The Sky at Night

April 3, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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Like a large proportion of the population, I’ve been obsessed by Professor Brian Cox’s BBC TV series, Wonders of the Universe (which has just finished but is still available on iplayer). I confess that it is causing me a small amount of existential angst  –  as the programme’s webpages state “the ravaging effects of time are all around us. The vast universe is subject to these same laws of change. As we look out to the cosmos, we can see the story of its evolution unfold, from the death of the first stars to the birth of the youngest. This journey from birth to death will ultimately lead to the destruction not just of our planet, but also the entire universe, and with it the end of time itself”. But aside from this minor issue, I’m thoroughly fascinated and am contemplating a holiday to the Channel Island of Sark which has recently been designated the world’s first dark sky island. Incidentally, Sark itself sounds like the ideal setting for a Blyton story with its craggy coastline, wealth of wildlife and no cars (lots of tractors though). Maybe there is scope for a mystery of some sort here too, I don’t know.

To return to stargazing: in Five Get into Trouble a delightfully mild Easter break gives the Five ample opportunity for observing the sky at night. The weather is so fine that on the first night of their cycling tour Julian decrees that tents can be dispensed with. ‘”How smashing!” said Anne. “I’d love to lie and look at the stars.”‘ Snuggling down in their sleeping bags, George draws Julian’s attention to a “glorious star – like a little round lamp. What is it?” The ever-knowledgeable Julian replies “It’s not a star really – it’s Venus, one of the planets […] But it’s called the Evening Star. Fancy you not knowing that George, don’t they teach you anything at your school?”

I wonder if George is pondering some of the more profound questions of existence as she ‘gaze[s] unblinkingly at the bright evening star for a minute’ before falling suddenly asleep? In a pre-Brian Cox era, if George wanted to find out more about the solar system, she could perhaps turn to Ladybird book, The Night Sky (1965), which tells us more about Venus (illustration to the right):

‘When you see what looks like a brilliant star in the west or south-west in the evening, shining all alone in the sky before the other stars appear, it is almost certainly the planet Venus. When it is not an evening star, it is a morning star in the east or south-east before sunrise. It alternates between evening and morning, spending seven or eight months in each, with only a short absence in between.’

The front and back endpapers of The Night Sky have sky charts for different times of year, and there are small sections on various heavenly bodies and on how to spot key stars and constellations such as the North Star and Orion the Hunter. Ladybird now sell prints of some of these, including this one of the Orion Nebula (above left). Even better perhaps (because it’s real!)  is this image below, taken by the Hubble space telescope.  The Orion nebula is 1,500 light years away from Earth and there are more than 3,000 stars visible in this picture. This and many more beautiful images are available to download from the Hubble website. Happy stargazing!

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