Celestrial pied piper Brian Cox is playing that tune again – the lilting commentary that summons us from the comfort of our homes and leads us to gardens and fields around the country to stare up at the night sky. Yes, Stargazing live is back; three nights in which Cox, Dara O Briain and Liz Bonnin encourage us to discover some of the secrets of the cosmos. Last year more than 113,000 people took part in organised BBC events – this year a similar number are expected at 17 already sold-out Stargazing venues around the country. But, as Cox says, it’s just as rewarding staging your own Stargazing party.
“You can walk out into your garden after watching the show and look up and each time the sky will look different. When you start unpicking things, you start to see that every one of these points of light is a place, a world.
“There is a whale of a difference between seeing a sky full of points of light, and a sky full of worlds, so if you know that those points of light are stars with solar systems, then it is a significantly more powerful experience. You know which stars are planets so you can let your mind turn to not just lights in the sky, but to worlds.”
But as well as enriching the soul, studying our solar system also stretches the mind. “There are two often quoted facts about the impact of the show on the popularity of stargazing,” he says. “One is that telescope sales went up by 500 per cent. But more importantly, there has been a huge increase in astronomy applications to university, which is actually very important, because you are talking about creating more physicists.
“Astronomy has always been one of the two great drivers that drive people into studying physics. It’s either astronomy, or quantum theory, and for me it was astronomy.”
And of course, the great thing about astronomy is that you really can do it at home. What’s more, you don’t need a job at Jodrell Bank in order to get started with the stars. You merely need a few tips on how to get a ground-level introduction to the skies…
YOUR FIRST TASK – FIND ORION
One of the most easily recognisable constellations in the January night sky is Orion. Step outside after the show has finished at 9pm, face due west, towards where the sun has set, and Orion will be in the direction your left shoulder is pointing. Once you’ve located it, have a look for the Orion nebula. It’s below a belt of three bright stars in the middle of the constellation marked by a big cloud of gas where stars are forming. One of the stars in Orion is Betelgeuse, which is known as a red giant. It’s the bright reddish star towards the top left of the constellation, and is part of a group that features Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Another of the red giants is Aldebaran. It’s the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus and it’s big – 44 times the diameter of our sun.
GET A FIX ON JUPITER
Now is the perfect time to see Jupiter. It rises soon after sunset, and is easily visible with the naked eye, appearing as an extremely bright star in the east of the sky. This is the most massive planet in the solar system (it’s so big that all the others could fit inside it). It also has a very strong gravitational pull, which means it works like a celestial hoover, intercepting comets and space debris that might otherwise hit the Earth.
Once you’re outdoors, it can take up to 20 minutes to get your eyes properly adjusted to the dark. You will get the best view of the night sky in the countryside away from street lights and traffic. To experience true darkness you could try visiting the Galloway Forest Park in the south-west of Scotland, which became the UK’s first official Dark Sky park in 2009. Find out more here.
MAGNIFY THE EXPERIENCE
You can see lots with the naked eye, but if you have a pair of binoculars in the house that’s even better. Best of all is a telescope with magnification of at least 20 or 30 times. A really good one will cost around £200, but second-hand is cheaper.
Fancy hosting your very own Stargazing party? Here’s the perfect stargazing playlist…
Walking on the Moon The Police
Star Man David Bowie
Starry, Starry Night Simon and Garkfunkel
Champagne Supernova Oasis
Speed of Sound Coldplay
You’ll find find much more information on astronomy and how to prepare your own stargazing party at bbc.co.uk/stargazing, where you will also find a star guide for 2013 with star maps and facts about our stars and planets, ideas on how to host your own star party and audio guides helping you spot wonders in the sky this year.