Flamsteed Astronomy Society

“French Leave”

— from Martin Male

Pic du Midi Observatory in the Pyrenees is a “must see”. Construction there was begun in the 1880’s with the intention of setting up a science research site to investigate meteorology, biology and other subjects as well as astronomy. It is situated atop a 2872 metre high mountain, accessible only by a spectacular cable car ride from the ski resort of Mongie.

There is a permanent science exhibition at the observatory, with live Coronagraph images and other live information about the sun on display, weather permitting. Some of the display material is in English, though not much alas. There is a small staff of professional astronomers based there, though fewer than in the past. In common with the UK, there is a move to gather data for professional astronomy from the big telescopes in Hawaii and elsewhere, though some observational research work is still done in France.

The main telescopes are not accessible to the public, though one can see the Lyot telescope. Bernard Lyot developed the coronagraph here in the 1930’s and added considerably to our knowledge of the sun.

We were there in early May and the temperature “up there” was –5 Celsius and snowing, but due to the elevation one had the strange experience of feeling one’s skin freeze and burn at the same time, due to the enhanced Ultra Violet from the sun through the thinner atmosphere.

The clouds broke briefly whilst we were there, and we had truly breathtaking views of the nearby mountains. It was worth the trip up there just for that!

It is open most of the year.  Please note that the operators advise that it is not suitable for pets, infants and those with respiratory complaints and pacemakers. They also  caution that if it is too windy for the cable cars to operate, you might get stuck up there all night (I wish…)


Two places of interest to visit if you are en vacance in France sometime…

We also visited The Observatoire de Haute Provence (OHP), about 50 miles north of Marseille. You can get there by car and there are no access restrictions. It is  a functioning observatory too. Some of you might recall that the discovery of the first planet orbiting another star (51 Peg.) was made from here about ten years ago. It was determined that an unseen companion caused the star to “wobble” on its path.

On arrival we were shown a short film (in French) about the observatory and the work done there. Public visits are restricted to Wednesdays only at 2 and 4 o’clock. We were shown round by a retired “astronome” who looked rather like our own Eddie Yeadon! He spoke in very fast French, though we were able to work fairly well much of what he said, as much of it was about tracking in sidereal time and the pointing of the telescope.

The telescope we were shown was the one used for the planet discovery observation, a 1.93 metre reflecting instrument built in the 1930’s and using a British mount! There were quite a few other domes visible, though we were shown only the 1.93.

If you are ever in the vicinity of these sites they are well worth a detour.

© Pic du Midi

© Pic du Midi

© Pic du Midi

© Observatoire de Haute Provence

© Observatoire de Haute Provence

© Observatoire de Haute Provence