Monthly Archives: March 2015

Heavens above, it’s a solar eclipse!

You may have heard that tomorrow (Friday 20th March 2015) there will be a solar eclipse.  Here in mainland UK it will only be partial, but a large percentage of the Sun will be covered by the Moon so it will be worth having a look at.  Mid-eclipse, when the largest part of the Sun will be covered by the Moon, is about 9.30am.  I will be at St John’s Primary School in Macclesfield in the morning where I will be talking to the school assembly about the eclipse, and hopefully showing everyone the view.

There has, sadly, been a lot of mis-information flying around about viewing the eclipse, and some schools have actually banned their pupils from watching it.  There are many perfectly safe ways to view it, so don’t believe the scare-mongering.

But: never look at the Sun through any kind of telescope, or binoculars, or any other kind of glass instrument!  There are some telescopes designed for safe solar viewing but, unless you really know what you are doing, don’t try it.  You WILL damage your eyesight.  For the transit of Venus in 2004, Stuart and I made a video showing what happens to a simulated eyeball.  It’s not pleasant.

So, how can you watch the eclipse safely?  The simplest and cheapest way, and what I will be doing at school tomorrow, is using a pinhole viewer.  You take a piece of card or stiff paper and make some small holes with a pen.  Hold this between the Sun and another sheet of white paper (or a wall) and voila, small images of the Sun!

How to watch the eclipse

Lots of images of the Sun, formed using a pinhole viewer; the safest way to watch a solar eclipse.

If the weather is good where you are, go have a look.  Look up the exact timings for your location, read the answers to some frequently-asked questions about the eclipse, watch Dr Lucie Green explain the eclipse and how to view it, or read a booklet about the eclipse produced by the RAS.  Good luck!

Fireball surprises European stargazers

Sunday night saw a massive fireball over southern Germany, Switzerland, and eastern France.  Reports put the time of the event at around 19:48 GMT.  Witnesses from Germany, Switzerland, France and Austria reported the event to the International Meteor Organization (IMO), and more than 175 eyewitness reports have been collected so far (see image below).  Robin from Tuttlingen said: “The fireball was so bright that it illuminated the sky and landscape around me to twilight brightness levels.”

Fireball reports from the March 15th 2015 fireball

Fireball reports from the March 15th 2015 fireball, submitted through the IMO’s “Report a fireball” form at

Twenty witnesses near Zurich reported a rumbling boom sound shortly after the fireball appeared.  One witness outside of Zurich described the boom by saying, “About two minutes after the fireball there was a considerably strong sonic boom. After the sonic boom rumble was heard for at least twenty seconds.”  These types of booms associated with meteors indicate the fireball penetrated deep into the Earth’s atmosphere.  An estimated trajectory, computed from the witness reports, shows the fireball was travelling from north to south, starting about 25 km south of Stuttgart and ending approximately 20 km east of Zurich.  The event was also captured by several dashcams and other automated cameras.  One camera, operated by Thomas Tuchan, caught the path of the fireball across the sky:

The fireball caught on an all-sky camera

The fireball caught on an all-sky camera

Fireballs are exceptionally bright events which happen when a meteoroid passes through the atmosphere.  Stand outside on any clear night for more than a few minutes, and you will see a meteor somewhere in the sky.  Meteors are caused by small pieces of rock, generally less than a millimetre in size.  They range in brightness from too faint to be seen with the naked eye, right up to brighter than the full moon.  The majority of meteors are at the faint end of this scale, while fireball events like this one are at the extreme upper end of this range.  Most eyewitness reports so far put the brightness of Sunday’s fireball greater than that of the full Moon (magnitude -13).  You can see all of the reports for this event at:

Almost all small meteoroids disintegrate during their passage through the atmosphere.  But sometimes, very bright fireball events can result in a meteorite fall, where the meteoroid (or parts of it, in the case of an explosion) reaches the ground.  If this happens, reports from people who saw the event are vital in determining the likely location of the debris.

Whether a fall occurs or not, the details of fireball events like this can only be determined from combining the information from many eyewitness reports.  If you saw this fireball you can help researchers by reporting what you saw in as much detail as possible.  The best way to do this is though the IMO’s fireball report form.  The form is simple and guides you easily through the process of reporting your sighting, assuming no specialist knowledge, and is now available in more than 25 languages (including German and French).

For further information on meteors and other related events, and advice on how to observe and report them, visit the IMO website.

Notes for editors

The International Meteor Organisation (IMO) was founded in 1988 and today has a membership of over 250, consisting of both amateur and professional astronomers.  The IMO was created in response to an ever growing need for international cooperation between amateur astronomers working on meteors.  By collecting meteor observations from observers around the world using a variety of different techniques, the IMO ensures the comprehensive study of meteor showers and their relation to comets and interplanetary dust.  Each year the IMO organises an international conference to facilitate the exchange of ideas and help progress the field of meteor research.