The best thing about astronomy is showing someone else the night sky

We totally love all things to do with astronomy and space sciences so when the opportunity comes up to inspire young people with knowledge of the night sky we don’t hold back. At Government House the Governor General hosted a talk about Matariki by Haritina which was fantastic and had the audience of teachers, students and a couple of diplomats spell bound. After the talk we had the opportunity to show about 50 students from local colleges around Wellington through some of our telescopes on the front lawn of Government House. The weather was not not the best so I was worried throughout the talk if it was going to rain or if there would be any clear sky at all to show people. Fortunately the weather prediction was correct and there were some patches of the sky visible.

Haritina enlightening the audience about Matariki

When we arrived I had plenty of time to set up all of the telescopes and give them a good test run prior to the guests arriving and the formal events of the evening beginning. Jupiter was nice and high in the sky and easily piercing the central city light pollution of Wellington. Some of the government house staff were taking photos so I tested out the views of Jupiter on them and judging by their reactions I think they were impressed at seeing the giant planet and it’s four Galilean moons. We had four telescopes set up for viewing, three were Milky-Way.Kiwi telescopes and one from Carter Observatory. Our pre-viewing setup was great because the Great Red Spot was visible and it was the first time in many years that I’ve had the chance to really have a look at this amazing feature. The telescope we did most of the viewing through for the evening is a Skywatcher 250mm reflector on an EQ6 Pro mount.  I had a 20mm eyepiece with the 3 x Barlow lens which was perfect for the planet and it’s moons.

The view we had before the event while the Great Red Spot was visible (not a photo)

There was a lot I learned from the evening about setting up a telescope for public viewing. It’s quite different than setting up for an individual session or for a viewing with just a couple of people. The aim at these sorts of events is to get as many people as possible to view through the eyepiece as possible so there’s maximum inspiration! Jupiter is perfect for viewing because it is big and bright and is easily seen, plus there’s plenty to talk about with the gas giant beyond the asteroid belt. It is such a rewarding thing to see the joy on people’s faces when they see a planet for the first time and here them exclaim how amazing or marvel at the moons or the banding on the planet. Unfortunately for the timing the Great Red Spot was not in view during the main viewing session but as I was saying above, we did manage to have a peek before the event and it was amazing. The seeing was very good last night so the spot was crystal clear. It also helped that I spent a bit of time collimating the 10” reflector!

The view most people got last night, not a photo, this is from Sky Safari

Of course the aim for any planetary viewing session has to be showing people Saturn for the first time. Last night’s weather made the Eastern horizon cover in cloud  for most of the time but towards the end of the event the cloud broke up a bit and we could catch the odd glimpse of Saturn. For about ten students who were lucky enough to time their viewing session right as they got to see the beautiful ringed jewel in the sky. They were suitably impressed! Saturn looks amazing everytime you see it so I was lucky to have a few sneaky looks between viewers, under the pretext of lining up the telescope. The position of the rings at the moment is perfect for seeing them and they almost look surreal.

I’m pretty sure that most of the students in that group will remember the first time they saw a planet through a telescope for many years to come.