How to become an astronomy star

2009 – the International Year of Astronomy – finds the amateur pastime in rude health. Despite the seemingly unstoppable rise in light pollution, the technical challenges of studying the stars, and the miserable British climate, many thousands of Britons still maintain a watch on the night sky. It helps that astronomy appears to be experiencing a renaissance. Between the interest in the universe generated by images from the Hubble Space Telescope or Mars landers, and the hype over internet services such as Google Sky, space is occupying the media in a way that it hasn’t since the heyday of the space shuttle.

PC technology lies at the heart of the biggest revolution in amateur astronomy. Google Sky, Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope, and dedicated software such as Starry Night or Stellarium allow us to explore the stars and view the planets in stunning detail without even touching a telescope. Yet there’s still something special about watching the stars first-hand, knowing that the light you’re seeing has travelled hundreds of light years to get here, and that you’re seeing it without the mediation of a CCD or screen. PC technology can’t make that experience accessible to everyone, but it can make it more approachable, with the use of digital cameras and CCDs for advanced astro-imaging.

This is a great time to get involved. Maybe you just want to sit back and explore the skies solely on your screen. Perhaps, you want to create your own computer-controlled observatory or simply learn a little more about what you can see through affordable binoculars. Either way, we’re going to help you make it happen.

Click here to read our interview with the Astronomer Royal

Google versus the universe

Google Sky (the Sky layer in Google Earth) is probably the most accessible and widely used method of studying the might of the night sky from a PC. Simply by dragging your way around the screen and zooming in and out of the image, you can look at stunning deep-space imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray observatory and others, clicking on the various icons to view relevant information on what you’re seeing. Keith Cooper, editor of the UK’s Astronomy Now magazine calls it an excellent tool for “introducing more people to astronomy and the night sky”, explaining that “people who use Google Earth now log on to Google Sky and see pictures of stars, planets and galaxies, often for the first time, sparking what we hope is a lifelong interest in the universe”.

Crucially, Google Earth’s easy content creation tools, based on the KML mark-up language behind Google Maps, give astronomers and enthusiasts a great way to share information and observations, from real-time alerts on new discoveries to galleries of user-created astro-imagery.

However, in terms of getting to grips with the fundamentals of astronomy, Google Earth isn’t the best option. It’s hard to relate the way Google Earth presents content with the way we might see the stars. While you enter your postcode in Google Earth then switch to the Sky view to see the stars above your house, there’s no way to view the horizon; the very thing that puts the stars in context in the sky.

it_photo_28067This is the sort of facility that astronomers require from more feature-rich, dedicated programs such as Starry Night, The Sky or the much-admired, open-source “planetarium”, Stellarium. These packages give you more exciting ways to explore the universe, complete with 3D-rendered planets, stars and nebulae, all moving in realistic simulation of their own orbits and the Earth’s rotation. What’s more, they allow you to set a home location (for example, your back garden), set a time and get a clear picture of what you might expect to see, complete with simulated horizon and – if you desire – light pollution. From here, you can jump off to explore the stars with binoculars or telescope, although there’s easily enough educational and entertainment content in Starry Night or The Sky to keep you busy on a cold, cloudy night. In Starry Night, for example, you can trace the progress of various space missions, or take a spacecraft out for your own trip through the solar system.

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