No red carpets, dress discussions or oscars here….The Ladybirds spent an evening with the real stars that we share our universe with at the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. Our guide was Dr Carolin Crawford, Research fellow and astronomer at the institute.
We were lucky with the night sky on the evening of our visit and many stars were visible with the naked eye-a very good sign. There was some cloud cover and it was certainly very chilly-so we wrapped up warm! A crucial reminder before we headed up to the observation area and the telescope-no phones or torches as these would ruin the night vision. Our guide had a red torch so we could see where to go,
We started on the obervatory lawn outside the Northumberland telescope building. Carolin gave us an overview of what we could see above our heads. Most of us knew ‘The Plough/Panhandle/Big dipper’ This is one of the constellations that many people learn to spot first and it forms part of the Ursa Major (Great Bear) constellation. It is an obvious one to spot because it looks like a saucepan with the long handle pointing out towards the horizon. If you follow the two right hand stars up until you come a very bright star-that is Polaris (North Star) which is always visible above the north pole.
Another one I had heard of, Orion-which most of us know because of the distinctive three stars that form the belt. The stars within the constellation are supposed to look like a man hunting….you need some imagination for stargazing apparently! This time of year is great for seeing the Orion Nebula (the sword hanging from Orions belt) which is made up of a gigantic cloud of dust….we tried with a camera:
Well it is the effort that counts! Let us not forget that we are looking at formation of stars-a star nursery if you will, that is over 1,300 light years from us. The bit that blows my mind (and there was a lot of mind blowing during the visit) One light-year is about 9.5 trillion kilometers or 5.88 trillion miles. I am not a maths bod, but 5.88 trillion multiplied by 1,300? That is like, a long long way.
Orion is useful as an aid to locating other stars. By extending the line of the Belt southeastward you find Sirius….no not Harry Potters godfather-the brightest star in our galaxy and it sits within the Canis Major (Great dog) constellation. So the dog is at the feet of Orion its owner….presumably waiting for a starry doggy type treat. There is some lovely storytelling with stargazing and many of the names of stars, constellations and so on are derived from ancient greek mythology. We had The Pleiades (seven sisters) star cluster shown to us with Carolin’s red laser pointer. The cluster contains hundreds of stars, of which only a handful are commonly visible to the unaided eye. If you can see five, you are doing really well and they are easier to spot if you look at them from the corner of the eye…they look like a smudge. Cassiopeia is a W or M shaped constellation in the northern sky, named after the vain queen from Greek Mythology.
We were then shown Jupiter and it was visible with two of its moons, Ganymede and Callisto. To me it just looked like a big bright star, until Carolin set up her telescope. What an amazing sight, the largest planet in our solar system and I could see the bands made up of dust that make it look orangey-yellow with two of its moons to either side. Fantastic stuff!
The moon was almost full for our evening and so we went inside the Northumberland telescope to have a look at the surface of the moon. The telescope is the only remaining large instrument from the early days of the Observatory, built around 1838 and once directed to a star the telescope tube remains in a fixed orientation in space, while the Earth turns beneath it. The telescope was last used academically in the 1930s and nowadays is used for tours with the public.
Infra-red blogging! It was completely dark with the exception of the infra-red lighting and so was a little bit like being in a star-wars movie. Carolin set up the telescope by opening the roof and turning the scope to focus on the moon. We all had turns to look through and see it up close…a giant white crumpet. It was an incredible experience to see the moon so close as we often take it for granted. We were lucky to have a semi-clear sky. Carolin told us that in towns on a perfectly clear night you can still only see half of the night sky. The best views are in regions with very little population and at higher altitudes such as Chile, Hawaii and the Atacoma desert. The clouds descend lower than the telescope and because of the cold, clear nights, the picture is always better.
After we had all peeked through the telescopes and seen these wonderful things up close, we all headed back to the Institute building for a short presentation on all things astronomy. Carolin talked about the solar system and the planets, as well as our sun. The life cycle of stars and other galaxies and nebula-objects in the sky. Fascinating stuff and some wonderful images from the Hubble telescope.
After a short Q&A session our evening was complete and we could all head home for cocoa. it was a fantastic experience and well worth a visit. The Institute runs open evenings and talks every Wednesday evening until the end of March, free of charge. They also take group bookings http://www.ast.cam.ac.uk/public/public_observing