Stargazing with the FT: Jon Culshaw

It’s after 10 on a Saturday night and I’m outside, near a soaking wet pebble beach on the Sussex coast. Most sensible people are safely indoors, but I’m trying to shelter from the rain behind a giant telescope. There is some comfort, however, because I’m sharing this surreal moment with a distinguished cast, one that includes Tony Blair, Russell Crowe and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars.

That all three voices are coming from the lips of one man doesn’t make the experience any less bizarre. Impressionist Jon Culshaw has been mimicking famous people since an early job on a radio station in Preston, Lancashire, when he would sometimes read the weather reports in the voice of boxer Frank Bruno. In 1994, he joined the team at Spitting Image, and later Radio 4’s Dead Ringers. However, long before he mastered Bruno’s laugh, Culshaw was finding his way around another star-studded universe, as an amateur astronomer.

As the skies above Culshaw’s London flat are often blighted by light pollution, we’ve arranged to meet in Selsey, West Sussex, at the home of The Sky at Night presenter Pete Lawrence, who seems to hoard telescopes like some people collect objets d’art. His house is within a pebble’s throw of the sea and so our plan is to spend the evening on the beach in a celestial huddle. My own Meade telescope has been gathering dust for years, but I’m hoping Culshaw, or one of his many characters, might inspire me to gaze at the heavens more often.

The astronomer’s good luck motto is “clear skies”. However, tonight the stars are hidden behind a thin layer of cloud. Culshaw is philosophical: “That’s all part of astronomy. It makes those beautiful clear evenings even more memorable. You have to be patient and accept that clouds are a natural, if rather annoying phenomenon for astronomers. This is still a very unfriendly sky.”

In 2011, Culshaw appeared on the 700th edition of astronomy programme The Sky at Night, and earlier this year he joined Professor Brian Cox on the BBC2 astronomy programme Stargazing Live. Many of his best impressions are of characters who could be described as having a celestial association, such as Tom Baker playing Doctor Who, and the legendary Sir Patrick Moore. Once, broadcasting on Chris Moyles’ Radio 1 show, he called a garage using the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi, asking how much it would cost to service his X-wing fighter.

While we sip tea on the beach and search for the first twinkle of a star, Culshaw explains where his interest in astronomy began. “I was only five when the last man walked on the Moon but that was what got me fascinated with Apollo missions and then the planets. My brother later bought a cheap Charles Frank telescope and he let me use it.

“I used to watch The Sky at Night when I was a kid and that had a big impact on me. As well as learning a lot about the stars, Sir Patrick Moore was the first person I ever impersonated. We meet up quite often when I help present on the show and there have been a couple of funny moments when I talk to him in character!”

Culshaw explains that modern telescopes are fitted with a computer “brain” that uses satellite technology to grab a fix on their location. The unit can factor in the time and date to give a telescope a built-in chart of the sky. Astronomers then key in which object they want to view, and a series of tiny motors rotate the telescope so it points to the exact location in the galaxy.

“I didn’t have the advantage of computer technology when I was a child, so I found my way around the universe using books and maps,” says Culshaw. “I can still remember how amazed I was when I saw the surface of the Moon for the first time. Nowadays, an amateur can pick up a cheap telescope for about £500 and be marvelling at Saturn or Venus within a few minutes.”

As the clouds start to thin, Culshaw shows me the huge Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope we have borrowed from Lawrence’s collection. Despite being more than 4ft long and attached to a solid tripod, it’s surprisingly mobile. The unit has been left outside for most of the evening to adapt to the temperature. This helps remove heat from the inner components, allowing the air in the optical path to stabilise and give a clearer image of the stars. For now, though, all we can see through our lens is a mass of English cirrocumulus.

“Astronomers have a little language of their own,” explains Culshaw. “Clear skies are one thing, but ‘the seeing’ has to be good as well. This depends on how turbulent the atmosphere is and can be spoilt by a rippling or ‘jellyfish’ effect through the lens. Light pollution also makes viewing in cities very difficult at times, but not impossible.”

Culshaw says that if you want to try your hand at stargazing before spending hundreds of pounds on a telescope, a pair of binoculars is good for viewing the Moon. “Even now I still marvel at the craters. I also look at the major star constellations, as well as some of the deeper sky clusters, like the Andromeda galaxy, which is 2.5 million light years away. And I’d also advise people to buy some warm clothes because it can be addictive. I’ve been up looking at the stars until 5am, totally oblivious.”

Just as it seems we are not going to see further than a few thousand feet, a tiny window of moonlight is reflected on the surface of the sea. Slowly, almost magically, it starts to move towards us on the shore, as the clouds separate and drift with the breeze. Culshaw swings the telescope around and we have a clear view of the Moon.

I watched the footage of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon and I’ve seen plenty of Nasa pictures, but to view the planet through a telescope is still breathtaking. The edges of the craters are so vivid, I expect to see an American flag at any moment. But then the clouds move in again swiftly, the rain sheets down and we are left in darkness. Culshaw is as excited as me: “When you see an object through a new telescope for the first time, that’s called ‘first light’. It’s a very special moment and you can be moved to tears. Some people might think astronomers are a bit geeky, but when you realise what is out there in the galaxy, it puts things in perspective and can be a humbling experience too.”

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