Exploring space – a beginner’s guide: Look up and learn!

Solar flares photographed by Steve Heliczer

Solar flares photographed by Steve Heliczer - Credit: Steve Heliczer

Alan Willison, chairman of Hertford Astronomy Group, continues his beginner’s guide to getting started in astronomy.

Astrophysicist Dr Sam Rolfe at the Bayfordbury observatory. Picture: DANNY LOO

An astrophysicist at the Bayfordbury Observatory in Hertfordshire. - Credit: Danny Loo / Archant.

Space observation is one of the oldest sciences. Ever since mankind stared into space hypotheses were created and the desire to test them grew.

Early observers noticed that the patterns of stars stayed fixed in relation to each other and cultures around the world created stories related to the clusters.

These stories were independent of other cultures, although they frequently chose the same star patterns to base their stories around.  

These patterns are known as constellations and are still very important to astronomers as they act as a map of the sky and help us to find our way around the night sky.

The names of many of these constellations are known to us through the astrological horoscopes that we may be familiar with.  

Indeed, making horoscopes was considered a source of income for Johannes Kepler, who made some important discoveries in astronomy.  

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Occasionally, what looked like a star would appear and wander through the constellations. These were the planets – the wanderers.

Astrology and astronomy started to drift apart in the 17th century and became regarded as completely separate disciplines in the 18th century.

Galileo gave astronomy its huge boost when he made a telescope and pointed it towards Jupiter and discovered some of its moons.  

Other people started making and using telescopes and the age of space exploration had really begun.

Up to then, the five planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter – were familiar objects in the sky with the Earth making the sixth known planet.

Then, in 1781, William Herschel found a seventh. William was living in Bath and was studying the constellation of Gemini over a long period when he noticed that one of the background ‘stars’ had changed its position.  

Originally, William thought that this was a comet, but using a telescope that he had built himself, he concluded that it was a planet!  

He wanted to name it after the monarch George III but it was later decided to keep to naming objects according to classical mythology and was given the name Uranus.

William was not alone in his astronomical work as he lived with his sister Caroline, who was also a dedicated astronomer and worked closely with her brother.


William Herschel's 40-foot telescope, 1789

William Herschel's 40-foot telescope, 1789 - Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bath has a small museum recognising the work of the Herschels in the home of William and Caroline.

The house has been fully restored in the authentic style of the period and Dr Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, is the museum’s patron.

This is rather appropriate since, like William Herschel before him, he’s both a musician and an astronomer.


Uranus from Digswell

Uranus seen from Digswell, photographed by Richard Sheppard

Uranus seen from Digswell, photographed by Richard Sheppard - Credit: Richard Sheppard

Uranus can be viewed through a telescope and will appear as a small blue circle as seen in Richard Sheppard’s photo.  

However, it is too much in line with the Sun to do so at present so, ask for a telescope for Christmas and start looking for it at that time of year.

Want to hear more about William and Caroline Herschel? Come along to the meeting of the Hertford Astronomy Group on May 11 at the University of Hertfordshire when professor Mike Dworetski will give his talk 'Backyard Astronomy in the 18th Century'.

Details and tickets can be obtained from https://hertsastro.org.uk


Photo of the Month

Solar flares photographed by Steve Heliczer

Solar flares photographed by Steve Heliczer - Credit: Steve Heliczer

The Sun goes through 11 year periods of activity and is currently in its 25th (since records have been kept).

This is witnessed by an increase in the number of sunspots and solar flares.  

On April 15, multiple coronal mass ejections left the Sun but fortunately none are directed towards Earth.  

This photo shows many solar flares on the limb (edge) of the Sun and it is reasonable to assume that there are as many on the side facing us.  

The photo was taken in my back garden in Cuffley.

Steve Heliczer