Space Week is coming up and offers the perfect opportunity to stoke a child’s interest, writes Mark Evans
Irish space experts are calling on all parents and guardians to use Space Week, October 3-8, as the perfect opportunity to escape to the great outdoors with the kids and experience the night sky.
Planetary science expert Leo Enright says you don’t have to be able to recognise the constellations wheeling overhead to enjoy the heavens. All you need is a dark spot to watch it unfold.
“What I would suggest to parents is to get out with their children away from streetlights. Most of us can get somewhere like this after a short drive. Just get away from any light. When you get there don’t switch on a torch or check for messages on your phone. Give yourself about 10 minutes for your eyes to adjust,” he says.
That may sound simple enough, but when you get over the glory of the Milky Way and any bright planets, is there one celestial site that warrants a closer view?
“This time of the year, with autumn pressing in, there really is one thing that people should look at and that is Orion, the great and wonderful constellation,” says Enright.
“It can be viewed looking to the west. It’s well worth a web search, just to learn a few things about it so an excited child can be told that this one constellation contains many of the marvellous things to see in the sky.
“For instance, even with the naked eye, you can make out a stellar nursery — a nebula — below the belt which looks like a haze.”
Other gems offered up by the hunter of Greek mythology include two of the brightest stars in the sky. At the top left, Orion’s right shoulder, is Betelgeuse, a red supergiant 700 times bigger than our sun. At bottom right lies Rigel, a blue supergiant whose light takes 863 years to reach us.
Head of the Blackrock Castle Observatory, Dr Niall Smith, also name-checks Orion as a celebrity among the constellations. “The moon is my favourite object in the night sky. I find it amazing to think that when we look at the moon we are looking at what used to be part of the Earth about 4.5bn years ago.
“During winter, though, Orion appears. His belt is really easy to find even for amateur astronomers.”
The observatory is co- ordinating many events during Space Week, from taking pictures of the moon and sending them to schools to a night-time bicycle tour called the Mooncycle.
Dr Smith isn’t too fazed about the possibility of clouds spoiling the fun. If the Earth’s natural satellite remains hidden for the week, then he can call on colleagues in California or South Africa to take the snaps.
However, Dr Smith is encouraging everyone to get out at some stage and simply look up. “General advice to people is that you don’t need a telescope to enjoy the night skies. It’s what I would have done as a kid and even when I set up astronomy clubs in Dublin. I always point out the Pole Star and tell people that it’s about 100 times bigger than the sun. It helps if you have little bits of knowledge. So, the Plough is great to spot at any time of the year.
“My hope is that I never tire of looking up. Hopefully parents can get out there with their smallies and you never know, it might make a lasting impression. The key thing is to keep it simple. Plus, you can still see plenty of things from urban areas.”
You can’t get simpler than gawping at the night sky with the naked eye. You don’t have to know your way around the heavens, but a little knowledge in this case is a good thing.
“We shouldn’t be embarrassed if we don’t know our way around the night sky,” says Enright. “Our lives are much different to our ancestors. Most of us live in cities and towns now. We are a generation that don’t pay much attention to the night sky, unlike our ancestors who did so for thousands of years. However, we do have the ability to use very clever apps such as sky maps. I myself use Sky Safari. You just point it at the sky and it tells you what you’re looking at.”
The app is available for all smartphones and costs less than €3. If you’re a fan of free stuff, there are a whole host of events taking place during Space Week, most of them aimed at getting children interested in astronomy.
The catalyst for Enright’s fascination with space was a historic event. Nowadays, space exploration involves more technical achievements, though not the same public reaction as there was almost half a century ago. “I got interested in space through watching the moon landings,” he says.
“The equivalent for children today could be the European Space Agency landing on a comet. I was at a meeting recently where a European lunar base was discussed. So children living today, looking at the stars from Mayo or Athlone, could soon be walking on the surface of another world. In fact, the first men and women to walk on Mars are not only alive right now, they are probably in college. And who knows, they could be Irish.”
So what does a space expert do during Space Week? “I’m not doing anything specific but I am launching the very first ‘Dark Sky Park’ next month in Mayo. In Valentia, Co Kerry, they have a reserve, but Mayo will get an entire park. The Mayo Dark Sky Festival will be held on October 28-30. One of the most striking things about Ireland is that when it’s viewed at night from space, most of the west coast is in darkness. And this is a good thing.”
Dr Smith is calling on us to marvel at the inky vault with its spray of stars, because it is ours. “The important thing to come out of Space Week is that we all equally own the sky, so enjoy it. Every time you view it, it offers a unique experience. Only when we look up are we struck with awe and wonder at the beauty of it. You never know, you may be rewarded with a meteor or a satellite. It’s a landscape that changes night after night.”
October 3: Every school in Ireland is invited to have their own unique picture of the moon taken by Blackrock Observatory’s Tara telescope network, which will be sent to schools.
October 4: Free tour of the solar system by the Newport Astronomy Club, Co Mayo.
October 5: Images of Starlight, an exhibition of space images taken by Irish amateur astronomers at Trinity College, Dublin.
October 6: Ursuline Secondary School students will learn about the history and features of the moon before observing it during the daytime.
October 7: Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork, will host a free Mooncycle, to observe the quarter moon, international space station and a meteor shower from 6pm-midnight.
October 8: Kids can build their own rockets at a free event in Ballycroy National Park Visitor Centre, Co Mayo.
For more, see http://spaceweek.ie/
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