All Eyes to the Sky for Autumn Moonwatch

Courtesy of IYA

By Amy Sutherland

It’s four hundred years since Galileo first glimpsed through a telescope and modern astronomy was born.  International Year of Astronomy 2009 is a celebration of how far we have come in understanding our universe and aims to convince people that although astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, it is also one of the most exciting.

Autumn Moonwatch events kicked off last week and will continue over the coming months as astronomy organisations across the country are trying to get the public outside to appreciate our night sky.

Dark Sky Scotland, an astronomy outreach project based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, is one of the bodies behind the activities.  Launched in 2007, it is the world’s first nationwide programme of public astronomy events.  It makes astronomy more accessible to families and community groups by taking astronomy to both rural and urban locations in Scotland.  In its first year, the team at Dark Sky Scotland travelled seven and a half thousand miles with their fascinating mixture of displays.

Dave Chalton, the Project Officer, is proud that they have been able to get so many people involved in the past and looks forward to a lot of good observing this winter: “There are eighteen different amateur societies we work with, and they have all had, or are having, activities.  These get people all across Scotland looking up at the sky, and that’s what we are all about.  The more people we can get interested, the better.”

Scotland is a very active participant in IYA, and is lucky enough to possess some of the best areas of dark sky in Europe, meaning we can have fantastic views of the planets and stars.  If the weather is not playing its part, the team have a portable ‘Starlab’ planetarium – a collapsible dome with constellations projected on to its walls – that allows us to see the night sky as it would be in perfect stargazing conditions.  Chalton believes it useful in that “it gives people a good idea of how the sky is three dimensional and not flat like star charts you see on paper.”

Other activities on offer include making and launching your own rocket, handling meteorites and watching a comet being made.  The public are also able, many for perhaps the first time, to look at the sky through a telescope.

There are several more activities planned and those keen to get involved are encouraged to visit the International Year of Astronomy and Royal Observatory websites for more information.  For those who cannot make it along, there is the option of looking at the moon with a simple pair of binoculars.  This alone should give a good view of the moon’s landscape, and allow the gazer to identify the darker planes (ancient lava) from the paler parts (mountainous regions and craters).