Even if it was broadcast way past their bedtime, grandads of a certain generation will have been brought up knowing of the monthly BBC television programme The Sky at Night, which (with only a couple of exceptions because of illness) was hosted by Patrick Moore from April 1957 until January 2013 – thus making it the longest-running programme with the same presenter in television history. Astonishing enough for that fact, even more remarkable is that it continues still with a different host (Patrick Moore having died in December 2012) and just shows the fascination that astronomy and star-gazing has for many people.
It is easier to star-gaze in some parts of the country than others. Light pollution over built-up areas sometimes prevents seeing the sky and stars clearly from the back garden but, elsewhere, on a clear night, it’s possible to observe some of the 4,000 stars that twinkle in our universe all year round. Certain constellations are undoubtedly easier to recognize than others (‘The Plough’ and ‘Orion’s Belt’, for instance), and among them all can often be glimpsed shooting stars and various satellites that orbit the earth. In Britain, if you want to see how close you live to some of the best star-gazing areas, take a look at the places that have been awarded ‘Dark Sky Discovery’ status: www.darkskydiscovery.org.uk/dark-sky-discovery-sites/map.html
On all but the warmest of summer nights it can get quite cold out there so, when taking your grandchildren star-gazing, make sure they are wearing warm and suitable clothing. A drink and a bar of chocolate might also be a good idea. When star-gazing from a bedroom or back garden, a telescope is useful but otherwise, for the sake of mobility, a pair of binoculars will do the job just as well.
Those in the know advise that star-gazing is best done before the moon is full and suggest looking at the next new moon dates in order to work out the optimum times. However, star-gazing can (bearing in mind the light pollution and weather conditions) be done virtually anywhere and at any time – but particularly when camping and quite literally spending a night under the stars.
Periodically throughout the year it is possible to watch meteor showers and, on a clear night, very impressive viewing they make. Travelling at 132,000 miles per hour, 500 times faster than the world’s fastest car and 1,760 times quicker than a cheetah, these showers are caused by the debris from comets. Comets – described by one website as being ‘dirty snowballs running around our solar system’ – leave bits of dirt particles behind and our planet runs through many comet debris trails throughout the year. When Earth encounters these trails, the flecks of dirt strike our atmosphere and burn up to create a fascinating and quite beautiful natural light show.
When the various meteor showers are likely to occur, the media get quite excited and frequently mention the dates and times on TV, radio and in the social media – so you’ve no excuse for not knowing when the next one is likely to happen. If the weather is cloudy in your area, don’t worry, as it might still be possible to watch them online. NASA frequently film such events as they happen so take a look at: www.nasa.gov/ntv
The Perseids meteor shower happens every year in August. This the year the best viewing opportunities are on Saturday 12th and the peak time will be at 01:00 (BST) on Sunday morning with meteors visible across the sky although most likely when looking to the north-east. Meteor rates should be around 80 per hour. This year there is a three-quarters moon so in a clear sky that might interfere with your viewing but only perhaps to reduce slightly the number you might spy. The Met Office has some useful information and tips as well as likely weather conditions over the weekend.
If you are inspired to go meteor-hunting JC Jeremy Hobson provides many more ideas for activities across the generation in his book The Dangerous Book for Grandads.