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Astronomy: watching the stars without a telescope

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, will add even more data for telescope-free astronomers.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, will add even more data for telescope-free astronomers. Photo: Credit Ball Aerospace

We’re living in a golden age for astronomy and space exploration. Our current knowledge is the greatest it’s ever been. We have the best telescopes we’ve ever had, and more of them, plus our digital capability is greater than ever. Perhaps best of all is that you don’t even need a telescope of your own any longer – the internet is overflowing with astronomy-related websites. And most of them are free!

There are so many that it’s impossible to even skim the surface. Of course, there are all the well-known ones like NASA’s at nasa.gov, where there’s a wealth of information. Sites such as  universetoday.com and space.com have all the latest news. You’ll also find online magazines like Sky & Telescope or Astronomy filled with observing tips. To get the local perspective, try the Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV) site at asv.org.au or Sydney Observatory at sydneyobservatory.com.au.

Don’t go public with that UFO you may have seen until you make sure that it’s not a satellite of local origin!  

Perry Vlahos

But here’s some others that aren’t so well known, and which I find particularly interesting and useful.

A good way to begin the day is by going to apod.nasa.gov and having a look at the Astronomy Picture of the Day. There’s a new one daily taken by our best telescopes, probes, and also by amateurs, with easy to follow explanations of what’s depicted. An archive is kept and it’s a good source for visual material. Some of them will leave you gobsmacked, and you’re assured of finding a photo of a recent phenomenon that you missed.


A website I visit on a regular basis is heavens-above.com. It deals mainly with what’s in orbit around the earth, plus other features. Don’t go public with that UFO you may have seen until you quickly bring up Heavens Above and make sure that it’s not a satellite of local origin! Once you put in your location from a list provided, you can then access all the information on every satellite making a visible pass over your location, including the International Space Station (ISS) and Iridium Satellite flares.

You can also check out spacecraft escaping the solar system, plus the rising and setting times of the sun, moon and planets local to your area, and a host of other interesting information on this engaging website.

Should you be developing an interest in star-gazing, then I can recommend skymaps.com, which is created in Adelaide but is known and used all over the world. Just hit the ‘Download Now’ button for a beautiful and highly accurate chart of the sky for the month you’re in, which you can print and take outside with you. With this you’ll identify the major constellations, stars and planets, as well as some deep sky objects that may require binoculars to see. Be careful, however: make sure you select the chart for the correct hemisphere that you’re in.

If you want your maps in digital form for a desktop or tablet, then go for a software suite called Stellarium. It’s available from stellarium.com . It gives a realistic view of the sky that is quite convincing, and compares very well to what you may see in a dark sky using your eyes alone. There are more than 600,000 stars, all the planets, the main asteroids, some comets and a host of galaxies, clusters and nebulae – all in their exact positions. It allows you to view the sky from any location on earth. You can zoom in for extreme close-ups, and see what the sky will look like thousands of years into the future or the past.

Often I hear scare-mongering about all the planets lining up one side of the sun, and thus generating extra gravity that will have calamitous results for earth, the sun and the rest of the solar system. Now, before you panic, there’s a website –  astronoo.com –  that will give you a 3D view of the whole solar system – from the side, above, below and almost any angle that you may desire. Other features on the site allow you to examine each planet in much greater detail. One bit of advice is to turn the whole thing over and look at it from below, so that the planets are moving clock-wise to resemble the view from the southern hemisphere.

Do you have a hankering to find out if there’s intelligent life in our galaxy? Why not become an active participant in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)? The [email protected] program run, by Berkeley University, has a website – setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu — actively inviting participants from all over the world to become involved. It works by downloading a quantity of data that has not as yet been processed, and letting your computer search through it for unusual elements. You may just get lucky!

A pressing duty when dealing with the public during solar eclipses is warning them to never look directly at the sun to avoid permanent eye damage. At jhelioviewer.org there’s a website dedicated to the sun that you can view in absolute safety. You can elect to view it in normal visible light that features sunspots, or in a large selection of different wavelengths to view solar flares, coronal jets and the like. Sunglasses are not required.

For the moon you can get similar virtual atlases, just by searching Google.

Should you absolutely need to use a telescope to get an image of a celestial object, but don’t own one, then all is not lost. There’s a collection of remote access telescopes positioned in observatories around the world, in both hemispheres and different time zones. Hence it will always be dark somewhere  when you need the shot. There are many such telescopes, and their locations include California, New Mexico, Spain and Australia.  All the details can be found at itelescope.net to help you get on board. Even if you’ve never used a telescope before, there’s a tutorial to help you get started. Unfortunately, there are fees involved, because maintaining these instruments costs money.

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