Britain’s favourite scientist Professor Brian Cox is reaching for the stars again, but this time he’s taking the show Stargazing Live to Australia.
Cox, co-host Dara O Briain, and Liz Bonnin are exchanging the grey skies of Jodrell Bank, near Manchester, for some of the darkest in the world, the star-studded heavens above a major mountain observatory in the Australian bush – and they’re also hoping to make the biggest astronomical discovery for nearly 90 years.
From Siding Spring, in the Warrumbungle National Park, New South Wales, they will deliver views of southern stars and constellations that never rise over the UK, plus bright planets and the spectacular heart of the Milky Way.
“One of the problems we’ve had in the past is that the night sky over Manchester is hard to see, so we’ve not been able to do live astronomy,” says Cox. “But being at Siding Spring pretty much guarantees that we will have clear skies. Unless we’re very unlucky, it won’t be raining.”
But what about the time difference? A show broadcast live in the UK at 8pm means dawn will be approaching in Australia. “Yes, it will be between 6 and 7am, which means we have to observe through the night, broadcast and then go to bed! We’ll be starting the show each night under the stars while it is still dark and then see the sun gently rise at the end.”
In its seventh year, Stargazing Live will once again run a citizen science challenge. This year, viewer power will be harnessed to look for a ninth planet, which astronomers suspect is hiding deep in our own solar system. Clues to its existence have come from disturbances detected in the orbits of smaller icy bodies beyond Neptune. Cox is confident that if Planet Nine exists, viewers will be able to find it by studying hundreds of thousands of images taken by a Siding Spring telescope called SkyMapper.
“The pictures will show the same patches of sky but spread over a long time interval. So we’ll be looking for a shifting dot against the background. The data is all there, so if the planet exists then we will find it. It will be the biggest story in astronomy since the discovery of Pluto in 1930!”
4 things to see in the night sky Down Under
1. The southern stars
The heart of our galaxy, and the richest part of that band of billions of stars known as the Milky Way, lies in the southern sky. We’ll have great views of the Milky Way stretching overhead and will use quite a few of Siding Spring’s telescopes to broadcast beautiful live pictures of it. We’ll also talk about the supermassive black hole that lies at the centre of the Galaxy, its effect on the stars and dust in that region, and the structure of the Milky Way. And we’ll see constellations like the Southern Cross, which features on the Australian flag but can’t be seen in UK skies.
2. Spectacular Saturn
The ringed planet Saturn is the most beautiful sight in the heavens, but at the moment it’s very low in the morning sky for observers in the northern hemisphere. From Australia, however, it will be high in the sky and a splendid sight. Its ring system is wide open in one of its most favourable orientations for a long time. Apart from enjoying our own live views, we’ll be joined live via satellite by Carolyn Porco, a lead scientist with Nasa’s Cassini probe that has been orbiting Saturn. Cassini’s photos are unbelievable. We’ll talk a lot about Saturn, its rings and moons, including Enceladus, which has liquid water beneath its surface and is a strong candidate for alien life.”
3. The Moon upside down
The Moon and some familiar constellations like Orion will appear upside down from Australia compared to the view we are used to. It will be interesting to see what the flat-Earth community think of that! Why is Orion upside down? It takes a bit of thought to understand the geometry of the Earth and how the sky changes as you move around it. It sets you in this 3D environment, which is rather nice. We’ll have photos of Orion from different places around the globe to show how its orientation changes, making it appear to cartwheel across the sky.
4. Dangerous asteroids
In a similar way to our planet search, we’ll be looking to map the orbits of near-Earth asteroids – those that cross the orbit of our planet. Once you’ve mapped the orbits of these things, you know that if they come through a certain piece of the sky, known as the keyhole, then they could be a threat. I don’t want to scare people, but I think that is an interesting message. The idea that we’re not divorced from the things that go on up there in space is very important. We’re developing the technology that can deal with it. As the famous American astronomer Carl Sagan once said, if the dinosaurs had had a space programme they’d still be around.
Stargazing Live Australia is on Tuesday 28th – Thursday 30th March at 8.00pm on BBC2