A night at the observatory

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I recently joined the Bristol Astronomical Society. The Society is lucky enough to have a small observatory just outside Bristol and John, who manages the observatory, was kind enough to show me how everything works. This means that I’m now allowed to help out at the observing sessions that the Society runs on Saturday nights.

The observatory consists of a 12″ telescope in a small dome and an 18″ telescope mounted on a concrete plinth outside. In addition to these fixed scopes, members of the club generally take along their own equipment. Some of the more experienced among them have some pretty serious pieces of kit, including computerised mounts (where you just type in what you want to look at and the scope orients itself automatically) and telescope-mounted cameras.

Now, on this occasion, I’d remember to take my own camera along. So I seized the opportunity to snap some photos of my fellow astronomers doing their thing. Here we are setting things up. You will perhaps note that we are somewhat early in getting ready, given that it’s not at all dark. But it’s a lot easier to get telescopes, cameras, laptops etc. connected in the daylight.

As the sun disappeared over the horizon, a certain air of expectancy descended upon us. We began to squint towards the southern sky, where the first stars would soon make their appearance.

And we took this final chance to tweak a few settings…

As darkness fell upon us, things got serious. And as you can see, I wasn’t joking about the serious amount of kit that some members bring along. Bob here uses his telescopes and cameras to take some seriously fantastic images of deep sky objects.

And I can personally vouch for the fact that it is a lot easier to put a webcam on your telescope’s eyepiece and look at the stars on your laptop, than to spend the entire night hunched over the telescope itself. This chap’s got it sussed.

Unfortunately, before it had even got properly dark, the clouds came in and obscured the heavens above. But not before we’d seen the planets Mercury, Venus and Saturn, several satellites and the International Space Station. So even though it was cut somewhat short, we had a fairly decent night at the observatory.

A few observations

Having over time developed more than a passing interest in astronomy and astrophysics (as you do), I’ve recently joined the Bristol Astronomical Society. One of the many great things about the society is its small observatory in a field just outside Bristol. And last weekend, we hosted a horde of local schoolchildren and their parents for an evening of observation… and an introduction to the wonders of the universe.

It was light when we started, so we had a couple of solar telescopes (fitted with special filters to protect the eyes) that allowed people to see sunspots and solar prominences. And in the dome, we had the 12″ Cyril Swindin telescope pointed at the moon, which looked great even in the daylight. Here’s a view from the dome, with the moon in the distance. And yes, the telescope is exceedingly cool.

View from the dome

As it got dark, we replaced the solar telescopes with some regular ones and all attention turned to the planets. First up was Venus, followed closely by Jupiter with its moons. We then swung across the sky to have a look at Saturn, with its rings clearly visible. The reception from the kids (and their parents) was great. And, to be honest, I had quite a lot of fun, too.

An unexpected day out

I had an unexpected day out in London last Wednesday. I don’t mean that someone grabbed me and Fedex’d me to Charing Cross or anything like that. I mean, that only happened to me that one time. But I had a really great day. It was the first time for ages that I’ve been to London and actually had some time to look around.

I’d planned to go to the capital for a couple of work meetings and had saved money by booking my train tickets a couple of weeks in advance. Typically, no sooner had I booked my (non-refundable) tickets than one of my two meetings got postponed. And then, while I was actually on the train out of Bristol, the other one got pushed to a later date, too. But what the hell. All the more time for sightseeing…

I started off with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I thought at first that it wasn’t that impressive, but then realised that I’d come in through the back door by mistake. But as I made my way around to the front entrance, I was struck by how well everything had been put together. They had, for example, made some fantastic use of visual artwork to set a nautical tone. Here’s my favourite…

The writing on the wall

The other thing that impressed me was the scale of the place. Being in a rather large old building with a three-storey roofed courtyard in the middle, there was plenty of scope for larger exhibits and displays that really showed the majesty of some of our maritime heritage. Here’s a rather imposing display of figureheads…


There was also a particularly emotive exhibition about some of the people who have featured prominently in Britain’s seafaring heritage, with the stories behind them and displays of some of their possessions. Some of the stories were rather profound. And others were, quite simply, heartbreaking. The sea and untimely death, it appears, go hand in hand. There was also some more brilliant artwork…

More writing on the wall

I then wandered up the hill to the Royal Observatory, home of the Astronomers Royal, Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian. It’s funny, really, how something of such prominence in the history of the world should consist of such a modest, understated collection of buildings (if you ignore the massive dome housing a 28-inch refracting telescope). But as a keen physicist and astronomer myself, I was, to be honest, a little overawed.

Royal Observatory

There are also some great views from the hill on which the observatory is sited, looking north over the whole expanse of London. Here, for example, is Canary Wharf. (A sign, perhaps, that the era of understatement is over.)

Canary Wharf

And here’s the charming Millennium Dome, or whatever it’s called now. Which, apparently, you can see from space. But not, luckily, from Bristol.

The Dome

And here, far away in the distance, is the Gherkin. If you’re not sure which building I’m talking about, the Gherkin is the one with the diagonal stripes and a black lid. And no, I don’t know why it’s called the Gherkin. It looks more like a goth’s lipstick.

The Gherkin

Yes, I couldn’t resist. Here’s me standing over the prime meridian. My right foot is in the eastern hemisphere and my left foot is in the west. Zero degrees of longitude. The world starts here. I’m glad I thought to wear some smart shoes.

Me on the meridian

While at the observatory, I stopped in to look at the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition. And, quite simply, wow. I mean, wow. Some of the images just took my breath away. Clearly, the organisers will go nuts if I stick any of the photos up here, so check out their website and see what I mean. Or even better, catch the exhibition while it’s on (it’s there until 17th February next year – and entry is free) and learn more about the photos and the people who took them.

An my way back to the station to catch the train home, and after a mad dash to check out the flagship Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I stopped in to see my little sister and her new baby, Otto. He’s only about a month old, so he’s still really teeny. Here’s the little fella.¬†As you can tell, he was absolutely delighted to see me…


And then, after a rather tiring but absolutely fantastic day, it was time for home… and bed.

A night with the stars

Equipped with my camera, my new tripod and an enthusiastic but somewhat bewildered Labrador, I’ve just taken my first foray into astrophotography. The photo below is of Jupiter (left) and Venus (right). The one below that is of Orion rising above my house.

It’s pretty bright around here, especially when it’s only 8 o’clock in the evening, but I really enjoyed taking the photos. Next step is to link my camera up to my telescope!