The undergraduates here at King’s College London have a society called the Maxwell Society. Named after James Clerk Maxwell, it boasts some famous members in the past including Peter Higgs and Arthur C. Clarke. Today they run a variety of events throughout the year depending upon who’s in charge that year. This year’s lot wanted me to let them up to the telescope, which of course I was very open to but I realised that there are not so many cheap thrills with a telescope in the middle of London, you have to work hard for your pictures/spectra and your views through the eyepiece will be so-so.
Anyway, they asked about the planetary alignment which is currently taking place and when I told them they’d have to get in around 6am, they barely skipped a beat before arranging it. So this morning I went in at 5am. gah. Anyway around 20 intrepid astronomers showed up at the crack of dawn.
As usual, it turned out the conditions were less than ideal, it was very windy, which meant the “seeing” was very bad, which means that the turbulent atmosphere makes the image extremely wobbly. That also means you can’t even think about using a very high magnification as the images just get worse and worse so I stuck with a 24 mm eyepiece which gives 156x magnification. In principle I could combine my 11mm eyepiece with my 2.5x barlow and get some massive magnification but it would look very bad- all the imperfections of seeing are enhanced non-linearly as you increase magnification. Since all the planets we were looking at were close-ish to the horizon this was not ideal. Even on a good day you shouldn’t even bother trying to see anything less than about 25 degrees above the horizon in central London. I tried looking at Mars before they got up there but it was… underwhelming.
However I showed them Jupiter with cloud bands and three moons visible and then we saw Saturn.. it was very shaky but every so often they got a clear focused view of the rings, albeit a bit small. Then some views of the moon, even the moon looked shaky, indicating how bad the conditions were. Despite all this, they really seemed to enjoy the whole thing a lot! I very much hope that they come again to see some better views when the conditions are improved.