Reach for the stars

Sheffield Astronomical Society hosting Stargazing Live: Astrophysics students Gillian Finnerty (left) and Charlyn Kindermann
Sheffield Astronomical Society hosting Stargazing Live: Astrophysics students Gillian Finnerty (left) and Charlyn Kindermann

THE national big bang in astronomy was reflected in the telescopes of the Mayfield Valley when Sheffield Astronomical Society welcomed scores of adults and children to its Stargazing Live event.

“Come in,” said SAS vice-president Mike Mills, as yet another family squeezed into the classroom of the Mayfield Environmental Education Centre, along with a not quite to scale model of the solar system.

Former pop star and current stargazing celebrity Dr Brian Cox may have been enthusing millions of viewers during the BBC’s Stargazing Live week, but Sheffield’s own astro-enthusiasts were doing a pretty good job too. SAS members were on hand throughout Saturday evening to give talks and presentations on astronomy, telescopes and stellar exploration.

“In a few minutes we’re going to take you all outside and ask you to look to the east,” said Mike. “At 13 past and 14 past six there will be two iridium flares,” he noted, with precision.

Seventy budding astronomers were ready and waiting but then it was a bit cloudy on Saturday, said SAS president Steve Adams. Last year, Stargazing Live Sheffield hosted 150 people.

Interest has been growing for some time in astronomy, said the SAS members.

“The Brian Cox effect is pretty important,” said Steve Adams by way of explanation. “But there’s also more reporting on the news, the finding of new planets, for example. Coverage of astronomy is better than it used to be – 10 years ago you hardly heard anything.”

Telescopes and technology have improved and the internet hosts lots of resources for stargazers.

The Sheffield group holds regular public meetings and sky-watching events at the environmental centre, with expert speakers, beginners’ events and the chance to use members’ telescopes to view the night sky of the Mayfield Valley in Fulwood.

“Having this wonderful venue is ideal,” said Mike Mills. “What you see here is a fantastic dark sky site only four miles from the centre of Sheffield. This is a very special place and it’s rare for people in a big city like Sheffield to see the night sky as we see it here.”

The SAS has shelved its ambitious plans for a public space study centre at Mayfield due to the economic climate, said Steve Adams, but there’s still hope that an observatory can be built at Mayfield if the future of the council-owned building is secured.

“This is a wonderful building and if it closed it would be a sad loss to the city,” said SAS secretary Darren Swindells.

Sheffield has plenty of high-level astronomers as well as keen beginners: both universities run astronomy courses and on Saturday astrophysics students Gillian Finnerty and Charlyn Kindermann were stargazing along with local children.

“The SAS are awesome,” said Gillian. “People should come down here, it’s only a bus ride away, and you can use their telescopes to see the Orion Nebula, Andromeda, Jupiter, Mars, meteors and everything, you can see them all in one night.”

Gillian and Charlyn are among 40 astrophysicists in a single year group at the university of Sheffield and both are in no doubt that astronomy has an exciting future.

“I’m studying astrophysics because I want to be become an astronaut,” said Charlyn. “It is attainable but there’s lots of competition.”

“Why not? It’s the ideal job!” agreed Gillian.

The increasing pace of space research means that both students feel there are realistic off-world opportunities in the future. The search for life on other planets and likelihood of travel to Mars augur well for today’s aspirant astronauts.

“I love travelling, and now people have been all around the world, space is the obvious place to go. It is the final frontier,” Charlyn said boldly.

Gillian was inspired in her career choice by space programmes on TV.

“If I was a kid now I’d be really interested. It’s a good time for astronomy and it’s getting better, as you get better telescopes and there are more planets being discovered every week.”

Darren Swindells pointed out that improved technology and communication means there are now even more ways for space watchers to get involved in the real science of astronomy.

“You can join websites like Galaxy Zoo and Planet Hunters to help classify galaxies and look to see where planets might be. You’re contributing to science, so the ordinary person at home with their computer can do something that has a result.”

The clock ticked round towards 13 minutes past six and the astronomers led the crowds outside to look for iridium flares, caused by the last sunlight catching aerials on passing communication satellites aligned in just the right position to cause a sudden flare in the sky.

“Just coming here and looking at the stars in the dark sky is pretty overwhelming and amazing,” said Charlyn Kindermann.

“We’ve lost contact with the night sky we used to look at all the time as a calendar or for an indication of farming,” sighed Gillian Finnerty. “We used it every day but kids nowadays may only know one constellation, if that.”

Seventy pairs of eyes scanned the east and Steve Adams glanced westward to see a large bank of cloud approaching. “Right on cue,” he sighed.

Never mind. The SAS, and Jupiter and the Orion Nebula, will be ready and waiting on other nights. or 0114 269 2291.