A CHILDHOOD interest sparked by the moon landings has led to an amateur astronomer creating a observatory in the back garden of his cottage.
As a youngster, Patrick Poitevin was a keen collector of anything to do with the 1960s space exploration programmes and moon landings, and when he was just 17 he built his first telescope to help him explore the skies at night.
This early love of astronomy fuelled an interest in solar physics and, in particular, solar eclipses.
When Patrick and his wife Joanne moved to a small village near Ashbourne 11 years ago he quickly realised that he was in an almost perfect location to develop his hobby.
He said: "We are really lucky because we have about 25% clear skies here and very little light pollution, so it's a great spot to watch the stars and planets.
"And that is why, five years ago, I built the observatory, and now I have a portable solar telescope and a bigger night vision machine which is fully automated and can be used to take photos.
"The technology these days is amazing. All I have to do is programme the telescope to find me a particular planet and it will zoom straight in on it."
Patrick has travelled around the world with his portable telescope to see solar eclipses and at the last count had watched more than 40 events in locations including Indonesia, Hawaii, Uruguay and the former Soviet Union.
The 56-year-old said: "It's been a wonderful way to combine my love of travel and a desire to see the world with my interest in science."
The first eclipse he saw was in 1980 in Kenya and he plans to go to see the next total eclipse in Spitsbergen, one of Norway's northernmost islands. He said: "I'm looking forward to going there but I've been warned it will be minus 30C at least, so there is no point taking my equipment as it will all just freeze up. But it will be an amazing place to watch the eclipse."
Patrick explained that there are three types of solar eclipse – total, partial and annular. In a total eclipse, the disk of the sun is fully obscured by the moon, while in partial and annular eclipses only part of the sun is obscured. Planetary transits have a similar effect and occur when a nearby planet, usually Mercury or Venus, visibly passes in front of the sun.
He said: "When it's a complete eclipse you fall into total darkness, it's like it is the middle of the night. You can see all the stars and planets, and the birds fall silent. It really is amazing to see, but it only happens on average twice in every three years."
This year, there is no complete eclipse and Patrick will be heading to the third Solar Eclipse Conference, which he has organised and is being held in New Mexico, USA, in October. He said: "So far, we have about 130 people registered from all over the world. Some are professional scientists and some just amateur enthusiasts, but we all share the same passion for solar eclipses.
"We have many different guest speakers over the four days and our opening party is in the Space Museum, so it's going to be an interesting event."
At the weekend many keen star gazers will have been watching the night skies, hoping to catch a glimpse of the annual Perseid meteor shower, known for producing unusually bright meteors called fireballs, which officially peaks tomorrow. Normally there are up to 100 meteors per hour that night as debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle hits the Earth's atmosphere and burns up as it streaks across the sky.
Unfortunately, this year's peak is just two days after the biggest supermoon of the year – one that up to 14% bigger and 30% brighter than a regular full moon – which means there will be a lot of light in the sky, reducing the chance of a spectacular meteor display.