Adding a touch of melodrama to the already sensationalised heatwave gripping the majority of the planet is this Friday’s lunar eclipse and ensuing ‘blood moon’ – an ominous phenomenon that occurs when the Earth moves between the sun and moon. Illuminated by light that has passed through the Earth’s atmosphere, the moon will glow an ethereal deep red for at least two hours (providing the forecasted clouds keep at bay) and will be visible across most of Europe, Asia, Australia and South America.
What better excuse for London’s Royal Observatory to show off its latest investment; the shiny new Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT), which was installed last month. The telescope takes pride of place in the Grade-II listed Altazimuth Pavilion, making Greenwich a working observatory for the first time in over 60 years.
‘Ever since I joined Greenwich five years ago, I’ve been trying to get a new telescope installed at the observatory,’ says Tom Kerss, science communicator and astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich who masterminded the AMAT project along with colleague Brendan Owens. ‘The fact that this involved both heritage and something new meant that we got a lot of popular support within the organisation, so very quickly the appeal was set.’
A crowdfunding campaign and patron donations helped secure more than £150,000 for refurbishment of the 19th-century Pavilion and the new telescope within a year; a record achievement in museum time, Kerss adds.
The cutting-edge telescope has been specially designed to dodge the problem of light pollution prevalent in built-up cities such as London, and has the power to capture high magnification still and moving images of the sun, moon and planets of the solar system.
This Friday, the Pavilion’s famous domed roof (which is still manually operated by ropes and pulleys) will open for the lunar eclipse, with Kerss and the team streaming the event live on Facebook alongside a Q&A session. The Pavilion only holds up to 12 people at a time, meaning that early visits will be limited, but there are ambitions for it to be used by students and scientists for their own research on every clear night of the year within the next 12 months.
AMAT is named in honour of Annie Russell Maunder, a pioneering astronomer and mathematician who worked in the observatory’s few paid positions for women in the late 1800s.
Maunder was a woman of extraordinary achievements; from coming top of her class at Girton College Cambridge (although restrictions on women at the time meant she didn’t receive her BA Mathematics degree) to being one of the first women accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. It was while working at Greenwich as a ‘lady computer’ that she met her husband, fellow astronomer Walter Maunder.
Together the couple collaborated on several astronomical books and expeditions, and Annie was later recognised as part of the ‘photographic revolution in science’ of the late 19th century, even designing specialist cameras for her work on solar eclipses.
When AMAT and the Pavilion officially opens to the public in August it will do so with an exhibition dedicated to the life and career of Annie Maunder. Not only does the new research facility continue her incredible legacy but it will no doubt inspire the next generation of stargazers too.