The sky at night

Words: Lucy Jolin / Photography: Joe McGorty

The truth is out there – and the members of the Astronomy Society are determined to find it. 

357 BC: Aristotle, a student of Plato, observes for the first time an epic heavenly event – the lunar occultation of Mars. More than two millennia later, members of AstroSoc observe the same event, which happens once every 15 years, as Mars partially blocks the moon. Their venue, however, is not quite as impressive: the parking lot of a pizza restaurant somewhere in London. “It was a bit of a challenge to find somewhere in London where the skyline was low enough to see properly – at three in the morning,” says equipment officer Charlie Kempf (Aerospace Engineering, Second Year). “But it was worth it – the view was spectacular.”

The society is dedicated to spreading a love of astronomy across Imperial’s student population. And its stargazing events, such as the Mars occultation and the flagship South Downs trip, are a great place to start. The South Downs is relatively untouched by light pollution, and the recent trip, held in conjunction with the Hiking Society, saw 37 members observing at night and walking by day. “The best part for me was seeing a massive orange shooting star – the first one I’d ever seen,” says President, Timothy Newman (Electrical Engineering, Third Year).

Of course, Imperial is a centre of space expertise, and the society makes the most of that. Dr Tim Horbury (Physics 1992, PhD 1995) at the Department of Physics recently gave a talk on the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, which will carry a magnetometer built by Imperial scientists. But you don’t need to be an expert – or even know how to use a telescope – to join.

“I developed a love of astronomy with my dad, looking at planets and meteor showers in our back garden,” says publicity officer Dana Weetman (Maths, Fourth Year). “I don’t really know my stuff – but space is cool to anyone. Plus, one of my favourite modules was general relativity, which is integrated with the study of black holes. There is still so much we don’t know – so it could even end up being a career path for me.”

For the partial eclipse of the sun, visible from London last October, the society organised an event on the Queen’s Lawn, giving out eclipse glasses so that everyone could watch it safely. “It was so cool to see people who were just walking past realise what was happening, and become a part of it,” says Weetman.

Around 100 people turned up for their first event of the year: looking at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. “I don’t think any of them knew how to work a telescope but it’s totally fine,” says Kempf. “The point is just to share the experience with people. The first time I saw Saturn through a telescope was incredible: one of the defining points of my life. And I want to gift those moments to people who may not necessarily be able to set up a telescope by themselves.” (London’s light pollution doesn’t affect views of the moon and planets, incidentally, as they’re so bright: it only becomes an issue when you’re trying to see galaxies or nebulae.)

More events are always being planned, and the society is hoping to develop a partnership with the Silwood Park Campus to hold regular stargazing events outside London. “There’s so much in astronomy – from the equations that govern the movement of the planets to the question of the origin of the universe,” says Newman. “I find it so fascinating. It’s not just a science – it’s a part of life.”

Read more about the Astronomy Society on the Imperial College Union website.