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  • Writer's picturePoly Philippou

A beautiful and surprising site – Visit to UCL Observatory – 24th February 2024

This trip to UCL Observatory on Saturday night was fully booked, and 32 members ventured to the far north of London to Mill Hill for this fascinating visit. It was especially lovely to see quite a few new members, and for some of them this was their first Flamsteed event.

There was a general feeling of surprise that this amazing site was in London, wedged between the M1 and the A1! More on this later …

The observatory with Jupiter above the Radcliffe dome (photos by Poly Philippou and Mark Seaton)

We were welcomed by Mark Fuller, Public Engagement Coordinator, and Mark was assisted by Ines, Max and Adrian, staff and students at the observatory.

We gathered for refreshments, and when we had all arrived and were ready, Mark led us to the classroom and gave us an introduction to the observatory and a short history. This beautiful art deco observatory was originally established in 1925 as a University of London facility and since 1951 it has been managed exclusively by University College London. The choice of location (intriguing at first to most of us) was to allow for easy access and travel for students between the observatory and the university (mystery solved!).

In the classroom with our host Mark Fuller (photo by Mike Meynell)

We were then split into four groups and led by Mark, Ines, Max and Adrian around the site to see four of the five permanently mounted telescopes and to learn more about the work that goes on at the observatory by staff and students.

The biggest telescope (in the big dome in the above photos) we visited was the Radcliffe twin refractor (24” and 18”), built in 1901 originally for the Radcliffe observatory (hence the name) in Oxford, and then moved and installed here in 1938. It is mainly used for undergraduate teaching in practical astronomy, research in positional astronomy and more recently for photometric observations of exoplanetary transits. Unfortunately the Radcliffe is currently undergoing essential repair and maintenance work, so was not available to look through.

The Radcliffe telescope (panoramic photo by Mark Seaton, second photo by Daniel Campagne)

We also saw one of the observatory’s two permanently mounted Celestron 14” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. These have been at the observatory since 2006 and 2010. Luckily this telescope was set up so that we could view Jupiter and its moons. 

Observing Jupiter through the Celestron (photos by Mike Meynell and Poly)

We also saw the observatory’s newest telescope, the Perren 80cm. This was installed in 2019 and has been in use since 2020, primarily by students for spectroscopy projects. 

Looking up at the Perren telescope (photo by Daniel Campagne)

The fourth telescope we saw (and the favourite for many) was the Fry telescope, an 8 inch refractor, built in 1862, acquired by the observatory in 1930, and the oldest telescope here. A beautiful piece of engineering beautifully maintained. It is used for student instruction, for solar and planetary observations, by members of the public on open evenings, and on evenings such as ours to view Jupiter and our Moon!

Opening up the dome and observing with the Fry (photos by Mike Meynell and Daniel Campagne)

There were a lot of questions about the specifications of these telescopes, and if you are interested, there is a lot more information on UCLO’s website, here.

Although the forecast for the evening had not been good beforehand, when the time came, we were truly blessed with almost totally clear skies. The only “glitch” was a surprise rain alert from one of the observatory’s sensors which automatically closed the dome of the Fry during our visit. But this was brief (it did not rain!) and the dome was re-opened before our time was up. So we had the pleasure of being able to view Jupiter and its moons and our Moon using the Celestron and the Fry.

Many thanks to all those who attended and made this such a fun evening, and of course to our hosts and guides at UCLO – Mark, Ines, Max and Adrian!

Starry starry night (photo by Mike Meynell)

The beautiful Saturn handles on the door of the building housing the Fry telescope (photo by Poly Philippou)

Our next external observatory visit is to Jodrell Bank in June – watch out for more details on that very shortly!

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