Having had the last few observing sessions cancelled due to poor weather conditions, it was with some excitement that we received the “GO” from Martin to head down to his wonderful observatory on Romney Marsh, on what looked like being a beautifully clear night.
With Sumitra, Chris and myself in one car, and James travelling from Richmond in another, we set off on a chilly January evening. The first hint of trouble came a few miles from our destination, when we noted that a recent downpour had soaked the roads. “No matter”, thought we, “it’s all clear now”, and, indeed, on arrival at Martin and Jane’s house, we were greeted by a beautiful clear winter sky, with Orion clear in the south-east, Jupiter looming over us in the south, and the Milky Way plainly visible and sparkling overhead.
Sumitra got to work with her camera immediately, and got some wonderful pictures of Orion and the Pleiades, whilst Chris and I got some early views of Jupiter through the 14-inch Meade. Within minutes however, we heard a plaintive cry of “rain!” from Jane, and Martin sprung into action, closing the observatory roof in double-quick time. It was fortunate that the roof was closed as, a few seconds later, there was a heavy shower of hail. We made a quick call to James, who was still on his way, as we feared that the night would be scuppered early, but he decided to continue on his journey to us, in the hope that conditions would clear. This proved to be a very prescient decision.
By the time James arrived, conditions had begun to improve, and so the observatory roof was rolled back.
Martin then expertly took us on a tour of the sky, giving us some wonderful views of planets, nebulas, open clusters and galaxies. Some highlights of the evening for me were:
• Views of Jupiter’s red spot, and a very dark barge on one of the equatorial belts.
• Clear views of the Eskimo planetary nebula (NGC2392) in Gemini.
• Stunning views of various galaxies: M51, M81, M82 and M101 to name a few. A particular highlight was being able to discern dust lanes within these galaxies, which is very difficult to achieve in the light-polluted skies of London.
Whilst others took their turns at the eyepiece, we all spent time just looking up at the night sky, taking in the pure grandeur of the firmament above Romney. There is some light pollution on the horizon (mostly from Ashford in the north), but Romney must have some of the darkest skies in the southeast of England, and we were all left feeling a little envious of having such magnificent skies permanently overhead. It was delightful to have such clear naked-eye views of open clusters such as the Beehive (M44), Pleiades (M45) and also clear views of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).
Just as we about to leave, we spotted Mars peeping through the tree at the back of the garden, which was yet another added bonus to a glorious evening of stargazing. The rain and hail storm certainly didn’t dampen our spirits, and our perseverance was truly rewarded. The hot tea provided by Jane and chocolate biscuits courtesy of Chris were gratefully received on a cold night, and the company was especially friendly and entertaining. We are very fortunate, as a society, to have the opportunity to make use of such fantastic facilities, and to have such generous members in Martin and Jane. Those who have attended the Romney observing sessions over the years have a huge appreciation for the work that Martin and Jane put into these events. I would urge anyone who hasn’t made the trip to do so. It is well worth the journey.
More pictures can be found on our Flickr photostream.
Words: Mike Meynell
Pictures and captions: Sumitra Sribhashyam