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Stargazers flock to north and further afield for glimpse of stunning spacespectacle

Gail Bell

IF YOU failed to book your flight to the Faroe Islands for yesterday's total solar eclipse, Belfast was the second-best place to be, according to the hundreds of stargazers who descended on Queen's University to watch the ultimate space spectacle.

Scores of enthusiasts took a few hours off work - and school - to converge in the grounds of the college which was one of four sites chosen by the Irish Astronomical Association to catch a glimpse of the best solar eclipse in years.

Others flocked to Portballintrae on the north Antrim coast, Larne and Scrabo Tower in Newtownards to view the hotly anticipated 94 per cent black-out of the sun which was witnessed by millions across Ireland, the UK and northern Europe.

A great swathe of the Earth's surface was plunged into darkness as the moon came between us and the sun. The deep shadow formed first in the North Atlantic and then swept up into the Arctic, ending at the North Pole.

At 9.30am, the expected time the phenomenon was due to happen in Belfast, the grounds at Whitla

Hall had taken on an otherworldly feel, the sky darkened and dedicated star-gazers looked slowly upwards, either with special solar eclipse glasses or adapted telescopes to view the phenomenon when earth, moon and sun are perfectly aligned.

As one fascinated visitor wryly observed, it was that rare occasion when Irish TV comedic cleric Father Ted's 'small, far away' quote made perfect sense - for about 10 minutes at least.

"With the sun 400 times further away from the earth than the moon, but the sun 400 times bigger, they appear exactly the same size, a phenomenon which doesn't happen anywhere else in the solar system," Omagh man and Queen's Phd student Paul Brogan explained.

One of the largest pieces of specialist equipment on view yesterday was a refractor telescope with 130cm lens belonging to Lisburn man, Danny Collins, a member of the Irish Astronomical Association.

Having previously viewed total solar eclipses in Bulgaria (1999) and Turkey (2006), he was just as excited to be part of the Belfast contingent for the 2015 deep partial eclipse event.

"This is one of the best places to be," he said, "but, if I could have afforded it, I would have gone to the Faroe Islands where people will be able to witness a total eclipse which is even more amazing."

Two of the youngest visitors were Kaitlyn Laverty (13) and her 10-year-old brother Anthony from Belfast who had been given special permission to take the morning off school for what was the largest partial solar eclipse visible from Northern Ireland since 1927.

Their father Ted, also an IAA member, said the eclipse should be compulsory education and for that reason he set up a refracting telescope to capture an inverted image of the live action on a piece of white card which everyone could see.

"This really is fascinating science," he said, "and the Northern Ireland weather, for once, has been absolutely perfect."

In addition to the IAA events, the Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy Society held a public viewing at Belfast Zoo, while Armagh Observatory ran an open morning at the centre.

* PHENOMENON: Main and below, crowds gathered in the grounds of Whitla Hall at Queen's University Belfast yesterday to watch the solar eclipse. Bottom right, Denis McCardell was among the many photographers up bright and early to catch the perfect picture of the phenomenon

PICTURES: Main and below, Hugh Russell. Top left, Haakon Mosvold Larsen, NTB Scanpix/AP; bottom left, Brian Lawless/PA; top right, Pavel Golovkin/AP; middle right, Visar Kryeziu; right, Luca Bruno/AP. Bottom right, Bill Smyth

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