16 fascinating talks from experts in the fields of astronomy and space science.
New telescopes, better eyepieces, state-of-the-art CCD cameras, and much more, AstroFest 2024 was the place to be.​
Imaging Competition
Debut of the European AstroFest imaging competition, with prizes from Celestron up for grabs! Finalists had their images displayed at AstroFest, where the winners were announced during a presentation on stage.

AstroFest 2024 Report

One of the major highlights from each and every European AstroFest is its conference of top speakers, and 2024’s event was no different.

Thousands of astronomers descended upon the Kensington Conference and Events Centre in the heart of London over the 2 and 3 February for the biggest astronomy show in the country, European AstroFest 2024. With three floors of exhibitors and a packed talk schedule in the conference hall, there was plenty to keep everyone happy, from the newcomer to the subject to the veteran observer.

Highlights from the conference included Beatriz Villarroel of the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stockholm University in Sweden discussing the bizarre case of the vanishing stars that have been discovered by the VASCO (Vanishing and Appearing Objects during a Century of Observations) project, and which we described more about in the March issue of Astronomy Now. Meanwhile, Carole Mundell of the European Space Agency and Cathie Clarke of the University of Cambridge gave a special panel session entitled ‘The Sky is For Everyone’, wherein they discussed the obstacles they have faced in their careers as women in science, and to hopefully empower women and girls to take up their own scientific careers. There was also a really cool talk from Andrew Thornett about how to build your own cosmic-ray detector to conduct real astrophysics and particle science from your own home, and perhaps even pick up cosmic rays from a supernova! And for those not so handy with electronics, there were some detectors already assembled and on sale in the exhibition hall.

A Telescope Wonderland

With three floors of exhibition space filled with all the telescopes and astronomical accoutrements you can dream of, Steve Ringwood reports back from what he describes as “astronomical heaven”.

European AstroFest always feels to me like Christmas and a birthday rolled into one; for in the first week of February, the Saturnalian festivities are not a too distant memory and, as it happens, the anniversary of my birth always falls within a day or so of this, the best weekend of the year. In short, the sights and sounds (and possibly the smells!) of this annual event are a cross between eagerly revisiting an old friend and an entry into an astronomical heaven. What follows are my own personal delights of the exhibition that I alighted on during the two days spent in London at AstroFest.


Immediately on entering the main hall, visitors were greeted by an EQ8R equatorial mount upon which was mounted a 127mm, f/7.5 ED Explore Scientific refractor. Although a magnificent observing instrument in its own right, for this occasion it was dressed by the Primaluce Lab team with a colony of imaging accessories. 

Fixed to the focuser was a Sesto Senso 2, which is a robotic focusing device that allows the user to impart minute drawtube movement with 0.7-micron precision. Clustered around the instrument’s focus, behind a large filter-wheel and off-axis guider, were an ASI174 guiding camera and a ZWO ASI2600MM imaging device. At the other end, completing this supporting cast of photographic players, a Giotto 220 flat-field generator rode high on the dew-tube.  

Yet despite the deployment of all of this imaging paraphernalia there was no tangled web of wires flowing away from the mount like maypole ribbons, for all of these accessories were connected by a thread-like nervous system to a Primaluce Lab Eagle Pro computer, perched on the rings midway along the tube. With your preferred Windows software on board, this powerful Enterprise computer mediates between connected devices and the user’s smart device or computer via Wi-Fi, thus avoiding a hazardous melange of trailing cables flying off into the darkness towards the user’s distant laptop. It was an impressive demonstration of how a multitasking set-up can be neat, completely self-contained and safe.

Askar 185 apochromatic triplet refractor

Once past this fascinating obelisk, pressing farther into the main hall was a bit like encountering an optical Tunguska Event; not a massive radial pattern of fallen trees and twigs, but a chaotic multi-colour explosion of telescope tubes and tripods. You could not help at once feeling that you’d like to take all of them home.

Together with great examples of conventional telescopes, the significant growth in the popularity of portable yet able apochromatic refractors was very noticeable this year – and some of these pack a real punch.   

On the 365Astronomy stand, it was (almost) possible to walk by Askar’s mighty 185mm aperture apochromat, so compact is its design. Even at f/7 (which is uncharacteristically long for an apochromat these days) the stored tube has a length of just 1,081mm and weighs less than 15 kilograms. It had all the features that you now expect from a high-end refractor, such as an integrated mounting cradle, 360-degree rotating and lockable dual-speed focuser, indexed drawtube and, of course, at the business end that all important apochromatic (colour-free) triplet objective. For imagers, there are the optional extras of a 1.0× flattener and a 0.8× reducer that brings the telescope down to a richer field f/5.6.

I am already beginning to wonder what compact yet gargantuan refractor apertures are going to be available off-the-shelf at next year’s AstroFest!  

Unistellar, DWARFLAB, Dwarf II and ZWO SeeStar

I can still recall the shock and horror of observational die-hards when Go-To telescope mounts first began to appear. Preferring to stay loyal to manual analogue-means of finding their way around the sky, they urged the continuing virtue of trepidatiously steering their mounts by using little pointers moving against collars or discs inscribed with minute divisions of Right Ascension and Declination. From the onslaught of Go-Tos, knowledge of the sky will diminish, they feared. That fear, of course, was unfounded. Go-To telescopes have proved a boon in opening up a greater access to the sky and a better knowledge of it.  

Such undue caution is a lesson going forward, for we are currently witnessing another revolution in access to the sky brought about by new technology, that of portable, fully automated (imaging) telescopes that integrate with mobile devices – so-called ‘smart telescopes’. Those by Unistellar and (the almost pocket-sized!) dual-lensed Dwarf II were much in evidence, scattered about the main hall like eager telescopic puppies. But I was rather taken by ZWO’s SeeStar S50, which is an all-in-one smart apochromatic telescope.

It is beautifully compact with a body weight of just three kilograms. Within its streamlined body, the 50mm, f/5 triplet apochromat is supported by impressive integrated technology, including an electric focuser, a filter-switching device and an intelligent controller – all accessible via a mobile device app through either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. There are even on-board sensors to assist in getting the tripod level!

Using the GPS sensors on your mobile device, the S50 discovers where it is and sets itself up without any intervention by the user – except perhaps the eager digit that presses the power button. After that, the sky is literally the limit. The software’s catalogue of celestial objects is there to choose from, or the user can be tempted by its suggestions of the night’s best objects. Once its Go-To system has homed in on the target, the image captured by the Seestar’s 1,920 × 1,080 IMX462 sensor is transmitted to your device for observation or (single or stacked) capture. 

This new generation of telescope is giving many old hands pause for thought, besides providing an entry point into astronomy for perhaps an entirely new audience.   

I have noticed over the years that each AstroFest is often characterised by a purchasing frenzy of one product or another – and this year these digital delights seemed to be flying off the stands.  

Build a Solar System

In the April 2008 issue of Astronomy Now, my monthly column featured a build-your-own-Solar System kit, specifically a brass orrery available from publishers Eaglemoss that was gradually assembled week-by-week through the purchase of their magazine. Although the original designer visited me at my home to demonstrate his wonderful creation and afforded me with the first few issues to get me going, I unfortunately never got around to completing the entire kit – mainly because I was too impatient to acquire all of the instalments and my keenness to keep up the weekly purchase faded.  

Which is why I was so pleased to see this amazing construction on display on the stand of Box of Tricks Collections Ltd, who are offering complete kits of this magnificent brass orrery. You still have the fun of construction, but without the piecemeal wait! Orreries are exquisite machines, for not only are they amazing celestial timepieces of great beauty, but they also embody an engineering exactness that is a thing to marvel at. Set in motion, it is almost hypnotic to watch. There is a challenge too, for as you watch fleet-footed Mercury whirl around the brass orb of the model’s central Sun, can you detect the painfully slow motion of far-flung Neptune or Uranus?

The kit comes with a start-to-finish construction guide and is available at

Muon detector

Possibly the most interesting ‘gadgets’ in this year’s exhibition were ironically probably the smallest. Quietly being demonstrated by the Radio Astronomy Section of the British Astronomical Association were innocent-looking little metal boxes blithely detecting a fundamental consequence of relativity, muons.  

Muons are created by the impact of high-energy astrophysical particles (cosmic rays) upon the upper atmosphere. Their collisions produce a shower of particles that subsequently decay into muons. Muons should not actually reach the Earth’s surface before they too decay, but do so by virtue of their relativistic speed extending their intrinsic ‘lifetime clock’ through the process of time dilation. So, innocently flickering a light upon each detection of a muon, these little boxes were betraying the arrival high above South Kensington of cosmic rays – which may have come from a very great distance indeed.  

I was fascinated to learn that these detectors (designed by the UK Radio Astronomy Association, or UKRAA) had been confirmed as having picked up the arrival of cosmic particles from a supernova erupting in another galaxy. I think it is simply mind-boggling to have a device no bigger than a large cappuccino sitting on a tabletop, betraying the existence of both relativity and the biggest bangs in the Universe.

Just as amazingly, these devices are available both as kits and complete assemblies from 

Docking with the ISS

I have been attending European AstroFest for more years than I care to remember, but there has always been one itch I have never got around to scratching – and that is demonstrating my expertise (trying my luck!) on the ISS docking simulator at the British Interplanetary Society stand. In the past, whenever I have strolled by, there has always been a queue, or a frantic ‘pilot’ determined to complete the task no matter how many attempts it took, or an enthusiastic celebrity (such as Brian May) already installed and shielded from interruption by large protective individuals.  

Quite by chance my wife, Gillian, and I were passing the simulator late on the Saturday afternoon when the crowd had thinned and, with only a single ‘victim’ ahead of us, we loitered sufficiently long to be offered our opportunity. My wife took the hot seat first, listening carefully to the instructions of her Soyuz simulator instructor. The task, as many AstroFest attendees will know, is to carefully control a Soyuz spacecraft towards a successful docking with the International Space Station (ISS), using a carefully constructed simulation of the actual controls and docking-camera view, designed by the Italian branch of the BIS.

Gradually, using gentle spurts from the attitude control thrusters, my wife inched the Soyuz spacecraft towards the target docking collar on the ISS. I have to say that although this was a simulation, the tension was no less palpable. Simply watching the slowly expanding view of the ISS relayed by the ‘external’ camera of the Soyuz, the process was truly exciting – and I’m happy to report, successful.   

Then, after many years of waiting, I also took the pilot’s seat. Even though I had taken in the instructions given to my wife and watched carefully as she successfully docked, I felt an anxiety of not only keeping my crew members safe, but knowing I would never hear the last of it should I fail! Fortunately, I too succeeded – although of course, inside my space, they couldn’t hear me screaming!

I would recommend to anyone who goes to AstroFest in the future to have a go. Simulator it may be, yet in all seriousness it does give you a feel for quite how hard it can be to manoeuvre in space during what can be a very dangerous but necessary task.

I’ll be back for another go, next year. 

Steve Ringwood is a regular contributor to Astronomy Now.  

Imaging Competition

The three winners of the inaugural European AstroFest Imaging Competition were revealed in the planetary, deep sky and under-18 categories.  

Facing off against stiff competition, the three winners – Harry Page, Alessandro Ravagnin and Lili Viktoria Haluska – were revealed by our competition judges on the stage in the Great Hall at European AstroFest. With eight shortlisted images selected from a wealth of entries, the judges – Astronomy Now’s Mark Armstrong and Mandy Bailey, photographer Max Alexander and astro-imager Nik Szymanek – were given the tough responsibility of choosing the ultimate winners in each category.

Harry Page, who won the deep-sky category, received a Celestron NexStar Evolution 8 SCT.  Alessandro Ravagnin, who triumphed with his image of a partial solar eclipse, won a Celestron NexStar 8SE SCT, while Lili Viktoria Haluska, who came first in the under-18 category, received a Celestron StarSense DX5 telescope and NexImage 10 Solar System colour CCD. Congratulations to all the winners, and many thanks to Celestron for providing the prizes and to our judges for devoting their time to carefully select the winners.

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