Stars in their eyes

KEEP watching the skies, as they used to yell at the end of those 1950s B-movies, after some extraterrestrial terror had been narrowly averted, the last flying saucer trashed. Half a century on, we are still watching the skies – more of us than ever before, it seems – but stargazing rather than saucer spotting.

As we spin inexorably towards the International Year of Astronomy 2009, an initiative called Dark Sky Scotland is helping us make the most of the opportunities, despite the light pollution that ensures more than 80 per cent of Britain's population hardly know what a starry sky is.

Scotland, however, can boast some of the best "dark sky" viewing areas in Europe, and Dark Sky Scotland aims to encourage the public to use them. Its name may have a certain sinister resonance – the code name, perhaps, of some UFO conspiracy – but as Scotland's first nationwide programme of astronomy- related events, the initiative's intentions are benign and public response highly positive.

Certainly the workshop that I join one frosty evening at Carronvale House leisure centre in Larbert is enthusiastic enough, as Dave Chalton, Dark Sky project officer based at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE), and Stuart Lynn, a postgraduate researcher, also from the ROE, teach more than 20 of us the rudiments of night sky observing, ranging from where to find the Pole Star to screening a torch with a red filter to avoid affecting your night vision.

The fundamentals of stargazing also include wrapping up well, which is brought home as we venture outside into the crisp night air. Soon we're not only finding the Pole Star (by sighting along two stars in the Plough), but other readily identifiable constellations such as Cassiopeia and that hoary old winter constant, Orion – his "belt" gradually rising above the chimney tops with its Orion nebula – which may register as a mere smudge in the corner of our eyes but which, thanks to some breathtaking Hubble space telescope images shown during an indoor laptop presentation, we know to be an unimaginably vast realm of new-born stars and gas clouds. There is a sudden spark of cosmic connection

And that's despite the ruddy tinge of streetlighting, which permeates much of the sky. Your average astronomer is unlikely to agree with Robert Louis Stevenson's famous comment about "no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street lamps".

However, says Chalton, even from a city centre you can still see the brighter stars. "In fact sometimes the light pollution is a benefit," he adds, "in that you haven't so many fainter stars as a distraction, and you'll see the main stars making up the constellations.

"On the other hand, to cut down a bit on urban light pollution, you might want to go round the corner of a building, or into your back garden rather than your front garden, away from direct streetlights, football stadium floodlights or anything like that. And you'll be surprised at how many more, fainter objects you'll see."

Nevertheless when he does take aspiring astronomers into unlit rural areas, it can be a revelation – rather as this writer experienced a month or so ago when visiting the west of Ireland and found himself under a night sky veritably sizzling with stars, giving that heady feeling of being adrift in the cosmos. Over-effusive in the telling, perhaps, but Chalton knows exactly what I mean. "You spend most of your life under light-polluted skies if you're in any kind of urban environment, right down to a small village. But even if they walk a couple of hundred metres away from it, people are amazed."

In fact, many at this particular workshop will have had a taste of a firmament unsullied by sodium glow, through some connection with outdoor activities, for Dark Sky Scotland's current programme is in partnership with the John Muir Trust and the Forestry Commission, with funding from Scottish Natural Heritage.

The idea is to give participants enough knowledge and confidence to organise their own astronomy activities and identify the best relatively light-free sites. The Trust, a leading wild land conservation charity, is also incorporating Dark Sky activities into its own John Muir Award educational initiative.

One participant at Larbert, Carol Goodall, a 25-year-old volunteer with Venture Scotland, which runs outdoor-based personal development programmes for young people, knows all about the impact a clear night sky can have on those brought up in to urban streets. She has helped take youngsters to the charity's bothy at Glen Etive: "They didn't know you could see that many stars."

The Dark Sky session she finds "really useful, because they have this method of linking things up and once you've learned one constellation, you can build on that. When we run weekends out at Glen Etive, we always get questions, as they take notice of things they've never seen before."

Similarly Roger Powell, a 44-year-old senior countryside ranger with East Lothian Council, is anxious to broaden the scope of events he runs to include stargazing. His bailiwick, which takes in John Muir Country Park near Dunbar, has no shortage of good night viewing sites, although as always in Scotland, the weather can be uncooperative. "I was down at Tyninghame with people not long ago and it was brilliant – clear skies and, despite the glow from Dunbar, you could see the Milky Way. It's the weather that's the big drawback."

One solution, as Powell points out, is to have an inflatable planetarium as back-up in the event of bad viewing conditions. In fact Chalton and Lynn have brought along the Starlab planetarium, which accompanies them on their country-wide tours, and have inflated it for our benefit in the Carbondale House games hall, where it sits, looking like something between an igloo and a prop from James and the Giant Peach.

They're an infectiously enthusiastic pair. Chalton, more or less a full-time science communicator, tells me that his degree is actually in crop science – though not crop circles, he stresses, smiling – and that he became involved in astronomy during a student job helping run planetarium shows at the Glasgow Science Centre. Popular astronomy, he says, is booming and next year should engender even more interest, "but astronomy is always a very popular science, especially with schoolkids – all these big questions: where we came from; is there life on other planets?"

"Over the duration of an event like this we're not going to teach people about astronomy. What we can do is get them interested, give them the resources and links so they can go on and improve their knowledge – even just at the level of showing people that science isn't just the reserve of tweed-jacketed professors or people in white lab coats. There are students, like Stuart here, who are working on these things at the moment, and they're definitely not tweed-jacketed…"

This prompts a grin from the comfortably scruffy and hirsute Lynn who specialises in making computer models of mock universes, which may sound like a fantasy game but has the very serious intent of studying the very structure of the cosmos.

He too is an enthusiastic proselytiser for his chosen science: "Kids are great, and they'll be interested instantly. Adults tend to be a bit more reserved, but as soon as they realise that this stuff is really out there, we can engage with them. Quite often we'll get adults bringing children along to keep them occupied for a couple of hours, and at the end of the session, they'll be talking to us more than their kids are. People are captivated by it very easily."

Among other things, popular interest is reflected by an inordinate profusion of new astronomy books, the past few months alone seeing everything from the third edition of Teach Yourself Astronomy and several other volumes from the irrepressible Sir Patrick Moore, the man with the orbiting eyebrow, to Stephen Maran's Astronomy for Dummies. Among them is John and Mary Gribbin's From Here to Eternity a state-of-the-art astronomy guide published by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. John Gribbin, a science writer and Visiting Fellow in astronomy at the University of Sussex, agrees that interest in matters celestial is burgeoning: "It's going from strength to strength."

Recent events such as March's observation of a gamma ray burst – 7.5 billion light years away yet visible to the naked eye – which set a record for the brightest object ever seen, or Nasa's Messenger space probe currently en route to Mercury, have helped raise awareness, he adds, as, of course, have the often spectacular deep-space images from the Hubble space telescope.

"Resurgence is almost too strong a word, but if you say there's a resurgence of interest in astronomy, I think the Hubble telescope was the thing that caught people's imaginations, as well as the fact that it's had its own trials and tribulations and they have had to send astronauts up to mend it."

&#149 The next Dark Sky Scotland workshop is at the royal Observatory, Edinburgh, on Tuesday, 27 January. See www.darkskyscotland.org.uk and www.johnmuiraward.org

GET INVOLVED

LAST night the moon was not only full but at perigee – the nearest it has passed to Earth during orbit for the past 15 years, and it will still look big and bright tonight, given clear skies. Other things to look out for include the planets Jupiter and Venus visible in the south-west as it gets dark, while Saturn will rise around midnight, visible first in the eastern sky and in the south-south-west as the sun comes up. Orion will be rising from the east around 7pm.

The amateur astronomer is well served by internet websites, providing essential information, news and sometimes spectacular images. Here are just a few.

THE DARK SKY SCOTLAND www.darkskyscotland.org.uk

It includes details of workshops and other community and family activities.

HEAVENS ABOVE www.heavens-above.com

An extremely useful site in which you enter location, date and time to access a printable corresponding star chart. It also keeps you up to date with the movements of other celestial bodies – including the International Space Station and even that errant toolbox let go by astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper.

ROYAL OBSERVATORY EDINBURGH www.roe.ac.uk

Although the ROE is no longer used for serious observing, it is now home to the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and Edinburgh University's Institute for Astronomy. As well as regular lectures, the visitor centre holds public viewing sessions on Friday nights (booking essential).

SOCIETY FOR POPULAR ASTRONOMY www.popastro.com

The main UK organisation promoting public participation in astronomy.

STELLARIUM www.stellarium.org

One of various free downloadable planetarium software sites.

HUBBLESITE http://hubblesite.org/

The website for the space telescope that has done much to heighten public awareness of astronomy.

INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF ASTRONOMY 2009 www.astronomy2009.org

Compendious site full of events, global projects and links.

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