Whitchurch is the ‘focus’ again of BBC2 later this January as the Millennium Meadow takes part in the BBC’s national ‘Stargazing Live’ programme.

But first – this afternoon – there may be an opportunity to see a fiery finish to a space probe!

The Pobos-Grunt probe to Mars was launched by Russia in November. It got stuck in Earth orbit when its rockets failed to fire. Credit: Roscosmos

The latest calculations predict that the Phobos-Grunt space probe will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up – possibly over Whitchurch – around tea time. UPDATE: it flew on past and crashed into the Pacific Ocean around 17h45.

The Russian interplanetary probe got off the ground back in November but its booster rockets did not fire, and so it got stuck in an orbit around Earth. Now, with friction slowing it down ever since, the probe will come crashing back down to Earth today.

There is a small chance that its decaying orbit will cause it to fall over Southern England. Chief engineer at the UK Space Agency Professor Richard Crowther was quoted by Sky News saying: “If you look at the Earth from space, most of it is covered by water. The UK is very small by comparison. The probability of it falling in such a small area is very, very low.”

Even if we miss out seeing the fiery demise of the once ambitious Russian/Chinese space mission, there are still many spectacular things ‘up there’ to watch from ‘down here’. More precisely, down at the Meadow…

Jupiter, photo by Dr. Paul Curtis, Andover Astronomical Society

The public is invited down to the Millennium Meadow for some star, and planet, gazing with the Andover Astronomical Society on Sunday, January 29th 2012, from 6:30 to 8 pm.

The Society’s members will bring powerful telescopes, through which you can gaze at voluptuous Venus, jumbo Jupiter, and the mountainous Moon. Bring along your own telescope – or even binoculars – so that you can see even more. Even without equipment, you may be able to spot a passing satellite, possibly even the International Space Station.

With a predicted 100 billion planets around the stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone, there is sure to be something for everyone to look at.

Afterwards, there will be a short illustrated talk in the Longmeadow Sports & Social Club, which is across the street from the Meadow. And what can only be described as a startling coincidence with today’s Russian probe crash, the Club is putting on tap some ‘Russian Winter’ real ale.

To go along with the talk, there is to be some hot cottage pie available, if you reserve beforehand.

In the event of bad weather, the public viewing will be cancelled, but the talk in the Sports and Social Club will still take place at 8pm.

Just in case, wear wellies or stout shoes as the ground in the Meadow may be muddy.

You can cycle right onto the Meadow if you live in town. If you are coming from out of town, then there is service to Whitchurch on the 76 and 86 bus route, and on SouthWest Trains. Car parking – if you must – is available in the Longmeadow sports and social club lot which is opposite the Meadow on Winchester Street.

The viewing is FREE, and is suitable for all ages. BBC Stickers and Activity Cards will be available for children.

The star and planet gazing event is listed on the BBC website HERE and the BBC StarGazing Live site is HERE. Details are also on the Meadow website HERE.
The Phobos-Grunt probe’s descent is tracked HERE. The Sky News article is HERE. The opportunities to see the International Space Station are listed by NASA HERE. A news item about 100 billion planets is HERE.
The Andover Astronomical Society website is HERE. To reserve a hot pie at the Sports & Social club please ring 0796 315 9273.

A video about the launch, mission and predicted crash of the Phobus-Grunt probe is on YouTube.

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