Stars in your eyes
Ever wanted to stare at a galaxy of stars, see rockets being launched or just find out what Luke Skywalker is up to these days? Robin Gauldie sees what’s in store for the International Year of Astronomy
Last year people across the globe were celebrating the International Year of the Potato – an important moment in the history of the world. Even more important if you’re into themed years, the United Nations has declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, marking 400 years since the telescope was first used to look into space – as Italian Galileo Galilei, and the lesser-known Englishman Thomas Harriot, began to make discoveries that would change our understanding of the universe forever. With a galaxy of incredible events lined up this year, Europe’s going crazy for the stars and you can be a part of it too. Here’s what’s happening around the Ryanair network.
Netherlands & Belgium
It may not be Nasa, but you can find out about the work of our very own European Space Agency with a visit to its largest technical base at Noordwijk in the Netherlands. The Space Expo visitors’ centre was the first permanent space exhibition in Europe, and here you can not only get an in-depth look at the history of space exploration, but experience the simulated launch of one of the Ariane rockets that shoot European satellites into space from sites at Kourou in French Guyana. Also discover the world of satellites with test models of European space missions.
Next door in Belgium, would-be astronauts can sample a trip into orbit aboard the space shuttle simulator at the Euro Space dizzying “astronaut training”. This includes spinning centrifuges and simulated micro-gravity environments. There’s also a life-size model of the Columbus space laboratory – Europe’s contribution to the International Space Station – and a range of audio-visual spectaculars to give you an idea of the impact that space travel has had on the technologies we take for granted back on solid ground. There’s even a rocket workshop, where you learn about rocket theory, construction and launch.
FOR MORE DETAILS, VISIT WWW.SPACEEXPO.NL AND WWW.EUROSPACECENTER.BE
This region is ground control for a range of astronomy events this year. Visit Le Hameau des Etoiles (www.fermedesetoiles.com), near Fleurance – the first holiday centre in Europe dedicated entirely to studying the night sky. Here, you can stay in an authentic Gascon house or self-catering chalets while building and launching your own mini-rocket.
The centre also hosts its own summer astronomy festival (8–14 August) and the nearby Château de Lavardens is holding two exhibitions (10 July–31 August) that take you back to the era of the Mayan astronomers who watched the skies long before Columbus arrived in Mexico, and even further back in time and space with images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
High in the Pyrénées (90km from Pau), you’ll find the Pic du Midi Observatory – home to the largest telescope in France, and the only observatory where you can stay overnight. Starwatching evenings start with a cable-car trip to the summit, followed by cocktails at sunset and a resident expert to guide you around the night sky. Accommodation is in comfortable hotel-style rooms but there’s only space for 19 guests, so booking is essential (visit www.picdumidi.com or www.tourisme-hautes-pyrenees.com).
Europe’s biggest party for amateur astronomers is Rencontres Astro-Ciel at Valdrôme, near Nîmes, on 13–29 August. Join a star party, camp out with your telescope and take part in workshops and exhibitions.
Canary Islands, Spain
The summit of Roque de los Muchachos, 2,396m above sea level on the island of La Palma, bristles with the dishes of one of the world’s best collections of telescopes. The giant of the family is the MAGIC gamma ray scope – its 17m-wide mirror is the largest in the world and can be used to stare out far beyond the confines of our own galaxy. Out in the Atlantic Ocean, the Canary Islands offer excellent seeing, and the observatories on La Palma and nearby Tenerife are home to more than 60 telescopes operated by several European nations, including Germany, the UK and the Netherlands.
FOR MORE DETAILS, INCLUDING ARRANGING TRIPS, VISIT WWW.IAC.ES
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, London, is one of Europe’s oldest observatories, and this year you can gaze at the sky through its historic telescopes as part of the International Year of Astronomy.
“The theme is ‘Yours to Discover’ and we want to give everyone the opportunity to do just that, by coming to look at the stars for themselves and meeting some of the scientists who are continuing to expand our understanding of the universe,” says Dr Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory.
In May, the observatory launches a new planetarium show, Ice Worlds, featuring an awesome virtual tour of the frozen moons and outer planets of the solar system. In June, scientists from Nasa’s Cassini mission to the rings of Saturn will highlight the probe’s latest discoveries. In August and September, the observatory looks at the love-hate relationship between science and science fiction, and in October you can get a close-up of the mountains of the moon through a 28-inch telescope, the largest refracting telescope in Britain.
FOR MORE DETAILS, VISIT WWW.NMM.AC.UK
Edinburgh & Glasgow, Scotland
All over Scotland, the lights are being switched off – and the stars are coming out. The Dark Sky Scotland campaign to open the eyes of Scots and tourists to the night skies above them is a key part of the International Year of Astronomy. Important rural areas in national parks and forests are to become Britain’s first Dark Sky Parks – chosen because they are free of urban light pollution from streetlights, offices, factories and homes.
And Scotland – especially the wide open spaces of the Highlands, north of Inverness – has some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe. Dave Chalton, Dark Sky project officer at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, says: “From a city centre location we might see fewer than 100 stars with our naked eyes. Under a dark sky we can see over 1,000 stars… From these places, you can get fantastic views of the stars, planets and the Moon.”
Steve Owens, the Glasgow-based UK co-ordinator for the International Year of Astronomy, says the project could inspire a whole new kind of tourism – “dark sky tourism”.
FOR MORE DETAILS, VISIT WWW.DARKSKYSCOTLAND.ORG
The latest attraction at the UK’s largest planetarium, the National Space Centre just outside Leicester, is a full-dome spectacle with a soundtrack narrated by Mark Hamill aka Luke Skywalker himself. Running until 23 May, Stars – the Powerhouses of the Universe is a breathtaking show, using the latest multimedia technology to bring new discoveries to life. The centre also features six galleries packed with exciting interactive displays.
FOR MORE DETAILS, VISIT WWW.SPACECENTRE.CO.UK
Help find them!
Of course, with all this talk about distant galaxies, you can’t help wondering about aliens. We hear stories of close encounters and see them in films, but ultimately there is not a shred of evidence to support the existence of little green men. Still, a concerted effort is being made by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers, who scan the skies looking for signals from afar. They haven’t found anything yet, but you can help – SETI@home is a free-to-download programme that runs on your computer, scanning information gathered by SETI. Who knows, you may be the one who makes contact with ET!
FOR MORE DETAILS AND TO DOWNLOAD THE PROGRAMME, VISIT HTTP://SETIATHOME.SSL.BERKELEY.EDU
The man with the silver nose
and his island lair
On the Swedish island of Hven in the Oresund strait, a heritage centre honours 16th-century Scandinavian scientist Tycho Brahe. One of the greatest astronomers of his time, Brahe built an underground laboratory known as Stjerneborg (Star Castle) on the island in 1576, as well as Uraniborg, Europe’s first purposebuilt astronomical observatory. His research was funded by Danish King Frederick II (Sweden was ruled by Denmark at the time) and the cost was astronomical, amounting to 5% of Denmark’s GNP. A colourful character, Brahe lost part of his nose in a duel during his student days and wore a silver prosthesis to disguise the damage. He also kept a pet elk, which sadly died when it got drunk and fell down a flight of stairs, and lived with a psychic dwarf named Jepp.
FOR MORE DETAILS, VISIT WWW.TYCHOBRAHE.COM