8 ways to take up stargazing in 2014

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Sunday, January 12, 2014
7:00 AM

Stargazing Live has again proved a big hit for the BBC and sparked renewed interest in the thrilling sights to be found in the night sky. SIMON PARKIN looks at how to take the next steps into amateur astronomy in Norfolk

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His first glimpse through a telescope at the age of 10 sparked a passion that this week again saw Mark Thompson bring the stars into the nation’s front rooms as part of the BBC2 Stargazing Live.

“I remember it vividly,” said Mark, also the One Show’s astronomer and president of the Norwich Astronomical Society. “I looked through the big telescope and saw Saturn, looking exactly like it did in books. Creamy brown with the trademark rings, it looked as if it was just hanging in this huge, black, velvety sky.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Saturn looking better, although I’ve definitely seen it more clearly since. It was incredible. I was hooked from that moment on and I’ve never looked back.”

Stargazing Live, which is back on our screens for a foruth series this week, aims to encourage us to forgo the comfy sofa in favour of gazing skywards to take in the glorious sight of the star-filled night sky.

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The programmes, fronted by Wonders of the Solar System presenter Professor Brian Cox and comedian Dara O’Briain, best known for his comedy skills but also the science-mad holder of a physics degree, also featured Mark co-presenting from various locations on to topics including how to unravel the mysteries of the universe, how best to observe the moons of Jupiter and how to use a telescope.

This year the programme has also featured live shots of stars from Kelling Heath Holiday Park, near Holt.

The three-programme event has again been a big hit attracting more than four million viewers and proving that if you present it in the right way the general public does have an interest in science — and with the dark winter nights there is no better time to continue that interest.

There are a number of events happening in Norfolk (see panel right) that seek to follow up on the interest generated and encourage us to take the next step — from watching on our sofa to getting out into the dark to see for ourselves.

“How often have you gazed into the velvety night sky and wished you knew which constellation was which, how to spot a planet or even how to find the North Star?” says Mark. “A lot of people think astronomy, the universe, is a big scary subject but people can understand quite a lot of it. It’s a great leveller and I think this is one of the appeals of it.

“You don’t need to be an astronomical expert in order to be a successful stargazer. What you do need is three things: a clear view of the night sky, a simple guide to help you map your way through the constellations and, above all, curiosity.”

Mark began gazing heavenwards when he was a child and his father, Neville, took him along to an open evening at the Norwich Astronomical Society’s observatory, then based at Colney.

His first telescope was from Norwich’s Secondhand Land and cost a princely £20. Complete with a home-made stand, it allowed him to chart the progress of Halley’s Comet in 1986.

“To be honest, a pair of binoculars probably would have been better, but when you’re a child, you want a telescope. People watch birds through binoculars, astronomers use telescopes!” he recalled.

Mark is keen to promote astronomy as a hobby that everyone can enjoy without feeling they need to have a scientific or academic background.

“It can be seen as a bit ‘anoraky’, but you don’t need loads of kit or degrees in astro-physics to enjoy astronomy,” he said. “I’m a real enthusiast, and I want to get other people enthusiastic about stargazing, too.”

To that end he has published A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos, which is described as an accessible guide to the night’s sky throughout the 12 months of the year.

He said: “It is easy stargazing in Norfolk. You don’t have to travel a lot of ground to find a dark sky. Because Norfolk is not very industrial, when there is a dark sky it is very clear.”

A Journey Into Space

Tottenhill Village Hall, King’s Lynn, January 11, 3pm-9pm, free admission, 01945 701038, www.westnorfolkastro.co.uk

King’s Lynn & District Astronomy Society hosts a special evening with something for budding stargazers of all ages and experience. Visitors will be able to take a tour of the night sky and its many wonders through the society’s telescopes. There will be static displays and models of space objects, including a scale size of the solar system, together with audio visual presentations of space exploration. A variety of telescopes and binoculars for you to see the night sky in all its glory. Objects they hope will be visible (weather permitting) include the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune to the distant galaxies and spectacular Nebulae such as The Horsehead Nebulae and The Cone Nebulae. With activities on hand from colouring in, picture competition and find the constellation puzzles there is something for everyone. There will be a 15 minute presentation on astronomy. Samples of meteorites to look at and buy. Amateur astronomers will be on hand to answer your questions. Refreshments will also be available. Take warm clothing for outside viewing.

Stargazing Live Extra Time

Seething Observatory, Toad Lane, Thwaite St Mary, January 10/11, 7.30pm-12am, £3, £1.50 children, 01953 606239, www.norwich.astronomicalsociety.org.uk

Two family friendly nights run by Norwich Astronomical Society on the themes raised on the BBC’s Stargazing Live programme, plus chance to view through telescopes and quiz the experts. View the Moon, planets, stars, nebulae and even other galaxies from the dark skies. Experienced observer Dave Balcombe will give presentations aimed at helping you find your way around the beautiful night skies. The views of Jupiter and the Orion Nebula are magnificent at this time of year, as are some of the less well known objects too. Many of our members will have their telescopes in use for you to have a look through. Dress warmly and take a red torch if possible. Hot drinks will be available.

Community Stargazing

All Saints Road, Pakefield, Lowestoft, January 9, 6pm, free admission, sites.google.com/site/lyrasociety/

Community stargazing sessions will be held on Pakefield Cliffs near Lowestoft tonight to coincide with the Stargazing Live programmes. The free event has been organised by the Lowestoft and Yarmouth Regional Astronomers (LYRA) and will be held behind the Trowel and Hammer pub from 6pm. LYRA treasurer John Perring said the sessions would suit anyone, from those with a keen interest in astronomy to complete beginners.

The stargazers will be congregating on the green at Pakefield cliffs, next to the car park at the end of All Saints’ Road.

Public Observing

Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road, Cambridge, January 11/15/22/29, 6pm-8pm, free admission, 01223 337548, www.ast.cam.ac.uk

Throughout January the the Institute of Astronomy, where in their day jobs experts research subjects ranging from models of quasars and of the evolution of the universe, through theories of the formation and evolution of galaxies and stars, X-ray sources and black holes, is holding special public viewing evenings where us amateurs can get our hands on the specialist telescopes and equipment they use day to day. There will be stargazing on the observatory lawns (if the weather is clear) or short talks and a display of amateur telescopes inside (if the weather is cloudy). There will displays of different kinds of telescopes with helpful people to tell you all about them and answer your astro-queries.

Stargazing Live

Breckland Astronomical Society Observatory, Great Ellingham, January 11/12, 7pm-11.30pm, free admission, 01953 850626, brecklandastro.org.uk

Breckland Astronomical Society gets into the Stargazing Live spirit with two nights aimed at beginners. They will be observing Jupiter, the Orion Nebula and Andromeda with a 20” telescope linked to a screen so that people can see at the same time. Other telescopes will be in use. Members will be on hand to explain what is being seen and guide you around the sights of the night sky. Car parking is 100 yards away from the dome so wear good footwear and a red torch might be handy.

Stargazing Open Evening

Binham Village Hall, Warham Road, Binham, January 17, 7.30pm, free admission, 01328 830770, www.nnas.org

North Norfolk Astronomy Society, a relatively small group of people (currently around 40 members) who have a common interest in astronomy, host a special friendly open evening that is perfect if you’re just tipping your toe into stargazing. There will be telescope viewing, weather permitting. They will be able to answer questions and set you off on the right lines.

Star Party

Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden, South Walsham, February 22, 7pm-11.30pm, £3.50, £2 children, free to Fairhaven members, 01603 270449, www.fairhavengarden.co.uk

Party with the stars! Fairhaven Garden Trust hosts a night of astronomy. There will be telescopes on the field with astronomers from both Norwich Astronomical Society and Breckland Astronomical Society on hand to answer your questions. Take along your own telescope if you have one. There will be talks by Mark Shepherd of NAS and the tearoom will be open for hot drinks and snacks all evening from 7pm. Wrap up warm. No torches please, as it destroys night vision. No need to book.

World Space Party

Seething Observatory, Toad Lane, Thwaite St Mary, April 12 , from 2pm, £3.50, £1.50 children, 01953 602624, norwich.astronomicalsociety.org.uk

Looking further ahead Yuri’s Night is a global celebration of humanity’s past, present, and future in space. Space parties and events are held around the world every year in commemoration of April 12, 1961, the day of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first manned spaceflight, and April 12, 1981, the inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle. Norwich Astronomical Society hosts a day-long celebration of all things space and astronomical related. Children will be able to decorate a rocket before our own “rocket man” helps launch them high during events from 2pm-6pm. There will be comet making, talks by local students, solar viewing through special solar telescopes, as well as a scale model of the solar system and other activities. As the skies darken, we will be looking at the moon and stars from the society’s telescopes. Adult events start at 7.30pm with a talk which will be delivered by Dave Balcombe.

■ Stargazing Live 2014 continues tonight on BBC2 at 8pm and can still be seen on the iPlayer.

■ A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos is published by Bantam Press, priced £16.99.

www.markthompsonastronomy.com

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