Astronomy enthusiasts will be gathering outside Isaacs on March 20 to view the celestial event - and you are invited to join them.

East Anglian Daily Times: David Murton with a telescope used to look at solar eclipses at the Orwell Astronomical Society. Photograph Simon ParkerDavid Murton with a telescope used to look at solar eclipses at the Orwell Astronomical Society. Photograph Simon Parker (Image: Archant)

Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich) is holding a free solar eclipse observing session from 8.30am to 10.30am and will be setting up special screens so people can view it safely.

Chairman David Murton said: “We will have some equipment and will hopefully be setting up a screen so people can view the eclipse safely. It is the biggest eclipse for many years.

“It is going to be exciting; the UK has about 86% totality. We are hoping for clear weather.”

Retired project manager Paul Whiting is the society’s treasurer as well as occasional speaker and he is also an eclipse chaser – he travels the world to ensure he is in a place of eclipse totality when they take place.

He said: “A solar eclipse is when the moon gets between the earth and the sun and the moon’s shadow is cast across the earth. The centre of the shadow is about eight to ten miles across and usually lasts up to about eight minutes.”

During this few minutes, the sun’s corona – the sun’s outer atmosphere – can be observed – as long as it’s a clear day.

Paul said: “It is fantastic to see the sun’s corona. The size of the sun is 400 times the size of the moon but the moon is 400 times closer to the earth than the sun so that’s why they appear to be the same size. It’s a coincidence.

“During total eclipse light levels fall, the temperature drops, animals and bird start displaying nocturnal behaviour. Under partial eclipse you can’t see the corona but it will go a bit darker and the temperature will fall, but only by a small amount.”

Over the years Paul has travelled to China, Australia, Chile, Siberia, Tahiti and America.

And this year Paul is planning to visit Svalbard (in the Arctic Ocean) to ensure he is in an area of 100% totality.

He said: “A solar eclipse is the only time you can see the corona, it is an amazing experience. You cannot look directly at the sun through binoculars or you will go blind, you have to use a solar viewer.”

With 168 members, use of an observatory, and a full events diary, the Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich) has benefitted from an upsurge in interest in science recently.

David said: “Having the Orwell observatory is a big draw and the society does a lot of outreach events to foster interest in astronomy. We have also benefitted from what we call the ‘Brian Cox effect’.

“The TV scientist has brought astronomy into the limelight and made it more popular.”

David, 58, a retired building surveyor, added: “I have been a member of the society for about two years. I came along to an open evening and came back and got more and more interested.

“I am particularly interested in the photographic part of astronomy but there are many aspects of astronomy, some people are interested in the history, or the mathematics or observing planets and the moon.”

David admits the night sky is endlessly fascinating to study.

He said: “It is something that is always there but not everyone notices it in much detail.

“Light pollution can make it difficult to see the night sky but when people come here and look through telescopes or equipment for the first time they are often amazed.”

Annual membership of the society costs £20 and you don’t need much equipment to get started – just a pair of binoculars.

David said: “It is easy to buy a cheap good telescope and easy to buy an expensive bad one. We offer a series of events to enable people to use the equipment we have. Binoculars are the best thing to get started with, you don’t need to go and get an expensive telescope.”

The society meets at least once a week at the Orwell observatory – in the grounds of Orwell Park School – which houses the Tomline Refractor and its vast cast iron mount.

David added: “We also have meetings in Newbourne village hall on a Monday evening to which new members are always welcome, if it is clear we do some observation, if it’s cloudy we have a talk or demonstration.”

The society also organises an annual series of monthly lectures usually from astronomers.

David said members have recently been observing the Lovejoy comet and an asteroid.

But it’s not all about the night sky.

Retired signal engineer Bill Barton, 51, is interested in the sun – something that requires careful precautions to observe.

He said: “I used to do shift work which meant I was at home during the day so I took up solar observation.

“I became interested in counting sun spots – magnetic disturbances on the surface of the sun.”

Bill said the sun should not be observed without taking the right precautions, such as using deep filters over telescopes or the use of project imagery.

Bill is also interested in the history of the observatory.

He said: “The observatory dates from 1874 and was built for Colonel George Tomline. It would have been one of the top 25 telescopes in the world at the time and Colonel Tomline even employed a professional astronomer.

“The observatory did some serious work mainly involved in the accurate plotting of the orbits of a number of comets. This involved timings and mathematics as it required working out the path of the comet in three dimensional space around the sun.”

Bill, who has been a member of the society for around 30 years, added: “The society started in 1967. At the time there was a lot of interest in the subject as America was preparing to land on the moon. The society gradually developed and became bigger over time.”