Moon gazing with a new perspective

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Dark evenings and the moon's position make autumn perfect for schools to follow in the footsteps of Galileo, who first looked through a telescope 400 years ago

If you were to create a scale model of the solar system based on Scotland, with the Glasgow Science Centre as the sun, the country's astronomical societies and groups would be in the right positions to represent the main planets, moons and asteroids.

Earth would be East Kilbride, meeting place of the Clydesdale Astronomical Society; Saturn would be the Highland Astronomical Society in Inverness; and Jupiter would be the Dumfries Astronomical Society, and so on.

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, would have had a field day with the discovery, admits Glasgow University astronomer Martin Hendry.

While it clearly delights Dr Hendry, he proffers no conspiracy theories and dismisses it as a "spooky coincidence", even though it transpired that the Glasgow Science Centre was the right size for the scale model of the sun, at around 170m in diameter.

He made the bizarre find following discussions about how Scotland could best commemorate the International Year of Astronomy 2009, a global celebration of the birth of modern astronomy 400 years ago, when Galileo first looked through a telescope.

So as well as running moon-watch events, Scottish astronomical societies and organisations will each represent a planet. For some, the practicalities will be more challenging than for others. The Association of Falkirk Astronomers only needs a peppercorn to represent asteroid 951 Gaspra, just 2mm in diameter in the Scottish model of the solar system. Representing Jupiter, which should be 17.48m in diameter on the model, will be somewhat harder.

In Scotland, and all over the world, events for Autumn MoonWatch will kick off on October 24 and run for a week. Late October has been chosen because it is an optimal time to look at the moon, explains Dr Hendry.

"When the moon is full, it is so bright you can hardly see anything, but at this time of year, a crescent moon will be visible," he says. "This means you should be able to see mountains and craters."

Given that it was autumn when Galileo caught his first glimpses, it is also historically accurate to moon-gaze at this time of year.

"As well as the moon, it should be possible to see Jupiter, which is prominent throughout autumn," continues Dr Hendry. "Before Galileo, everyone thought the earth was at the centre of the universe but because he saw Jupiter and the four moons that go round it - the so-called Galilean moons - that helped overturn the theory."

October, however, is not necessarily a good time to see the moon in all its glory from the other side of the world, which is why Dr Hendry is waiting until November to embark on an ambitious project that will see schools in Perth, Scotland and Perth, Australia gazing at the moon simultaneously.

For the pupils in Australia, moon-gazing will commence at 4am; in Scotland, it will start at a more sociable 8pm. Ultimately, the collaboration should allow the distance from Earth to the moon to be calculated. Pupils looking through telescopes in both countries will see roughly the same thing, but the parallax effect means the moon, in relation to the stars in the background, will appear to be in a slightly different position.

"It's like putting your finger in front of your face, closing one eye and then swapping and closing the other, it appears to be in a different position each time," explains Dr Hendry.

If the pupils sketch or photograph what they see, the angles of shift can be measured and the distance of the moon from Earth worked out.

"Of course, we already know how far away the moon is from Earth, but the idea is to give the pupils an insight into how we calculate these things. Measuring distance in space is a real challenge; you can't just take a tape and run it between two points - you have to devise these indirect methods of doing it. In a lot of cases, it comes back to trigonometry, which should help the pupils see the relevance of abstract maths in school."

Dr Hendry is a science outreach enthusiast, keen to make youngsters aware that much remains for future generations to discover, and that science does not yet hold all the answers.

Some unanswered questions in his own field include: is there life elsewhere? If there was a Big Bang, what came before? Are there more universes? And what is dark energy?

"After the Big Bang, the universe has continued to expand, but in the last 10 or so years, we have discovered it has speeded up. Previously, we had thought eventually it would slow down as matter pulled it back together. We have given the phenomenon a catchy name - dark energy - but we don't know what dark energy is."

Perth schools keen to take part in the link-up with Australia in November should email

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