Meteor Streaks Over Historic British Astronomy Site

A large fireball streaked across the night skies over Devon. Fortunately, amateur astronomers with the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society had meteor cameras running that night. Despite raindrops and clouds, they captured this footage of the meteor’s flight. (via Western Morning News) But there’s more to the story - the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society itself.

Norman Lockyer, born in 1836, started out as an amateur astronomer, founded the scientific journal Nature, and eventually became a professor of astronomy. He was one of the astronomers who discovered the element Helium while observing the Sun’s spectra. Lockyer built a private observatory in southwestern England after his retirement in 1912. The site near the coastal town of Sidmouth offers relatively dark viewing southwards over the English Channel.

As professional astronomy moved on to larger telescopes the site fell out of use except for several local amateur astronomy societies. These societies merged in the 1990s to form the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society. They leased the site from the local district council and turned it into a public observatory and astronomy education center. 

The observatory houses several historic telescopes, including Lockyer’s original Kensington Telescope. Built in 1885 for Lockyer’s study of solar physics, this refracting telescope has a 10-inch tube for visual observations and a 9-inch tube for photography and spectroscopy. The Society also maintains the Lockyer Archives - documents and photographs from Norman Lockyer’s astronomy career - at Exeter University’s library.

The society’s youth education programs encourage local students’ interests in the sciences while its weekly meetings and viewing sessions broaden outreach to the local community. The Lockyer Observatory hosts the South West Astronomy Fair every Autumn during the Sidmouth Folk Week - the only astronomy festival in southwestern England. They also contribute to several amateur science efforts - including the United Kingdom Meteor Observation Network. UKMon links all-sky cameras that scan the sky every night into a network that tracks fireballs and calculates the original orbit of the meteor and potential impact sites of any meteorites that reach the ground.

These amateur astronomers - unpaid and without government support - maintain an important part of Britain’s scientific heritage while at he same time using it to keep Britain connected to the night sky.