Exploring Space – A Beginner’s Guide to Astronomy

Published:
11:00 a.m. 7 May 2022



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


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

Space observation is one of the oldest sciences. Ever since mankind stared into space, hypotheses have been created and the desire to test them has grown.

Early observers noticed that star patterns remained fixed relative to each other and that cultures around the world created stories related to the clusters.

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

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

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

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

Sometimes what looked like a star appeared and wandered through the constellations. They were the planets – the wanderers.

Astrology and astronomy began to separate in the 17th century and became completely separate disciplines in the 18th century.

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

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

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

Then, in 1781, William Herschel found a seventh. William was living in Bath and studying the constellation Gemini for a long time when he noticed that one of the background “stars” had changed position.

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

He wanted to name it after the monarch George III, but then it was decided to stick to naming objects according to classical mythology and it 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: author unknown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

This is rather appropriate since, like William Herschel before him, he is 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 seen through a telescope and will appear as a small blue circle as seen in Richard Sheppard’s photo.

However, it is too aligned with the Sun to do so currently, so request a telescope for Christmas and start looking for it at this time of year.

Want to know more about William and Caroline Herschel? Come to the Hertford Astronomy Group meeting on May 11 at the University of Hertfordshire when Professor Mike Dworetski will give his lecture ‘Backyard Astronomy in the 18th Century’.

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

Picture 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 (as records have been kept).

This results in an increase in the number of sunspots and solar flares.

On April 15, multiple coronal mass ejections left the Sun but fortunately none were 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 garden in Cuffley.

Steve Heliczer

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