or so in the chilly air it was time to pack up and head back down feeling very happy with our night-time adventure. On both visits we had been dazzled by the beauty of the cosmos and inspired to learn more, which means the observatory must be doing it's job very well.

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