Are there spiders on Mars?

Carolyn O'Grady visits a group of professional star-gazers and a mobile planetarium. The possibility of life on Mars, The X-Files, or eclipses may have a hand in the growing curiosity about space. If the number of requests for information and resources to the Star Centre in Sheffield is anything to go by, that interest is as strong as ever.

The centre was set up last year with a Pounds 20,000 development grant from the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS)with matching funds from Sheffield Hallam University, where it is based. It is backed by many organisations, including Jodrel Bank Science Centre, the Royal Greenwich Observatory and NASA .

Physically, it is not much: a room with two computers with Internet access and a database of resources, but its activities range far and wide - on earth as well as in space - and as more schools find out about it, it is growing in popularity.

Its main role is as a national information centre but it also organises many events and activities, predominantly with schools. "Star Centre was not initially aimed at schools", says Professor Bill Harrison, head of the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University. "But it has become evident that schools are big users. We found that most of those who contact Star Centre are children, students and teachers who want information about planets, black holes or other astronomical phenomena for project work."

Among the centre's most popular events are the Star Nights, which are held up to five times a year in educational or environmental centres, often to coincide with some astronomical event, such as an eclipse.

At these "guided tours of the constellations" people look through a large telescope supplied by the centre and also have access to its computers, or can watch a video screening. Star maps are provided. "We can't get them away from the telescope once they see, say, Saturn," says Dennis Ashton, one of the centre's astronomers.

If it is cloudy, illustrated talks replace the real thing. Many of the centre's events are of general interest, but as it becomes increasingly involved in projects with schools, the centre plans to produce off-the-shelf resource packages on aspects of astronomy suitable for all age ranges, particularly secondary.

It is also involved with the Pupil Research Initiative sponsored by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, which will soon distribute research briefs to every secondary school. The idea is that pupils act as researchers with support from real researchers who are plotting, for example, the appearance and distribution of meteors.

In another initiative, plans are being made to help schools monitor the meteor storm expected in November l999. Called the Leonids because it hails from the constellation Leo, it will be observable in Devon and Cornwall, and, if it happens, should be spectacular.

You can also visit the centre on the Internet for information on planets, stars, galaxies and astronomical phenomena.

Details: The Star Centre, Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University, Collegiate Crescent Campus, Sheffield, S10 2BP, tel: 0114 253 43522209 and on the Internet:

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