Astronomy isn’t just about spotting the constellations and planets we already know about, it’s also about identifying new celestial features that can help us learn more about our universe and beyond. In their new book Month-by-Month Stargazing 2016, renowned astronomers Heather Couper CBE and Nigel Henbest – who is soon to become an astronaut on Virgin Galactic – explain how you can make some truly out of this world discoveries at home. Here’s their rundown of just some of the exciting projects you can get involved with right now…
Love astronomy, but hate the cold, dark nights? Never fear, you can explore the cosmos from your computer – and help professional astronomers in the process. In fact, you might discover more than they’ve managed!
The name of the game is citizen science. Log on, and your software can work out the shape of asteroids, plot the stars in the Milky Way, and even search for radio signals from alien civilizations. Some of these applications simply run in the background, when your computer is idle. However, it’s much more fun to join in yourself. Typically, a citizen science project will distribute images from spacecraft and telescopes that are saturated with far more data than professional scientists can handle.
In the Planet Four project, you peruse the most detailed views from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, tracking down tantalising dark wedges and blobs on Mars’ surface. With this spacecraft’s new discovery of water on the Red Planet, you never know where it might end …
Galaxy identification parade
Be the first person to examine a distant galaxy and decide what kind of beast it is. Galaxy Zoo parades in front of you a huge array of images from the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based instruments. Volunteer Hanny van Arkel even found a new kind of galaxy, activated by a nearby quasar.
Baby stars blowing bubbles
Track down newly born stars, by eyeballing infrared pictures from the Spitzer Space Telescope – converted into glorious false colour – and searching out bubbles blown by baby stars. In 2015, volunteers in the Milky Way Project found mystery “yellow balls:” hot spheres of gas and dust around the youngest stars, that professional astronomers hadn’t spotted before – and hadn’t even predicted!
Over the past twenty years, astronomers have discovered nearly 2000 planets orbiting other stars – many picked out by the Kepler space telescope, whose eagle eye watched for stars’ light briefly dimming when a planet crossed its face. These ‘extrasolar planets’ are a weird bunch, ranging from ‘hot Jupiters’ – gas giants up close and personal to their sun – to planets as small as the Earth. Join the Planet Hunters project and discover unknown worlds for yourself.
Millions of irregular chunks of rock live safely in the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter – the primordial material of our Solar System that accumulated to create the planets. But several thousand asteroids cross Earth’s orbit, posing a threat to our planet. Asteroids are so small that astronomers find it difficult to measure their shapes, composition and spin periods. Join Asteroids@home to help astronomers get to grips with these enigmatic bodies – which may give clues to our own origins.
Make contact with alien life
Tune into the largest radio telescope in the world – the 305-metre dish nestled in the green jungle of Puerto Rico – to search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. After all, we broadcast to the inhabitants of our planet; so why won’t ET want to talk to us? Piggybacked onto its sensitive receiver is a device looking out for artificial signals from space. Log into SETI@home – run by astronomers at the University of Berkeley, California – and you could be the person who first hears from an alien!
Philip’s Month-by-month Stargazing 2016 by Heather Couper & Nigel Henbest is available now, published by Philip’s, £6.99.
Discover more amazing space facts in the latest issue of How It Works magazine. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, make sure you subscribe today!
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