Stars in your eyes

What do you do with your binoculars once night falls?

The birds are roosting, heads tucked under wings, but you’re still keen to spot wildlife. Well, there’s a whole zoo-full of animals hiding in the night sky, if you can just make them out. Sky-watching is set to be big this summer with the arrival in August of a solar eclipse in which the moon blocks out the sun for a few moments. As this is only happens a couple of times every hundred years, people go crazy, specially booking holidays to be in prime position to see it, but you can be well ahead of the game.

The stars have been blamed for our fates.

Mystic meg and many others say that when we gaze at the stars, we look at a reflection of our own lives. But according to Will Shakespeare, its not the stars but ourselves that shape our future. As for alien life, its still a hot topic of debate. When it comes to space however, you can be sure, the facts as we know them, really are stranger than the fiction.

What is a star anyway?

A star is a ball of hot chemicals, a ball of fire. The sun is a star. By being close to earth (i.e. only 93 million miles away!) , it gives us light and energy. Without the sun’s light, plants couldn’t grow, animals couldn’t eat them and no life would exist on earth. Before I started star watching I thought all stars were white, but stars come in many different colours. The colors tell us how hot a star is. Blue or white stars are the hottest and red stars are the coolest. Some stars are 600 million miles away. Not a Sunday afternoon car trip.

Shooting stars are a thrill to see in the night sky. They zoom through before you’ve had a chance to say: Mum – look a sh….. They are pieces of space dust, usually smaller than a grain of sand, burning up as they enter the earth’s atmosphere. Under a dark country sky you can see about twelve every hour. Sometimes huge pieces of space dust enter the atmosphere. If big enough, they hit the ground and are known as meteorites. In 1992 an American woman went out to her car to find a football-sized alien rock lying in her driveway and the car boot, completely crushed.

Spotting stars – equipment, conditions

Before there were street lights the stars would have lighted the way for people travelling about in the country, who would have waited for a clear night before setting out on an overnight journey. A cloudy sky would obscure the stars and the night would seem more forbidding. Now we have streetlights which brighten the night, and hide the stars, but venture out, armed with your binoculars and a friend and you too can have stars in your eyes!

Even if you go star-watching in midsummer, dress for very cold weather. Standing still at night, outside, in Britain, for long periods is a recipe to get chilly. Warm jackets, woolly hats, fleeces and snow gear are the thing. You can watch stars with your bare eyes, but binoculars or a telescope help. Ideally watch stars when its very clear. Take a look at the moon through binoculars. Suddenly its a real planet, not just a light in the sky. Some of the craters you can see on its surface are 100’s of miles across. Its thought that the moon is a bit of the earth that fell off some 4 and a half billion years ago. Through binoculars, where there was one star with naked eye, now there are twenty.

Remember, when you’re looking at that shining cluster, that if you put three grains of sand as far apart as possible on a football pitch, they would be more closely packed together, than the stars in space.

The shapes stars make

Since the beginning of human existence, people have been giving names to the patterns formed by the diamond stars against the velvety night sky. Now using these names, we can spot the different patterns and learn about the stars. A good place to start is to find the big dipper (which forms part of the great bear). Then draw a line joining the two stars at the end of the bowl, extend the line five times, and you’re at Polaris, the pole star. Above the pole star is the crooked w shape of cassiopea.

Like with bird watching it pays to have an idea what you’re looking for before you put your eyes to the skies. It also takes a bit of time to get your eye in. Learning the shapes of a few big bright constellations can really help you get your bearings. The stars change position in the sky through the days and months, so getting to know their shapes rather than positions is important. Some constellations are bright and easy to see. Scorpio is one, opposite Orion in the sky. And Cygnus, forms a big cross like a swan flying, wings outstretched. Among many others, up there lurks a wolf, a lynx, a scorpion, a river, a sea serpent, and a fish, two dogs, an eagle, a ram, and a herdsman to round up all these animals!

I have to admit that sometimes it takes a pretty good imagination to see the shapes of the animals in the patterns of stars. The great bear is a bit lanky, with a pointed bottom, and the goldfish is little more than a forked stick, but the dolphin definately has a dolphin-shaped head, and the dragon writhes through the night sky between the bears and the lions. The ancient Persians saw him as a man-eating serpent, and the Hindus as an alligator. Taurus the bull with his pointed horns does seem to prance overhead, and Lepus the hare is splayed out in the sky, about to go jumping off into the universe. Trying to figure them out is half the fun of star gazing.

Supernovas and super models…the difference

You may never be able to get to know the stars of top of the pops, but the real stars are there for all. They are much more beautiful, and unlike Geri Halliwell, will not disappear with the next new thing on the scene. They have been here since long before we were born and will go long after us. Indeed the average life of a star is over a billion years. Thats 1,000,000,000. That of a pop star…gone within the twinkling of eye…well do you remember Shakin’ Steven’s? Ask your Mum.

AIl together are 43 animal constellations. There are 8 birds in the sky including the easy to spot swan and eagle, and the more cryptic crane, toucan and crow.

Animal constellations

* 3 aries ram

* 3 capricornus the sea goat

* 4 camelopardis the giraffe

* 3 cancer crab

* 4 canes venatici the hunting dogs

* 4 canis major the great dog

* 1 canis minor (one of the hunting dogs

* 2 centaurus the centaur – half man half horse

* 1 cetus sea monster

* 3 chameleon

* 4 columba dove

* 3 crow and cup corvus 3

* cygnus swan 1

* 4 apus bir of paradise

* 1 aquila eagle

* grus the crane 3

* pavo peacock 3

* tucana toucan 3

* dolphin delphinus 3

* dorado goldfish 3

* draco the dragon 3

* equulus the little horse

* hercules is fighting the hydra sea serpent 3

* water snake hydrus 4

* lacerta lizard 3

* leo minor and major lions 1

* lepus the hare 3

* lupus wolf 4

* lynx 4

* monoceros unicorn 4

* musca fly 4

* pegasus winged horse 1

* phoenix

* pisces fish 3

* piscis austrinus 3

* southern fish

* sagittarius archer half beast half human 1

* scorpion

* serpens snake 3

* taurus bull 1

* ursa major 1

* ursa minor 2

* volans flying fish 4

* vulpecula the fox 3