Astronomy

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Dennis Ashton visits some websites that allow budding astronomers to journey into space to explore the solar system via a computer screen

BBC astronomy site: www.bbc.co.uksciencespace

Nine Planets: www.nineplanets.org

Planet 10: www.solarsystem.org.ukplanet10

Celestia: www.shatters.netcelestia

Stellarium: stellarium.sourceforge.net

Satellite tracking at Heavens Above: www.heavens-above.com

NASA: www.nasa.gov

The European Space Agency: www.esa.int

The Faulkes Telescope project: www.faulkes-telescope.com

Get the facts right at Bad Astronomy: www.badastronomy.comindex.html

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Centre: www.pparc.ac.uk

Association for Astronomy Education: www.aae.org.uk

The myriad stars in the heavens seems to be matched by the number of websites available for exploring the universe. Some are of immediate use to teachers, either for direct classroom use or as a source of learning materials. This short guide is intended to sort some of the twinkling stars from the black holes.

A good place to begin is the BBC's excellent website. It provides a broad, accessible review of the cosmos, from tours of the solar system to the origin of the universe. The attractive layout encourages exploration and interaction through games and quizzes. Young astronomers can then explore the solar system further via the Nine Planets site.

A wonderful classroom activity is included in Planet 10. The centrepiece is "World Builder", which enables children to design their own planet and launch it into the solar system. The only problem may be to prise students away from the computer as they try to construct yet another new world.

Interactivity is the keynote to Celestia, a free simulation download. This is planetarium software with an extra dimension, allowing the user to leave Earth and travel through the solar system and beyond. Once the keyboard controls are mastered, the screen display becomes a Star Trek experience.

For a more conventional, but still realistic view of the night sky, Stellarium is another free download. It renders the night sky in real time to help identify stars, constellations, planets and deep-sky objects.

While looking at stars, we sometimes see satellites silently traversing the night sky. To discover when the International Space Station, spectacular flares from Iridium, and other orbiters go over your home town, go to Heavens Above.

For the latest in space exploration, NASA and the European Space Agency are authoritative websites brimming with news and images from space missions.

The NASA site is huge but a determined search can dig out specific tutorials on topics such as the life cycles of stars and the origin of the Universe, while the Starchild pages will appeal to primary children.

Superb images from observatories all over the world are available via the web. Schools can take remote observation a step further through the Faulkes Telescope project. Using the site, students and teachers can access professional-quality robotic telescopes in Australia and Hawaii to carry out observations of their own choice. With the aid of a new sponsorship deal, registration for schools and colleges is now free.

Astronomy is a science experienced by many on a clear night - or even on a sunny day. Perhaps that's why it is subject to many misconceptions.

Rectifying common fallacies is the goal of Bad Astronomy, where facts are entertainingly presented. For free classroom resources, PPARC - the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Centre - is first port of call. The menu for schools includes posters, a comprehensive astronomy resource list and a loan scheme for Moon rock and meteorite samples.

Should you want to take your interest further, the Association for Astronomy Education website contains details of membership and its benefits.

Dennis Ashton is director of the Star Centre at Sheffield Hallam University. For more sites and resources contact him through his own website at www.starman.org.uk

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