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Home » Astronomy

Spring Moonwatch week #1

Submitted by on March 30, 2009 – 18:27One Comment

28 March – 5 April 2009

photo credit: Robin Scagell, Galaxy Pics.

photo credit: Robin Scagell, Galaxy Pics.

We’re currently in the midst of an annual UK astronomy event known as the Spring Moonwatch. It was originally conceived by the Society for Popular Astronomy in the UK. Spring Moonwatch usually falls between 28th March to 5th April annually, and this is because the moon will be best placed for observation from the UK between these dates. What is more, because the moon stays high above the horizon for a long time, it results in what astronomers called better “seeing” which means that there will steady atmospheric conditions, that usually results in a steady and sharp image of the moon when observing it through a telescope.

I attended my first Spring Moonwatch event this year on Sunday 29th, March 2009 at the Ruislip Lido. The Lido was originally built as a feeder reservoir to the Grand Union Canal back in the 19th century and has gone through numerous changes over the decades since. Once you arrive at the Ruislip Lido, you’ll find a large clearing located about 200 yards away from the main car park (free parking available) where all the astronomers have set up their telescopes. My wife and I arrived at the Ruislip Lido at approximately 9:15pm and was greeted at the gates by Jean who is a committee member of the West of London Astronomy Society and she directed us down to the clearing. Having only just arrived, my eyes had not got used to the dark, so to anyone visiting the Lido at night, just be warned that there are no street lights down the rough track to the water front so make sure you bring a torch or wait near the entrance for five minutes or so before you venture on so your eyes can begin to get used to the dark.

Upon arriving at the clearing I looked up and was immediately amazed a the vast expanse of sky visible. Without our eyes fully dark adapted yet, my wife and I carefully and slowly strolled over towards the astronomers who were already set up observing and taking to some members of the public who were at the Lido. As we moved closer towards water front, we could see the orange glow of London towards the South, but when we turned around and looked back up towards the north and gazed from east through to west, we were treated to a large uninterrupted view of the major constellations that are visible in the northern hemisphere. The crescent of the moon was still hanging well above the tree line in a south easterly direction and further to the east I could see the constellation of Orion with it’s distinct belt comprised of three stars. The seeing conditions were so good at this site that one could easily make out the reddish tinge of the star Betelgeuse, the star classified as a red super giant in the top left hand corner of the constellation of Orion and the bluish tinge of the star named Rigel, classified as a blue super giant towards the bottom right of the constellation of Orion. Further up towards the zenith you could easily make out the constellations of Auriga, Cassiopeia, Leo, Gemini and many others. Looking around the sky from the Ruislip Lido and taking in the vista of stars above me, I had to admit that this location was an ideal site for observing as far as expanse of available sky was concerned. Even the light pollution in this part the borough of Harrow was notably less compared to central Harrow. The darker skies reveal more stars and generally make for better observing.

The Ruislip Lido had attracted a range of astronomers and members of the public for tonight’s Spring Moonwatch observing session. Between the time we arrived and got ready to leave, I counted roughly 20-25 people turn up and take part. Given the freezing cold weather that night, it wasn’t a bad turn out at all. The public had a variety of telescopes at their disposal, manned by amateur astronomers who were there to set things up and point the telescopes in the right direction and also explain to the uninitiated what they could see, what they were actually looking at when looking through the telescopes and how some of the things up there in space actually came in to existence and evolved over their life time. In terms of the telescopes themselves, we had a number of 10 or 12 inch Dobsonian telescopes, a few basic Newtonians which were being hand guided or mechanically guided. We also had one or two refracting telescopes available and a number of larger reflectors of the Schmidt Cassegrain or Maksutov Cassegrain variety. Some of the telescopes were equipped with built in computerised drives that would very conveniently point the telescope in the right direction if you punched in the name of an object in the hand controller and then continue to track them across the sky. Other telescopes were merely pointed and guided manually by hand.

One of the most interesting aspects of the evening was the sheer variety of telescopes available to look through. It was great fun jumping from ‘scope to ‘scope and look at various objects in the sky ranging from the Moon to Saturn and double stars. By moving from one telescope to another, you could start to appreciate the difference in light gathering power of a small mirror compared to a large mirror and visibly see the difference in brightness, detail and quality of image between the telescopes of lesser and greater size. We even had a member of the local astronomy society, Robin Scagell, bring his laptop computer down to the Lido, on to which he attached a highly sensitive and specially adapted video camera for taking images of objects in space. The camera itself was inserted in to his telescope and it relayed near real time images back to the laptop screen of whatever the telescope was trained on, enabling many more people to see what was being observed at once. This particular set up was used to observe a variety of objects ranging from the moon, to the planet Saturn – now with its dusty and icy rig system almost edge – to faint galaxies and nebulae. Robin, equipped with a hand held green laser pointer, had quite a few people captivated with his guided tour of the night sky which resulted in numerous people asking questions and Robin very ably answering all their queries.

At around 10.30pm, it all started to get a little too cold and the smell of damp air and the onset of mist meant that my wife and I decided to head off back home, leaving behind a sizable number of astronomers still eagerly looking down the eyepieces of their telescopes.

The next Spring Moonwatch observing session at the Ruislip Lido is coming up on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th of April, 2009 – next week, starting at 8pm. The weather is forecast to be warmer and I am keeping my fingers crossed that it’ll be clear on both nights. If it is, I’ll be taking my own 110mm refractor down to the Ruislip Lido to set up along side the others who will be there.

If you’re a budding amateur astronomer or if you know nothing about astronomy at all, but occasionally look up in to the clear night sky and wonder how all those stars got there, then please do come down to the free Spring Moonwatch event at the Ruislip Lido. Everyone is really friendly and helpful and you’ll be fascinated and amazed by some of the things you’ll be able to see through the telescopes available. The moon is by far the most visually stunning thing you’ll see on the night and if you’ve never seen those craters on the Moon up close, then now’s your change to see them! Free parking, free entry, free astronomical guidance and advice and free smiles all around. See you all next week!

Download a PDF flyer with details of the Ruislip Lido moonwatch event, with address.

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