Astronomy: stargazing in Surrey

As the International Year of Astronomy gets into full swing, with a whole host of events taking place, there's never been a better time to discover the night skies. DEBBIE WARD donned her thermals and woolly hat, and joined the members of Guildford Astronomical Society for a memorable evening

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2009  

*** CONDITIONS are right for tonight says the message on the website. The meet is on. I pull on my hoodie, print off the directions and make my way to the rendezvous point on Albury Heath. Switching to sidelights for my final approach, I inch my car towards the red beams that are weaving between the trees ahead. An illegal rave? Actually, it's a Guildford Astronomical Society (GAS) observing session and the only dancing I'm anticipating will be to keep my feet warm. The UN has designated 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope, so there's never been a better time to feed my curiosity about the night sky - and, as visitors are welcome to GAS stargazing meets, no better place to start. Having parked the car, I walk towards a row of impressive-looking telescopes, somewhat embarrassed by my own equipment - a torch with the red cellophane from a box of Jaffa Cakes taped over the lens. I've been told Albury Heath is relatively free from light pollution and using red torches (the spectrum affects night vision less than white) helps keep it that way. A tour of the sky I'm greeted by Julia Gaudelli who starts by giving me a guided tour of the sky using a laser pointer. My recognition founders after Orion so I'm delighted when she shows me Leo, Gemini, Taurus and more. Julia works as a data manager at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Holmbury St Mary but says it was a GAS member's invitation to view Jupiter through the society's 20.5 inch telescope there that rekindled her childhood passion for stargazing. "He said, 'come and look through this eyepiece', and then it clicked!" she says. "There and then I fell in love with it and I've astronomised every single clear night since. "He should have said, 'if you look through this eyepiece, it will cost you an arm and a leg and many cold nights'!" she laughs. But as GAS's outreach officer, Julia is more than happy to get others hooked. Among several special events for the Year of Astronomy, Julia plans to set up telescopes in Surrey streets, "so that people get to have that 'wow' moment." She introduces me to recent astronomy convert Andy Lee. About a year ago, he used an overtime payout to buy his first telescope. "It was a case of go down the pub or do something decent," he explains. "I think I've always been one of those people who looked up and wondered what was out there. "I didn't really know what I was doing but the first thing I saw was Saturn and I thought, 'wow'!" That night, I was about three or four hours looking at Saturn; I couldn't believe you could see it in such detail." Andy works as an anaesthetic technician at Guildford's Royal Surrey County Hospital and lives on site. He sets up his telescope there after long hours in theatre. "This is a good way of de-stressing," he says, "but people think I'm mad!" Ribbing from colleagues about his nights in the cold prompted him to start photographing what he could see and, when they saw his pictures, they were suitably impressed. He shows me some stunning images of Orion's Nebula he has just taken through his telescope's eyepiece. Peering through his scope, I see the real thing for myself - a pretty star-filled gas cloud, invisible to the naked eye, which sits within Orion's sword. I'm even more charmed when I learn it's a 'nursery' where stars are born. In total, there are more than 60 constellations above us and astronomers use charts to help them navigate. Andy also has a GPS device, a sort of sat nav to the stars. On this hand-held pad, attached to his scope, he keys in the date, time and the feature or 'object' he's after and points his telescope to face the Pole Star. The gadget does the rest, whirring his scope to face precisely the right angle and adjusting it slightly throughout the night to compensate for the movement of the earth. Nearby, John Axtell, the society's secretary and a semi-retired lecturer in business analysis by day, appears to be pointing a cannon at the sky. In fact, it's a 'reflector', which uses a large mirror to capture extra light, and it's through this that I get my Saturn moment. "It looks just like its picture!" I exclaim, somewhat incredulous. The distinctive ringed planet is instantly recognisable from classroom wall charts of the solar system. Spring is the best time to see Saturn, John says, though it is also visible in summer. He adds that all stars and planets are ideally viewed when highest in the sky. "When they're higher, there's not so much atmosphere between us and them," he explains. "I think my favourite is the great globular cluster in Hercules - that's stunning. Globular clusters are dense balls of about half a million stars in one small condensed area, and they're wonderful."


The great lookup: Surrey astronomical societies to join Croydon ( Ewell ( Farnham ( Guildford ( Richmond and Kew (



The best places to stargaze in Surrey

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Headley Heath, near Boxhill, is a popular spot with local astronomy groups. Keep an eye out for deer, badgers, foxes and bats. The peace and quiet of Holmbury St Mary is such that there is even a space science laboratory based there. View the night sky from the highest point in south east England, Leith Hill Tower. The ever popular Surrey beauty spot Newlands Corner provides stunning night time viewing, too.

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