Light through a lens

Surrey’s skies were a source of fascination yesterday night, as astronomers of all skill levels gathered at the University of Surrey’s Varsity Centre in Guildford for The Great Look Up.

The event, organised by the university itself together with the Guildford Astronomical Society to commemorate the International Year of Astronomy, comprised of a number of other features besides the main stargazing session. A plasma screen linked up to a telescope showed the moon’s craters in detail, and an inside exhibition, not to mention a barbecue and drinks, gave those getting chilly outside a chance to warm up.


Despite the ominous rumbling of thunder earlier on in the evening, the event remained rain and relatively cloud-free. While everyone waited for the light to wane, the night kicked off with some guest speakers, including BBC correspondent and former Tomorrow’s World presenter Maggie Philbin.

Philbin said the moment she first got hooked on astronomy was when she first saw Saturn through a telescope. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, Saturn really does have that ring!'”, she said. “Children think that science is all about lab coats and people with funny hair. But events like this are really important in getting kids into science, and seeing it for themselves.”

Dr Stuart Eve, of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), discussed some of the Guildford-based company’s previous and current projects. SSTL builds small satellites, ranging from the smallest at the size of a basket ball to the biggest at two metres tall.
“The way forward is to have groups of small satellites that are linked up,” said Eve. “If you think of a PC on your desk, it’s useful as it is but it’s much more useful when it’s linked together with other PCs through the internet.”

As a future project, SSTL is planning to land a small satellite on the moon to carry out seismometry in order to gain knowledge about its interior structure.
The end of the talks meant it was now dark enough for the stargazing to commence. With the floodlights switched off, and replaced by red lighting to preserve people’s night vision, the scene was set.

Telescopes big and small were trained on various celestial objects of interest, including Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy and of course the moon. Visitors drifted from one telescope to another in search of the next interesting thing to set one’s sights on in the night sky. I opted for the innately British logic of heading towards the telescope with the biggest queue, and was treated to a stunning view of Jupiter’s bands, as well as a hazy sprinkling of very distant stars in a globular cluster.

There was also a ‘Galileoscope’ on show, which allowed visitors to witness what the pioneering astronomer himself would have seen when he looked through his telescope 400 years ago. Next to it was a telescope based on a design by Kepler, Galileo’s contemporary, created a year after Galileo’s but with a much greater magnification.

If this has whet your appetite for astronomy and beyond, then there’s much more to come: as the organisers said, The Great Look Up is a prelude to The British Science Festival, which starts next Friday. I can feel my brain growing already!

Globular cluster image courtesy of Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) project.
Video shot by myself at The Great Look Up.

  1. John Axtell

    Hi Melanie, So pleased you enjoyed the event and many thanks for the great write-up. By all means join us again for another evening's stargazing at Newlands Corner on Friday 25th September, then again on Friday 20th November. Clear skies to all, John Axtell, Guildford Astronomical Society

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© Melanie Hall 2017