Monday, December 29, 2008

Streetlights - wipe out stars, planets, meteors and satellites

I suppose its the street-lighting that's more annoying than the cloudy skies, although when you're hoping to see something at a specific time, both can be pretty bad.  Clouds can't be helped, by and large, but street lighting is a 'crime' on so many fronts. It seems little appreciated by the public and local authorities in particular that current models of street lighting are hugely wasteful. The fact that most designs leak almost half the emission straight up into the night, giving that palid orange glow complete dominion over urban skies, seems not to register that it represents a waste of energy as well. More directionally oriented systems shine the light where its needed, directly downwards and make the streets brighter and the skies darker.

The International Dark Sky Association and amateur astronomy groups have been campaigning, with some successes, for years on this issue, but still have a long way to go to get this into the public consciousness. Just think, though, how much we are being deprived of some of the most beautiful aspects of nature -  the stars and planets. If you want to learn more have a look at this guide developed for US schools.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Preamble - first clear night of the blog

With a bit of luck the sky was clear the evening the blog was started and even though we're not yet in the IYA, let alone having passed the Opening Ceremony, why shouldn't we grab the opportunity to pull out a little telescope and sneak a peek at the stars? 

What equipment do we have in our observatory? Well nothing more than a little 4.5inch (diameter of main mirror) Dobsonian telescope, the Orion Skyquest XT4.5 to be exact - a couple of mirrors in a metal tube to be technical about it. As a point and look system it can't be beaten, but it can lead to ages wandering around the sky looking for your intended target, but then what's the rush, just scanning across the milky way at your leisure is fun enough surely? 

Anyway, Orion was prominent and up to the right of his shoulder the Hyades and then the Pleiades. The latter always looks beautiful, sharp and bright, filling my little eyepiece. Only a bigger telescope shows the glowing 'nebulosity' around some of the stars (as in the picture here -not taken from our telescope!).

Friday, December 26, 2008

A humble tour of astronomy

Given the plethora of sites on the web devoted to International Year of Astronomy, both professional and amateur, what is the point of yet another? Well, my intention here is to basically just provide regular short podcasts on key themes in astronomy aimed at a general audience, which are not either overly specialist or overly hyped. The IYA official websites can handle all the orchestral music and video shots from Hawaiian mountain tops, whilst I just ditch the pretensions and try my best to give a flavour of why I find the subject fascinating.

I'm an ex-professional and not one of those keen amateurs who spends every last cent on the latest computer-controlled telescope for their home observatory and I have other pastimes that prevent me from obsessing over the latest planetary configuration. In fact, if, like me, you'd like to spend a bit of time, but not too much, trying to get to grips with the subject and would love, in an ideal world, to sit out all night star-hopping, but would rather give it a go for 5 or ten minutes before nipping in for a warm drink and a good night's sleep - then you've come to the right place!

Join me as 2009 kicks off for the first of my programmes, which I aim to (heroically) produce each month. I promise you'll learn something about space, telescopes and the aesthetics of astronomy - but not too much that your head will hurt. How does that sound? Is it a deal?